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Fat: the defining force

Reading Hyde and Seek, a blog by a young black woman who embraces her fatness, I thought again about my own life of being fat. I have at times begun and not finished novels with fat as the theme, believing that if I do not write of it I will never write of anything else. I have to get it out and get it right.

Getting it right is not easy. There are several aspects to my fatness that have made my experience what it is:

* I started out fat. I was bottle-fed and although I was a cute little girl, from the pictures I have seen, the blossoming of a lifetime of fat was visible by the time I hit second grade. Before that time I was just pleasantly chubby. By the time I reached sixth grade I had evolved into major fatness, the type that meant I had to go to special stores to find clothing and could not get gym clothes in my size at all.

* I am tall. It is one thing to be fat. It is another to be tall. To be both is just a disaster, particularly for a young person and particularly for a young person in the 1950s. I stood head and shoulders above everyone else in the class, except one boy in the sixth grade who was taller than I was. I remember him because he also made up this joke:

"Why did the Lone Ranger kill Tonto?"

"Because he found out that Kemo Sabe meant knucklehead."

Of course it's a version of a joke that has been around a while and he may have just picked it up and thought he'd made it up. To me, though, this boy was different, was special, because he was taller than I and also had a sense of humor. I don't remember his name.

* I grew up in the 1950s. While everyone is crying out "obesity epidemic!" these days I see a positive side to the fat child phenom. I don't envy these children the battles they will have in adulthood but I can't help but think that they do not stand out as much as I did. They are, in fact, fatter than I was and I was pretty darned fat for the time. In my time I can remember one other girl who was as fat as or even fatter than I was, in the seventh grade. And she was shorter. Now I see fatties everywhere. They aren't so rare so chances are they aren't singled out the way I was.

Let me tell you about being singled out. Definitely a defining force for me.

When I walked to school, my large hulking form hauling a haphazard collection of books and notebooks, wearing a dress that likely had a stain or two on it and maybe even a tear, my hair barely brushed and tortoise-shell glasses on my face, in the winter a pair of jeans or other pants under my dress (dresses were required!) and boots over the pants and a heavy "storm coat" over it all, I often heard boys calling out to me. Unflattering calls, trying to get my attention so they could laugh at my reaction. I do not remember what they said exactly, only that they were making fun of my fatness, my overall size, and they tended to enjoy pairing me with unattractive boys in their calls.

I ignored them. I wouldn't let them see that they had hit home. I wouldn't let them know that what they did, what they said, hurt me. Certainly I would never let them think I was falling for their fake friendliness. It was on the order of:

"Hey Juuudy! Did you know that Arthur likes you??"

It could be as simple as that. It could also be slightly more subtle - they would laugh among themselves when I walked past. I couldn't hear what they said then but I knew they were laughing at me. To this day I have to watch out for that reaction, the sense that when others near me are laughing they are laughing at me.

* I almost forgot! I was also sloppy and didn't take baths as often as I should have. In those days a bath every week was acceptable. I am not sure I even made that. I would sit in the bathtub dreamily thinking I was someone else, not wanting to face my own skin. We had housekeepers in those days who would wash and iron clothes and hang them on a rack in the laundry room. I had bad habits. Rather than take my bunch of clothes and hang them in my closet, I took them down one at a time to wear. My closet was full of other stuff, not so much clothes, as was my bedroom. It was probably hard even to get to the closet some days.

* It wasn't uncommon in those days for children to have fewer clothes than they have now. Fashions did not change as rapidly and where I grew up people were hardly rich and clothing did not come from discount stores. I remember getting clothes three times in a year: at Christmas, when I might get a blouse and a skirt or something similar, at the start of the school year, when I'd get a few dresses, underwear, socks, maybe a coat, and at Easter, when I might get a new dress. I did not have many clothes, I did not take good care of what I had.

One day in ninth grade I was walking to school in the dead of winter. I went to J.D. Pierce, the "laboratory school" for Northern Michigan College. It was a small school used primarily to train student teachers, and it had a good reputation for scholarship. So my mother sent us there when we hit seventh grade. By the ninth grade I had gotten to know the librarian, perhaps because I spent time in study hall, which was the library. The school was a mile from our house and the sidewalks were icy. The librarian often picked me up when she saw me on the road. She picked me up that day.

When I got out of her car my underpants fell down to my ankles. I couldn't get them up in time. The librarian saw them. She said something about how those things just lose their elastic sometimes, it happens to everyone. I was immensely embarrassed and she said what was probably the best she could have, understanding how difficult it was to be me. She suggested I just step out of them and toss them away, which I did. Into my life from time to time came good people, people who appreciated me and tried to help me past the difficult parts. This woman was one of them.

There were others who did not hit that mark. I can see as an adult how a person might reach out and think she was doing a good thing. My memories of those attempts are of major embarrassment and shame, though. As I seem to have hit a lode here, I will continue in the next post. Get it out, again, not for the first time, I have written of these things before yet I still need to and I will.

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Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
jackiejj
Jul. 8th, 2008 04:42 pm (UTC)
Judith, I have tears in my eyes.

How I wish I could have been there, been your friend.

Love from Jackie
judith
Jul. 8th, 2008 04:49 pm (UTC)
This is so sweet of you, Jackie. I am afraid I lapse into near-maudlin when I speak of these years. It's hard to be objective.

I had one friend in elementary school and one near-friend in high school. I was probably lucky in that, too, although in those days I think we often made friends with those who simply lived near us.
jackiejj
Jul. 8th, 2008 04:54 pm (UTC)
Never ever maudlin, Judith; this is very poignant and tender.
judith
Jul. 8th, 2008 05:10 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

This reminds me, though, of when I was in Toastmasters a while back. When I was scheduled to give a speech at one meeting, a fellow toastmaster asked me if it was going to be "another tearjerker". Holy shit. I had been talking about homelessness, about abused animals, about things that mattered to me and that I hoped would matter to others. Then I learned that at least one other person there thought they were just tearjerkers. Lordy. It's funny when I look back and I was enough of an adult to find it a little funny then, too.
jackiejj
Jul. 8th, 2008 06:28 pm (UTC)
I have found that people who cannot allow themselves to feel deeply lest they fall over a cliff emotionally tend to denigrate emotionally evocative discussions and to dismiss them; I consider such remarks more about the person's own limitations than about my own story, and find my ability to be open about my emotions and needs a great strength and solace in my life.
judith
Jul. 8th, 2008 07:23 pm (UTC)
This particular incident certainly changed my view of this person, who I had thought to be passionate himself. Not quite the way I am, apparently. And I agree. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable we are giving others a gift. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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