Saturday, August 24, 2019

"Can I leave the house like this?" A fat-shamed woman speaks

Older age brings with it some very strange goals, things you wouldn't ever have considered or even thought about before. Right now I am trying to train myself to go out of the house wearing shorts. I have lots and lots of pairs of shorts in all different sizes, left over from all my "thin periods" and "fat periods", though I always felt deep shame that I had to keep such a range of clothing and often just threw the fat clothes out.

I want to be able to go out, at least out of the house, with jelly-looking jiggly thighs, not that anyone cares in this age of 300-pound women in crop-tops with spaghetti straps and short-shorts that ride way up because of the fat. You see it every day, along with fat men whose entire bellies show because their shirts won’t stay down. The only alternative are “curtain” shirts like Daryll wears on those Save-on ads, the enormous tent-like shirt falling straight down from the fattest point of the belly.  To say the least, it is not a pretty sight, and life-threatening to boot (with people in their teens and 20s alarming me the most, 3-year-old children in tow and babies in the shopping cart). But no one cares or even thinks anything of it now. 

It has become such a new normal that, like texting while driving (or walking or getting married or having sex or giving birth, or attending a funeral), no one pays any attention to it any more. No one even sees it, because it's what people do now. If you're weird like me and don't even use a phone for anything except phoning, you are so far out of the orbit of the human condition that you often feel marooned in a kind of strange outworld of obsolescence. And God forbid you should say anything about any of this to upset the status quo, or you will be accused of being a hater or a "troll". 

But no one seems to know or remember what it was like to be fat-shamed at 132 pounds.

When I was growing up, being 10 pounds overweight was disgraceful, almost a crime, and you had to "go on Atkins” (now called “keto”, though it is the exact same thing. Last year it was "paleo", and no one knows yet what it will be next year). 

EVERYONE was obsessed with dieting and losing weight, and in high school I was stigmatized for being "too fat". I even overheard disparaging remarks about me, which people felt perfectly free to make because I was a sort of non-entity. When I was 16, my parents sent me to the doctor because I wouldn't come out of my room, and the doctor told me I needed to lose 30 pounds and "dress like the other girls do" (in miniskirts and hot pants) in order to attract a boy friend. I weighed somewhere around 140 pounds, which today I would just LOVE to weigh.

Throughout my teens, twenties, thirties, even forties, there were weight charts everywhere, in doctor’s offices, in women’s mags, in diet and exercise books and at every turn, and they were all the same: a rigid weight range according to height and frame size. My range was 120 – 135 pounds, with the implication that 135 was "too fat”. I dieted and dieted and dieted. The diets were ridiculous and often included alcohol, I guess to make them bearable. 

When I was nearer 120, I got masses of compliments from everyone, particularly from my older siblings' male friends, and was told I looked absolutely beautiful, totally transformed from the mess I used to be, and when I gained it all back – which I now know that 95% of people do after crash dieting, as your body clamours to pull itself out of an engineered famine – all the compliments just stopped. There was an embarrassed silence, and I felt drenched in shame. I had to get back on the dieting treadmill and try to beat my body back down again so I could be acceptable. I was sure I was the only person on earth who had ever had this problem, mainly because no one ever talked about it (because each person thought they were the only person on earth who had ever had this problem).

So is it any better now that fat is (supposedly) much more OK? What the hell happened to all those weight charts, and those ubiquitous booklets with those evil 10BX exercises, and measuring every morsel that went in your mouth and taking a tape measure to every conceivable body part and getting on the scale (and writing the number down) every single day? Even worse than that, looking in the mirror nude and concluding you were "fat" even at that magic number of 120 pounds.

The women's magazines were the worst: outlandish diets which told you exactly what to eat meal-by-meal each day of the week, so that you HAD to have exactly one half-scoop of low-fat cottage cheese, a canned peach half rinsed under the tap to remove all syrup, and a slice of dry melba toast for dinner, but ONLY on Saturday, to a total of maybe 300 calories. The diet would be followed on the next page with a recipe for a gooey, 3-layer, buttercream-frosted chocolate fudge cake. A recipe for bulimia, which fortunately I did not have (but could have - I believe society created that particular disease, which practically did not exist until the '70s).

I remember, almost with a sense of trauma, a horrible article featuring the model Cheryl Tiegs. This woman had the usual model's body type of 5"11" and perhaps 105 or 110 pounds. Though she reassured us that "not every woman can attain my weight level," she nonetheless provided a healthy weight-reduction diet (and a weight chart with height and frame size. She had no frame, so it was easy for her.) She talked about how important it was to enjoy your meals every day, and that food was important because it represented a "warm connection to life". (This is just one of those things I vividly remember, for some reason.) She then laid out what you should weigh (or COULD weigh if you were halfway serious about looking good). At five feet you should weigh no more than 100 pounds, and for every inch over five feet, you were allowed to add three pounds. This meant that my "acceptable" weight was 112. I hadn't weighed 112 since I was 14 years old.

The battle for me, right now, is “can I wear shorts outside?” Just that. Can I go out of the house in them? A huge step further: can I wear them to Walmart? Walmart is Fat City, as nasty people take surreptitious photos with their phones of fat, ill-dressed people, likely poor, that end up splattered all over social media. Though I am the only person who has ever mentioned this, or even noticed it, TV documentaries about obesity ALWAYS show very fat people waddling along the street without showing their faces. No one thinks this exploits anyone because they are, of course, "anonymous" and have no power of veto, so can freely be used as examples of "what not to be". What if you saw yourself being held up for such contemptuous (and potentially worldwide) ridicule? 

But the issue for me is: can I allow myself to show jiggly legs that are the product of losing and gaining and losing and gaining and losing and gaining? The emotional scarring has gone very deep from literal decades of damage, of hating myself because society told me I'd better hate myself until I lose that weight once and for all, keep it off forever without deviating a pound, and make myself acceptable to the world. 

I still feel funny and sort of uneasy putting on shorts, though I can now fit into the mid-range that every yo-yo dieter has in her wardrobe, along with unrealistically tiny things that I couldn't get my leg into all the way up to "size elephant". Sometimes, like the morbidly obese ladies sporting spaghetti strap tops, short-shorts and bare midriff, I just tell myself not to give a rip. Nobody else does. Nobody's looking, which is probably true (and a relief, actually, though older women often complain that they have become "invisible". Nothing would make me happier than to BE invisible.) 

It's the new normal, so I’m doing it anyway, and carrying myself as well as I can. I never really thought about how sad it is that a woman who may be overweight but isn't obese by any medical standard can't wear shorts. She just can't. You don't, when your legs aren't thin or firm, or if they feel jiggly when you walk. If you do wear them because it is insufferably hot, you stay in the house. 

I'm going out of the house in shorts now, realizing that no one really looked at me in the first place. Though I hated how I looked when I was young, I now see that - oh, I can't say it, so I will let the photos of my younger self tell the story. Do I really look fat in any of them?