When I try to think back to a time where I had no hang-ups about my body and enjoyed a healthy relationship with food, I always come up empty. What I do remember is the intense feeling of shame the day I discovered I weighed more than my three-year-older sister and her hand-me-downs were useless to me and eating spoonfuls of sugar as a kid because I could not stop myself from eating and there was nothing else in the house to binge on. I remember going over to a friend’s house for a playdate when I was 9 years old with a bottle of water mixed with maple syrup and lemon, having been put on a fad diet by mom and a couple of years later, coming home to her crying over a piece of paper because she had calculated my BMI and was so ashamed of me. I remember becoming so obsessed with losing weight as an 11-year-old that my friends forced me to eat a chocolate bar because they were afraid I was anorexic; and in years to come being angry with myself because I couldn’t make myself sick after eating and then being even more angry when I did manage to. I remember several occasions in my adolescence where guys would hit on my friends by telling them how pretty and skinny they were compared to me, and most painfully, I remember some of my friends letting them get away with it and in doing so tearing away yet another small piece of my confidence. What I wish I could remember however, is a single moment where I felt completely happy and at ease with myself.
People often don’t seem to realize that being fat is not a singular experience. Just like not every gay person coming out of the closet has the same struggles and trials, just like not every ethnically different person has the same racial battles, and every ginger-haired person does not necessarily get bullied in school, so too do not all overweight people share the same ‘fat experience’. This is why I would never be so naive as to write this article about anything but my own fat life experiences. I am a contradiction and an affirmation of many fat stereotypes: I am not the “bubbly” fat girl with that amazing personality and ferocious zest for life, but I am also not the aggressive, obnoxious fat girl with the loud mouth. I have, however, often been referred to as “the girl with the pretty face, shame about her body.” I binge on unhealthy foods but also know exactly how to eat incredibly healthy and I go to the gym a lot, where I can often last longer than many of the “skinny” girls. Unfortunately, I’m also not the fat girl who can ignore snide remarks being hurled in her direction. I’m the fat hoarder, the one who stores every single insult safely away and unwillingly lets them all out again whenever she feels particularly vulnerable about herself, just to make absolutely sure she doesn’t for a second delude herself into thinking she’s worthy.
The keyword to sum up my fat experience is shame. Forever ashamed of my body, before and after losing more than 50 lbs. Ashamed for my friends they have to be seen with a fat person, of opening up about my feelings to a boy who surely will not reciprocate, and more than anything ashamed of showing or trying out anything involving my sexuality. In hindsight, a large part of this shame comes from fat female representations in media. Yes, a shocking revelation I know. Writing my final year dissertation for my Sexualities and Cinema course last year was an unpleasant eye-opener for me; I wanted to discuss all types of representations of fat female sexuality in the media and had to acknowledge the harsh fact that there were only two niche categories for this. When represented at all, fat women were either being completely desexualized, for example in the form of the trustworthy sidekick with self-esteem issues, cheering on the true skinny heroine of the story, or extremely hyper-sexualized and shown as vulgar, less than human vultures who prey on men and forcefully take what they think is theirs. How on earth was I supposed to be proud of my own sexuality as an overweight insecure young adult when all the media taught me was how fat women’s sexualities should be ignored and hidden from sight. If, God forbid, it does end up on the screen, you better believe it is shown as unnatural and warped as possible, something to either be disgusted by or take pity upon. So, that’s what I did, I became increasingly more disgusted by my own fat body and started hiding myself from society as much as possible, doing exactly what the media wanted me to.
Of course, many of you will now argue that a solution has finally come! Lena Dunham has single-handedly saved fat girls’ sexual identities everywhere through her show “Girls” and we are on the road to full integration and acceptation by mainstream media all around the world! As much as I respect Lena and adore her larger than life personality and talent, I must say from personal experience that “Girls” did not help me in my journey to self acceptance one bit. Although I do love to watch the show, Lena’s character Hannah has never resonated with me. She is breathtakingly fearless and unapologetic, flaunting her naked ‘flawed’ body whenever she can and having copious amounts of sex whenever she feels like it. Moreover, Hannah genuinely believes she is beautiful and never struggles with her body image. Her entire persona and life experience could not be further removed from my own. A welcome positive fat female representation in mainstream media? No doubt about it! A role model resonating with girls like me? Not in the slightest.
The pivotal TV show that changed everything, in my opinion, was not some hyped-up, intelligent HBO production of 20-something empowered girls living in NY, but a non-pretentious, raw British teen show called “My Mad Fat Diary”. Maybe it is because the show was based on Rae Earl’s real diaries from when she was a teenager, but it has done for me what no other fat female representation in the media has ever done before: it has shown me someone I could truly relate to. This 16-year-old, emotionally damaged and overweight girl Rae is not perfect and she is not dehumanized, she is perfectly human with many positive and negative qualities. The balance of embarrassing, heart-warming, depressing, soul-uplifting, gut-wrenching real life situations and emotions this show explores is sometimes so painfully spot on, it makes me wonder whether they haven’t accidentally used my old diaries by mistake. Now, it is not a miracle show. It has not made me all of a sudden decide to leave my insecurities behind and it has not magically cured me of my frigid tendencies. It is also not an easy show to watch, especially the last episodes have left me feeling more emotionally drained than I thought possible and have taken me down some pretty unpleasant memory lanes I had rather forgotten all about.
However, this show is real. It shows people like they should be shown; all sizes with many different personality traits and quirks, flaws and assets. It at least shows me that there are people out there who have had similar fat experiences as I have, and who have battled through them and have come out stronger. I doubt I will ever get as far as truly loving my body and forgetting all the negative recollections I have of it, but seeing real and relatable representations of girls like me in the media at least slowly stops me from hating it so much.
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