My shop is supposed to be a safe place for fat girls. Let’s just say I’ve cried in enough dressing rooms for one lifetime. So, I built a place you can walk into and just be the you that you are in that moment – a judgment free zone.
The other day, I let an acquaintance violate that safety. She paraded into my shop, presumably to say hello. Immediately my guard went up. I have a history with this women body shaming me. As I politely chatted her up while subtly walking her toward the door she said, “Your store is just lovely, but you know there is nothing I could buy here. Everything is just so large.”
BAM! There it was.
I froze – head swirling with fighting words. I wanted to give her a pageant sash that read “Congratulations! You are not fat!” I wanted to sharply put her in her place. I wanted to defend my past, present and future customers. I wanted to defend myself. Instead, I stood silent. She walked out.
My entire life has unwittingly prepared me to stand quietly mortified in the face of fat shaming. For so many of us, it starts early. And undoing decades of conditioning -- either from well meaning abuse or outright aggression -- is no easy task.
When I was 17, my aunt called me just before I went to bed. The point of the phone call seemed to be to impart this important message: “There’s no better feeling than going to bed hungry.” I believed her. I spent countless nights after that lying in bed with slight hunger pangs recounting that mantra to myself. I tried my best to believe that starving myself was a good thing -- trying to change my outward appearance in order to fix the inward feelings of self-loathing.
My junior year of high school I was super excited to go to my first prom. All the teenage fantasies of glitz and glamour were about to come true. I was raised in a small farming community in Indiana. It was a big deal to go to the fancy prom shop in the neighboring county. My dreams were quickly smothered when I found they had no proper prom dresses in my size. I was sent to the bridesmaid section of the shop, so they could special order a dress in my gigantic size. Crushed, I picked out a pale yellow dress. I felt nowhere close to glamorous when I wore it; I felt fat.*
Last summer, I went back to Indiana to visit my folks for a few days. While in the attic, searching for treasures my grandmother left behind, I stumbled across that pale yellow makeshift prom dress. I was amazed. It didn’t look like the gargantuan pup tent of my memories. In fact, it looked small. I slipped it on to see if it fit. It wouldn’t zip, it was small. Why on earth was a size 10/12 not available in a prom dress? Why was it so difficult to fit an average size teenager?
That same day I found another photo of me from that year. It's summer and I am at our house boat in Kentucky wearing a bikini next to my sister and her friend. I vividly remember the body-hating thoughts going through my head as the photo was taken. In reality, I have a toned athletic body in that photo. I have core muscles, defined biceps and muscular thighs. There is no fat on that 16 year-old body.
I sat on the attic floor baffled by the memories of kids chanting “Ogre!” as I passed through the halls. Baffled by how that girl, with that body, could have felt so unworthy simply because of her appearance. She was desperate for anything that would fix her, change her body to something other than fat.
I’m pretty sure that was also the same year a doctor would classify me as obese for the first time. I was also given a prescription for Fen-Phen at that same doctor’s visit. About two years later I would force myself to vomit post food binge for the first time.
Fat girls spend decades absorbing negative things from family members, retailers, glossy magazines, doctors, bullies (both kids and grown ass women) and – not least of all – ourselves. And as we finally begin the hard work of loving ourselves, those decades of voices lingering in our heads don’t magically go away.
When kids used to chant mean things and throw peas in my hair at lunch, my only tool was to pretend I was invisible. Twenty plus years and countless therapy sessions later, I like to think I have a voice now, and that I use it to stand up to and body shamers.
Nevertheless, in one fell swoop, an adult bully can walk into my shop, catch me off guard and make me feel like that fat, broken girl again. I can lose my entire tool kit in a second.
And that’s okay.
Progress isn’t always a straight line. (And let’s face it, chances are good there will be a “next time” to get it right -- because bullies’ bad manners don’t just magically go away either.)
That’s what happened with this woman several weeks later. This time, I was prepared to speak my truth to her. I didn’t hand her a pageant sash (though I still kind of want to make one for her and some girls I went to highschool with). But I did let her know, in a kind way, that the comments she made about my body are not ok. I told her that while I don’t buy into societal beliefs of body image, it still doesn’t feel good when someone puts me down because of my size. I also told her under no circumstance is it appropriate to comment on someone else’s physical appearance. She didn’t get it. She did apologize, but she didn’t get it.
And that’s okay, too. Confronting bullies isn’t about the bully. It’s about taking back power, sticking up for the teenagers we used to be and -- maybe -- making people think twice about criticizing someone else’s body in the future. Small conversations like this make ripples in the world at large.
Please share your own stories in the comment section. Just speaking it out loud relieves years of shame. The most healing words anyone can ever say are “me too.”