Nothing that happened to me as a kid, none of the changes I went through, none of the self-loathing I absorbed, none of the teasing I tolerated, none of it would have taken place if I were fat in a vacuum. None of it happened exclusively as a result of my fatness. It happened because of the culture in which I was living, a culture we all share to one degree or another. It happened because I received, processed, assimilated and internalized the negative messages about what fat people can and cannot do, and what fat people are and cannot be. It happened because my peers did the same and acted out those cultural expectations upon me; because my pediatrician believed that putting a nine-year-old child only slightly bigger than average on a diet was a smart and responsible choice; because my parents, trying only to raise me as a happy and healthy kid, thought that I needed help in order to be normal. My fat was never the problem; the problem was living in a world that targeted fat people as defective, unintelligent, ill, repulsive. [My emphasis] If I hadn’t felt singled out, if I hadn’t been utterly convinced that no one in the world aside from my parents would like me, let alone love me, until I stopped being fat… my childhood and teenage years probably would have been very different. Indeed, if I hadn’t beaten my metabolism to a pulp through compulsive dieting during my formative years, I may even not be as fat as I am today. I’ll never know.
This is why when I hear or see anything on the subject of Michelle Obama’s new campaign against “childhood obesity”, I feel a terrible knot in my stomach, because I know this sort of approach will always, inevitably, turn into a campaign against obese children. And fat kids have enough to worry about, frankly. They have to fight hard already to resist this culture that tells them their size will always hold them back; they do not need to be further singled out by a crusade mounted by this nation’s (in all other respects, rightfully so) beloved First Lady. I was damaged as a result of being a fat kid, certainly; however, what damaged me was not my fat, but the messages I received about fatness. I was damaged by both perceiving myself and being treated by others as inferior, an object, something in need of repair, and not a person worthy of basic respect. I was seriously damaged by the endless dieting, such that I grew into adulthood with absolutely no idea of how to eat in a healthful and self-aware way. I was damaged by the idea that so long as I was fat, my life would be forever on hold, as only thin people get to be smart or successful in life.
Call it a campaign against childhood couch-sitting. Call it a drive to get kids to go outside and play, in the grand tradition of the many hours I spent doing the same as a (fat) kid. Call it a movement to educate children on basic nutrition and how their amazing growing bodies work for them. But don’t single out the fat kids. Their burden is already heavy enough. And if I am any indication, doing this will only ensure that this generation will be fatter than ever, dragging behind them huge heaps of food issues and low self-esteem as a bonus. Not all of them will be as strong-willed, independently-thinking, and plain old determined as I have been, and as many of you have been, who were able to shed the fat-based self-loathing and begin that crazy adventure towards self-acceptance. Many of them will struggle with body hatred for the rest of their lives.