(Girl Versus The F-Word is an older essay piece of mine that was due for a refresh, and revision. It is just as relevant today as it was when I first wrote it, if not more so)
Girl Versus The F-Word
Girl versus “the f-word” is a lifetime battle of wits and sanity that I have been a co-combatant in for nearly all my life. No, not that “f-word”, though I suppose I could write a separate, and equally passionate personal essay on that, as well, and my dealings with it. But, right now I mean a different “f-word”, one that may be more reviled than that other “f-word” ever could be.
Fat is by far more offensive to most people than the word fuck ever could be.
I grew up in a family where the word fat was spoken in whispers, or with wrinkled-up-nose disdain. The first time I remember really hearing it was in the form of a question. I was five years old, and I was with my mother in the early after-kindergarten afternoon. We were walking hand-in-hand in the Alpha Beta parking lot, heading towards the place where the shopping carts were stacked into each other. My mother pointed towards the carts, and specifically towards a woman who was grabbing one of herself. She leaned down towards me and half-whispered the f-word question:
“I’m not as fat as she is. Am I?”
My mother’s voice was shaky, her words sounding uneven and soft, a sharp contrast to her usual loud bellow. I knew even then what the right answer was, whether it be the truth or a lie. I could tell in the pit of my stomach. So, I shook my head back-and-forth and said “no mommy.” I had to repeat it three times, those words of confirmation from five-year-old me, before she seemed to take the words in, sighing louder than her question had been, her breathing beginning to slow.
Looking back at that snapshot memory I don’t even think I understood what “fat” meant, just that it was a bad something that other women had more of than my mother did.
My mother had grown up on a diet. Her mother used dieting as a way to earn anything of value, be it a new coat, a trip to the movies, or a visit from friends. My mother was put on amphetamines as a pre-adolescent to help with the diet regimes, making her jittery and causing her insomnia to worsen, but hey, at least her hunger went away.
The physical kind, at least.
In my house growing-up, there was a new cycle every week. A new game of dieting or binging, food as a constant comforter, or the enemy. I was expected to play along. Sometimes the game consisted of weeks and weeks of celery and assorted “diet” foods, other times it was bags of Lays’ potato chips and brightly colored M&M’s. My mother was my favorite person as a child, so I followed along, every step, every cycle, every new game, as I stared at my own reflection in mirrors and window panes, wondering if all the other girls were “fatter” than me.
At age ten, my mother bought me a Charlie’s Angels lunch box. I remember wanting to be just like them – Kelly (Jaclyn Smith) especially.
Every school day she filled the accompanying Thermos with cottage cheese and yogurt. It was warm and slightly sour by the time lunch would come around.
“Mom, please can you make me peanut butter and jelly?”
“Can I please have a Twinkie, like Alyssa gets?”
Her answer was always the same.
“You don’t want to be fat, do you?”
No was the right answer. I knew that.
So, I would stare at those Angels and think they weren’t fat so I wouldn’t be either.
When I was thirteen a friend of my mother came by, bringing with her a pair of Calvin Klein jeans.
“I’m so proud of you for losing all that baby fat, to celebrate I got these for you.”
We never had money for designer anything, and these were the biggest thing at the private school I attended on scholarship. They were what all the other girls wore. I excitedly squeezed myself into them, struggling, trying the technique of lying on my back to get the zipper up.
There was satisfaction in the effort, an accomplishment in fitting into a size, into a number. I felt anything but the “f-word”. I felt beautiful. It was short-lived though, lasting only about half-way into the next day, at school.
I was standing in front of my locker, treasured jeans hugging my “in the midst of puberty” body when two boys walked by.
“I didn’t know they made Calvin’s for fat girls.”
The words hit like a slap. They stuck in me like a deep knife wound. I felt a poisonous mix of humiliation and anxiety fill up my bloodstream. I wanted to disappear.
It was in the days immediately following that I started seeing how long I could go without eating. And, it was in those days that followed that I started to see myself as that “f-word” every day, and hating myself for it.
The word would get used again by “well-meaning girls” that called themselves friends. They would pinch and pull at their skinny frames, calling themselves the “f-word” then looking to me to do the same. I would try not to stare at their “perfect” bodies in the locker room after P.E. class, while at the same time hide my own body away so they couldn’t see me. There were two girls that were “fatter” than me which made it a little easier to breathe. I started asking myself that question my mother had asked me all those years before, always seeking out the “fatter” in the room to make herself, and now myself, better – ever dreading the day that the “fatter” one would be me.
Many things started to fall into place because of the “f-word”: feeling fat, whether I actually was at the time, or not. The word’s power was impenetrable and rife with self-destruction. I loathed my reflection. But, more than that, I hated who I was on the inside. I would go without eating until my hands shook and my head pounded until the world turned blurry. Only then would I give in, buying food with babysitting money, gorging on candy bars and slice after slice of pizza, then hating myself even more after.
I cut my skin in hidden places. I took the blame for the abuse that was happening to me at home, interpreting it as a sign of how bad I was.
I counted pills from the top shelf of the medicine cabinet, wondering silently how many it would take to make it all stop. To make me stop.
I let boys do whatever they wanted to me too, even if their touch made me feel sick. Even if I felt nothing from them, at all. Somewhere in my head I heard voices chanting:
“I didn’t know boys liked fat girls.”
At nineteen, the funny, white powder I found after my high school days were over made me forget who I was. It also helped me not want to eat much of anything. I smiled at the bones that protruded from my body, those angles were bliss to me, and their presence was as addictive as those chopped up lines of magic. Anyone who I let touch myself then I didn’t feel, couldn’t, not really.
I was miles away from my “finally thin” body.
At twenty-two, a foolish notion of love and the birth of my daughter helped me back into my body again. The boy and I were young, too young for family and parenthood, but there were some good years, years where I forgot about my body completely and just allowed myself to live. It didn’t last though.
It was after that love broke, and a passing stranger’s flippant comment that threw me back into “f-word” fear. This time I crashed into a full-blown eating disorder.
You name it I did it: binging and purging, laxatives by the fist full, obsessive exercising, days of eating nothing but “one bite” of something. Diet Coke was my best friend. The caffeine kept me going, and the carbonation made throwing up easier.
Sometimes, even now, the taste of it after a meal triggers the impulse to get rid of all of it.
Those days back then in the throes of it, I was a weakened shell of a girl. I was in my late twenties, but my body felt decades older. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed. I did though. I had a child to support, a job to go to and no one to help me. I was overwhelmed and over my head with the weight of responsibilities. Controlling my body’s weight was the only sense of control I had.
On a too hot Saturday afternoon, when my daughter was at a rare visit with her Dad, I collapsed in the middle of a grocery store. The woman who helped me drove me and my car home, helped me to my door, holding my hand and sitting with me on my porch, waiting until I could identify which key would unlock my front door.
I look at photos of me from back then and I can barely look at myself. The shadowy eyes, the pain that just reflects off every part of me, how fragile I look.
Only on the once in a while, on a really bad day, do I look at those pictures and wish I was that skinny still.
It was a hospital by the ocean and a remarkable therapist that saved my life (or helped me to save it0. He helped me want to live, while also helping to restore my creative side, and re-introduce me to my writer self.
Writing and music. They saved my life, too. Honestly, they’ve always been saving it.
It was a battle of epic proportions and the memories of it all, how much I had to turn myself inside out to heal, it still shatters me. I have fallen back a few times, but I’ve always gotten back up again. I’m better than I’ve ever been, but it’s still hard as hell. and chaos and crisis, anxiety, or something seemingly small can trigger it all. I still have it in me. I always will. But as of today, I haven’t gone back to full-throttle destruction of my body, and self.
Thing is though, I still have that “f-word” in my head. It still haunts me, taunts me, and makes me think twice about myself. I preach to everyone I know and love to know and love their bodies. I support positive body image, and I strive to change the world and all the body hatred with so much of what I do every day. I am a huge fan, and supporter of body positivity…yet I still struggle with that word.
I still feel judged for the body I reside in, I still feel less than because I’m not skinny, I still struggle to say that its okay for me to be fat because when I do I hear my mother’s voice in my head, and those boys mocking tones, and the countless women’s chorus of diet this and fat that. I still feel a failure for being fat, even though if you asked me to my face, right now, I’d smile and lie and say I love how I look.
I still wonder if I will ever make peace with the “f-word”, and if society ever will. Or is it a word whose power I will fight and fear forever (oh look, three more f-words).