Memoir

Rules for Becoming a Fat Girl

First, read magazines.

Or maybe we’re born with a capacity for hating ourselves as much as we’re born with the capacity to learn language, lengthen bones, sprout breasts. I can’t remember when, exactly, I started looking down when I sat down: at my thighs spreading, at the accordion folds of my stomach, but I know I was somewhere around the age of twelve.

I can’t blame my navel gazing on fashion magazines; I began questioning my appearance because I had stumbled upon puberty, had begun knowing myself as a female being looked at by other people, and forgetting myself as the wild-browed, gap-toothed tomboy simply living inside her clumsy, hyperactive, freckled body. Maybe it was the retainer and headgear and braces, those bellwethers of all the cosmetic straightening out yet to come. Or maybe it was my best friend throughout those preteen years, a sylph of a girl who played the flute with fingers slim as reeds and whose hypercritical mother made her turn on me with criticisms. We had art lessons together on Wednesdays after school and at some point we decided that my art was “chunky” (my sculptures stacked lumps, my oil pastels caked layers of pigment) and hers was “petite” (I remember one particularly delicate clay model of a bloom on a lily pad, the petals knife-edged in a way my stubby fingers could never emulate). Soon after, I realized chunky and petite were not merely words for our art. Or maybe it was Tony in my sixth grade class, my first real, searing crush, pointing out, one sunny spring afternoon, that I had sprouted the faintest of mustaches on my upper lip.

Whatever it is that pushes us all toward self-critique, I found a handy rubric for grading my body in the pages of Seventeen. I lusted for that magazine, all but begged my parents to let me buy my first issue the day I turned twelve. We were on our summer beach vacation in Delaware, as we almost always were for my July birthday, and that week I read the whole thing cover to cover probably six times. I toted it to and from the beach, fell asleep with it in bed. In the evenings we’d go out to buy tomatoes and corn on the cob from a nearby farmstand. I’d bring the magazine along in the car, the windows all down in the old Volvo station wagon, the air smelling of chicken farms and wet soil, and me in the backseat, holding the flapping pages down against my bare thighs with both hands.

All my girlfriends read Seventeen then, but I worshiped it in a different way. (I have always worshiped magazines; I don’t know why.) In my private devotionals, rubbing those glossy pages between my fingertips, I began to infer secret and meaningful patterns in their images of nirvana: girls in bikinis perched on the backs of Jeeps, their stomachs free of rolls or folds; girls gossiping in a limo on the way to prom, their arms tubular and smooth. No armpit fat. No chicken skin. I never sat there and told myself, “Thinness begets boyfriends and nice arms beget social inclusion and beauty begets happiness!” I never noticed then the kind of belief system I was building, but I know now, down in my bones, that in these pictures I found some kind of gospel about what it means to be a woman.

Now, begin ignoring reality.

When I look back at pictures of myself, I cannot believe how long-legged and gangly and skinny I looked. I remember coming across one photo during a summer home from college, six or seven years after it’d been taken. In the interim, via self-pitying bouts of binge eating, I had forcibly made myself forty to fifty pounds overweight. In the picture, my brother and I sit on the hood of the station wagon parked in front of my father’s family’s log cabin in the Pennsylvania mountains. We’re both in bathing suits eating sandwiches. Our hair’s wet; we’ve just taken a swim in the freezing snowmelt crick that runs by the cabin, and are probably trying to warm ourselves, in the shade of that pine grove, on the heat of the car’s metal. I am all long legs and arms sprawling everywhere, my stomach concave. I can remember staring at the photo agape, amazed that that was what I looked like when I first decided I was fat. I remember realizing then that I had created my fat self out of thin air.

That same year, the year of the striped bathing suit, we had an Austrian exchange student named Felix living with us and my parents were redoing the kitchen. The old wallpaper peeled down in paste-smelling strips, and before new cupboards were put up we were allowed to draw all over the drywall with markers. I sketched a picture of myself in a flannel shirt and jeans, my body a kind of diamond shape, my hips and stomach disproportionately wide, like some teenage Ignatius J. Reilly. Felix furrowed his blonde eyebrows and shook his head. “Em—is that,” he said, gesturing with his Sharpie, “Is that really what you think you look like?”

Next, begin eating.

In eighth grade, my girlfriends and I—the flute player, and also a girl with orange hair and parents in a bad divorce—would get off the city bus a few blocks early and stop at CVS for candy, cookies, and magazines. We’d take them home and sit in a circle on my bedroom floor, reading and eating and gossiping. We’d mow down whole rows of Oreos, and two-pound bags of Twizzlers, giggling all the while at our piggishness. What I kept to myself was that those afternoons I had discovered a very powerful thing: there was a way to eat in private, free of my parents’ tutelage. I was grown-up now, after all: I had my own allowance, I got myself home from school. With or without my girlfriends, I could stop for snacks and eat them in secret.

The act of quietly gorging oneself is a form of anesthesia. It’s been long enough since I’ve binged that I can’t remember now exactly when that numbness begins to blur you at your edges: if it rushes in the moment you cram the first bite, or only after you’ve become full and drowsy and yet you eat on, the food having lost most of its flavor, the rhythmic working of your jaw comforting you in the way that a baby is comforted by a bouncing stroller. I thought I was fat and ugly, and so I ate to comfort myself. I ate for other reasons, too: for feeling lonely or rejected, or stung by some adolescent ephemera that at the time seemed so, so important. Some teenagers choose other coping mechanisms: cutting, or angry music, or actual drugs, but my opiate was food.

My eats of choice were usually oddly bland starches: milky troughs of Rice Chex (I could eat two-thirds of a box before my mom came home from work) or Melba Toast dipped in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. I would always read when I binged—magazines, usually—my hand drifting unnoticed between the food and my mouth. Late night, I’d go down into our basement and eat from a box of Goldfish and a bag of chocolate chips, mixing the two in my hand, then hiding the empty bag and box under the couch and falling into a blunted sleep. I can remember at least once being shaken awake there by my mother and, because you always hate yourself when you “come to” after a binge, snapping so viciously at her.

Now spend years losing and regaining weight to emphasize your sense of worthlessness.

I was at my heaviest at the beginning of my senior year, and I managed to stop binging for a few months after seeing some truly horrifying family photos taken at Christmas. I read books on compulsive eating at the library and tried to convince my mother that this was what I was doing. She was skeptical, but for a while I attended therapy. I went on a diet and began doing Tae-Bo or running to the Catholic school and back. The weight melted off of me, torn away like the old wallpaper in the kitchen. But by the summer, with the newness of college on the horizon, I lost my strength and began super-secret binging at both of my jobs. At the soft-serve stand where I worked at night, I’d down enormous brownie sundaes on the way home in the car. At the pizza shop where I worked during the day, I’d swipe containers of baked ziti and hide in the stock room, where I’d shovel the cold pasta into my mouth. Employees weren’t allowed to eat the food at the pizza place, so what I was doing was stealing, and I still count the afternoon when the owner’s son caught me and sent me home for the day as one of my life’s most shameful. I didn’t re-gain any weight during this season of madness, because whenever I binged, the next day I would work out for three hours and try not to eat until dinnertime.

It was all over when I got to college. My freshman year, I gained thirty pounds in the first semester. Sure, I had mono and was on steroids, and sure, I had just started birth control, and sure, we drank a ton of disgusting beer and ate all our meals from a buffet line, but I was supplementing my diet with in-the-dark binges before my new computer, reading inanities on the internet at my desk with a stack of granola bars I had nabbed from the girls across the hall (again, stealing, and also seriously against our school’s strict honor code) or a bowl of four packets of instant oatmeal (again, the bland carbs)—and all this after a large cafeteria dinner. I even found myself occasionally sitting on the hill behind the local CVS, hand in a box of Oreos or bag of Twizzlers, flipping through a Cosmopolitan, trying to regress in time.

When I came home for Thanksgiving break that year, I got off the plane and was surprised by a giant group of my high school friends waiting at the gate (this was back in the year 2000, when you could still do that kind of thing). I should have been overjoyed at the warm welcome, but all I could think about was how I was surprising them, too, surprising then with all the weight, and then some, that I had gained back. I was mortified, and did everything I could to hide it.

This is the most important part of being a fat girl: believe what the world tells you about yourself. Catalogue the insults. Cherish the negative. Know that you are invisible.

At a high school party, overhearing someone suggest to a handsome tall blonde boy a year younger than you that he hook up with you, and then hearing him say, “Ugh, gross.”

Your mom sending you a cutout from a newspaper article stating that every fifteen pounds you gain is like adding a bag of potatoes to your body.

Making terrible, narcissistic, self-pitying art, pale pastiches of Robert Rauschenberg collages scribbled over in charcoal with pale pastiches of Tori Amos lyrics, if Tori Amos lyrics were all about being fat and invisible.

Your mom telling you that you would be a knockout if you just lost twenty pounds.

Thinking, after buying size-sixteen pants at Old Navy for the first time, that you might never lose your virginity.

Moving to New York City after college and going out to bars, weekend after weekend, with your size-four best friend. Standing silently, plumply by her side as she is hit on by guy after guy.

Worrying to your dad that guys never notice you, and that it’s probably because you’re fat, and him agreeing.

I was fat for a third of my life, and this is both a defining fact of myself—a piston in the engine of my self-regard—and something I can barely recall. I can’t remember how I looked (only pictures bring that back to me) or how the heft of that extra forty pounds felt. What I remember is other people. The sideways glances, the snippets, the throwaway comments that no one—and I do mean no one—remembers but me. Being fat is a problem of health, of course, but it’s also a problem of sight: of how you see yourself, and how you’re seen. When I look back on myself as a fat girl, sometimes I can barely recognize that person—not the way that I looked, but the way that I was inside: so eager for further evidence that I was unattractive, ergo I was worthless. And fuck the world, because if you are fat, the world will tell you that you are worthless. I couldn’t change that—couldn’t change the airbrushing in magazines, or what men find attractive. Somehow, I finally figured out that I could only change the way I saw myself.

Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.