Recently, I gave a TEDx talk called Reclaiming Space, which focused on the marginalization and discrimination that is experienced by fat people each and every day. Although in my talk, I “come out” as a fat person onstage, the question now is:  Am I really ready to be called fat by someone else? Then I figured, why not? If the goal is to be able to see each person as whole, to be able to see beyond the fat, then we have to start somewhere.

Growing up, I experienced so many interactions that reinforced the version of me as a victim, a fat person who was judged by my appearance. Now is my chance to change that narrative.

I have way too many memories of being referred to by my weight—by my peers, teachers, family, boyfriends and others. And those references touched me deeply, creating a frame of reference for myself. In fact, I could give you a list beginning from my earliest memory at about four  years of age when my father would tell me I wasn’t fat at all but actually “pleasantly plump”. How did I feel hearing those words? Unconditionally loved.

Reclaiming Space: How to Tell A Story as a Fat PersonI could tell you about when I was in grade 2 and my mom called my neighbour and told her not to give me any cookies. Misguided protection.

Or when I was in grade 3 at my friend’s birthday party, and her mother cut me a slice of cake twice the size and said in front of everyone, “You’ll be wanting a big piece!” Publicly shamed.

Or when I was in grade 4 and my friend said we should dress up as two characters in a book I had just read: Fattypuffs and Thinifers. Guess which one I was supposed to be. That was the year I desperately wanted a cool pair of jeans. All the girls were wearing Rainbow jeans that said rainbow 8 times on the pocket in rainbow colours. They also had shoelace jeans that had a running shoe appliqued on the pocket with an actual shoelace you could tie. They had dark, slim Sergio Valente jeans. None of these jeans came in my size so I settled on Levis. Anything but Lee “Husky” jeans. My mom took me to a store called Elks, where I finally found a pair that fit around my middle. The man working there had to shorten them two feet. Disappointed and humiliated.  

Or when I was in grade 6 and a boy called my house and asked for me and then said it was the fat farm calling. But the thing was, at that point, I had Dara in my corner. Dara was my first best friend, my lifeline. For years, I slept at her house every weekend. Years later, when we were both 7 months pregnant, we went to a spa together. The woman looked at me and said, “You’ll be needing an extra large robe!” Without skipping a beat, Dara, who is about half my size, said, “I need an extra large too!” and so it was that she would spend her day at Stillwater Spa looking like she was in a straightjacket because that robe wrapped around her twice. Intentionally protected.

Or when I was in grade 8 and in the evil teacher’s gym class (check my TEDx talk above for the gory details!) and there were grade 9 kids who made fun of my clothes and told me I was wearing a 5-man tent. That year, grade 8 kids mocked me endlessly at my locker. They laughed at the vintage clothes I had bought because I didn’t want to wear my sister’s hand-me-downs anymore. Believe it or not, even my English teacher got in on the action. Bullied and scared.

Reclaiming Space: How to Tell A Story as a Fat PersonOr when in grade 9, I started to get a glimpse of who I was beyond what I looked like. Like 13-year-olds everywhere, I was trying to figure myself out, and then I made some new friends who made all the difference. Maybe I didn’t need those people who everyone was supposed to aspire to be. I had some amazing teachers who saw something in me and I started to see it too. My mother finally took me shopping to buy a wardrobe that was just mine. At lunch, the girls invited me to sit with them now because I had the right clothes. I said no and joined my friends at a different table. Those girls had lost some power with me—but not completely. Not yet. Cautiously brave.

Or when I was 14, and I found Frankie. After that, I could protect myself from anyone and anything. Frankie and I  spent summers together and we were inseparable at school. This is what a best friend is. No matter what, even when you don’t want to hear it, he is by your side, loving you for exactly who you are. Somewhat safe.

Or when I was set up with my husband, Jeff, and the set-up conversation went like this: “I have a friend who is really great but she is overweight.” The friend of my husband replied, “Hey, I have a fat friend too!” So there you have it. Apparently, that is all you need to have a marriage of almost 20 years. Luckily misunderstood.

And then, when I was in my forties, I got sick, really sick. My liver stopped working. My gall bladder stopped working. My bile duct stopped working. I couldn’t eat. The doctor said the problem wasn’t what I ate but rather, it was a genetic anomaly. For months, they tried to find the cause. Meanwhile, I ate homemade apple sauce and no-fat cottage cheese and my dear friend Rashma made me pumpkin squash, one of her specialities from Trinidad. Anything else would send me into an attack of debilitating pain. I lost 50 pounds over the course of several months.

In preparation for this surgery, I spoke to my kids’ teachers. Most were very kind. But one said, ““Sick? You have never looked better!”

So there it was: the moment when I realized that to many people, skinny equals healthy, even though I was literally dying.  My liver was not functioning. I was jaundiced. I had a stent in my bile duct that would cause me intense pain but saved my life so even a small amount of bile could pass through my digestive system. But to this woman, I looked great.

I needed abdominal surgery and had to take a leave from work. I had to rely on so many people around me but no one as much as mother. For months, my mother spent long days taking care of me, giving me sponge baths and washing my hair in the sink. The nurse came each day to change the dressing. When I got an infection, we landed back in the emergency room. The doctors opened the staples and put their hands in my abdomen while I lay there, awake, watching. I was terrified.

Reclaiming Space: How to Tell A Story as a Fat PersonIt took months of trial and error and consultation with my friend Lisa to figure out what I could eat, what would help make my body work again. Since that scary time, no matter what I eat, my body holds onto weight because it doesn’t process fat properly. It builds it into stones the size of marbles that move slowly through my system, can cause pain and nausea and make me feel like I have been punched in the sternum. But pain I can handle. What I have had to work on is the acceptance of who I am and the body I have. I try to focus on how grateful I feel, not only to the doctors who saved my life but to all of the people who have been able to see all of me. They have taught me how to start seeing myself.  

In her book, Shrill, Lindy West tells us that “fat is a feminist issue”.  She says:

“Please don’t forget: I am my body. When my body gets smaller, it is still me. When my body gets bigger, it is still me. There is not a thin woman inside me, awaiting excavation. I am one piece.” We need to see ourselves as whole, complete and enough. We need to move beyond this notion into self acceptance.

Through all of these stories of hardship, bullying, shame and humiliation, I can also find the allies—my father telling me I was beautiful, my mother doing whatever she could to find clothes that I felt good in, my friends who loved me for me and the people who have always rallied around me. And most importantly, my amazing family, Jeff, Rachel and Max who are my best cheerleaders.

In the movie, Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts said, “The bad stuff is easier to believe.” But that doesn’t mean we have to believe it. I challenge all of you to choose your memories carefully and to rewrite your story so that it focuses on you not as the victim but as the hero. Believe the good stuff. Believe the people who love you and most of all, believe in yourself as the whole person you are, outside and in. . Let’s #reclaimspace together!

About the author

Debbie Donsky

Dr Debbie Donsky has been an educator for 25 years throughout the Greater Toronto Area. Her blog, Reflective Stance, highlights stories and art which explore learning, discovering, questioning, wondering, challenging through education and parenting. She can be found at http://debbiedonsky.com/.

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