*Featured Artwork by Lauren Elfring
The Fat Girl Rules
1. Never eat in front of someone
2. Never say you are hungry
3. Big clothes hide your fat
4. You can’t wear anything cute, anyway
5. No one will ever love you
6. You are a disgrace
My body is a series of numbers. I weigh 204, I wear a size 16. My waist is eight inches smaller than my hips, my breasts are 38B. I should probably go up to a 40 in the band, but I can’t bear the thought. I’d rather be squeezed. My blood pressure is 110/65 on average, which I like to tell health care professionals. I’m fat, but I’m not that kind of fat.
My mother always told me, “You have such a pretty face.” The rest can be extrapolated. My face, a thing to admire, and the rest of me? In my weaker moments, I question even that assessment. Was my face all that pretty? Something of note? Or was this the only positive my mother could draw out, a tiny wave in an endless sea of fat? My face looks skinny, I always tell myself. If you just saw my face, you couldn’t tell the rest. The monstrous being that lays below the shoulders.
I am not the only fat person in my family. All the women were fat, except for my mother. She was slender, by any means necessary. I don’t remember her eating much. A lot of ice water, chicken noodle soup, salad, and grapefruit. Any time she ate more than that, she would say she “ate like a pig.” Her sisters were disgusting, indulgent, ugly. And me?
My dad worked outside all day, and was too busy to eat lunch, he said. He was wiry from the work of putting up fences all day, and his skin was crisped to a deep red-brown. When he took off his baseball cap, his scalp was such a contrast of pale white, you’d squint. He came home from work ravenous and paired all his dinners with Budweiser. I would sit on his lap if he’d let me, and wipe the condensation off the can of beer. He had “HATE” tattooed across his knuckles. If my mom made dinner, my dad had seconds and thirds. If she didn’t, he would pick at whatever was around. Cans of corned beef hash, tuna fish dumped onto bread with a smear of mayonnaise (no need to mix), or just a plate full of rolled-up bologna. His hangover in the mornings prevented breakfast. So all his calories came in those 2-3 hours when he was awake at home. After he ate, there was usually more beer, until he passed out in bed around sunset. He was up and out the door before anyone else was awake, but I could sometimes hear his endless retching in the bathroom before the sun came up.
My mother did all the food shopping, and you would think that it would be a pristine pantry of Raisin Bran and Grape Nuts, with fresh vegetables at every meal. But each week she brought home Lucky Charms, Apple Jacks, Cocoa Puffs. Liters of Coke, orange soda, and root beer. Bags of potato chips. Those gummies that looked like orange slices covered in sugar. Hostess cupcakes, Devil Dogs, Twinkies. On Sundays, she would buy a dozen donuts for breakfast after a night shift. Our kitchen cabinets looked like every kid’s fantasy. Once, the checkout clerk asked if we were having a party. She loved that.
Even when she cooked for us, it was Paula Deen-level indulgent. Her poached eggs swam in butter. Her tomato sauce had ½ cup of sugar in it “to cut the acidity.” Pancakes were soaked with Mrs. Buttersworth. But mostly, we lived off of things like hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and grilled cheese. When I left for college, I realized the laundry list of things I had never been offered: A peach. Salmon. Any cheese that wasn’t Kraft singles. Wheat bread.
Anthony was skin and bones, as my mother liked to say. My dad put Ant in Little League when he was 5. On the weekends they were out in the parking lot next door, my dad hitting ground balls for my brother to field. All that exercise made Ant a string bean, and burned off all the junk food. Of all of us, Ant loved junk food the most. Even now, he might still eat a plate of sugar cookies instead of dinner. When he ate actual food, it couldn’t be touching, and had to be plain. No sauce on spaghetti, no gravy on his potatoes. Anything that got close got nudged and separated into clear delineations.
Tom was the unlucky brother. He loved to eat, but was more apt to read J.D. Salinger than play baseball. He always had seconds, and by the time he was 14, Ant teased him about his belly. Tubby, chunky, lard-ass. But Tom was tough, and he cut out one of his two lunch sandwiches, and that was that. All the girls swooned over his slender frame and bright blue eyes. At least one person befriended me just to sneak downstairs into Tom’s room late at night.
I was also not lucky. The summer after I turned 10 years old, I hit 150 pounds, and my mother put me on my first diet. For breakfast, I drank a SlimFast with dry toast. A Diet Sunkist and a single serving of Bachman pretzels for lunch. I remember licking my fingers and dipping them in the shed salt at the bottom of the box. Sometimes I was too hungry and ate an apple too. Dinner was almost always a piece of baked chicken with boiled potatoes, or maybe an ear of summer corn. The rest of the food was still there, forbidden. The dream of being skinny kept me from rummaging through the cupboards. At night, if my mother was asleep, I squirted yellow mustard on a plate and ate it until my tongue burned. Then I drank another Diet Sunkist. I lost 30 pounds that summer.
In the fall, I finally made friends, so her plan worked. But she lost interest. And without being starved, I got fat again. And I knew it was my fault. And when the friends left, that was my fault, too.
Body positivity is so confusing to me. How can anything except skinny be okay? Lizzo or Aidy Bryant–they must be lying to themselves, right? Instagram influencers tell me that my body is beautiful and strong and stretch marks are tiger stripes and oh god can someone please give me the ability to believe it? When I think of my ideal body, I don’t see rolls or mounds or dimpled thighs. I see myself walking across a crowded restaurant in a slinky black dress, flat where it needs to be, curvaceous in a demure and acceptable way. People turn from their plates to watch me enter the room. But it is only ever my body. I am always headless–a perfect body with no head, walking into an audience intent on my shape.
In college, I read a short story called “The Fat Girl.” I remember feeling grateful that the protagonist was just like me, and yet, in my mind: she was huge. A balloon animal; I would be dwarfed by her enormity. And then, the unintended twist: she weighed 184 pounds. The descriptions of her were grotesque, abhorrent. 184 pounds? Only 10 pounds more than me. This story of a fat girl, written by a man, a beloved, anthologized, man: She was a circus freak, and so must I be. And when she loses the weight, only then is she palatable. And her return to form (162): inevitable. She was fat in her soul.
Fuck. I may need to make some mac and cheese to get through this.
My husband always tells me that it was love at first sight. He pulled down the plywood covering my broken window, and saw me sitting at my desk, and he felt the tuning fork in his heart thrum. My first thought was: He doesn’t realize I’m fat because I’m sitting down. I’ll stand up and then it will be over. But he is the one who stayed.
I took my mother with me when I went wedding dress shopping. She didn’t want to go to an actual bridal shop at first. But after hunting through every department store for a white dress in my size, I finally convinced her to go to David’s Bridal. I found a champagne tea-length bridesmaid dress on clearance. “Well,” she said, “that isn’t too terrible. If you buy a girdle.”
I had been married for a couple of years when I had a breakdown in the shower. I stood naked and wet in front of my husband and cried about my fat. Matt turned off the water and wrapped a towel around me. I cried and said I could no longer be fat, not anymore. He said the magic words, “I love you no matter what you look like.” I ignored him and asked for a scale for Valentine’s Day.
The weight dropped quickly that year. The highest number of 191 was a gut punch then. You fat fucking waste of space, I said to myself. I thought this was…motivating? I started a blog for myself, and called it Jeans with Holes in the Thighs. The thing I hated most about being fat. The wearing away, the exposure. The same can be said of dieting. There was no hiding. I couldn’t hide a cookie from my metabolism. I read labels and never ate more than a serving size of anything. Do you know how much a tablespoon of ketchup looks like? I sure as hell do.
I chronicled my loss. I expected to feel happy, to see a steady increase in positivity as the numbers dwindled. At my lowest I was 127. I had a friend tell me they were worried about me. I was now “too” skinny, a fact refuted by my BMI. I was still overweight, the BMI said. Still too much! My blog entries were incredulous. How can I not be happy, I wrote. I’m a size 6! I just bought an extra small shirt at the Gap! Look at my clavicles showing up to the party! But my stomach was still not flat enough. It didn’t concave inwards because of those pesky organs of mine. I was always cold.
For the one year when I was skinny, my mother didn’t try to hide her envy. She named it every time I saw her. “I am so jealous, you skinny bitch.” To me, it was an affirmation.
It was an impossible dream to keep. My grandfather died and I decided that I was thin enough for long enough, and surely one slip wouldn’t hurt me. That slip was a roast beef sandwich with an order of cheesy fries. I ate at my grandmother’s table, covered in a vinyl tablecloth with purple irises. I don’t remember tasting anything, but I remember the desire to fill.
The first memory I have of my body is walking down the steps in 3rd grade. If I were just skinny, I thought, everything would be ok.
In 4th grade, my crush told me that he liked my shirt. It was a long t-shirt, an adult large, something with flowers. I thanked him, but instead of the dizzying rush I should have felt from being noticed by the boy I liked, I felt only anxiety. He must have been lying to me. He didn’t actually like my shirt. What was his long game? I wrote about it in my diary that night, trying to crack the code.
My mother didn’t like to spend time in stores trying to find things that fit, so every trip was straight to the discount rack, often in the Missus section, and things that looked good enough were bought. Jeans were the standard in my school, but I didn’t own my first pair until middle school. I had a lot of pants with elastic waists, in strange colors that stood out. In my memory, I am the fattest girl in the grade; no one approached me in size.
Another Valentine’s Day memory, this one from 6th grade. A carnation sale–$1 and you could send a flower to your crush. I never expected one, but there was my homeroom teacher handing me a pink bloom. I read the note–from Matthew Webb. I am sure I blushed. Word quickly spread, and Matthew stood up and declared he absolutely DID NOT have a crush on me and I was ugly. A gaggle of girls cracked up and admitted they had pooled their change and decided to send one to the fat loser.
My teacher came up to me and said to enjoy the flower anyway. I carried it around all day as I changed classes; it was worse than a “Kick Me” sign. I should have thrown it out, but I didn’t. Deep down, I knew it was the only time I would ever get a flower sent to me on Valentine’s Day. Or maybe I thought that a flower sent with hate was the kind of flower I deserved.
Right around the time I got married, my mother hit menopause. She gained weight; “I look just like my fucking sisters,” she lamented. Occasionally, she put herself on some crazy diet. Once, for a month, she ate only ice cream, and lost 20 pounds. But then they stopped carrying that flavor (Death By Chocolate) and she started eating real food again. Well, real-er: the house was still filled with junk.
The day she died, I was the one there, holding vigil. By her bedside were the remnants of her last meal: a king-size Milky Way bar.
There is no neat ending. I am still fat. The desire to be skinny is still there, clawing at my insides like a parasite. No matter how many fat-positive stories, or articles about “Health at Every Size,” or behind-the-scenes takedowns of the beauty industry, do I see myself as worthy.
Drug addicts talk of chasing that first high. I think back to high school. The house is quiet. My dad passed out hours ago, my mom is at work. My brothers are gone. I sneak out to the kitchen and grab the new bag of Bachman pretzels –the butter twists, my favorite–and a glass of cold whole milk. I pull out one handful, then another, then another. I go for more milk. I eat and eat and eat. Finally, when the bag is empty and my stomach hurts, I rest. The relief is palpable and warm, like a hug. I can turn off the lights, snuggle under the covers, and fall asleep with the TV on for company. No one was there to watch me consume.