By ANNA GRACE LEE
For as long as I can remember—and even before then— I have always been a big person. Not in the metaphorical, take-the-high-road sense, but in the literal sense, in terms of size. I was a nine-pound baby, healthy and blue-eyed and big, the biggest of my family. Growing up, no one ever believed how old I was. At five years old, I towered above all the other kids at our kindergarten variety show. At ten, movie theater clerks questioned my age, thinking I was an older kid trying to get a cheaper ticket. At twelve, friends of my parents would often mistake me for my sixteen-year-old sister.
In other words, when you grow up big, you grow up fast. You grow up differently from other kids. In reality, I was a normal kid—a high BMI, sure, but healthy: I played sports and ate a well-rounded diet. But compared to the impossibly tiny kids around me, I felt huge. This bodily fact set the course for how I formed a sense of self as I grew up, learning the rules of the limited social roles available for the chubby kid of the group.
In elementary school, I played with the boys. I garnered nicknames like “gentle giant.” I took on the role of “bodyguard” for my best friend. As I grew older I learned a slew of euphemisms for my body type, some meant to be compliments, which evolved with age: “Soft, heavy, healthy, big-boned, big girl, curvy, plus-size, full-bodied, real woman, more to love.”
When kids would call me fat, the one word that (in my mind) could not be rectified, one of my common retorts was: “Well, at the end of the world, you’ll starve before I do.” I had reserves, I would explain. My body, a classmate had told me, would consume itself before collapsing of hunger at the theoretical end of the world. But there’s always a comeback for the fat kid in the class. “Well, you’ll be weighed down and run slower,” they’d say, or something along those lines.
I dreaded when weight would come up in social situations. For some reason, my classmates loved to compare the extraordinary nature of their size—“I’m 85 pounds. Wow, I wonder if Lewis is over 100?” In third grade, my class went on a field trip to a boat in the South Street Seaport. The captain wanted to distribute our weight evenly so that we could all hold onto the ropes. I remember him laughing, saying, “Well, none of you kids are over 100 pounds!”. I stood there quietly embarrassed, hoping no one would bring attention to my size.
When I went to camp the summer after sixth grade, my randomly-assigned bed was a top bunk. I looked at it anxiously, imagining the metal mesh net beneath the mattress sinking so low as to suffocate my lower bunk mate. My mom went over to my counselor, gestured to me, and the counselor nodded. “Alright,” she said, “You can take the bottom bunk.”
As I got to be a pre-teen and my body became increasingly sexualized, I would often hear that guys like a girl with some meat on her bones. I remember my older brother telling me that the guys he knew liked girls who could eat; that if I was ever out on a date with somebody I didn’t have to stifle my appetite. I didn’t have to perform daintiness. I could get the cheeseburger and skip the salad, because it was endearing; it was real. I know he meant this in total support of who I was—a girl who liked cheeseburgers much more than salads (shoutout to Sleepover’s iconically ridiculous “Just Date Guys Who Like Brownies”). But I would come to realize that this idea was complicated, because it cast judgement on girls who weren’t like me. It made it seem like it was cool to eat a lot, and uncool to eat less. So I grew to equate personality with size. Skinny was boring, fat was interesting. Skinny was foreign, fat was familiar. Fat was not just what I was, it was who I was. And it wasn’t always a bad thing—but it was a constant reality.
I was always careful about what I ate when I ate with friends. I didn’t want to be seen eating more than my friends, for fear that people would think, “See, no wonder she’s fat.” But I didn’t want to eat less either, for fear that people would notice and think, “See, she has to watch what she eats.” For a while I was ashamed to be seen going to the gym, because I saw it as an admission of guilt—a self-affirmed inadequacy. A spectacle of effort to change, to shed, to correct what was wrong.
In middle and high school, I relied on my sense of humor to make friends. Middle school was harder because kids were meaner, each one (no matter their size) likely entangled in their own body crises, just trying to find someone else to ridicule. I always tried to be nice to people, so that people wouldn’t have a reason to be mean to me. I knew that if they wanted to be, it wouldn’t be hard. I felt I was skating on thin ice, walking around in a body weighed down by the potential for emotional havoc, insult built-in the skin.
By the time I got to high school, this feeling slightly dissipated, thanks to the people I was lucky to be able to surround myself with each day. But the feeling didn’t disappear completely. As recent as last year, as a freshman in college, a friend I’d made during orientation poked me in the stomach at a party and laughed. I looked at her, hurt and confused. She never gave any explanation, because none was needed. We were both in on the joke, and it was a familiar one.
When you are big, your body becomes a public commodity. The world has a way of making you feel like your body belongs to everyone but you. When walking home from a concert with three of my friends in high school, a man started walking with us, following us for blocks, telling us how he saw us in explicit terms. To my petite blonde friend: “You’re like Cinderella;”; to me: “You’re like a double-stuffed sugar cookie.”
In ninth grade volleyball practice, our coach would make us do push-ups whenever we messed up, holding the potential for muscle gain over us as a form of punishment. She’d say, “Try again. You want to keep those arms nice and slim for the boys, right?” This reinforced the idea that, in my high school and the world, you had to be thin to be desirable. Any deviation from that was a deviation from beauty.
When I first started writing this article, I was tasked with remembering all the pieces of memories that I would usually try to forget. I found myself scribbling line after line into my notebook, each story reminding me of another. But the anecdotes which I’ve shared here, harmful as they might seem, are actually extremely valuable to me. They made me who I am. Without them, I don’t think I would be as happy with the person I’ve become. I’m not sure if, had I not been a tall, big, freckle-faced kid, I would’ve made the long-time friends I cherish now.
Now that I’m in college, I recognize—as more and more students do—that part of trying to live my best life is eating healthy foods and exercising. I feel pressure to get in shape and stay that way. But as I navigate these conceptions of self and the ways in which my experiences with my body have determined who I am today, I find myself facing a dilemma: does exercising toward a goal of fitness inherently involve a rejection of the self I have grown up as? Does this “meat on my bones” offer a form a protection—whether it be from unwanted sexual attention or inauthentic friendship—that I’m not ready to give up? Can I love myself and yet still crave change? If my body changes, will I still be me?