Me the summer I turned 12

I remember the exact moment I became fat.

It was 1979 and I was 12 years old and standing in my mother’s bedroom in front of her mirror. The next day was 1950’s day at my junior high school and my mother said she had just the thing. She pulled a gorgeous dress out of her closet. A dress so breathtaking that even though she could not longer wear it she had not been able to part with it. A rose fantasy in chiffon and tulle nipped smartly at the waist. It was the kind of dress made for a 12-year-old girl’s dreams.

I struggled to get it on. Eventually I got it over my hips, but no amount of wishing could get the zipper more than half way up.

“Hmmm, my mother said. I guess you’re too fat.”

I felt my face flush. I desperately fumbled again with the zipper.

Then she added, “I wore that even after I had your brother. I was so thin.”

I slid the folds of coveted rose dreams off my shoulders but could not shed the shame. She handed me a plain blue gingham dress that looked like something Half Pint might wear if she were transported in time to Rydell High. It was tight, but it fit. It was not the stuff of dreams.

I walked into that room a very tall averaged sized girl in the seventh grade. I walked out a fat girl.

I recently found some old pictures from junior high and I was stunned at how average in size I was. Older looking perhaps, but just a regular sized tall girl and yet my memory tells me I was overweight most, if not all, of my life. An entire memory changed. That’s how much damage those words did. I am thankful to have these pictures. They are a place marker for the truth.

My mother’s words became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I started to feel self-conscious around food, so I dieted. My image of myself was so warped that no amount of weight loss could fix it. Eventually I’d gain the weight back, meaning get back to an average size which I interpreted as fat and so I’d start again. I spent years thinking I was overweight when I wasn’t, struggling to achieve what I already had but could not see. Eventually as the weight crept back so did a few extra pounds. And then a few more. And then more still.

I made dating and sex decisions based on this warped body image. I desperately wanted someone to tell me my body was beautiful, but even when they said it with the honesty of Prince Charming I couldn’t hear it. I looked for men who reinforced the terrible things I believed about myself.

I remember as if it were yesterday the video of Donald Trump publicly shaming 18-year-old Alicia Machado in 1996. I know that forced smile as she put on a brave face and I feel her devastation and humiliation that ran just beneath as if it were my own. My own horror happened in a bedroom, but that poor girl had to endure it in front of reporters who not only filmed the shame falsely forced upon her but who wrote about it. Over and over again. She went from objectively being the most beautiful young woman in the world to being the opposite.

We now know that fat shaming does nothing to help people who are overweight lose weight. Science tells us that being labeled “too fat” can cast the curse of a body image disorder upon girls and young women. Being labeled “too fat” between the ages of 10 and 19 years of age, regardless of body mass index (BMI) at the time, makes a young girl or woman more likely to be obese later in life. It is worth restating, calling a young girl fat when she is not is a risk factor for obesity.

Whether it is misplaced intentions, plain old cruelty, misogyny, or free publicity for a new business labeling people by weight is hurtful, wrong, and harmful. However, it is also true we did not know in the 1970’s or even the 1990’s how physically and emotionally damaging weight labeling could really be.

Donald Trump had two options when faced with how he treated Alicia Machado in 1996, one is presidential and the other cruel. One option was something like this:

You know I was nervous about my new business venture. I’d just bought the Miss Universe pageant and I’d invested a lot of money. I over compensated. It was the 1990’s and we didn’t know how harmful weight labeling could be. I really regret it and obviously I would like to take it back. 

But he doubled down in cruelty. Immediately at the debate. In interviews. On Twitter.

He showed he is a man who truly believes the value of a women lies in some superficial attribute that he alone is fit to judge.

Did Clinton bait him? Of course.

Does it matter if the man wants to be the most powerful person in our country and possibly the world, a man whose words our young girls and women will hear, feels that fat shaming is fine and not cruel and damaging?

You bet it does.




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  1. How well I understand how those words must have stung! I’ve been plump (not grossly obese) my whole adult life and my thin mother persisted in calling me her “baby elephant” until she died. She knew I didn’t like it but I wonder whether she knew how much it hurt… I imagine Trump has no understanding of the pain he is causing by these remarks, he seems short on empathy in general. But that’s exactly why he shouldn’t be president – we want a leader who can put himself in others’ shoes.

  2. Jen, you and I must have had the same mirror. We’re of an age — I’m only a couple of years older than you — but the message we heard back in the day was the same. I wasn’t tall like you, but I wasn’t a fat young girl — something I realize now, but didn’t then. Flashback to 1972: My mother (who had been a fashion model in her youth) would manifest her disappointment in the 5’2″, 115 lb., 13-year-old me with an ill-disguised sigh and, “Oh, honey, you’d be SO pretty if only you’d …” (lose a few pounds / do something with your hair/ try a little make-up (not too much, now!) / put on something nice / stand up straight — and for heaven’s sake, suck it in! / smile more …” We couldn’t win. And forty years later, after marriages, children, careers, and full, accomplished lives, we still hear those voices and see those images in the mirror. Damn Trump for continuing to visit that spectre on new generations of women and girls. Damn him to hell. Our daughters — and we — deserve better than that.

  3. I was thinking about your post over the weekend. I think your mum probably wore a girdle – mine did. Many women did then. I have a skirt she wore to work that she made herself and when I wear it, I think – “HOW did she ever wear this! Its so tight!”. Even when I wore it when I was young, it was tight. And I am a slightly built. A lovely photo of you btw.

  4. Thank you! Very good articke. I can recall my mother saying “suck in your gut.” She akways told me I was pretty but for some reason it just told me i wasnt thin enough so i needed to appear thin. I have an athletic body too. I am meant to have muscle and be strong!

  5. Thank you so much. Every word you write is like I lived it but I was 7 years old the first time I was put on a diet. That was 40 years ago and when I see those photos of my very average 7 year old body I want to cry. My mother is elderly now but still as cruel with her words, still making sure we know just how thin she was. And how she is shocked that of her five daughters (all struggling with obesity) I am the only one still married. Of course I am the one who flew to Mexico in desperation 4 years ago and paid to have 90% of my stomach removed. And now, though I may not look fat I can honestly say I am still not satisfied. Fat shaming is forever.

  6. I read one of your blogs about deciding to change your image of yourself to yourself. It was one of the most inspiring pieces I’ve ever read. I still tell people to this day, about how that blog changed my life for the better.

    “You can’t use food to satisfy an emotional craving, and you can’t plan your exercise around your life…”

    Everyone is responsible for their own circumstances, and no ones circumstances are perfect! I fail to identify any genuine sincerity in either Trump or Hilary based upon their actions, and their own personal circumstances. The only benefit either of them portray to me is their own.

  7. What a wonderful post. It is scary if a potential head of the world’s most powerful country sends out a dangerous message as that.

    I am 44. I was thin until 40, but now, the fat related to age has caught on. Just an hour ago, dressing up to an event, I shamed myself about how i have broadened. And then I stopped myself and said that this is the most natural body for a 44 year old who walks 8 km a day, and eats healthy (and not finicky).

    The artificial body image we are fed with will be the death of us yet.

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