I've been big as long as I can remember. Even though I played soccer as a kid, danced in audition-only children's shows, and ran a nine-minute mile in PE, I was always big. My parents — San Francisco yuppie types — fed me a steady diet of farmers market vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins way before it was cool. My brother and I followed the strict house rule that if we wanted junk food, we wanted it badly enough to make it ourselves.
But still, I was big. Bigger than any other kid in the class, on the soccer team, at the dance studio. Elementary school went by well enough, but middle school came with the realization that I was terrifyingly different from the other kids. The vice principal targeted me for perpetual dress code violations like "too-tight shirts" and "glimpses of midriff," while my skinny, prepubescent friends wore booty shorts to school unscathed.
When my mother came to protest my detentions, she asked if I was being targeted because I had matured earlier than the other children. The school calmly said yes. It was my and my parents' responsibility, they told us, to ensure that my more mature body was appropriately covered up. The price of womanhood and fatness was that I was to be punished for my body, and it didn't end at school. Childhood doctors' appointments were anxiety-inducing hellscapes characterized by my kindly Greek pediatrician patting me on the head before asking my parents if they'd tried cutting back my food, or replacing my lunches with Pedialyte. The fatness could be cured, they said, if I just didn't eat every time I was hungry.
Thankfully, my parents made sure to call bullshit. My mom in particular had struggled with her weight all her life and was infuriated by the insinuation that my body was something to be ashamed of. After demanding a battery of tests — all of which showed I was in perfect health — my parents refused to have me go hungry just because I was outside the bracket of normality. They demanded that the school treat me the same as the other children, and they didn't take no for an answer.
Even so, when a friend's mom told my mother she was starting her 13-year-old on Weight Watchers, my mom asked me to join too. "You shouldn't have to change who you are, but I think you'll be happier if you look more like the other girls," she said. So I went.
There I was, a 5'8" sixth-grader sitting on a folding chair in a suburban Weight Watchers with my eighth-grade friend and a cadre of 45-year-olds. At my first meeting, the chipper group leader attempted to sell us boxes of powdery protein bars and convince us all that our lives would be better if we replaced any and all salty snacks with cherry tomatoes. We had to go around the room and share our "snacking alternatives." What did we eat instead of "real" chocolate? How did we avoid carbs and fats and salts? What were our tricks for skipping out on afternoons at the movies, restaurant outings, and ice cream dates? Did we know that if we started walking just 30 minutes per day, we could lose up to 10 pounds in only a month? The meeting ended in a paper-walled cubicle as I stripped myself of my socks, my shoes, and my dignity. Crying, I submitted to my weekly weigh-in. I was 12 years old.
The thing is, through all of this, no one ever used the word "fat." Overweight, sure. Chubby, sometimes. Large, absolutely. But fatness was an unspoken taboo. Our Stepfordian suburb, with its perfectly coiffed mothers and suit-wearing fathers, its families with 2.5 kids and 1.5 golden retrievers, didn't have room for fat people. In that world, the word "fat" was an insult of grave proportions. "Fatness" was something that happened to lazy people. Incompetent people. Other people. So, clearly, in our town, it didn't exist.
According to everyone in my world, I couldn't be fat. I exercised! I ate healthy foods! I went to a good school and came from a nice family and played varsity sports and sang in public concerts and got straight As. Fat people couldn't do those things. Everybody knew that. So when I whispered, "I wish I wasn't fat" to my best friend at a high school sleepover, I was immediately confronted with denial.
"You're not fat! You're gorgeous and smart. People will see how beautiful you are when you get to college. You'll see."
It didn't matter that I was medically obese. That I wore plus-size clothes. That the pediatrician still made hopeful noises regarding my bone density and muscle mass. Even though the signs all pointed toward it, no one could admit to the fact that I was fat. We didn't have fat people here.
Even after leaving my hometown, I stayed in the same sorts of circles. I didn't know how to escape. I went to a well-known university populated with lots of other upper-middle-class kids who had grown up in towns just like mine. The friends I met at yoga and spin class and weekend 5Ks were just as unwilling to admit to my fatness as the folks at home. Their smart, ambitious friend who drank green juice and crushed at CrossFit couldn't be a fat person. That's not how fatness worked.
About halfway through college, I finally admitted to a close friend that, in diagnostic terms, I was really, truly fat. With a BMI of 30.6, I surpassed the threshold for medical obesity.
"How can you be obese? You just ran a 10K last week! We work out every day. You're obsessed with vegetables. It doesn't make sense."
It might not have made sense, but it was a fact. I was obese.
"But you don't look that fat."
I might not have looked that fat, but here was somebody finally admitting what I had known all along. I was some kind of fat. I was a fat person. When I heard that word directed toward me, for the first time in my life, I finally felt free.
If I could have wished for anything when I was a kid, it would have been to know an adult who looked like me. Who was big and strong and a little plump and didn't apologize for it. A woman who had relationships and friendships and successes and had all of those things while being fat. Someone who could prove to me that being fat wasn't a bad thing. That it was just a thing.
My whole life, people have told me that fatness is akin to failure. But my body is a success. It can run and jump and sing and laugh, and it can do all of those things while being fat. So can any body.
So admit it. Shout it from the rooftops. I don't mind. I am a fat person. And I'm OK with that.