My last post described my own experience with a public health initiative geared towards ‘childhood obesity,’ and of my impressions that it was not successful in instilling lifelong thinness in at least two of the teens involved, myself and one other teen: one female, one male, both at the higher end of the percentages used to measure ‘childhood obesity.’
I tried for the most part to let the events tell the story, so one could take away an impression from that blog post that the experience, in the long run, was not particularly damaging to my health. I lost a little bit of weight, I gained it back, but maybe I learned some things along the way about ‘good health, nutrition, and exercise’ that I didn’t know before, one could infer. Plus, there was no mention of explicitly shaming tactics used to get us to lose weight; we weren’t publically humiliated in front of our thin peers at weigh-ins or in forced exercise routines, or otherwise exposed to negative images of fatness and fat people. However, these sorts of programs don’t happen in a fat-hate-free vacuum, they are bound up with a lifetime of campaigns, both covert and overt, that seek to belittle the fat person with very little push back from fat people themselves.
What comes after that National Institutes of Health-supervised program shows the long-term effect these sorts of messages have on fat children and teens. The following school year, at about the same time of year (Spring), I was in the ER, having my stomach pumped after a suicide attempt. I was in my first year of high school (10th grade), and had turned 16 only a few months before. I won’t say that my life as a fat person was the only reason that I decided to take an overdose of pills, but I would say that it was the biggest reason I felt as depressed as I did.
I had discussed in my previous post my understanding and awareness of my fat identity, and of how young I was when I realized the importance this part of my embodiment would have on my life. I wasn’t aware of my conflict over my gender identity until I was older, perhaps no older than 5. I spent a good part of my childhood deeply puzzled by gender identity and expression. About the age of 7 I was exposed to a transgender identity for the first time (via a CBS Evening News report on Renee Richards), and I wondered throughout my youth if I might some day have a ‘sex-change operation.’ One thing I remember doing all the time as a child was praying to G-d to change me. I was a reasonable youth, and offered G-d a choice, since I was sure asking for a lot. G-d could either keep me as a girl, but make me thin, or keep me fat, but turn me into a boy. At a very young age I was aware of the different standards about fat and gender, and thought that the worst possible outcome for me was to be female and fat.
Sadly for that young me, I never woke up in a differently sized or gendered body. I grew up, and out, and stayed a tomboy for a long time. Once I entered puberty in my early teens, I began to question my sexuality. I questioned it not so much because of who I was attracted to, but because of my gender conflicts. My teen self could not even imagine a world in which a trans man would be gay. It was still difficult for me to imagine being trans, or gay, let alone combing the two together. Remember that we’re talking about the mid-80’s, during the ‘AIDS hysteria,’ and in a suburban world where I knew no openly GLBTQ people.
Thus, I began to contemplate life as a lesbian. That made some sense to my adolescent mind, since I could be a tomboy and like girls, since that is what I thought lesbians were. But as I contemplated this identity, well aware of all the stigma surrounding gay and lesbian lives, I noticed something else. There were striations of ‘acceptable’ female identities, and one of the representations used to demean women was an image that looked a lot like me: a mannish, fat, lesbian woman. Nobody was claiming that representation as a cherished part of their community-not women, not feminists, not lesbians. I didn’t know there were women who were seeking to cherish fat representations like this, women who formed the Fat Underground in the 1970’s. I had no idea there was any sort of fat positive community in the world until my late teens.
I felt like I was living in an impossible body, with unthinkable identities, and I had no idea what to do. One thing I thought would solve my dilemma was to take sexuality out of the picture altogether. I decided that I would not have romantic and sexual feelings for anyone, since I could not reconcile my own sense of self with the labels available to me, and when I tried, I only saw abjection. This is really an impossible place for one to exist and thrive in, and as a result I suffered from depression. The thought of a lifetime of loneliness and estrangement from perhaps the most exalted state of human experience, love, was weighing me down more than any ounce of adipose tissue ever could. Thus, the suicide attempt at 16.
For me, the combination of queerness and fatness was hard to navigate, and the societal forms of prejudice against both states of being were detrimental to my mental health. However, as odd as it may sound, growing up I was never personally shamed, insulted, hated, or belittled due to my gender nonconformity, presumed lesbianism, and attempted asexuality. I did not grow up in a family that made me feel bad for wanting to dress like a boy, or play sports, or spending most of my playtime with boys. I did grow up in a family that made me feel awful for being fat. Once I claimed my queer identity, my family has never made me feel less than for being queer. And although I never told my family that the fat stigma that I grew up with contributed to my suicide attempt, my family stopped shaming me for being fat after it happened (and please know I am not suggesting suicide attempts as a way to stop fat stigma!).
I’ve been blessed in so many ways; despite having to grow up dealing with pervasive and powerful stigmas around sex, gender, and body size, I made plenty of good friends as I grew up. Outside of some teasing in 1st grade, I never was singled out and targeted for bullying, and my closest friends accepted me as I was. Sadly, I was much better at being social and making friends when I was a youth than I am now as an adult. But that, along with every other aspect of my ability to interact with other humans, has been profoundly impacted by the fat stigma I endured as a child, where the scariest part of that scarring was the language around being excluded, unloved, and hurt because I was fat.
The picture above shows me and my partner, the amazing Mycroft Masada Holmes. Until we became partners, I had no idea if I could be in a healthy, romantic, loving relationship with another human being. Thus, the slogan, which Mycroft designed, reflects the fact that the child me, the one who learned how to feel excluded because they were fat and queer, has learned in adulthood how to love and be loved as a fat queer person. I hope you will support campaigns that seek to minimize shaming children for their bodies, and that you’ll learn more about this particular campaign to speak back to those who refuse to listen to the words of scarred former fat kids about how soul destroying it is to recognize that the world wished you never existed in the body you have.