- Not Tragically Fat!On Shame
When I was thirteen and in seventh grade, a boy in my gym class put a sign on my back that read “Don’t Feed Me.” “Don’t Feed Me.” I was by then 5 feet, 7 inches and a size 12/14. Today I am larger, a size 22/24 at Lane Bryant, to use a size chart with which most plus girls and women are familiar. I never had a thin or skinny period. My thighs in baby pictures are scrumptious mounds of baby flesh. Years ago, when I was in my early twenties, a favorite aunt relayed that my nickname when a baby was “Pop Up at All Parties,” a pet name I found and find fitting as I love parties, and more than parties, I love cake. When I was growing up, if there was a party, there was sure to be a sheet cake.
I have always been a big girl, and for most of my youth, I was made to feel big and thus “wrong” by family and strangers alike. When my junior high school classmate, a Black boy on whom I secretly had a crush, placed that awful sticky note on my back, suspicious of his touch, I reached around to find what I had sensed all along. I was a joke. The feeling that came with lightning speed after that realization was that of shame.
Shame was an emotion with which I was familiar as a fat Black girl, and in particular as one from a shifting class background. “Don’t Feed Me,” brought on the shame of vulnerability. I was ashamed that I had rendered myself vulnerable—that is, fat—at thirteen years old, and thus an easy target for sometimes diabolical African American boys who, like most of the surrounding culture, found fat girls and women to be “funny,” which is to say fodder for ridicule and dismissal. I learned fast that fat equated to a forever target on my back. I learned as well that my body’s corpulence, regardless of how I feel and felt about it, renders me emotionally, physically, and psychologically (not to mention economically—see the abysmal statistics on pay rates and economic parity for fat Black women) vulnerable to a fat phobic (not to mention racist, sexist, classist, and misogynistic) society and culture.
Thirty-plus years after the sign incident in gym class, I remember that I did [End Page 177] not yell at my classmate, nor did I march over to my gym teacher expecting that she demand an apology on my behalf. I somehow knew better than to do so. What I believe today and only sensed when a girl was that my gym teacher, a middle-aged Black woman, did not like fat children, fat Black girls in particular. In fact, she seemed to me to be conspiring with the class bullies who relentlessly picked on me, one of two fat girls in the class, the other of whom was Hispanic. Mrs. was not the exception as a gym teacher, however. Three years after her came my high school gym teacher, a charismatic and athletic Black male in his late twenties who vowed to “break” me as if I were a horse, the first week of gym classes. I remember being startled, and silent. I do not recall telling anyone, not a parent, teacher, guidance counselor, none of my sisters, and not one friend about either of the incidents in gym class. Instead, I kept to myself the stories of what happened, and shame festered.
“Don’t Feed Me,” the subtext of which read “I am a joke. I cannot control my eating, myself, my body. Help me to control that part of me by refusing me sustenance of any kind, including compassion from my peers, and teachers.” I learned well and early to deny, dismiss, negate, and abuse my fat body. Today, in my forty-fifth year, I am unlearning those unfortunate and shame-inducing lessons. Here is the message for me in this: Fat bodies and fat people exist. We have been vilified, mocked, ridiculed, erased, and effaced in popular...