Looking Back

            Do you know what’s like to be trapped in a body that you dislike?  I do.  I have been “fat” my entire life.  My outer body is covered with pudgy layers of rolling fat, while my inner body strives to be thin, luscious, and downright sexy.

            When I was in fourth grade I attended a Catholic elementary school in Dayton, Ohio.  We were poor, and so I wore hand-me-down uniforms and carried the dog-eared books belonging to a previous student.  Before the school year began, my mother drove me into town for the annual used uniform giveaway.  I hated this ritual.  Because of my weight, she dug through the small pile of plus-size jumpers, most of which had seen better days.  No longer navy blue except where food stains darkened the fabric, these uniforms marked me as both “poor” and fat. 

            Fourth grade was a year of becoming aware.  This was the year when my older brother explained that there was no Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus.  This was also when I discovered how others saw me.

            Sitting in church one morning during the mandatory Mass, the girl next to me poked me in the thigh.  She then made her hand bounce high in the air, over and over, mimicking playing on a trampoline.  That was bad enough, but she wasn’t finished mocking me.

After making sure that the other girls nearby could see, the girl She tucked her skirt down tight over her six-inch wide thigh, measured with both hands, and then held those same hands over my much larger thigh.  The difference was startling enough to cause a riot of giggles up and down the pew.

Several days later I went into the girls’ bathroom during recess, something I tried to avoid for I knew that some of the more popular girls chose to hang out there.  But, when you have to go, you go, hoping that it won’t be too bad.

As expected, there were several sixth graders inside, lounging against a wall or checking themselves out in the mirror.  When I entered, almost in unison, their eyes focused entirely on me, seeming to scan my plump body. A look of pure disgust erupted on what I saw as rather sophisticated faces.  I froze in place as I hesitated: should I leave when I really needed to use the bathroom or stay?

I chose to bustle into the nearest stall, lock the door behind me and cry. I didn’t use the facilities right away because I didn’t want them to hear me pee. But I could hear every word they said.

            One girl whose voice I recognized said, “Fat people stink.  Don’t you agree?”

            “It’s because they pee their pants,” Mary Beth Saunders said.

            “It runs down their legs when they walk,” Sue Anne Watson added.  “It leaves streaks that won’t wash off.”

            “I hate fat people.  They’re disgusting,” Wanda Belter said.

            “If I was fat, I wouldn’t eat anything until I got skinny,” Mary Beth said.

            “I’d kill myself,” said Sue Anne.

            “Not me,” added Wanda.  “I’d ask my mother to tape my mouth shut so I couldn’t eat and then I’d stay home until I lost weight.”

            When the bell rang to end recess, they left. Taking advantage of the quiet, I took care of business. My eyes were watery the rest of the day.

That night, I took a long look at myself in the bathroom mirror.  I realized that I truly was fat.  When I wiggled my arms, my rolls of fat quivered. I assumed that my thighs did the same even though I couldn’t see them in the mirror.

When I bent over, I couldn’t see my toes, let alone touch them.  I did examine my legs for streaks, which I thought I did see. My image repulsed me so much that I went into my bedroom and cried for hours.

            I had little control over what I ate for whatever my mother fixed, I was expected to consume. I could give myself smaller portions, which I did do, therefore beginning my first diet at the age of ten.

Dieting, for me, became a life-long pursuit. I didn’t understand nutrition and there was no one to advise me, so I grew older as the fat me.

As a teen, I wanted to be the voluptuous woman I saw in magazines, but had no idea how to get there. I was an active teen, playing kickball with the neighbors, whiffle ball with my brother, riding bikes for miles around our neighborhood and bowling in a league.

All that activity made no difference. I continued to be overweight.

The “inside” me was quite demanding.  She made me feel guilty if I ate the cookies and candy that I loved, but even “her” guilt didn’t change what I did.  At one point I believed that the “inside” me got tired and simply gave up.

            When I graduated from college and finally had my own money, I became a confirmed shopaholic.  There was nothing that charged my battery like a mall.  It was as if there was a competition to find the best bargain, and I rose to the occasion.  As I strolled in and out of stores, I admired the svelte garments on display on the ultra-slim mannequins, imagining myself as one of them.  Sometimes I touched the fabric, pretending that I was considering buying whatever they were wearing.  But then reality would slam my forehead, crimson colored my neck and cheeks, and I would dash away, off to the fat ladies’ department where I belonged.

            One time. Against my better judgement, I went shopping with a bunch of relatives.  My husband’s sister was getting married, and everyone was in search of a dress to wear to the wedding.  We went in and out of a mass of stores, pawed through racks and racks of clothes, and spoke about how well the colors of different fabrics blended together. 

They all found things to try on.  They all bought perfect outfits.  But not me. I never once pulled a dress over my head.  Why?  We never got close to the fat ladies’ clothes.

            I preferred to shop alone.  That way I could go into Catherine’s or Lane Bryant or the Women’s section of Penneys and not die of embarrassment.  There was no way I was going to drag the relatives into one of those stores, so I found a nice, empty bench and sat there, watching the crowds as I waited for them to finish.

Years later a truly great friend invited me to go shopping with her. She understood what it was like, because she was also overweight.  When we were together we forgot about size because we saw the real person underneath.  When we went shopping, we tried on clothes, helped each other make decisions and shared our good finds. Unfortunately she lives hundreds of miles away.

            There were days when I convinced myself that I looked pretty darn good.  If I was wearing an attractive outfit that hid the lumps and bumps, I felt sure that no one could see the lumps and bumps underneath.  I would head off to work feeling happy and proud.  I knew that it was a myth, but when not one person sent even a tiny compliment my way, even I understood that I was fooling no one.

Fat people are invisible except in stores that cater to fat people. Otherwise slim people seem to have the ability to not see obese persons.  In fact, even if there is an accidental contact, one shoulder brushing against another, the slim people pretend as if nothing has happened.

I have heard thin people say that the obese choose to be that way because they gorge on cupcakes and chocolate.  That may or may not be true.  Genetics and simple physiology play a part in how easily a person gains and sheds pounds.  Another consideration is that an overweight child is extremely likely to remain overweight into adulthood. 

If you are born into a family of obese individuals, the odds are that you will also be obese. This is what I felt caused my problems. My paternal grandmother stood a little over five feet tall, but hit the scales at well over two hundred pounds.  I am built just like her. 

My mother believed that a fat baby was a healthy baby. Every picture taken of me at those early ages showed me with rolls of fat down my arms and legs. My mother fed the cellulite, which plumped me up like a marshmallow.  I’ve spent years trying to reverse the damage.

I have tried a number of weight-loss programs.  I would lose some, then put it back on. One time I lost a grand total of twenty-nine pounds, then after an operation that kept me inactive, put them all back on.

This was disappointing as I had gone down four sizes in pants and three sizes in tops.  Even then, however, I was still obese.  That was the frustrating part.  I worked so hard to lose those pounds, and yet I continued to be trapped in a body that I disliked.

If I could go back in time and change just one thing, one thing that would forever alter the events in my life, I would appear as a thin person.  That child would be popular.  Kids would choose me first when dividing up for teams.  I would be invited to birthday parties and get tons of Valentine’s cards.  When my birthday came around, everyone would beg to come to my party.

As a teenager I would go to school dances always with a handsome beau on my arm.  Cheerleading would be my passion, and as a dancer I would reign supreme.  When I went shopping, it would be with a gaggle of friends, giggling as we strolled through the mall.  Fun would be my middle name.  I would never be lonely.

No longer trapped in an obese body, I would have an opportunity to be a flight attendant, the career of my dreams.  Think how different my life would have been:  Zipping here, there, everywhere, always surrounded by friends!

Even if I had been thinner at that time, there are some things that I would not change.  I have a husband who loves me, no matter how puffy my thighs or how many rolls fell across my stomach.  My children are my pride and joy, and I had a job I loved. I have had a good life, and despite my weight, I was relatively healthy.

I wish that society did not disdain the obese.  Unless you have worn that body, you do not know what “trapped” truly means.

Thankfully I am no longer that person on the outside, but the “inside” me still thinks I am obese. Whenever I take a look at myself in a full-length mirror, I don’t believer that the person looking back at me is truly me.

One thing I will never do is look at an overweight person with disdain. I felt it most of my life and didn’t like how it affected me. I wish that everyone would feel the same.

Reflections on Being Obese

No one ever gets up in the morning and says I think I’ll get morbidly obese today. It’s not like deciding one day to learn how to ski or ride a bike. Those take intention, practice and skill. Becoming obese isn’t intentional, it takes no practice and requires absolutely no skill.

 Many obese people begin life that way. My mother believed that a fat child was a healthy child. She wasn’t a great cook and knew nothing about balanced meals, so much of what we ate was battered, fried or boiled to a mushy mess. Fruit was a treat.  Cookies were available at all times.

Mom made excellent pies and apple dumplings. Her homemade noodles were delicious. Her concoction of sauerkraut, polish sausage and drop dumplings was to die for. I hated her fried chicken. The top half was crispy but the bottom half was drenched with oil. Mom’s bacon was inconsistent: sometimes it was done to a crisp but most of the time it was limp and soggy. I still dislike friend chicken and bacon!

So, if you believe that being obese is a learned condition, then I learned from my mom that I had to anything and everything that was put on the table. It made no difference whether you liked it or not: you were watched and monitored for food consumption. I never saw my mom write it down, but somewhere in her head she stored how much of what we had eaten.

If you believe that being obese has a genetic connection, then I am my Grandma Reiske’s relative. She was short like me and quite round. Grandma was not a good cook so she snacked. A lot. She loved cheese and crackers (so do I), chocolate (same here) and cookies (yep!). She could make a meal out of those items and feel quite proud of herself.

If you believe that becoming obese is inevitable for some of us, then that’s also me. When your diet is not balanced as a child, you put on weight. When you’re not allowed to play outside as much as you’d like, well, that’s what my life was like. When you spend most of your time in your room, alone, imagining happy scenarios, that was me. Without healthy food and limited activity, I was doomed from the start. Years of that set my body on a weight-gaining course that was hard to stop. I’d have “lean” years for me, but then more and more weight would pile on.

If you believe that morbidly obese people really like how they look, then you’re an idiot. Imagine standing naked in front of a mirror and seeing rolls of fat. Imagine watching your blubber jiggle with the slightest movement. Imagine taking a hand and pushing those rolls up and down. Then think of the clothes you have to wear: saggy, baggy plain, unattractive outfits designed to sort of mask the fat beneath.

No one gets up in the morning and tells themselves that they’d love to be puffy like the Pillsbury dough boy. No one revels in having a body that resists all movement except for down. No one wants to wobble like a duck when they walk through a grocery store, especially knowing that people are going to be checking out what’s in your cart. No one wants feet so bulgy that you can only wear slippers.

Your response is to say, then quit eating. Nice. If only it were that simple. I have a friend who records everything she eats and tries to stay at 1800 calories per day. You’d think she’d lose weight, but she doesn’t. Monitoring and maintaining is all she can manage.

You can eliminate all sugars from your diet. However, when you do, that oatmeal raisin cookie hollers your name so loudly and so persistently that you cannot block it out. Unless you’ve heard that call, you have no idea how powerful it is. It’s like being pulled by the largest magnet on earth, a magnet with so much leverage that you cannot fight it no matter how hard you try.

That’s what life is like for the morbidly obese: day after day that magnet pulls, your name is called, you resist and resist and resist until your willpower is weakened. And when you give up, you can either consume everything in sight or portion things out. The problem with portioning is that the other half is still there, still calling your name.

So when you see a fat person, instead of staring while you shake your head in disgust, stop and think about what that person’s life is like. And then remember that no one sets a challenge for themselves to be obese.