Dear Fat Girl,
Last week, I saw an overweight news anchor respond to a bully with such power and confidence that it made me cry. It also made me want to write about my own experience of being a fat girl. I almost wrote this letter to my younger self: a deeply sad, chubby fourth grader who endured horrific taunts from classmates at recess, and even worse abuse in her own head when she’d go home and look in the mirror. But then I realized that there is something about these two little words, “fat” and “girl,” that denotes a shared life experience. If you’ve ever been a fat girl, you know what it’s like to have a body that feels like an enemy, to suppress your own voice because you think it doesn’t count, to be informed with a sigh that you have “such a pretty face,” as if it’s a bit of a tragedy. Here are some things I wish someone would have told me, back when I felt so hopeless, back when I felt like I would never be anything more than the fat girl…
You don’t have to be funny. You can be funny, and you might find that cracking jokes helps ease and express the pain you keep inside, but don’t feel that your role in the world is limited to the goofy sidekick. The media will show you that this is the only way a fat girl is allowed to be, but trust me: your personality and your relationships are much deeper and more complex than that.
You don’t have to cover up your body. No clothing should be off-limits to you simply because your body is a different shape than the women who wear them in the magazines. Fashion can be a fun and powerful way to express yourself, so experiment with colors and fabrics and styles and find out what makes you feel beautiful. Wear whatever you want. Don’t apologize.
On the other side of the equation, you don’t have to strip down to make a statement. I felt guilty for years because I was too shy to wear a bikini. Showing off my round belly at the beach would be so brave, I thought. I could really start a body revolution if I did that! Then one day I realized that I’m naturally a pretty modest person. Forget the stretch marks on my stomach–I’m not sure I would ever feel comfortable in a bikini. And you know what? That’s OK. Fat or thin, your body is yours, and you get to do exactly what you want with it.
Remember that the word “fat” is not, by definition, synonymous with worthlessness, laziness, weakness, or lack of intelligence. As an adjective it simply means “having excess flesh.” If you can get to a place where the word doesn’t feel so loaded, that’s good. It will make you less afraid of it, and help you realize that you can simultaneously be fat and smart, driven, beautiful, energetic, confident, and unique.
If you can’t unload the word “fat,” that’s OK too. I’m 27, and if someone called me fat today, I would probably cry. But then I’d think about the kind of small-minded person who is threatened by a woman taking up a few extra inches of space in the world, and another one-syllable adjective would come to mind: sad.
Resist the temptation to separate your head from your body. Not literally, but in the way you conceptualize the two. It’s surprisingly easy to start viewing your body as a separate entity from yourself, a distant enemy you are always scheming to diminish or destroy. People will help you by saying things like “You have such a pretty face.” Celebrities will help you by losing weight and telling magazines “I got my body back!” as if their slightly larger body was actually possessed by an alien they valiantly defeated. The reality is your body and your mind and your spirit are so interconnected that you can’t really ever separate them, and in the process of trying, you risk losing yourself.
Don’t demonize or idolize the skinny girls. For years I literally thought my life would be completely perfect if I could take a pair of scissors and trim 20 pounds off my midsection, like a butcher cuts the fat off a roast. Then one night at a party in high school I found a skinny friend of mine crying because a boy had called her a cinnamon stick. My heart broke for her, and I realized that our society’s toxic relationship with weight hurts all women. The only way we can deal with it–and ultimately change it–is by sticking together.
Don’t think that being fat means you deserve less of anything. For years, I believed that carrying around a few extra pounds meant I wasn’t entitled to fulfilling friendships, romantic love, emotional complexities, or even my own opinion. As a fat girl, I thought I had to settle. I kept my cruelest tormentor as one of my closest friends. I didn’t speak up when I knew the answer in class. I didn’t ask for what I wanted in any area of my life. What a waste.
Don’t wait to start your life until you get skinny. Someday you’ll look back on those excuses, whether you’re skinny or not, and realize it wasn’t your weight that held you back, it was cowardice. It makes just as much sense to say, “I’ll apply for my dream job when I lose 10 pounds” as it does to say, “I’ll apply for my dream job when I grow three inches taller.” Stop hiding behind your body. Figure out what you want, and go get it.
Think about the fact that one of the worst things you can be in our society is a fat girl. Think about why people are so insistent that women only take up a very small amount of space. Think about who is making these rules. Think about why we try so hard to follow them. Think about how different the world would be if we took all the energy we expend hating our bodies and trying to shrink ourselves down to an arbitrary size, and just lived the life we wanted to live. Just think about it.