Age 8: “Your mom is fat,” the boys in my second grade class announce to me, giggling to each other in the corner of the playground at recess.
Their laughter haunts me.
I ask my mom not to come to Visitation Day that year. I won’t tell her my reasoning behind that request until I’m 29 years old.
Age 9: We are climbing the rope in gym class. My classmates get to the top easily. I struggle. My arms can’t hold me up. I make it halfway and have to come back down. All of my classmates are watching.
My friend Catherine has the same experience. We decide we must be too fat. We talk about weight loss and I sneak my mom’s dieting book into school the next day. Catherine comes over that weekend and we eat oranges for lunch. “Dieting is silly,” we say after a few hours following our new “plan.” We start eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with chips and a carton of milk again.
At no point did we consider that as non-athletic third graders, we didn’t have the muscles that activity requires. Less food seemed like the only answer.
Age 10: I am at the movie theater with a friend and her mom, who is fat. She gets up to use the restroom before the film starts. When she gets up, her butt grazes the back of the heads of the boys in front of us. They all point and giggle. She doesn’t see them, but I do. I don’t tell my friend; I don’t want her to feel embarrassed. But I hold back hot tears, angry at the boys for getting a rise out of mocking someone else.
Age 13: I’m at camp, waiting with the other pre-CITs to go swimming. My friend leans over to me and says, “Look at the girl next to you!”
The girl next to me is a fat 10-year-old girl in her swimsuit.
My friend had headphones on and spoke louder than she meant to. The little girl hears, and tightly curls her towel around her body.
Age 21: I visit friends who are studying abroad in Spain. One night, we get street food while waiting for the train.
“You’re a vegetarian?” a friend of a friend asks me.
“Yes! Well, I eat fish. But no other meat.”
“Hm, I wouldn’t have guessed that … I mean, you don’t have the body of a vegetarian .… ”
I am distracted by something else, so I don’t hear what comes next. My friend gives him a talking to, to which he responds, “I mean, she’s not that fat .… ”
I don’t have any distinct body-shaming memories from ages 14 to 20. The only way I can make sense of this is by assuming that body-shaming was so rampant in my teenage years that I stopped remembering each exact instance.
Age 24: I start working as a therapist at an eating disorder treatment center. Body-shaming is everywhere.
The teenagers I work with body-shame themselves constantly. This is what inspires me to start writing about it.
Sometimes, they body-shame other teenagers.
Often, parents do it too … they say, “I had an eating disorder when I was younger but clearly I’m recovered,” and laugh as they motion toward their round stomach and plump legs.
“Actually, you can’t tell if someone is sick or recovered by looking at them,” I respond, stone-faced serious.
I’m not upset with the kids and their families. Parents do not create eating disorders. Body-shaming is simply a product of the culture we live in. I am no angel; I have put myself down countless times, admired someone’s weight loss, and noticed another’s weight gain. I have also worked on this tremendously once I began to witness, first-hand in my work, the impact it has on mental and physical health.
I realize that my experience is not unique in any way. I have always been slender, a bit curvy, and in no way can I claim to have been the victim of body-shaming to the same degree that too many others have. If I’ve experienced body-shaming, I cannot imagine what it is like for those in larger bodies. It’s as though being thin (or even “not fat”) in a skinny-focused, fat-shaming world has become a new sense of Privilege that we have to keep in check.
I’ve learned a lot working as an eating disorder therapist. When a kid tells you, “I think I’m fat,” and you respond with “You are not fat,” you are perpetuating the idea that being fat would be the worst thing that could happen.
I learned this best from one of my 16-year-old clients in my first year working in the field. Like many young people struggling with anorexia, this client was preoccupied with the idea that she was fat, and the fact that part of her treatment plan required steady weight gain as part of recovery did not exactly make her distortions go away.
During a check-in, she told me that her dad, one of her biggest supports, made a comment that she needed to address with him. They were driving home after a particularly challenging night of treatment, and a fat woman was walking down the street.
“See, it’s not like you look like that!” her dad said.
He was trying to help. He was, as a father, doing his absolute best to help his child see herself based on reality, not based on her distorted thinking. I think any parent in a similar situation would do the same.
She explained to me that all that did was show her that if she were walking down the street, people would be judging her based on her body. It told her that our society judges fat people and maintains the idea that we “shouldn’t” look a certain way. And she did a beautiful job explaining this to her father so he could best support her recovery.
Here’s the bottom line: Most 10-year-olds are more afraid of getting fat than getting cancer, the idea of war, or losing both of their parents. What does that say about the messages we are perpetuating? You have the power to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Body-shaming doesn’t end overnight. Habits take time to make and to break, and even longer to see an impact. The next time you have a shaming thought, notice it, let yourself think it – you aren’t a bad person for having a thought you’ve been raised to believe is true. Just be mindful of what you do with it. Is it necessary to say it out loud? This is true not only when the shaming thought is about another person, but when it is about yourself. After a few weeks of simply noticing the thought without 1) announcing it or 2) changing your behavior in response to it, you might start to feel better. And you just might cause a ripple effect on the people around you.
Note: I used the word “fat” a few times in this post – chances are, you’ve internalized this as a word with a negative connotation – almost a swear word. I definitely have fallen into that trap, especially as a kid … and adolescent … and 20-something. Let’s remember that “fat” is just an adjective. Some people are fat. Some people have brown hair. Some people have freckles. And all of those things are okay. Check out Jes Baker’s book “Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls,” regardless of what your body looks like, for some of the most empowering reading on body love and acceptance you may ever come across.