In the immortal words of Brianna in the classic film Bring It On: All or Nothing, “I’ve always had a big ass. It runs in my family. We’re a big-assed family.”
My family never used to do “thin” well. My father hovered between “normal” and “more to love,” my mother had a substantially emphasised hourglass shape, and both of my younger brothers were noticeably chubby.
As for me? I was fat.
Things have changed in the past decade or so. My mother exercised half her arse off (literally), and now basically eats only meat in order to keep it off. My father has successfully shaken off excess weight. The younger of my two brothers grew up and lost all of his chubbiness. And, perhaps most significantly, the older of my two brothers lost about 35kg very quickly with the Dukan diet and has managed to keep it off for two years now.
As for me? I’m still fat.I have likely always been the fattest in my family, and I am certainly the fattest now. I’m the shortest and the heaviest. Both of my brothers have had fat moments, but my fatness was the most consistently present, and I therefore have always been subject to the most fat shame. When I was growing up, my fatness hovered like an ever-present cloud, having a significant impact on the decisions my parents made when they raised me. My parents are no longer raising me, of course, but they are still fat shaming and that shame still affects me, although thankfully, my involvement in activism does lessen the blow somewhat.
I first felt the effect of my family’s fat-shaming ways when I was seven and taken to a dietician. This woman told little-girl-me a whole bunch of boring diet stuff, most of which I can’t remember. But one thing I do remember, as though it happened yesterday, was that half of my dinner plate had to be veggies. So every night, when dinner was served, my brothers would get a normal three-way split dinner while I got a heaping pile of veggies and tiny portions of meat and potato. I HATED that. I wasn’t a fan of vegetables at the time, but that wasn’t why I hated it. I hated it because it was unfair.
Another example: A few years later, I was doing martial arts regularly, but I had gotten bored with it. My brothers both felt similarly, and my mother let them both quit without much fanfare. I stuck it out a little longer, and when I finally decided to quit, Mum asked me what I would be doing instead. I told her that I would be going to drama classes. Drama was something I was interested in at the time, and I was really excited about doing something after school that I genuinely enjoyed. Mum’s response was to say, in an annoyed why-do-I-have-to-keep-explaining-this kind of voice, “But drama isn’t exercise. What are you going to do for exercise?” I was angry and hurt that she didn’t seem to care for my choice of hobby, but it was the unfairness, the fact that neither of my brothers had been similarly reprimanded, that was more hurtful to me. I always felt that I was being punished, over and over again, and for a long time, I didn’t fully understand what I had done that warranted this unfair treatment.
By the time I was a teenager, I understood that being fat was a bad thing, and the diets and exercise routines my parents put me on were, while still extremely annoying, not unfair in my eyes anymore. I had been told by my family, by my friends, and by the world around me that my fatness was entirely my fault, and that the awful diets and exercise routines were the price I had to pay for being a bad person and allowing myself to become fat in the first place.
What did bother me were the comments – the reminders that I was fat and the insinuations that becoming thin should always be my number one priority. I remember one Easter when I got food poisoning and had to go to hospital. Since I couldn’t eat anything, I lost 2-3kg. My father’s response was to say “Well, let’s hope this continues.” Even though I honestly believed that my fatness was my fault at the time, this comment was so upsetting that the only way I could deal with it was by going on a sarcastic rant inside my head. It went something like this:
Because, let’s be honest here, everybody: recovering from food poisoning is something you want to do quickly when you are a thin person. But when you’re fat, you want to carry out the excruciating pain, nausea, and dehydration that food poisoning brings for as long as possible, because you will be several kilos lighter by the end of it, and we all know that that’s the most important thing of all!
Fat-shaming comments such as these continue to this day. My mother is particularly skilled at them. Just the other week, we were talking about average heights for men and women in different countries, and she was talking about how she was just above average height for an Australian woman. She then said, “And the average weight is 70kg. I’m about 10kg over that, because I’m a little taller, and I have more muscle mass.” Then, with a very pointed look at me, she ended with, “You’ve got no excuse.” No? Good thing I wasn’t looking for an excuse then.
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I think it makes sense that I got upset when I was fat shamed. After all, who wouldn’t be upset when someone says something mean or makes them do something they don’t like, regardless of whether or not they felt they deserved it? What was perhaps less logical was the guilt. See, I love my family, and I am very close to both of my parents. With every diet I failed at as a teenager, and every exercise-related hobby I didn’t like, I felt that I was letting them down in some way. I wanted my family to be proud of me, and it felt like my inability to be thin impeded their ability to be as proud of me as they could be.
It has been a few years since I was a teenager, and I can safely say that the anger, the hurt, and the guilt have lessened considerably. The biggest recovery point happened when I got involved in activism, and I learned that my fatness was not my fault. I think a lot of fat people feel as though they are bad people for not being able to control themselves, or for not being able to meet society’s expectations, or for whatever else. When I learned that I was not a bad person, and that I am no more to blame for my fatness than I am to blame for my different coloured eyes, I stopped feeling so guilty. As I have become more aware of the prevalence of the message that fat is bad, the fat shaming I’ve suffered has become, if not excusable, at the very least understandable. That has helped to lessen the hurt and anger I’ve felt.
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Having said that, my family is still fat shaming, and there is still an unsettling feeling that my fatness will always be a source of frustration for them. I am not made of stone. As much as the evidence indicates that weight is a nearly impossible thing to control, I still occasionally think that maybe my weight is my fault, and if I tried “just a little harder,” I could successfully lose weight and keep it off, like the older of my brothers has seemed able to do. The worst thing is that, if I were to lose weight, I think my family would be prouder of me than they have been over anything else I’ve achieved. Fortunately, I am able to keep things in perspective. My fatness might be something my family doesn’t like, but I can guarantee that they very much like other things about me, just as I like and dislike different things about all of them. I think I’m lucky that I have that perspective on which to fall back.
I believe that everything we go through in life teaches us things, and growing up in a fat-shaming family is no exception. There are battle scars, of course, and many of them still sting. But as I learn more and more to stop apologising for my body, I find those scars are stinging a little less.
[Feature image: Close-up image of a young person’s upper face, with a focus on their hazel eyes gazing outwards solemnly. Wisps of red hair frame their freckled face.]
My weight didn’t become a problem until I graduated from college and moved 1500 miles away from home for my first professional job. I was lonely, I missed my family, and I self-comforted with food. I quickly gained 40 pounds and for the first time at age 25, I had a weight problem that has plagued me for the rest of my life. My mother used to bribe me to lose weight by promising money or new clothes. When that didn’t work, she called me obese and used fat-shaming. I’ll never forget being on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor less than 24 hours of delivering my first baby, because my mother said cleaning was good aerobic exercise. (My mother was always overweight and I now think she took out her self-loathing on me.)
I also had an aunt who routinely looked me up and down at every meeting. I distinctly remember one dinner out with my aunt and my family when I ordered dessert. My aunt pounded her fist on the table and rolled her eyes.
Fat shaming hurts because it comes on top of the self-loathing you already feel. I’m so glad I stumbled upon BED and that there’s help out there that I intend to get.
Thanks for your thought-provoking comment.
Fat shaming is a horrible thing. I’ve almost come to think of it as a type of bullying you feel like you deserve. While I’m sure it’s sometimes done out of genuine concern, or at least out of what the fat shamer believes to be concern, I think a lot of the time it comes from a sort of innate enjoyment many feel when they hurt others. It feels good to take things out on people, and fat people are an easy target.
I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the anagram BED. I know that anagram to stand for ‘Binge Eating Disorder’. I hope that wasn’t what you meant?
Thank you so much for this article. Growing up, I was a fat kid. Always was, still am fat as a (very pregnant) adult. I always heard, “Boys don’t like big girls”, “You need to lose weight now before it gets harder when you’re older”, “Don’t you want to be thin and pretty?” I never heard that it was OK to be on the chubby side, or that I was just pretty. I was quite often told I had “a pretty face”… what about the rest of me?? Just once, I wanted to hear someone in my family tell me that I was beautiful and perfect just the way I was. It took me moving away, going to college, and falling in love with an amazing, accepting, thin man, who saw me for who I was, to finally realize that I’m perfect the way I am. I also realized that there are a lot of men who LOVE big women! I mean, what’s not to love?
Now that I’m a going to be a mother of a little girl, I realize the importance of body love, body confidence, and most importantly, reassuring my daughter that no matter what her body looks like, no matter her weight, no matter what her friends or society may say, that she will be perfect and loved. The little girl in my still cries about being called fat, and not being accepted in the body I had, but the adult in me wants every little girl, adolescent, woman, man, whoever, to know that their bodies are NOT to be apologized for. Our bodies are for living, laughing, loving, making life, and being happy!
I lived for many years thinking that nothing that I could do was “good enough”. Then I understood that I was not responsible for anybody’s feelings, as nobody was responsible for mine. I just had to tell my loved ones that I loved them, but I was not going to allow more comments about me and that I was fat. And it worked. Even though life is not a dream, it works for family meetings. The rest of the time, I surround myself with people who accept me as I am and think that I’m fabulous!
Fat shaming is a deal breaker–with family, friends, or anyone else. My body is not here to be commented on, graded, compared, or denigrated by anyone, but especially those that claim to love me. My mom fat shamed me constantly when I was growing up, setting me up for abusive work situations, relationships, and friendships. Lots of therapy later — deal breaker. I don’t tolerate it. My parents have learned that putting me down means zero access to me and my kid. They don’t do it any more.
It’s been a while since your post, Gillian, so I don’t know if you’ll ever see this, but I just now discovered this amazing site, so I’m going to post this comment anyway.
First of all, thank you sincerely for sharing your story and for helping me (you did – by reading your words and your honesty) get in touch with the body shame that, at 47, still plagues me daily and in was that are literally detrimental to the quality of my life (psychologically and physically, due to an eating disorder) – – a shame (and critically-oriented obsession) about my body that certainly began with my immediate family (and my mom, in particular). I’m fairly good at “intellectualizing” where my shame comes from, what to do about tackling it, but these conversations in my head typically don’t leave the “conversation” stage (i.e., changing the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors – that’s another story…). But the feelings that come up for me in reading your honest, courageous, and thoughtful story bring about a deep, bodily remembering of my own family shaming – it’s powerful and – I hope – healing. The fury and sadness (and fury) I feel toward what happened to you while you were being raised in a fat shaming family help me connect to my own. Thank you.
In addition to thanking you, though, I wanted to comment on something I noticed in your language – – something that I REALLY identify with, but something that I probably only noticed at all because it came from *you* (not me, and thus, I can grasp it more objectively!). You write: ” As much as the evidence indicates that weight is a nearly impossible thing to control, I still occasionally think that maybe my weight is my fault, and if I tried “just a little harder,” I could successfully lose weight and keep it off . . .” Of course you’re so right – for most people it’s nearly impossible to control one’s weight (this is true from a purely biological standpoint, in terms of what happens to our bodies as they increase in mass, the huge influence that resides in genetics and biological predispositions from “our people” that we come from, and in particular what happens to the craving parts of our brains once sugar enters the picture. Then, THEN! there is the tsunami-level influence takes place in a more psychological sense, what happens to the brain when a person has restricted/dieted *even once* – – the research is incontrovertible regarding what happens to a human brain once it’s been deprived of food (again, even once, let alone put on diets throughout childhood/adolescence): the relationship to food/hunger/satiation is typically never the same… So all of this undoubtedly points to the fact that having a direct influence over one’s weight is pretty tough and certainly not something that resides in a person’s “character” or “integrity” or “personal strength.” It’s not impossible, of course, but it is certainly as hard (some say harder) as having a direct influence over whether or not one uses opiates, nicotine, etc. (I didn’t even mention the *cultural/social* reasons, such as the insidiously effective marketing and high availability of foods that contribute to bodies that are not skinny).
But here’s what really got me about what you wrote – the part about “it probably isn’t my fault.” That words “fault’ seems to me to suggest that your weight, your body size, is a negative, something for which (in this websites language) you feel the need to apologize for. And it’s just not, dammit. If just aced an exam, broke the world record for some athletic event, won an election, fed 100 hungry people at shelter, rescued an abused dog (anything positive and good, something to *be proud of* basically), you wouldn’t add on “but it’ probably not my fault” right? (It reminds me of the apology inherent in a lot of queer people’s “coming out” narratives – – “you have to give me equal rights because my queerness is not my fault.”
If you’d just rescued an abused animal, discovered the cure for cancer, broke the record for the 500 metre breast stroke, you’d be “Yeah, I just did this thing, I am this person, I rocked it, and I just generally rock” (which it seems like you pretty much do, by the way). But if you just ran over a dog on the street because of low visibility, just flunked an exam because you were given the wrong course syllabus, just missed an important meeting because your boss gave you the wrong time – – you might then use language of “it wasn’t my fault” to describe *negative* things that you weren’t directly responsible for or culpable of. But your weight is not something that’s negative! (again, MUCH easier for me to say to you than to myself and believe it!).
When a person comes out of the closet, they should get a high five, a “Great! Congratulations! You lucky son-of-a-gun – that’s awesome!” rather than a “Oh… well, it’s okay, I like/love you anyway.” Right? That word “fault” is what got me. There’s an implication there that the state being described (in this instance, fatness, body weight, size, etc.) is a negative. It’s not, beautiful woman. I see your picture here and I can tell you that – from a strictly external, physical standpoint – you have an appearance to be proud of – you’re just absolutely lovely, just gorgeous.
I hate to write that last bit at all, because that last sentence is still investing importance on physical appearance, on “prettiness” or external/bodily value. But I did (just write it), so there. Anyway, my (very) long-winded way of saying thank you for sharing so bravely and honestly and also, to tell you that you have nothing to apologize for, nothing that you are or not “at fault” for. Hey Gillian: “I just saw your picture on the website; Good for you! Congrats!”