During the day, I did what I always did when I spent the summer with my Florida relatives — I rode my bike in endless circles around the block, swam, played in the dirt, and otherwise got myself pretty filthy and sweaty. I helped pick peas in the garden and then shelled them on the front porch. I read back issues of my granny's stash of tabloids, like the National Enquirer and Weekly World News. It was a totally normal summer. But, when my parents picked me up, they were horrified. Because their skinny little kid was suddenly kind of fat. My totally normal summer was suddenly totally not.
Objectively, I did not go from being a bean pole to a marshmallow. There is no photographic evidence of that transformation — and the photos that do exist, when I look at them as an adult, indicate a kid who was just gearing up for puberty. My hair got a lot curlier that year, too, evidence of more hormonal changes. Pre-puberty, which generally hits three to four years before you get your period, was a fun time. And, by fun, I mean confusing and awful. My body was changing, and those changes were seen as a negative thing by the people around me.
At that age, I didn't entirely understand what was going on. I'd watched my mother lose weight mostly though drinking Diet Coke and not eating anything of substance. I'd also watched my grandmother survive bariatric surgery — and I say "survive" very deliberately. Her eyelashes fell out due to malnutrition. It wasn't pretty. All of this left me with the general impression that fat was a bad thing to be, so bad that it was worth doing things that hurt. But, I didn't understand why.
Plenty of studies have examined the effects of poor nutrition on children. Unfortunately, there don't seem to be any that equate poor nutrition with calorie-restrictive dieting. I believe that a low-cal diet providing all the nutrition developing bodies and brains need exists. In fact, I believe in the possibility of all sorts of things because I'm an optimist. But, that's not the diet I wound up on. And, much to my family's consternation, instead of losing weight, I got fatter.
I also became more and more divorced from my body as the seat of myself, as the way in which I interacted with the world. I developed blinders because the way I looked could never be satisfactory. I read books instead of risking embarrassment while playing with other kids. I rode my bike less and stayed in my room more. By the time I hit middle school, I didn't even want to attempt anything physical that I didn't already know how to do. That extended far beyond exercise, into play activities as well. My mind was all that mattered. My body didn't really exist to me.
And, because my body didn't exist to me, I didn't feel any real compulsion to take care of it. I picked up the habit of self-harm right around the same time I started menstruating — another inexplicable change that I should ultimately felt ashamed about. I never cut myself. Instead, I used repetitive pressure, hitting the same spot on my leg over and over again until the area was tender enough to ache whenever I touched it. I pressed sharp edges into the unprotected skin between my fingers. I wanted pain that I could carry with me, that I could access in public. I wanted pain that reminded me that I was real and lived in this physical world with everyone else.
And, I really do believe that there are other kids who grew up dieting who didn't develop eating disorders. Anything's possible, right? But, I wasn't one of them. The less I ate, the fatter I got until I found a magical tipping point. I lost 50 pounds through not eating or sleeping until one day when I passed out at a theme park. Even then I wasn't skinny, so no one really pegged me as having an eating disorder. And, it took me years to accept that, yeah, I really did have a problem with starving myself.
I was reaching another magical tipping point at that same time. I had had a lifetime of body-related self-loathing and hating myself was getting really old. No matter what I did, I just wound up fatter, more miserable, more convinced I would die alone. And, my actual life — full of friends and good times — seemed to be running entirely counter to all the things I feared if I were fat. I was actually turning into my own worst enemy, telling myself I couldn't do this or that because I was fat.
And, so I resolved to stop. All of it. The dieting and the hating myself. I chalk some of it up to reading Susan Bordo's Unbearable Weight and surrounding myself with people who never said anything negative about my body. But, it really came down to me making the decision to accept my body just as it was.
What I found in fat acceptance was a much more active role in my own health. I have to advocate for myself, so I have to know things I never bothered to follow before, from my blood pressure to my thyroid levels; I've even had my metabolism measured just in case. My relationship with food improved once I stopped obsessively restricting "for my own good" and started eating more intuitively. My relationship with physical movement also improved because exercise didn't feel like a punishment anymore. I found my body, the one I had denied myself for so long.
A lot of people write fat acceptance off as some sort of blanket permission to wallow on the couch eating chocolate all day long. I'll argue that there's nothing wrong with that from a moral standpoint. (And, I know plenty of thin people who aspire to that lifestyle!) But, such dismissals miss the real point of fat acceptance: Fatness doesn't say a damn thing about a person that the casual viewer can diagnose, especially in a picture over the Internet. You can't tell what people eat, what they do in their spare time, how healthy they are or are not. There are healthy and unhealthy fat people, just as there are healthy and unhealthy thin people — and you can’t ever know which is which just by looking. (I might ask why you needed to know in the first place, actually.) Fat acceptance demands the same dignity and respect for fat people and thin people.
That’s why fat acceptance is a completely radical notion. Not because it encourages people to give up on themselves, but because it remains the only alternative I can find to the diet-and-self-loathing highway that doesn't have any exits. I finally stopped dieting for good and realized killing myself with self-hatred wasn't getting me anywhere. In finding fat acceptance, I saved myself.