But You Have Such a Pretty Face….

This post is not about fat acceptance. It is not about fat shame. This post is about the pain that we all feel. It’s a post of solidarity.


In my widened child eyes, Wal-Mart is a candy-coated carnival of amazement. Fluorescent lights stand in for the shine of the ferris wheel; there’s the wafting scent of McDonald’s hamburgers in place of popcorn; but the Carnies nevertheless remain the same. A trip to Wal-Mart is a rare and special treat, and this time it is made more significant because I am with my Granny, who is taking me shopping for new school clothes. There’s nothing like the excitement of having someone else pay for everything. After dawdling for a bit in the toy section, gazes of longing tossed over my shoulder like salt, Granny coaxes me into the little girl’s clothing section. As any child does when given free rein, I immediately rush forward like the front row mosh-soldiers at a rock concert and grab any clothing item that is neon, impractical, and/or hideous. With a heap of clothing in my arms rising to just under my pupils, I make my way into the dressing room.  I pick up a shirt, push my head in, slide my arms through, and look in the mirror with happy expectation. I immediately cringe – whoops, wrong size. My belly pokes out from under the hem of the shirt. I tear the t-shirt off and throw it aside, eager to move on. I’ll try a dress this time. Oof, this one is proving to be a much larger ordeal than the t-shirt. My stubby child fingers finally grasp the tiny zipper and pull it down. I stick my head up into the poufy material and yank it over my shoulders and down to my waist. It won’t go any further. I feel as if I’ve been put into a straitjacket. I stare crestfallen into the mirror at the beautiful dress, remembering that I had chosen the largest size on the rack. Sighing, I began to remove the dress. I tugged it back up over my waist and up to my shoulders… where it stuck. A sense of dread began to slide over my head, into my stomach and out of my toes like poured molasses through a crazy straw. Tentatively, I called out for Granny. I did my best to peek out of the fitting room door, bending at the waist and using my extended arms to turn the door handle. I informed my Granny that I was going to require a little assistance getting out of this dress, for I was currently more stuck than Winnie the Pooh in the rabbit hole. Before allowing her into the room, I begged her repeatedly to close her eyes so as not to catch an unwarranted glimpse at my naked torso, until finally I received an irritated affirmation that she would not rest her eyes on my embarrassment. “My goodness,” she muttered frustratedly under her breath as she struggled to squeeze my doughy body like toothpaste from a tube out of the zippered material. When finally I was freed from the dress, panting and humiliated, I climbed back into my own t shirt and pants and gathered all of the clothing, at a happier time chosen with bright-eyed innocence and optimism, into a bundled mess in my arms, threw it all into the shopping cart, and proceeded to dejectedly hang up every item with the utmost care. I ran my hand across the dress one last time, tenderly; we will not meet again, my friend. I walked away from the dress and shamefully chose a colorful assortment of sweats and baggy t-shirts, my uniform for the next 8 years.

**

I bought my first pair of jeans when I was in 7th grade. Up until the day that I finally gathered the courage to walk into yet another dank Wal-Mart fitting room, this time with pessimistic acknowledgement of the horror and disappointment that awaited me, I was staunchly anti-jeans. “They’re ugly,” I would insist and, “Besides, everyone wears them; why would I want to be like everyone else?” I hid behind this angst in order to avoid the truth: I was afraid. I was afraid that there wouldn’t be a size large enough in which to squeeze my flabby ass. I was afraid of looking like a bell curve. I was afraid of more snide comments and snickers behind my back. I was afraid of more smirks and venomous words spit directly into my up-turned face. My mother always said that a fat person looks twice as fat when they’re wearing jeans. Given her own personal hatred of the material, I was surprised when she insisted that I get a pair of my own. My mother has a second mantra: “You’re not fat, Sarah.” My mother is not always right. I tried on a pair of jeans. Size 16, with buttoned back pockets that stuck off my protruding behind like broken gutters off a dilapidated house, sharp enough to slice through the most hardened of feelings; even now as I look back, I cringe at my fashion choices just as much as my fat rolls. But in the dressing room mirror, I couldn’t see my fat rolls. I somehow missed the humpback whale rising from below my diaphragm. I was oblivious to my tree trunk thighs. All I knew was that the jeans had buttoned. I was capable of fitting into a pair of pants lacking an elastic waistband. And that’s all in the world that mattered to me at that moment.

**

I tear into my skin, bunching the flesh then savagely ripping it up and away, digging in my nails so they leave crescent moon tracks to mark the map of my pain. I want to rip away at my body, remove the fat and cellulite and stretch marks one by one, piece by bloody piece, tossing the offensive slabs of meat with a wet plop into a heavy-duty black garbage bag. Slowly but surely, I will shed it all. At the end of my ritual, I will be a heaving shell unable to lift the bag that is filled to bursting of me. But I will be thin. And that is all that matters. Outside of my mind’s eye, I remain the fat, little buffoon that I have always been, staring with intense hatred at the unwanted image in my closet mirror. Though I was previously sure that I had cried all the tears of an ocean, I am wrong; I heave a choked sob, swallow back a gag and turn away from the mirror. I have scratched and pulled and squeezed past my pain threshold; I must now turn my attentions on someone else. I snatch the clothing lying on the end of the bed and from the carpet near my closet; my Christmas presents, lovingly gifted to me, now to be thrown back in childish resentment and anger. I fling the items in different directions, watch the lightweight material hurl against the wall, the dresser, into the dark places only the cat can find. I pick them up, then throw them again, this time to the floor in front of me where I stomp them like Rumpelstiltskin. This release wasn’t enough. My point has not been made. Once again, I gather the clothing and storm from my bedroom, make my way down the hallway to the living room where my mother is sitting on the couch, and throw the items on top of her. She looks up in surprise and I find it deep down in my dark heart to tell her to take the shit back – I don’t want it. What was she thinking? It’s clear she bought the wrong sizes. It’s obvious that these clothes would never fit. Any idiot can see…that I am too fucking fat. I tear away down the hall and back into my bedroom in a frenzy of deep hurt, where I lock myself in and lie on the bed to mourn.

**

I started losing weight when I was 15, a sophmore in high school. It was a slow process, trickling down from 196 – the number listed on my learner’s permit – all the way down to 135, when I was a junior. I didn’t actively try to lose weight. I lacked the discipline needed for a workout regimen and my discouragement was strong. But I had severe anxiety and OCD working for my side; I was barely attending school and forgetting to eat. When I did eat, the menu did not deviate from Taco Bell bean burritos, peanut butter sandwiches, and cereal. I look mournfully at the photos taken of me from that time period; I mentally erect a shrine to my younger self, where I often go and worship whenever I feel the sharp pangs of nostalgia. I was so pretty then. I wore a size six then. I had one chin, two distinct legs, and a sculpted collar-bone then. I was thin then. That’s all that matters to me now. But back then, when I was on the verge of malnourishment and fainting every other week, all that mattered to me was how fat I was. I looked at my puffy lower stomach, grabbed it and jiggled, snarling at the image and hating myself for the lack of sculpted abs. I would prod my bat-wings, watch them swing back and forth in preparation of flight. It didn’t matter to me that I was thinner than I had ever been in my life. It didn’t matter to me that my body was suffering greatly for my vanity. It didn’t matter to me that I could now easily fit into a size Small. It didn’t matter to me that I could have easily toned up the muscles under my newly thinner skin. All that mattered was that I wasn’t thin enough. I eventually resorted to the method of trickery that I still employ today: the only way that I can live with myself is if I am able to hide how far my horizontal mountain juts, so I suck in my gut. As far as it can invert, without outwardly appearing as if I am reigning it in with every muscle in my body. At first it was difficult to remember to forgo the lungs and use only the stomach muscles, but I caught on quickly enough, and I never leave home without it; it’s like my Tom Girl version of a compact.

**

My gaze flicks between the calorie counting app on my phone, which reads ‘Under 220’, to the box of Happy Hippos sitting on my coffee table. I ponder how apt the name is, as I am sitting here trying to fight off my intense craving and feeling like a weak hippo, myself. I have only 220 calories left for the day, and it’s only 8PM. Part of me wants to give in, be reckless just this once, be uber-conservative with food tomorrow to make up for it. Realistically, I know it won’t happen, that I’ll give in tomorrow, too. But I’m hungry… surely it isn’t a good idea to deprive oneself of food? Heaving a large sigh, I toss a magazine on top of the Hippo box- out of sight, out of mind. This calorie-counting thing is new to me. It forces discipline and responsibility onto me, which is crucial in inspiring me to get to the gym. But there are still those days when nothing can stop me from eating; maybe during PMS, possibly during a strong bout of depression. Once I give in, it’s as if I’ve heave-ho’d that giant boulder right down the hill, and it’s going to run over every tree, shocked goat, and unfortunate child in its path. I’ll begin to get restless and if my thoughts aren’t already on what my next meal will be, it’s now on what snack I will shortly be devouring. Before long, I’m opening the freezer and staring at the tub of Talenti, body roiling in waves of pleasure to its sweet Siren call, slowly screwing open the lid, Oh! It’s just too much. The first bite goes down slow and smooth… and then half the tub is gone before I realize I’ve eaten it. What follows is guilt. Lots of it. Inescapable, eye-watering guilt. That’s when the thoughts come: What does it matter? I’ve eaten so much lately, my diet is shot. I may as well eat more… Crunch go the chips. There’s a pizza in the fridge? I know what I’m having for dinner! Nothing’s standing between me and that bag of chipotle sweet potato fries. Next phase: racking guilt, again. It never ends. No matter what I eat, no matter how much or little of it that I eat, I will always feel guilty for wanting it. I will always believe that I should be condemned to death for eating it.

**

Since 2009, the year I learned how to eat again, I began gradually gaining weight, from 135 all the way up to 172 – my most current weight. My exercise routine diminished as my confidence faded. My eating habits improved as I got fatter. I eat salad and pasta, couscous and kidney beans, fruit juice and yogurt, Lean Cuisine frozen meals – no more bean burritos. As little meat as possible. And yet still, I don’t lose weight. I tone up, but I don’t lose. I don’t go down a pant size. But I do give up. It’s weeks between gym visits. I start to give in to cravings. I eat more red meat in a week than I have in months. The cycle hits, retreats, then slaps back with a vengeance. The confident me, the me from two years ago, the me that had been through horrible breakups and job losses and emotional hell and came out alive and stronger and confident and attractive, is now dead. My boyfriend is not allowed to touch my stomach lest he be reprimanded and shoved away. Our sex must always be of the vanilla variety, lights off and never in the day time. He is only allowed minimal views of my naked body – a peek under the sheet, a view of my retreating behind on my way to the bathroom. There are exceptions, days when I have a brief lightening of mood and we shower together. But I will never bend over or sit down if it is possible for him to see my front. I cannot be even semi-naked in his presence without sneaking in at least one disparaging ‘joke’. Our relationship used to be ideal, but it is now far from fair. I feel as if we are on opposite sides of the Great Wall, completely blind to each other. As I grew older, I tried to believe that love was all that mattered; that no matter how I felt about myself, his love would shine through the darkness. But love has never been enough to keep me from hating myself. Love will never be enough to keep me from feeling undesirably ugly and fat. Love will never be enough to change my mind on what matters.

**

I think about how I have ever been able to choose clothing that flatters me. Clothing isn’t made for overweight people, and even when I was thin, old habits die hard. There’s a doozy floating around out there about tiny, sequin short shorts and a mesh shirt that barely covered my stomach. I can’t help but believe that the media, so much a part of what shames us, may have it right: no one really wants to see a fat person ‘being pretty’, not when there’s another option. Most of the time, I don’t think I’m capable of achieving anything near pretty, myself. I recall how annoyed I was when I saw that Beth Ditto’s plus-size clothing line was modelled by thin girls. I’ve seen it in the display windows – Lane Bryant’s models are considerably thinner than their target demographic. It’s infuriating, until the facts are faced: Ill-fitting clothing is just an unfortunate consequence of being fat. The clothing simply won’t look as marketable on a fat person, because it’s never going to actually look good on a fat person. Stores like Catherine’s and Lane Bryant attempt to solve the issue, working to emphasize ‘curves’. But often still, the material persists in conspiring against you. The skirt clings to your bowlful of jelly, resembling the rounded curves of the Liberty Bell. The pants push your stomach up into your breasts, creating a double-hillside with no valley. Your arms barely squeeze into the boa constrictor sleeves. So you end up buying sweat pants from Wal-Mart, instead. I think being and feeling unpretty is simply just another consequence of being fat. Being thin is all that’s ever mattered.

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