My parents used to keep a lot of photo albums around the house. In one, there is a photo of me, three years old in our tiny living room, unsmiling in my starchy new uniform; the photo is either slightly faded or overexposed in the way that most photos from the 90s are. In another, I am four and wearing corduroys and a gap-toothed smile; then I am five in an apartment a little crowded apartment, glowing with pride next to a harp that I remember playing well, but probably didn’t.
My mother grew up incredibly poor and still remembers the hunger pangs of her childhood, so by age seven, my mother’s love and guilt had put a few extra pounds on me. And eventually, for my mother, my weight changed from the triumph of a well-fed child to a local shame in the white suburb where we lived.
When I was eight years old, my mother took me aside. We had just been to the doctor for a checkup. I had been good and quiet and patient and was happy that I didn’t have to go school. My mother sat beside me on the bottom bunk of my bed, and she spoke to me in the partly-broken English that she only ever used with me when she was angry.
“You know what the doctor told me?” she said, the anxious heat of her body radiating into me. “He said that if you don’t stop eating, you’ll have a heart attack.”
For the next few years, the nightmare of my body loomed over me. No matter where my family moved, my weight followed me. I outgrew my clothes far too soon; I bought my costume for the school play from the adult section of the department store. I was fat, which was bad enough, but I was also dark. During gym, the white children with their blotched red faces snickered at the sweat on my wide forehead. My mother worked so hard to fix my hair, thick 4C curls in braids or puffs or twin twists tied with those pearl-colored balls that snapped around my hair and hit me in the face. My beautiful hair, that I hated, could not fall into my face and cover my sweaty forehead. My dark skin was a canvas that screamed my exertion. I was too big, so I learned to slouch and take quiet steps. I took up too much space, so I learned to be quiet. I was too much, so I learned to wait with relaxer in my hair so maybe when I opened my eyes, I’d finally be beautiful.
My family moved again, as we often did, and I lost a little weight which made my mother happy. Moving had saved my life, she said. There would be a time later when I would wish that it hadn’t.
By the time I reached middle school, I was a monster. Not the baby fat that I was supposed to grow out of, not the kind of thing that a bigger t-shirt would cover.
We all wore uniforms, which masked some of our problems. I could hide under a sweater, punch down my stomach under my tights, disappear inside clothes that had to be pulled down from the top shelf of plus-size uniforms. We all hated our uniforms, but at least it meant that I spent less time fixated on how much better other girls wore their bodies. We all hid things under our long sleeves and dark tights — self-harm scars, bruises, anorexia. In Home Ec., we spent hours memorizing the hallowed facts of nutrition, how to create a balanced meal, which vitamins and minerals we needed and how if we all just tried a little harder and just exercised a little more, we could look like the happy white faces in our textbooks.
High school was its own beast, a competition of who could dress the best, look the most effortlessly attractive, be the smartest, the funniest, the most valuable to the right people. I found my niche early, hanging out with the kids who split their time between Robotics Club and Theatre. I had nothing and everything to worry about then, with no bills to pay but with the constant sense that something was horribly, irrevocably wrong with me. I spent a lot of that time feverishly writing into the early hours of the morning. I spent some of that time with a razor blade from the bathroom. I eventually confessed to my mother about the razor, and the next time she caught me with it, she snapped at me to hurry up and do it life was so miserable. She said the same when she found me on the windowsill of the attic, wondering if the height was enough or if I’d just break my legs.
The other fat kids, if I ever saw them at all at school, were few and far between.
After high school, I got my first fast food job at the Burger King five minutes away from my house. I was so happy that someone was willing to hire me that I didn’t even think to stand up for myself, so I worked exactly the hours they told me and never took so much as a fifteen. I usually woke up too late to eat breakfast before I ran out to work, and my only meals were a chicken nugget or two, filched from the discard pile.
I was hired as a cashier, but one of the cooks — Wes, a Southern boy so thin, he looked like he could snap if he moved too fast — found an opening one day and pulled me back into the kitchen. “They always hire women as cashiers,” he muttered, because he often talked like he was trying to tell a secret without moving his lips. “I could tell you hated it.”
I flourished away from the pressure of pleasing customers. I worked tirelessly through lunch and into the beginning of the dinner rush. I was happy to be good at something, but the excitement wore off until I was exhausted, miserable, and starving. I sang in my head so that I wouldn’t focus on my hunger. I drank diet soda and hoped the sweetener would be enough. I stole a few seconds in the back next to the greasy computer where we did our training modules, begging myself not to faint because I couldn’t afford to.
A whole new world opened up to me when I suddenly started losing weight, although I didn’t notice it at first. My body was still its wrong, hateful shape. But to others, to strangers, to visiting family, I was finally getting it together. I must have been doing something right if I was finally getting thinner. No one cared that I was hungry almost all the time, that I had memorized the calories in a tablespoon of peanut butter and a single slice of bread. No one cared that I was so weak that I was often winded after lifting boxes out of the freezer at work. What mattered was that I could fit into smaller clothes, that now thin people let me in on their fat jokes. My first boyfriend — that scrawny Burger King cook, a year younger than me, with pale blond hair and bad teeth — didn’t hide his disgust for the fat customers that came through the door. And at a certain size, I was expected to hate them too.
I had a goal weight, and I knew exactly what to do to get there. On good days, I didn’t eat until 2 p.m. On bad days, I desperately ate the bad orders or the food we were about to throw away. On good days, I felt so hungry that the pain radiated through my body. On bad days, I had seconds during dinner.
My mother, who spent her entire life wishing for food only to spend the rest of it trying and failing to get rid of its evidence on her body, would ask me many times what my secret was. I didn’t know what to tell her. It didn’t take me long to realize that my worth was tied to how little I could eat, how small the clothes I could buy were, how often men now leered at my smaller body.
I was happy. I was happy to finally be smaller (but not small enough), I was happy to keep starving if it meant that I could finally be beautiful (but I should lose some more weight). I was happy because my life revolved around the cheap black scale in my parents’ bathroom, my heart racing as the little red arrow flew forwards, circled once, twice, shivered into place at the number that would decide my worth. And if I ever got on that scale and the number was bigger than the night before, the next fifteen hours would be spent obsessing over that number, poking at the fat that oozed over my waistband, staring at myself in the mirror and finding something else to loathe — my acne scars, my African nose, my kinky hair, my thighs, my stomach.
One cold Fall morning, I went back to the scale — a digital one now, so I could see right down to the ounce how much a disgusting mess I’d become — and I saw the number I had only dreamed of seeing for months. It was the number that I had circled in my own head, down the column for height, across the row for weight and across to the tenuous space between Normal and Overweight to the number where I’d finally be enough. For a breath, I was triumphant.
The next day, I regained another five ounces. I wanted to die.
I met Shane online when I was nineteen, and I clung to his approval despite the fact that I knew that the second I let my guard down, he’d try to get in my pants. After the first awkward date, I made it clear to him that I wanted to stay friends (mostly because my friends were away at college and I was not, and so I had no one else). He wasted no opportunity telling me how hot I was (never beautiful or smart), how much other men weren’t worth my time (he was right, but he wasn’t much better).
I quit my Burger King job. The day I told my manager that I was leaving, she begged me to stay. I was finally free, but without something to occupy the middle of my day to keep me from eating, I started to regain the weight. No matter how many calories I counted, it all piled back on, one or two pounds at a time. I outgrew my clothes and had to drag out the ones I’d bought when I was twenty pounds heavier.
We had a fight, Shane and I. We split up over instant message, and never spoke again.
I met Harry in my freshman year of college, and we bonded over a few things, mostly being black at a very white school and being Former Fats. He was busy, so we didn’t hang out a whole lot, but we both played instruments and promised to hang out and jam some time. During one of our last conversations, in one of the small practice rooms reserved for music students, he showed me something.
“You wanna see what I used to look like?” he asked. I hugged my guitar to my chest, rested my chin on the body and nodded. He brought out his driver’s license, and the face there — large cheeks, small eyes — was unrecognizable.
“Yeah, I was an ugly, fat fucker, right?” he said, and I, my mouth suddenly dry, couldn’t respond.
I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do; I’d finally found a friend who I thought understood me, only to stumble across a self-hatred in him that I’d never had for myself. For him, his fat self and his current body were two different people, with one deserving of respect and the other not. It was the kind of violent hatred that was familiar to me from thin people, that deep loathing whenever a fat person just happened to exist in front of them. I hated myself, but I desperately wanted to comfort the fat little girl I’d been my entire life. Harry hated himself, and he wanted to kill the fat little boy he’d finally escaped.
I started gaining the weight back, slowly enough that I didn’t notice at first. The comments about how good my clothes looked began to slowly disappear. A dress I’d bought — a little too small to begin with, that I’d hoped to further shrink into — no longer fit. No matter how little I ate, how religiously I tracked my calorie intake, counted my steps and punished myself for eating anything I enjoyed, the pounds piled back on. I already thought about my weight regularly, but now I looked at myself in every reflective surface I could find, either congratulating myself for looking skinny or hissing at the pudge at my waist and the way my thighs oozed under my dress. I thought about food from the moment I woke up to the second I fell asleep, and sometimes it continued into my dreams, until one day, sitting in the dining hall in front of a tiny bowl of salad, I hated myself so much for just wanting to eat that I panicked. I scrambled my things into my arms and ran away. I was so afraid of my hunger that I couldn’t bring myself to eat.
I had failed. I had failed so badly that I had finally reached a weight at which I finally deserved some dignity, and I had fucked it up.
I started going to therapy.
In a small room decorated in calm shades of beige, I sat in front of a white woman who’d been thin all her life and confessed that I was a failure.
I was twenty-two when I started running for the first time in my life. I had always wanted to. I wanted to fly like I’d seen others do, pushing off the ground and gliding through the air, my heart singing in my chest. I’d always wanted to, but I’d always been too big, so I thought that maybe I could use it to get back to the eighteen-year-old girl who spent so many days trying not to eat that there are months of her life that she can no longer remember. I started running so that I could lose weight, and I didn’t. But I kept going because I wanted to be strong.
I love how it feels to run so fast that my heart aches. I love how it feels when I’m running a little too fast, when I’m pushing a little too hard, when I want to give up and my strength glows through my chest and urges me further and I feel my body — my beautiful, powerful, incredible body — start to change.
“You should really stop eating so much pizza,” someone tells me, and I am back on the scale, staring down at what my life is worth and seeing nothing.
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