I am nine and I am fat.
The older girls have noticed what I can only call man boobs, since puberty won’t hit me for another four years. They say I need a bra. On the bus ride home they push gum into my hair and spit at me. I don’t want to be fat if this is what it means. I’ve heard the word before. My mum uses it as she screws up her face in disgust and tugs at her belly. I like her belly. She lets me play patty cake with it, when we’re lying on the sofa eating biscuits dunked into her tea with no sugar. It sounds hollow inside, like something’s fallen out. Maybe that’s what’s making her sad.
I wasn’t always bigger than the other kids. I used to fit in with everyone else, hiding under a cover of approved hobbies, cheering for the right football teams and requesting Barbies for Christmas. Then my nan died and a chunk of something fell out of me, just like with mum. I never discovered what it was that fell, but I found out how to fill it. Crisps worked best, packets and packets of them, chocolate too, trifles and cakes and all the bread in the house, cut into slices and delicately dipped in egg. Then when that wasn’t enough, it was wolfed down in platefuls of toast and mountains of sandwiches, barely stopping to breathe.
I am eleven and I am obese.
That’s a new word I’ve just learned. It’s the only thing that fits me. I kind of like having a name and a status to crawl into. I’m not like the other kids. I wear tracksuits and trainers and sing musical theatre at the top of my lungs. I write stories about the friends I never made and the brothers and sisters I never had. I imagine boyfriends and send myself love letters, always too pink, too saccharin, too obvious. But now I have a word for what I am and a place where I belong. Capital O. Obese. I finger the leaflet in my hands, with the smiling, skinny kids holding carrots and jumping rope. Another has a boy that looks like me, sitting, shoulders rolled forwards, mouth wound down, alone. That’s who I am now.
I knew this was coming, the whole measurement thing, and I tried my best to get out of it. I cried until my parents wrote a note to the school nurse, claiming spurious religious reasons for my opting out of the medical. The school nurse saw right through it, (of course) and asked me directly whether I would consent to being weighed and measured FOR MY HEALTH. Being a child who can’t say no to a cupcake, I nodded silently as she guided me to the scales. The BMI chart was shaded from sunshine to vomit. I am deep into the vomit section. I get the feeling that I am a terrible person, that my double chin will somehow keep me out of heaven. I picture Satan dangling crisp packets in front of my mouth and suck it shut. I grab the rolls of fat, and I vow to live on carrot sticks and fresh air until I fall into the friendly, yellow slice of the graph, labelling me ‘OK’.
I am thirteen and nothing’s growing the way it’s supposed to.
I’ve seen pictures, so you’d think I’d be prepared, but I’ve decided that I’m an alien, or a genetic mutation that hasn’t been seen before. I’ve yet to discover my super power. I hope it’s invisibility. How I’ve prayed for that. My boobs are growing down instead of out. My body’s growing out instead of up. My sweat stinks of cigarettes and everyone’s convinced that I’ve started smoking. I haven’t. My mum’s cigarette smoke seeps into everything. Even smelling like an ashtray can’t add a popularity point to my score. If anything, I’m in the minus digits.
I’ve invented a boyfriend. His name’s Ashley and I send soppy texts to my own number to prove his existence. No-one’s figured it out yet. Ashley thinks I’m beautiful. He calls my dimples cute and thinks I look perfect without any makeup. Ashley doesn’t care that I’m four sizes bigger than the other girls, that my bedroom floor is littered with chocolate pudding pots with the sides licked clean, that the number on the scale keeps ticking up and up and up. Ashley doesn’t care because he’s imaginary. Real boys look at me like I have the plague. They part like the red sea when I walk through the halls. Sometimes I fall into believing my own beautiful lie, until I have to text myself again and the vision cracks and breaks. Then I cry into my pillow and wonder how I could be so stupid.
I am seventeen and I have a boyfriend that I didn’t earn.
Every time he touches me, I cringe away from his fingertips, certain that he can feel my worthlessness through my t-shirt. I’m too fat for a boyfriend really, everyone thinks it and it’s not like I don’t know. I just keep crossing my fingers and hoping that he doesn’t realise and run away. I’m afraid to hold his hand. He thinks it’s him. I just don’t want to claim him in public, don’t want the world to know how low he’s stooped on the social scale. I don’t want to embarrass him. His best friend has all the fat jokes you can think of on repeat, and all the jibes waiting on the tip of his tongue to snipe at me, to slap me back in line. I think he thinks I haven’t heard them before, that with every footstep, I’m not calling myself the names that hurt the most, urging myself to walk faster. Fat. Bitch. Fat. Bitch.
I’m waiting for the day my boyfriend sees through my veneer. It’s just hard for me to pretend to be happy when he’s getting so close. One day I’ll let him under my skin. One day I’ll let him underneath my clothes. His hands will wander and freeze when they feel flesh, warm thick flesh that shifts an inch with every movement. Sometimes I think that I’m a good liar, like maybe the outside world sees the girl I’m projecting. Then I see myself side on, my stomach stretched out and my head shrunken by car windows in the sun, and I realise it’s only myself I’m fooling. There is no shell and there is no camouflage and there is no safety net. I’ve jumped. For him I’ve jumped, and he hasn’t run yet. Perhaps this is love. Maybe love isn’t roses and perfumed love notes and stretching up to reach his lips in the rain, but feeling swollen, dimpled skin and not giving up and going home.
I am eighteen and I am hungry.
I’ve been living on too little for too long. My dad told me to stop eating and I did. Just like that. For years I’ve been stuffing my face with everything that my hands can grab, and now I’ve discovered the secret. Just stop. At first it was a revelation. The scale’s hands juddered left every morning, another pound down. Every time my stomach growled beneath my desk I would smile, superior in my starvation. I was getting thinner. With every minute that I didn’t taste or chew or swallow, I was shrinking, purifying, transforming. And then I turned the corner and smacked right into a wall. I can’t sleep. I can’t think. I can’t string a sentence together. All I know is the clack of the scale as my soles slap against it, and the pounding of my heart, too loud, as I wait, naked and shivering, staring blindly into the bathroom mirror.
My life has become a series of mathematical equations. I used to see the world in Guitar Hero format. I’d close my eyes and reds and greens would descend on me. Now I close my eyes and I see ones and twos and, God forbid, fives, flashing like warning lights, telling me to stop eating. There are too many numbers. 100 kcals + 580 kcals. How many grams of fat? How much do I need to eat to lose? Too late. How much to sustain? Too late. How much am I going to gain? How long until dinner? BMIs, BMRs, fluctuating dress sizes, calories in an avocado, calories in a rice cake. I could drink five hundred cans of diet soda and be fine. I’ve forgotten my cell phone number again.
I am nineteen and I am alone.
The inevitable happened. He dumped me. I should have seen it coming, but I fell into the fairy tale. His mum told him that he needs to be single right now. He’s going to university and he should be open to new things and new people. People that aren’t me. I want to hate her, but I know she’s right. I’m like a rusty anchor dragging him down into the dark. I keep trying to remember that the success rate for first loves is hardly impressive anyway, but deep down I know it’s me. If I was thinner, I’d be harder to leave. If I was beautiful, I’d be worth keeping. If I was anything other than myself, I wouldn’t be scrolling down his Myspace page, clicking constantly at the word ‘single’ as if I could undo it, whilst shovelling ice-cream into my mouth.
I feel like I should be grateful that I had him at all. I feel like the last two years were charity work for him. He was doing me a favour and now I should just let him leave for greater things and a wider world. It’s been, what, two weeks and he has a new girlfriend already. She looks a lot like me. Her cheeks hide her eyes when she smiles, but she doesn’t smile often enough to tell. Still my brain blames the blubber that’s bulging out beneath my skin, crowding around my elbows and my knees. I still have his hat, and his hoodie, and a pair of pants that I tried to squeeze into, but failed. It feels like a metaphor for us, so I keep them, even though they don’t fit.
I am twenty-six and I am fat.
I’m only just learning what my body can do and thinking how dumb that is. My whole life I’ve seen my stomach as a sign of my status, my thighs as mottled, bloated skin packed with lard, intent on scraping against each other just to piss me off, my boobs as flaps of skin to be built up with padded bras and one day slit open and stuffed with silicone. It never occurred to me that my body is fit for purpose. My body moves. My feet can take me anywhere. My hands can hold someone else’s. My eyes can show me the world if I care to look hard enough. My body is a gift and I’m sick of hating it.
So what if it’s not like the pictures in the magazines? I am not a girl in a magazine. I am a real person and I’m done with living my whole day in someone else’s terms. If I have cake, the world won’t implode. If my jeans are snug fresh from the wash, it’ll be all right. If someone makes a catty comment about my bingo wings, that’s their damage. I don’t have time for other people’s opinions, and I don’t have time to starve and pop pills and develop complicated mathematical formulae for how much salad is too much. As long as I can dance, I will, and as long as I can smile, I should.
When I look at strangers, I don’t see legs and stomachs and arms and cheeks. I see people. We are people. We are souls stuffed into bodies. We are brains and hearts. We are doers, dreamers, thinkers, achievers. We can climb mountains and run marathons and skydive. We build computers and write books and give birth. We are gifted with these amazing tools and we’re all too eager to insult them or scar them or starve them. We try to squeeze our bodies into soul-shaped holes and it’s impossible. I’m never going to look like someone else and that’s fine, because I am me, with all my lumps and bumps and beauty spots and bruises.
But it’s hard. It’s hard to say that you like the way you look. Even if you’re Adriana Lima, it’s hard because we are brought up to find faults. “Oh my gosh, my nose is so big.” “Yeah? Well check out these pimples.” It’s all a big competition of who can be the ugliest, who can be the saddest. And while we’re busy picking ourselves apart, we’re only too quick to throw compliments at other people. “Shut up, you look great. You’re crazy!” How about you compliment yourself, because you’re crazy too, and you’re beautiful, just like them. I’m beautiful, and I am not a mannequin or a painting or a dream. I am a real girl with real feelings.
So from now on, whenever people look at me they won’t see a body. I won’t let them. They will see a smile, perfectly formed, because I know who I am, and I’m done with hiding it under blankets of insecurity.
I am twenty-six and I am gorgeous, and my BMI can go die in a fire.