Chewing (and Swallowing) the Fat

A few years back, I enrolled in this weight loss program with my sister.

The administrator was a very sharp, dynamic black woman that took pride in personalizing her approach to each of her clients.

She had developed a new program that she was trying out for the first time on my cohort of clients, and I remember at that first meeting of all of us, she went around in a circle, talking to each of us about what she perceived as our strengths and potential obstacles to weight loss success.

When she got to me, she said my biggest obstacle was that I could “be OK” either way. I could do the work and lose the weight, or I could not lose the weight and accept being fat. She wasn’t sure that I was motivated enough to push through the difficult parts of the journey.

At the time, I didn’t see in myself what she saw in me. I thought I wanted desperately to lose weight, and I would stop at nothing to lose it.

I was wrong.

I am 39-years-old, 5’4″, and 248 pounds. According to my BMI, I am morbidly obese. According to the mirror, I’m not horrible-looking, but my waistline is a definite thing of the past. According to my knees and lower back, my blood sugar and bladder, my energy level and level of body confidence, I’m too heavy. I am what one would definitively call “fat.”

The irony of this? I’ve been calling myself that since I first hit 155 pounds, some 26 years ago. It just dawned on me, literally yesterday, that the reason I’m fat now may be because I needed to validate my psyche, in order to feel sane.

See, I’ve come to realize: Human beings need to be right about things. It gives us a sense of control. We are so threatened by our actual lack of control over the universe and its workings–our lives and the actions of others–that many of us will seek to be right before we will seek to be happy.

When I entered fourth grade, I became a social outcast. I was bookish, daydream-y, awkward, eccentric, and new to my school. The kids there didn’t quite know how to take me, and I didn’t know how to like myself without the validation of my peers, so, when they began to tease and make fun of me, I began internalizing it.

Unfortunately, at this same time, I began putting on the weight that many girls put on right before they begin puberty.

I became “fat.”

I couldn’t tell it was happening at the time, but my mind seized upon that as the “reason” why the kids didn’t accept me. I think I needed to believe that the thing that set me apart from them was something I could change or control, and so I decided it was my weight because I subconsciously understood that if it was my personality, I might never be accepted.

Even at nine, I recognized that my gifts were my intelligence, my sensitivity, my compassion, my imagination, and my irreverence. I guess I also recognized that if these things intimidated or alienated people, then people would always have a difficult time dealing with me.

I didn’t want that. I wanted to be liked. I was boy crazy, too, so I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be adored, actually. So I put all of the rejection I was experiencing on my weight. I began to identify myself as “fat.”

I began to hate the way my body looked and to compensate for it by dressing in certain ways.

I became less active as I grew less comfortable in my body.

I began eating in a way that “matched” this concept of my being “fat.” Eating without being hungry. Eating to self-soothe.

I think the reason being “fat” at that age didn’t have a horrible effect on me was that I wasn’t fat. I had all of this drama going on in my head, but, in the world, I was a relatively normal-sized girl.

I wasn’t getting treated as badly as I felt–as badly as fat people really do get treated–so I didn’t feel that badly about myself. Yet.

Also, I was a high achiever. I had other things going on to balance out the whole “fat” thing. Good grades. Scholarships. Awards. These bolstered my self-image and self-esteem.

I was “OK,” like the weight loss coach said, until I turned 25, and I had a serious bout with Crohn’s disease.

I dropped 25 pounds in about eight weeks, and I was 135 pounds for the first time in my adult life (I hit 155 pounds at 13 and stayed there until 25). I was suddenly “skinny.” My entire world was turned upside-down.

Because people treated me differently. More girls sized me up and rolled their eyes at me in that sick, competitive way so many of us have, and more guys tried to talk to me. People gave me more compliments. Clerks were more helpful in stores.

Now, the only reason that I don’t think this was attached to a rise in my level of confidence is because getting “skinny” didn’t cause a rise in my confidence. It raised my level of bravado.

I wore skimpier clothes, I had public sex, I danced at clubs–I did a lot of things I wouldn’t do when I was heavier–but inside I felt the same.

I felt like a “fat” girl who’d been given an incredible break from her “fatness.” I felt like the whole thing was a fluke, and I treated it like a fluke.

I fully expected to get fat again, and I was afraid of getting fat again. So I began dieting for the first time in my life. I began obsessing over my weight, which I honestly didn’t do before that. Because I just accepted being “fat” before.

But I couldn’t accept it anymore after being “skinny.” Being “skinny” was like having surgery to restore my eyesight then losing it again.

I had never known what being “skinny” felt like, but a lot of it was just as wonderful as I had always imagined.

I could wear what I wanted. I could shop off the clearance rack. I could sit on my boyfriend’s lap without worrying that I was crushing him. I could walk around naked in front of him. I could have sex with the lights on.

I had so many “rules” for governing my “fat” body, and I wasn’t obligated by them anymore when I was “skinny.”

Moving around in my body didn’t embarrass me, so I would go to the gym. I would exercise. I would run and play around with my boyfriend.

“Fat” me wouldn’t draw that sort of attention to my body for anything in the world.

Still, with all the wonderful freedom that came with being “skinny,” what didn’t lose its hold was the isolated feeling of being “different” I had.

Because like I said, in my heart, in my head, I was still a “fat” girl.

And even though I was educated and a feminist, I equated being fat with being unattractive.

I believed I was fat because I lacked self-control and even strength, and that felt unacceptable to me.

I even wrote about all of this in the introduction to my book of poetry (Ariel in Black):

Blackness is a really complicated thing for a hetero woman in America.

It has enough rules to put the U.S. Code to shame.

You are not allowed to be sad because so many that came before you suffered so much more than you, and they were never sad; they were strong.

You are not allowed to be crazy because so many that came before you suffered so much more than you, and they never escaped into madness; they were strong.

You are not allowed to be ambivalent because there are only two acceptable things to do as a black woman—you can stand or you can fight.

You are not allowed to have any problems that weren’t doled out by your history or anatomy.

You cannot cry except at death, and it is the only sort of loss that you can linger on.

You cannot despair, no matter how desperate you are.

You cannot lament your blackness, no matter how it blinds you to your beauty or blocks the sun from you.

You have to love men when they spurn you.

You have to love women when they spurn you.

You have to love every black person you meet, whether their greeting is happy or hateful. Whether they want to join your parade or piss on it.

You have to keep secrets that claw at the insides of your guts and throat to be told.

You have to swallow complaints that going down can rip your insides like a rusty nail or screw.

You are not allowed to be honest at the cost of being dignified.

You can only tell your story as a myth or legend, fable or fairy tale.

These are not rules, for the record. They are The Rules. Spelled out for me by my respectable mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother that came before me.

I grew up with the demands for strength, goodness, decency, and solidity hanging over my crib like a mobile. I understood by six that I had very few acceptable choices for my future beyond getting an education and forging a successful career. I could marry if I wanted to, and have children if I wanted to, but being a certain type of woman wasn’t an option.

I was a talky, antsy, moody, sassy, nasty girl that was expected to grow into a stoic, stable, suitable woman.

I was supposed to be able to control my weight. I was supposed to be able to juggle all aspects of my existence with so-called dignity and grace. But I couldn’t, so I began to feel like a failure.

It didn’t help that at the same time I quit school–the vehicle for all of my so-called achievements, the thing that I was “good” at, the thing that structured my life so effectively–gave me such a sense of purpose and direction–that it hid the fact that I have ADHD for a full 30 years.

When my Crohn’s went into remission at 27, I began putting on weight. Like I said, I began dieting and obsessing, but it didn’t help because, you know, thermogenesis and shit.

My body fought its way back up to 170 from 135 because I wasn’t consistent with my efforts, and I wasn’t consistent with my efforts because I resented the fuck out of them.

Eating had become my main coping mechanism by that time–just blotting out any undesirable feeling with the uncomplicated pleasure of taste. Dieting meant controlling my eating. Not eating meant feeling my feelings.

I didn’t want to do that, so I began the push-pull of dieting and hating it. This has lasted pretty much since then. So that’s 12 years. A long time.

Now, add life to that. The death of my grandmother that I loved dearly–my biggest cheerleader. The cluelessness I felt about building an adult life. The twists and turns of a long-term romantic relationship with someone five years younger than me. An unplanned pregnancy. Job insecurity. A 22-month clinical postpartum depression. Undiagnosed anxiety. Undiagnosed ADHD.

Add to that the unrealistic yet full-on expectation that I should be–oh, I don’t know–fucking Toni Morrison since I’ve been writing and claiming that I want to be a writer all my life.

(I’m a bit of a perfectionist and drama queen–I will admit.)

By the time I arrived at the weight loss program from my first paragraph, I was well over 200 pounds. I had developed full-blown binge eating disorder without even knowing it. And I had made a certain peace with, now, actually being fat (no more quotation marks).

There was a part of me that still wanted “skinny,” but there was a part of me, too, that was so exhausted of disliking my body and myself because of what I had allowed my body to become, that I didn’t want to lose the weight.

I wanted to learn how to live with it.

And so I lived with it. I left the program. I regained the lost pounds. I gained more pounds.

I got all the way up to my current weight. I developed pre-diabetes. Stress incontinence. Arthritis in my knees. Lower back pain that might be degenerative disc disorder or spinal stenosis at this point (I’m afraid to go and see.) Frequent shortness of breath.

And you know what else?

I stopped taking pictures from the neck-down. I stopped wearing jeans, then heels, then skirts, now dresses. I started eating in my car and bedroom, away from people, so as not to feel judged.

I started shrinking, ironically, inside my fat body.

Because regardless of the whole “body positive” movement, my own intellectual understanding that fat doesn’t equal ugly, and my admiration for so many of the big, beautiful black women out in the world who embrace their size, I don’t want to be fat.

Because for me it’s emblematic of how unhealthy I am emotionally.

And it has begun to make me physically unhealthy.

I was walking around the mall yesterday, on my lunch, looking in stores, admiring all the clothes I can’t fit and the accessories I can’t even buy because I’m only an adjunct right now, and I’m broke as fuck.

My back started hurting. Then, my feet. So much so that I had to sit down at several intervals on those benches arranged around the kiosks out in the main corridors.

That got me to thinking about my weight, of course. And that got me to thinking about why it’s so hard for me to focus on recovery from my BED.

And I realized that on a subliminal level, I either want or think I deserve to be fat.

I thought: You have made yourself into that outsider. You have literally “embodied” that concept of yourself. You have made yourself right about all these misguided thoughts you’ve had since you were young.

You punish yourself by ruining your health with your bad habits. You’ve even stopped wearing jewelry and making yourself up every day because you feel “ugly.” You make yourself “ugly.”

You walk around in the world feeling too big for it–feeling undeserving of it–but that’s all right on a certain level because that’s what you already thought.

I saw–and it stunned me–that I have finally made myself into the “fat” person that I only felt I was in fourth grade.

And I was incredibly sad.

Because that made-up “fat” person wasn’t a fat person.

She was a dejected little girl trying to have some hope that things would get better for her.

So if I am an older version of her, it means I am still sad. I am still dejected.

Which makes sense. The world is a hard place. For black people. For women. For poor people. For fat people.

For people with the uncontrollable, unsolicited combination of genetics and biology that makes them susceptible to things like mood and brain disorders.

And I am black. I am a woman. I am poor. I am fat. I am a depressive. I do have an eating disorder. I have adult ADHD. I have anxiety. I have low self-esteem.

I am also incredibly hard on myself and pretty unforgiving of my struggles. I have high expectations of myself and a strong desire to make the people that love me proud.

So there’s a feedback loop controlling my life now.

Get disappointed in myself, eat, get disappointed in myself, eat.

I gain weight and feel even more unworthy of happiness.

It fucking sucks.

And the crazy thing is–I can articulate it here. As I sit, writing about it. But in those moments when I’m sitting on my bed with the chip bag, all I know is that I should be better, I should be more, and that feeling is so unbearable, I want it to go away.

I am literally wearing the weight of my issues, which is why I can’t get comfortable with being big.

I want to be better.

It doesn’t help, either, that people very casually treat you like shit, the bigger you get. Particularly when you’re black and female.

But I don’t blame them. Because I buy into the bullshit too. I wear my weight like a badge of shame. I punish my self for it.

I fight to stop it from becoming so big a problem (I threw the pun in to lighten the mood–typical me) that it swallows me up.

I sift through all of this “stuff” not to give myself an excuse, but a level of understanding that can lead to a breakthrough–a better way.

Blogging has definitely become one of my outlets. One of my ways to be unencumbered. To feel like me. Pure and simple.

I say it in my book, in the intro:

I write to free myself . . .

 I am too much of a black woman to surrender such a hard-fought thing as my life to something as common as sadness.

But then I am too much of a thin-skinned girl to pretend that sadness doesn’t act like a slow poison on my heart and mind.

 Poetry is my antidote.

And sharing things like this blog post.

I feel better when I’m working through the truth of what I think or feel rather than sitting and brooding on it.

So, the truth about my weight, for me, now, is this:

I am fat, but I don’t want to be.

I am fat, but I don’t deserve to be.

I am fat, but I don’t need to be.

I can be whatever I want, and I deserve to be, because, if I’ve ever hurt anyone terribly enough to deserve punishment, it’s myself.

But I don’t deserve punishment.

I deserve love.

Pure and simple.

I deserve life.

I deserve to breathe easy. To be easy in my body and my mind.

To exist as something more than my own biggest problem.









10 thoughts on “Chewing (and Swallowing) the Fat

  1. Holy crap. So brave. As a fat queer white woman… well I can’t say I get it… all of it. But I HEAR you on a lot of points. I went to my doctor when I was thinking I might actually kill myself with food, two plus years ago. I went on diet medicine and lost a lot. Enough so that people treated me differently. That kinda blew my mind, having never been “skinny” (at 200 lbs). Now I’m putting the weight back on, now that I’m off the meds. Despite exercising regularly with karate. Doc’s fiddling with my thyroid now, but that doesn’t prevent me from blaming myself and then soothing that anguish with a little ice cream. Frankly, I think you’re beautiful. And, I suspect, so am I.


  2. I came for your Van Jones post but I’m staying because of this post. Your honesty, your burgundy hair, your words..were exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you.


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