This is a repost of something I wrote on my private blog a little under a year ago.
Background is that I went to Lynbrook High School, and you should have a gander at that wikipedia page. It’s one of the best public schools in the country, in a minority-majority district that is also very, very wealthy. It’s a weird place, which I only want to get across because I think it’s very likely my experiences as a fat teenager at that particular school were somewhat mitigated by the fact that I “fit in” as someone academically motivated and smart and interested in learning. So with that in mind, here is the post:
Here is what it was like for me as a fat teenager in San Jose: Not bad. And surprising to me in its “not badness.” That is, I expected to be teased, and with each passing year as I grew fatter (I put on between 10-15lbs a year during high school, and, conscious of being a VERY FAT teenager, I tried and tried to stop it to no avail), I thought the teasing was coming. And it never did. Maybe it did for other people, maybe it was going on behind my back, but as far as I remember, it never happened to me.
There were “toxic jock” areas of the quad I wouldn’t walk past, but only because they were mean in a million different ways to a million different people. There were dancer girls I avoided talking to because they were always talking about how fat they were, and if they were fat, that made me a monster. But no one ever teased me. At least not to my face*.
And being as self-aware as I always have been, I felt this was as much as I could ask for. Hell, I thought it was more than I deserved. I was very, very aware that I was one of the largest girls in my class, and that informed everything I expected about my high school experience. You know the phrase self-fulfilling prophecy? Yup.
Now it breaks my heart just how much it informed my expectations about my high school experience. There was a lot I removed myself from – dating, for one – because I didn’t think it was supposed to be a part of the Fat Girl High School Experience.
Which is not to say I had low self-esteem. I didn’t. I thought I was pretty awesome (still do!), but that awesomeness hinged on my intelligence, my tenacity, my loyalty to my friends. Not on my looks. I didn’t really think I was horrible looking. I didn’t particularly think I was pretty, mostly because entertaining the idea of being pretty seemed ridiculous; “pretty” was not a word for fat girls. It was more like “I’ve done okay with what I was given.” Again, these are the expectations I had about “what happens to fat girls.”
For the record, I looked like this in high school (from after a play, with my friend Dennis, which is why we’re goofy and gussied up; I’m 17 here, about 5’4″ and around 220 pounds):
But maybe that was the gift being a fat teenager gave me. Having my self-esteem be built mostly around thinking I was a smart and interesting person has served me better than building it around thinking I was a beautiful person. Smart and interesting are far less fragile than beautiful.
A good friend said “That’s heartbreaking” when I told her I remembered distinctly coming home at the end of sophomore year of high school and thinking to myself “halfway done and no one has called me a fat pig yet!” I thought those exact words. I thought I was lucky. I thought I’d dodged some sort of magical bullet.
I don’t think I was unique. We’re fed a big lie by pop culture and the lie goes like this: High school is rough if you aren’t beautiful/thin/rich/white**/straight, if you aren’t in some vague “popular person” category. That I internalized this before I even hit 8th grade is stunning to me. This is the message I took from pop culture:
This beautiful, thin, rich, straight, white person is a Popular High School Student and you cannot be a Popular High School student if you aren’t all those things – which you aren’t, at least the first three – and, unfortunately, for everyone else high schools sucks, so expect it to suck.
Since I found myself lacking as compared to the Popular High School Student Paradigm, I decided that high school was going to be rough for me. This is a leap in logic so huge as to be ridiculous. Almost. The expectations I had for my social life were built around very real narratives I heard all around me. I did not experience the level of bullying I expected, but the fact that I expected to be treated like shit and was surprised when I was not is the heartbreaking part of this story.
But I think most kids do this in some way, with something about themselves that is “different” or does not fit that Popular High School Student Paradigm. Fear of being called out for being different is a powerful thing that is hard – so hard – to just “get over” as a teenager. My way of coping with it – which is maybe the least extreme way a teenager copes with being different than this paradigm – was to self-exclude myself from things. I took myself out of dating, certain sports, certain clubs; I wanted to do the dance class sophomore year but didn’t because “fat girls aren’t dancers” so I took Independent Study PE instead. There were two boys who showed interest in me at different points during high school, which I thought was a joke, and instead I made myself miserable over other boys because miserable and pining was my Fat Lot in Life. A million little things every day that I could have done, I didn’t do.
How would I have been a different person if we saw images in pop culture that were more inclusive? That’s my real question here in this post. I’m not even talking about how others react to my body; I’m talking about how I place myself within that narrative, how I centered my expectations of teenage life. If I saw even just a few images of happy, fat teenagers, how would I have been different?
As I said, I was even one of the more confident people I knew and thus somewhat inured to the self-hatred all too common in your teen years (although my parents will tell you I was prone to a certain sullenness)! I was a ballsy teenager and didn’t let people get away with shit around me. I was a tough cookie (Cookie was my nickname but for different reasons). And now I see that the big pop culture lie I was fed was just that – a lie. I could have done anything I damn well wanted and likely no one would have teased.
When I say my lived experiences in the romance department don’t match up with the narrative we are given about lonely, single, desperate fat women, I say that with the footnote of “when I don’t self-sabotage myself into fitting that narrative.” No one in high school cared that I was fat, really. It was all in my head. I could have danced and dated and played volleyball. It was possible to have been all those things and a fatty.
I just needed someone to tell me it was possible.
I don’t blame my parents for not knowing I needed that. I didn’t even know I needed it. That’s how insidious the lie about Who Is Popular On TV and In Movies is! I took my inability to do things to be fact instead of an emotional side effect of Hollywood only casting beautiful/thin/white people on TV and in the movies!
So I will tell any kids I have – who will, let’s face it, probably be fat – that it’s possible: It’s possible, even if you never see it portrayed realistically. It’s possible to be any number of things that make you “different” than what you see on TV and in the movies and still date or play volleyball or break dance or take ballet or be popular. You can do all these things!
Expect more. It’s possible.
(N.B. I don’t want to dismiss the very real notion of bullying of kids who don’t fit into the thin/white/het/cis paradigm, which is a huge problem; but that was not my experience, and I wanted to talk a little bit about the expectations shoved down our throats by pop culture; I also want to point out that except for the fat thing, I actually do fit the popular teen paradigm and have a lot of privilege that way; I’m white, I’m straight, I’m cis and I’m middle class, although poorer than most of my classmates were, but all of that afforded me a whole ton of privilege that queer/trans/working class kids didn’t get, and I did in fact witness bullying happening to kids who were perceived to be those things. Although the question of whether more inclusiveness in pop culture leads to better outcomes for kids belonging to marginalized groups stands as a backdrop on this whole thing still).
*With the exception of a teacher, once, which is a story I should also write about here.
**Race was complicated at my school and is something I don’t have the space to get into here…