July 8th, 2008


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.

Well-meaning folks

When i was growing up fat and sloppy a few adults tried to help me fit in better. Some were more gracious than others.

In the early grades classes formed a line to get weighed from time to time. Imagine it: everyone in a line, each in turn getting on a scale, the teacher noting the weights. In the second grade I had a teacher who clearly did not like me. Her name I remember: Mrs. Knusi. Pronounce the K, yes. This is upper Michigan. When I stepped on the scale one of these days she announced loudly to the whole class that I weighed far too much for a second grader. Never mind that she herself was fat. Did she think she was being helpful to point out what I already painfully knew?

In the fourth grade I had a teacher I loved. She put me in the group of "independent" students. We sat at the back of the classroom working at our own pace, doing arithmetic problems. I knew I was in this group because I did not need any help and could progress faster this way. I loved it. She also shared her life a bit with us, even invited us to visit her at her home. One day I took her up on that and went to her house. It was a small house. She welcomed us - I think I did not go alone but with a friend, Candy, my elementary school friend - and showed us a picture of her twin sister. Imagine my shock to learn that teachers not only have separate lives but some of them have twin sisters.

In the fifth grade my teacher, Mrs. Shortridge (funny that I seem to be remembering the names of those I did not care for more than those that I did), would take me out of class and into the restroom, where she would suggest that I clean off my forearms, which were sooty with dirt picked up from playing jacks with Candy. We were late every day, Candy and I, even though we lived a half-block from that school, because we sat on her porch playing jacks until the last possible minute. Mrs. Shortridge was always making sure I cleaned my arms. A part of me was grateful but the other part was just too embarrassed and ashamed. You'd think I'd pick up and wash my own arms before getting into class. Maybe I did, eventually. I don't remember though. I do know that I am not late to anything any more. I really hate being late.

In junior high our class was divided. Half went to shop, the other to home ec, then switched for the second semester. Radical for that day, both boys and girls. I was a disaster at both, however. By that time I already knew quite a bit about cooking because I holed up at home to cook (more on housekeepers and cooking another time) and I had no real patience with the Betty Crocker school of cooking. The utter neatness of it all, for example. The little kitchens. You'd think I'd like it but we had to do things in teams and it was awful. Shop was awful too because I couldn't remember how to use the machines right but I had a shop teacher who sometimes took pity on me.

One well-meaning home ec teacher took me out of class to help me learn about keeping clean and mending things. If you can imagine a more embarrassing situation I'd like to hear it. I know she thought she was being helpful. What she did not realize is that I knew I was a disaster, I blamed myself, yet somehow I could not get hold of it all and change anything. I wasn't dumb. These teachers may have thought I was.

When I was in twelfth grade, in English class, we had a substitute teacher for a time. The teacher was the mother of some of my classmates, twins to be exact. These twins took it upon themselves to tell me what their mother said of me: that my mother didn't take very good care of me. I was shocked that this teacher blamed it on my mother; I was 17 at the time, after all. And I was again embarrassed at being singled out this way. That, of course, was not helpful. She didn't try to help me. Just took pity.

It was in tenth grade, I think, when I joined the Forensics club. I joined because I was so bad at public speaking. Most people join clubs because they are good at stuff. I joined because I wasn't. I had a coach that year who was a teacher who had a large effect on me. Well, let's admit I found him attractive. I was also amazed that he took such interest in me. He helped me choose a piece to memorize and present, and he pointed out what others might not have, that would help me. He noted that I was fiddling with the buttons on my dress as I talked. He made many suggestions that I didn't want to hear but that I later recognized as real and helpful. He looms in my mind as a person who focused just on me, who saw potential and tried to bring it out.

When I think about it he wasn't the first. My piano teacher, in my younger years, also tried. When I was in high school taking piano lessons she decided I was too fat and needed to diet. She presented me with plain peanut butter sandwiches and skim milk when I came for a lesson. Never mind that I had already eaten. Somehow I could not refuse. At the time I couldn't stand the bluish look of skim milk and the sandwiches were hardly appealing without some jam in them. This teacher once said if she could give me the gift of music she would but she couldn't, I had to work at it. In my high school years I finally started to work at it and it showed. Music was a way for me to escape yet also to share everything going on inside me without having to say a word.


My mother came from a wealthy family. She never saw the servants cleaning. She generally didn't see them at all. But they were there. When she left home and was thrown upon the realities of life without wealth, she managed rather well, in some respects. She didn't grasp the cleaning thing particularly well but she was a good organizer. Even at her messiest points her drawers and closets were well organized and neat. As for the rest, she told us she liked to see the difference. She didn't see the point of cleaning something that already looked clean.

One other thing she took from her childhood: the notion of housekeepers. I have heard of the one who worked for us in Los Angeles but I was too young to remember her myself. When we moved to Marquette, Michigan (after the divorce) my mother hired housekeepers still, usually for one or two days a week. When I think of it now it seems like quite an extravagance but it didn't then, naturally, and it might have helped a little.

I remember three. Mrs. Johnson was a warm, affectionate, round housewife. She lived in a house that looked just like her with her husband and son (the son was later killed when a car lift slipped and landed on top of him while he was underneath). Mrs. Johnson was sweet and the model for a classic housewife, with the doilies and framed pictures of the wedding on the wall and the knickknacks here and there. I do not remember what cleaning she did in our house, except she washed dishes, vacuumed, washed and ironed clothes. The clothes are what I remember most, especially how she seemed to have persistent optimism that her work was worthwhile, that we would appreciate and take care of our clothes. Which I didn't, believe me. I think I saw those neat clothes, all hung in a row, almost as accusations against me but I never held it against the kind Mrs. Johnson.

Mrs. Martin was a thin middle-aged woman, a single parent with one child, with a lot of smarts. She liked to do crosswords, got me hooked for a while. She also tolerated my cooking spells, cheerfully cleaning up after me as I went. Maybe that's why it took so long for me to grasp the concept of "sidework"? Probably not because I would have just left everything there until I was done, to clean up later. This was in the large kitchen my mother remodeled when we moved in. Higher counters than normal (she was six feet tall) and tons of cupboards and a Wrightian "shelf" above part of the kitchen, where we threw appliances and pans that weren't used often. There could have been a body there and we would not have discovered it for years.

Mrs. Martin was smart and she appreciated smart. I enjoyed talking with her, learning about her life and telling her my thoughts. She seemed the sort of person who turned to housecleaning because jobs suitable for her skills and intelligence were not much available. I count her among the adults who supported me without criticism, who saw there might be someone of value in there.

Then there was Mrs. Mackie. The horrible Mrs. Mackie. She had no patience with these children who knew nothing of cleaning. She told us to clean dishes right after using them - good advice but when it comes from a witch who's listening? Worse, one day she got tired of all of our toys lying around the house and she threw them into the snow. If we couldn't take care of them she wasn't going to either. They stayed there until spring, as I recall, and of course most were ruined. I think of Mrs. Mackie when people think a hard line is the one to take. Maybe it isn't.

When we moved out of the town of Marquette and into the two mobile homes in Deertrack (7-1/2 acres given my mother by my grandmother, outside of town in the UP woods) we no longer had housekeepers. By then there were fewer of us but there were certainly young'uns and none of us was any better at cleaning than we'd been before. Maybe she thought we'd reform or maybe she just could no longer afford it. I vote for the latter because of experiences I had later with her checkbook.