I want to preface this post about my experience with childhood obesity by first saying two things.
1) I consider myself extremely lucky to have never received any extreme bullying and harassment due to my weight that I know other’s in similar situations to mine have experienced. I’m not writing this post so you feel sorry for me. Even though it did occur as I was growing up, I’m well aware it could have been much worse. I’m grateful for that little silver lining and my heart aches for those who had more difficult experiences with bullying because of what they look like or who they are.
2) This is an extremely personal post. I’m sharing my personal experiences and feelings about what it was like growing up being overweight. Because of that, this post will contain personal references to people and/or times in my life which affected me in some way, some good and some, well, not so good. If you are a friend or family member of mine, proceed with caution and please keep in mind how much I love you while reading this post. This is in no way meant to hurt you or make you feel like you did something wrong. You didn’t. I’m thankful you.
I don’t really write or talk about being a fat kid much. Being an overweight kid hurt me then and having been an overweight kid sometimes hurts me now. But it happened. Ever since I can remember, I was heavy. The majority of my life was spent being overweight.
And ever since I can remember, my weight was never a topic that was frequently discussed by my family. In fact, it was rarely mentioned directly to me. I know some people who make their children incredibly aware that they are overweight. Constantly talking to them about it, counting calories, hiding snacks, you know. Every family and situation is different.
I’m no expert but I think that can cause a whole different set of extremes in the body image and food issues department than the ones I developed by it being a topic that was generally avoided (to my face, anyway).
I’m not sure what would have been worse, having my body be overly analyzed by my family or them tip-toeing around it the way they did. I don’t know what the first scenario would have been like but I do know that because it was a once in a while occasion it hurt, badly, when it was brought up. Especially when I was extremely young and still blissfully oblivious yet of the fact that there was “something wrong with me”.
I don’t have any pictures past the age of 5 or 6 of me at a healthy weight. I don’t have any memories of my childhood where I wasn’t overweight. It just was always the way I was. And at first, in the early years, I didn’t know there was anything wrong with that.The first time I realized I was different (read: fat) was because of my grandma. I couldn’t have been much older than 6 or 7. I remember her taking me downstairs to the basement and having me get on the scale. She tried to encourage me to lose weight by offering money as an incentive. I remember there being some predetermined amount of sit-ups I were to do to receive the monetary reward the next time I “weighed in”. I’m sure you know how this ends, because I wouldn’t be writing this post had it of worked.
I remember thinking that this was something my cousins probably didn’t have to do. I knew that even though they were younger than me, I was being singled out because of my size. Although I can’t recall any of the specific conversations about this, I remember how badly it made me feel. This was the very first time I ever felt ashamed of myself and like I needed to change.To be completely honest, I totally forgot about this happening until a few years ago. Whether I blocked it out or just had other experiences that were more influential, I’m not sure. So no, it probably wasn’t traumatizing and it didn’t scar me for life. I love my Nana more than anyone on this planet and I know she has had nothing but my best interests at heart. I don’t blame my grandma for doing this.
I understand that she was only trying to do what was best for me, the only way she knew how at the time. Now, being an adult, I’m not sure I would even know what to do if I were in her position. But I do know her intention was never to do anything that would do harm to my little girl self-esteem.
From there, my experiences as the fat kid just continued to grow as my size did.In elementary school I would always race to be the first one on the bus after school or for field trips so that I didn’t bump into anyone as I shimmied my way through the tiny school bus aisle. I was acutely aware of my size, even at this young age. I loved and looked forward to the days that I got a ride home from school by my Nana. It meant that I would get to skip the embarrassment of getting on the bus and the agonizing time on the bus I spent trying to shrink my body, hugging my backpack and squeezing my thighs together to avoid touching the person sitting next to me.
Even things like getting out of a school desk made me painfully aware of how big I was and extremely conscious about who was around to see it. I’d wait until most of the class had cleared out before un-stuffing myself from the one-piece desks. This habit followed me all through my school years.
In 4th, 5th and 6th grade, I had a group of girl friends. Pretty, skinny friends. They used to all share clothes and swap jeans. I would awkwardly stand around while this happened, feeling out of place and left out. I was only ever able to wear one pair of the “cool” jeans. I was 12 and in 6th grade. I only got to wear them that year because they were a size 12, the biggest size that “oh-so-cool” store sold. The next year, they wouldn’t go up past my thighs. I started cutting the tags off of my clothes before sleepovers just incase they would see what sizes I wore.
Those friends, they didn’t tell me directly I didn’t belong, but I knew it. I would hear when they were hanging out without me. I would see the notes getting passed around during school to all of them but me. I knew the reason I didn’t get invites to do things with them was because of my weight. I was different than them. When I did hang out with them outside of school, I often got the feeling that they were embarrassed to be seen with me. Children pick up on these social cues a lot more than we think they do. Unfortunately for me, the social cues I received caused my self-esteem to plummet.
There were a few of them that would talk to me less when we were around other people or walk in front of me as if they weren’t with me. It was so hurtful to me back then. So much so that I remember the exact details and exact places these things took place. The store we were in front of in the mall. The movie we were going to see. The names of the girls who made me feel like I was so much less than they were.
During this time period, one of the aforementioned girls had a birthday party. All of the girls were making their way over to the table where the birthday girl’s mom had put out cake and ice cream she dished up. But when I got up to the table, her mom reached across and blocked my outstretched hand, just as I was about to grab a pre-plated bowl. She told me, “this isn’t meant for kids like you“. I’m not sure which of my classmates heard her, but it didn’t even matter. The damage was done.
This was the first time I realized that sometimes adults were some of the worst bullies of them all, but it wasn’t the last.
The feeling of being judged by others and treated differently because of your appearance doesn’t just go away as you get older either. Especially when it begins at an age where you’re just not emotionally equipped to deal with it.
One thing that develops when you’re a fat kid is your ability to overlook how crappy people treat you. You want people to like you. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself or cause a problem. You figure that your weight is already problem enough so adding any extra reasons for a “friend” to not like you seems like a terrible idea. And, well, you’re 8 years old. Or 9. Or 12. Having friends is better than not having friends in your 10 year old mind. So you settle.
And so begins the feelings of “well this is what I deserve” and “I can’t do any better” that will follow you through your fat kid life and into your adult life, leading you to stay in crappy relationships, crappy jobs, crappy situations, make crappy choices and probably eat more crappy food. Unless you break the cycle. But that’s another post ;).
Before every Christmas I would pray that I wouldn’t get clothes as presents. Anything but clothes. Christmas presents were a huge source of anxiety for me when I was little. I would receive clothes and would immediately know they didn’t fit me but I was too embarrassed to say so. I felt ashamed that my family had to spend time considering how big I was as they picked out the clothing, but I was actually even bigger than they thought. I always loved the stuff they picked out which just reminded me all the more of the things I wasn’t able to do, or in this case, wear, that everyone else my age could.I felt trapped being the person my body decided I was because of childhood obesity instead of the person I wanted to be. It seems like a stretch, to get all of those feelings from Christmas presents of all things, but as a young girl in the school setting I was in, what you wear mattered. And to not only not be able to fit in with the other kids or express myself through my clothing, well, those feelings didn’t seem like a stretch to me at that time.
One time, when I was about 12, I was on the phone with my cousin. In the background I heard the doorbell ring. When my cousin answered it and said they were on the phone with their cousin, I heard a boy in the background say, “that super fat one?” I was mortified. I felt betrayed and vulnerable as I realized even my own family shared the rest of the world’s opinion of me. Who would defend me, be on my side, or love me if someone who was supposed to HAVE to, wouldn’t?
In middle school I would fake sick and then in high school I just plain ol’ skipped class on the days when we were suppose to do the fitness testing. How this hell-on-earth is still even happening in schools I’m not sure. Being subjected to running the mile, seeing how many sit-ups and push-ups I can do three minutes or running back and forth in the gym until you physically can’t anymore to do what was called the “pacer”, all while your classmates watch, was just about the last thing I needed from my educational experience.
When you’re the fat kid, things that seem like not a big deal to your normal sized peers can easily become a massive source of embarrassment for you. Gym class was one of them for me. I had plenty of experiences with kids coming up with your run-of-the-mill fat jokes and insults that may have lacked originality but still affected me.
It wasn’t just my classmates that singled me out either. In high school on the first day of gym class, the P.E. teacher was giving us a tour of the locker room and assigning lockers. He took all of the boys into their locker room and then took all of the girls into theirs. In front of all of the girls in my class, he looked at me, pointed towards the shower room and said, “There’s bathroom stalls in there with doors so you’ll be more comfortable changing into your gym clothes.”
Even if he was trying to do me a favor, implying that my body should be hidden… That my body isn’t one that should be exposed… That my body is *too* different than the other girls my age to be worthy of changing in the same room made me feel extremely ashamed of it.
I remember that feeling he gave me that day like it was yesterday. And for years afterwards, I never changed in front of another person, boy or girl, again.
I played on a non-competitive soccer league for years growing up. I did it because I enjoyed it, not because I was the best at it. But even so, as I got into middle school and then high school, I would purposely drag my feet leaving the house before practice as my mom continually told me I’d be late. I delayed only enough to be a few minutes late so I could avoid the first 10 minutes of running drills.
It wasn’t because I didn’t want to run. It was because I didn’t want my friends and the parents who were still lingering around to see me running. Especially if those parents were ones I’d previously overheard making indirect comments about my weight to other parents or their children by suggesting I play certain positions or, like one parent did, not even play at all. At the time I wished more than anything that they would have waited until I was out of earshot to say those things.
Even if I had to still complete the drills by myself and re-join practice after, to me, it was a better option than lagging yards behind all of my friends and feeling horrible about myself for just playing a sport I loved to play.Speaking of athletics, I won my first trophy at the ripe old age of 9 months from beating out all the other tiny tots in the diaper derby at the county fair. I crawled faster than all the other babies because my uncle was at the finish line holding out an ice cream cone for me.
That story is cute, right? Oddly enough, every time I heard it being told growing up, it embarrassed me. I could only imagine that the person hearing this story was glancing over at me while it was told and thinking about how fat I am and how even as a baby I couldn’t control myself.
As I grew up, I started getting tougher and adopting defense mechanisms to help me cope, not only with how others treated me but about how I felt about myself. I learned really quickly not to be too sensitive to comments made about me. By the time high school was in full swing, I had taken on the ‘I’m so tough, I don’t care if anyone doesn’t like me’ attitude. I developed a finely tuned sense of humor and became well versed in sarcasm.
Us fat kids figure out early on not to rely on getting anywhere by being pretty. We learn to compensate with being funny. With being smart, with being good at being a friend. With being friendly or even, sometimes, with being mean. I took on a version of all of these at some point in time in high school. Putting yourself or someone else down first seems like a good way to prevent others from having the chance to do it to you. Or, if I wasn’t being a teenage asshole, I was compensating for my weight by being a person you wanted to be around regardless of my appearance.It mostly worked, too. I had a good core group of friends who are still my friends today. I did fun things and had plenty of normal experiences like any other kid did. I was, for the most part, well liked and never without something to do or people to hang out with on any given weekend. I was popular enough, went to parties, did things I wasn’t supposed to – normal teenager experiences. I lucked out with the friends I made growing up.
They didn’t do much in the way of making me feel out of place with them, it was my own insecurities that did. I was always the fat friend, the biggest one in the group. I avoided doing things with them like going to the beach in the summer. I sat quietly while they discussed boys. I pretended to browse when we went shopping because I didn’t fit into anything at the same stores they did. I skipped every single school dance, including prom. I sat out of these things, I wasn’t forced to because I was mistreated to that extent.
I just knew I’d rather avoid any situations where my weight would be a source of embarrassment than willingly walk into them. That mentality became part of my “inner fat kid” mentality that’s proved to be hard to shake even now that I’ve lost the weight. I sat on the sideline of my life growing up because of that insecure little girl who made a home inside of my heart and rattles around in my mind, telling me I don’t belong here, or there, because of my size.
As I got bigger, in my later teenage years, I became withdrawn from family. I felt anxious, uncomfortable and not myself around people I maybe only saw once or twice a year. I knew I was getting bigger and that my weight was out of control. I knew they surely thought the same thing too when they saw me. It made it difficult for me to talk to anyone even though I love, and always have loved, being around my extended family. They’re some of my favorite people and I know some day I’ll wish I had back the years I skipped going to holidays and the time I wasn’t fully present when I did go. I just didn’t feel good enough about myself to think that others would enjoy being around me.It wasn’t all bad though. Aside from my weight, I had a pretty typical childhood. I was loved, taken care of and supported. Even with the emotions and issues that have developed on my end towards my mom for my being an obese child, I can still appreciate the life she gave me. My mom ensured I never wanted for anything, that I got to travel and she gave me a lot of the qualities about myself that I take pride in today. I had family I was close with, lifelong childhood friends and some of those friend’s parents became like parents of my own.
I’m a lot less angry and resentful now compared to where I was when I first realized what a significant amount of work I had to do when I took responsibility and started getting healthy. I try not to blame my mom for the things that led me to being a 300 pound 22 year old. Part of losing 120 pounds meant a lot of mental work on my end. For me, that equaled coming to terms with what happened and working on a way that I can move forward in a healthy way for myself. Now, when I start to feel angry and hurt that this had to be the thing I struggled with through my childhood years, I try to have some grace and think about how having an overweight child probably wasn’t a walk in the park for her either.
While being the fat kid isn’t something I would wish on any other child and while I don’t particularly enjoy the fact that I dealt with some of the things I did, I’m also not sure I’d take it back now if I could. Being the fat kid gave me life lessons I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I am who I am because of it and because I had to overcome it.
It taught me to be observant and perceptive, of not only other people’s feelings but of my own. I know what it’s like to be treated unfairly and I’m now accepting and kind to all people, regardless of who they are or what they look like. I taught myself to understand nutrition and health and why it’s important, things I might not have “had” to do, had I grown up without a weight problem.I’m conscious of how my words impact people, after being the target of cruel words said by others. I can find humor in just about every situation and I rarely take anything personally. The little things don’t bug me and I have a deeper appreciation for the people I love and who love me. Most importantly, I grew up into a more compassionate, less judgemental adult. All of these experiences helped to form the person that I’ve learned to love today.
I don’t know who to point the fingers at and who to blame for the increase in childhood obesity rates. I’m not going to end this post running and screaming after the government, parents, cable TV, or GMOs with my pitchfork and burning torch. I don’t have all the answers on how to fix our society’s problems with childhood obesity. I don’t know what the right way to handle it to cause the least amount of damage is if you have a child struggling with this either.
What I do know, however, is that as adults, we can all be more kind, more understanding to the kids in our life. We can teach our children to be more kind, more understanding to the kids in their life who look different than them. And, for the sake of all of the 10 year old Baileys in the world who just need to be hugged and told it’s going to be okay… Well, we can do exactly that.