I Grew Up Thinking I Was Too Fat to Be Pretty

My mom used to tell me that I'd be so much prettier if I lost some weight.
Publish date:
March 27, 2016
body image, self esteem, self image, Self Love

Recently, I was with some friends sharing old pictures on Facebook, like you do when you want to see who your friends used to be (and also to clown everyone's hairstyle). I posted a picture of myself and my floor-mates from college when we were all dressed up for a formal dance. At the time, I thought I was cute and that I was wearing a nice outfit. One of my friends, someone who attended the same college but was in a different clique, told me, "I definitely would've hollered at you back then: you were kinda fine."

In case you're not schooled in standard Negro vernacular, he said, "I definitely would have approached you for a date back then: you were really quite pretty."

I was floored. I never would've thought of myself that way in college, let alone thought that an uber-popular and very attractive guy would've looked twice at me. I'd always thought I was fat, but it turned out that I was fine.

You must understand that I grew up never thinking that I was pretty. Perhaps that's not accurate. It would be more realistic to say that my family told me that I was pretty, but my mom always told me that I could lose some weight. She was always tall and thin and wanted me to be the same, maybe for her own vanity, maybe so that I'd be more like her.

Whenever she talked about overeating she told me to listen to the little man in my body that tells you when you're full. I reasoned that I must have eaten the little man because I was never full. And so it went.

Rather than take after my mother, I've always tended towards my father's physique: pot-bellied with a mouthful of food. My mom used to put us on diets that never worked because we'd eat extra food behind her back. Eventually Mommy stopped trying to get us to lose weight, but she still told me that I'd be so much prettier if I lost some weight. So I stopped focusing on my physical shortcomings and started focusing on my brains and personality, qualities that I knew were immutable.

During my adolescence, I never really got confirmation that my mother was wrong about my weight. I never had a date until my senior year of high school, which I thought was because none of the boys I knew thought I was pretty. I looked different than all the girls I knew, which is to say that I was the only fat girl and the only Black student in my class. Somewhere in my mind, I linked those two characteristics together and came up with the idea that boys only liked skinny, white girls. My habit of poring over Vogue every month did nothing to disabuse me of that notion.

There were times when I was approached by Black guys, friends of my cousins that I'd meet at parties or school functions. I remember getting "hit on" by these guys and completely freezing like the dateless geek that I was. I didn't really understand what was happening, only that I probably looked older than I was and that they assumed that I'd talk to them. The extra weight gave me the breasts and hips of an experienced teenager, but on the inside I was still an awkward nerd. And I didn't like these guys paying attention to me because not only had I gotten used to being ignored physically, I'd also developed a discomfort with my looks and I wasn't comfortable with anyone else focusing on that part of me.

By the time I got to Yale, I was pretty confident with my smarts and half-okay with my personality but not at all confident with how I looked.

I was bigger and heavier than all of my friends, and I secretly wanted to be thin like them. Much like my teenage years, I socialized mostly with white people though there were other Black people on campus. So my social and dating options were limited to my social circle. And like my teenage years, my college years were fraught with the idea that fat, black women didn't get dates — I had none in college — at least with the men I liked.

Even though my love life was pretty barren in college, I did gain a level of self-confidence about myself if not about my dating prospects. I surrounded myself with a group of very supportive women who openly complimented each other, and me, about our accomplishments. These women called me beautiful for the first time in my life, not only because of my looks, but because of my whole being. Bolstered by my friends' support, I became assertive and self-assured, which eventually impacted all aspects of my life.

By the time I'd left college, I had a new attitude about myself. I actually believed that I was pretty, no qualifiers. I had my first real boyfriend when I'd lost 60 pounds and could finally fit into my mother's clothes. A few years later I gained the weight back, plus some more, and lost the boyfriend. I went back to being single and believing that I was fat and undesirable.

At my heaviest weight I was in business school, and I started hanging out with more Black men than I'd ever been around. I learned then that many Black men have different standards of beauty than other groups and genuinely liked women with a larger frame. In 2016 this sounds like old hat, but it was a breakthrough for me at the time. For some reason my family had focused on women being thin, but there were other people in my race who prized a voluptuous woman with curvy legs and an ample bottom. Apparently my parents had overlooked the Jet Beauty of the Week or the lyrics to "Brick House." I was floored.

I was also floored when these men in my business school social circle began to compliment my curves and my shape. Then others expressed sexual interest in me and I felt like I'd gotten the blanket approval on my looks that I'd never gotten as a young person. I dated one of my friends from business school and he helped me feel like a beautiful, sexy woman through words and deeds.

I hate admitting that a man changed how I view myself, but this man paid more attention to my body than I had in my life. It felt validating and very powerful.

Fast-forward to my college friend saying that he would've dated me 20 years ago. I realized that I'd spent too much time comparing myself to other people when I was younger. I'd spent too much time worrying about fitting into my mother's ideal of how I was supposed to look. And I'd possibly spent too much time in a community that didn't appreciate my beauty as it was, no matter my size.

At this point in my life, I want to lose some weight because I feel heavy and because I want to shop at Banana Republic again. My goal weight is, ironically, what I weighed in college when I thought I was too fat to get a date. My goal weight is also about 40 pounds more than what the BMI charts say I should weigh. But I'm okay with that, since Black men like a little more woman to hold onto.