WORDS BY MARISSA BARNHARTILLUSTRATION BY SAMANTHA NOLD
I remember the first time I was called to the office. Returning to my desk, I found a pink slip scripted with my name and heard my first-grade teacher saying I should head to the guidance counselor’s office.
A large portion of my childhood persona was comprised of quiet reservation. A reader and writer by nature, I often lost myself in daydream-filled notebooks. I enjoyed school and my friends, and I reveled in personal time, preferring to do things on my own terms but never causing trouble. Any reason that would cause me to see the guidance counselor was baffling.
Her name is a lost memory, but I remember her dark, curly hair and the sickeningly sweet quirk of her lips as she smiled and had me take a seat. She questioned me about my family and home life, asking me to draw a picture of where I lived. She mentioned something about wanting to be a cheerleader at my age, perhaps to inspire me, and left me with a piece of “advice:” Lose weight or you’ll never have any friends.
After a long talk with my mom and a meeting with the school board, that woman was fired. And even though I never saw her again, my 7-year-old brain replayed her words on a loop—happy daydreams turning to self-doubt, worsening with shrill cries of “thunder thighs” and jabs from boys who thought it’d be funny to write fake love letters to the fat girl.
I’ve spent more than half my life feeling like I don’t belong in my skin, battling weight fluctuations that were hard to control. A thyroid condition since infancy coupled with pre-pubescent awkwardness left me looking like Violet Beauregarde from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” except there were no Oompa Loompas for comedic effect. I was the grade-A entertainment my peers were looking for. And that, I know now, is a distorted perception of myself. And it stemmed from years of fat-shaming.
Fat-shaming is the act of making a person feel bad because of their body size. Some people, like the counselor who shamed me, think it creates a reverse-psychology effect that will inspire others to lose weight. But a November 2015 article from Authority Nutrition says otherwise: “Fat shaming does not motivate people, but makes them feel terrible about themselves and actually causes them to eat more and gain more weight.”
Our society has a misconception that all fat people are unhealthy. Obesity is a growing problem in America, with 78 million adults dealing with the effects. But in a 2014 study by the European Heart Journal, overweight and obese people were found to be at no greater risk of developing cancer or heart disease than someone who meets the standard body weight. What mattered was if the person was metabolically healthy.
So why are people so concerned with other people’s bodies? Perhaps they’re afraid of being fat. Or maybe it’s because fat isn’t the social norm. What I’ve learned from my experiences is no one should have a say about someone else’s body, positive or negative.
When I was 16, a boy bullied me via text messaging. Even when I stopped responding, the messages kept coming. “If you’re a vegetarian, why are you so fat?” “I mean, how long have you been sucking his dick btw? Just wanted to know why he’s into a nasty like you…”
Fast-forward two weeks and I had dropped 20 pounds.
I had developed an eating disorder, and no one noticed anything aside from how “pretty” my face looked.
Spoken word artist Blythe Baird wrote a poem called “When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny,” in which she says, “If you develop an eating disorder when you are already thin to begin with, you go to the hospital. If you develop an eating disorder when you are not thin to begin with, you are a success story.”
I have never understood this double standard. An eating disorder is an eating disorder, regardless of a person’s weight. Just because I’m fat doesn’t make my situation any less real. People should never feel like they don’t belong in their own body. No one should be made to feel ashamed.
But it’s not just what people say or how they act. Fat-shaming is often wrapped in dreamy words intended as a compliment, like “Oh, but you have such a pretty face.” Sometimes it’s left in the wake of someone’s inaction, completely unintentional, snaking around you like a python seducing its prey.
In February 2015, I fell in love. We were sitting at a table in Taco Bell, near the door and right behind the trash can. The sunlight coming in from the window illuminated the softness in his smile. It was the first time I didn’t feel anxious to eat in front of someone.
I ordered a cheese quesadilla and Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes, and asked him not to judge me because it was my first meal of the day. He told me it didn’t matter as long I was happy and ordered twice as much food. This day set the groundwork for four months of genuine comfort. The more he called me beautiful, the more I started to believe it.
As time passed, our relationship changed. We saw each other a couple days a week, which later turned into an hour a week on average. We were no longer intimate, and he spent more time looking at his phone than looking at me. On days when I’d spend the night, I didn’t feel pretty or loved or wanted, waiting for him to leave the room before I’d strip out of my clothes.
On one night in particular, I started to cry, and he said I was beautiful. When I asked if there was something wrong with me, if he didn’t find me attractive, he said nothing.
Though he had never outright shamed me for my body, the insecurity in our relationship coupled with my personal body shame had triggered a loss of self-esteem and self-control. I was 16 again, a foreigner in my own skin.
In the last few months, I’ve realized that people don’t have a say in how I should be feeling. If I’m in bad health, my body or doctor will tell me. That’s not to say paying attention to my weight isn’t necessary—rapid weight gain or weight loss come with their own dangers. Listening to the body is a good initial way to know if something is wrong.
Eating disorders are similar, but what’s different is you also have to take your mental and emotional health into account. An eating disorder is just as much a mental illness as it is a physical one. Every time I felt like the world was crashing down, something in me said, “You can have control of this.” And even though I might have lost weight, I never felt better about myself because I wasn’t really in control; it was just the disorder talking.
Ultimately, you have to do what’s best for you, and sometimes that means eliminating toxicities from your life—including people. Remember: your worth isn’t defined by what other people say. True happiness comes from within, and the first steps on that path is love and appreciation for what you have. Your body is more than just a temple; it’s your weapon against the world.