Things my thin mother couldn’t teach me about my fat body

I can’t remember when I became fat. I know from photographs that I was an average sized baby, toddler, and child. Somewhere between my parents’ divorce, when I was around seven, and puberty, I became fat.

Being fat, in my experience, was a bad thing. My mom hated buying me new clothes and was visibly exasperated when I needed the next size up in the fitting room. My dad would say that if we weren’t careful, soon we’d start growing out instead of up.

When I was hungry, my mother taught me to drink water and wait an hour. If I was still hungry then, I could have a snack. But if it wasn’t a healthy snack of fruit or something emblazoned with “LOW FAT” on the packaging, the comments would start. Her refrain when I asked for snacks or seconds was, “Okay, it’s your body.”

I remember once, she rubbed the back of my ears and neck with a washcloth aggressively, complaining that I was lazy because I didn’t scrub there. I didn’t know I had to wash those parts specifically. She never told me until that moment when it was a shameful thing to be dirty.

She put me on the first diet I can remember when I was 12 years old. I remember her making a circle on her palm and saying “The size of your palm is three ounces, that’s one serving of meat.” I learned that one ounce of cheese was the size of a die. She told these parameters to our babysitter, who nodded and smiled, took the list of instructions, and then told us to go get an ice cream out of the freezer.

My mom microwaved frozen brussel sprouts and made us eat salads full of raw vegetables. As an adult, I have the agency to say that I don’t like raw veggies. I love cooked veggies (but not microwaved frozen brussel sprouts). As an adult, I know I have sensory issues with foods, but at the time to deny a salad was to be a fat, lazy pig.

I remember when my sister was caught at my aunt’s house, hiding around the corner from the kitchen, eating. She didn’t understand why my aunt was suspicious and interrogating her. She cried.

The first time my mom told me I was fat, I had asked her.

“Mom, am I fat?”

“Yes.”

Not “You are fat, but that’s not a bad thing,” or

“You are fat, but there are all kinds of body shapes, let’s find some famous and historical fat people so you see examples of your body,” or

“You are fat, but as long as you feel comfortable your body is just fine.”

Instead, she told me that boys wouldn’t want to date me because I was fat. When I ate, she said I ate like a pig. When I tried to lose weight, she encouraged me, even when my tactics were outright harmful. My best friend in high school had an exercise bike that displayed calories burned. I told my mom I wanted to keep track of my calories and then burn them all off with the bike. “That’s a great idea.”

I was an active kid and teen. I rode my bike constantly. I walked over a mile to and from school in high school. But when I needed an inhaler when I first had to run the mile in gym class, she told me that my doctor prescribed a placebo, that I was just fat and didn’t have asthma. When I was interested in my high school’s new field hockey team senior year, she talked me out of it by saying she didn’t want to buy all that equipment if I wouldn’t stick with it.

From infancy, my mother denied my body’s own knowledge. At six weeks old, she put cereal in my bottle to make me sleep through the night, overstuffing me with calories in a way my tiny body couldn’t understand, and likely acting as the catalyst for my decades-long struggle with food.

My mother hated my body, and by extension hated part of me in a way that she could never overcome. My fat was her failure.

As a result, there were some things about my body that she didn’t, and couldn’t teach me, that I’ve learned from my 34 years of life — the last five of them without speaking to her, and the last three of them recovering from my eating disorder.

If you are navigating life in a fat body, I hope to teach you these things too.

You are in charge of your body.

No one gets to touch it or tell you what to do with it. If people talk shit about it, you can remove them from your life.

You do not have to “take what you can get” in relationships.

Fat people deserve healthy relationships built on mutual trust, commitment, and (if applicable) attraction. You get to have awesome relationships — even if you’re bigger than your partner/friend. You get to have boundaries and say no — even if they’re a really nice person. You are not a kink or fetish. You are a person.

Being fat is a body type.

Like being tall, or short, or thin. Your body’s size, shape, and type is not an indicator of your worthiness or your goodness as a person.

Weight is not an indicator of health.

This one blew my mind. BMI related “healthcare” is actually not evidence-based, fat people are often healthier and longer-lived than thin people, and there is actually not a significant correlation between ill health and body size. You do not have to be weighed at the doctor unless you are being seen specifically for a weight related problem!

Medical fatphobia is extremely dangerous.

Learning to advocate for yourself in medical situations can be very scary, because doctors have power and authority. Doctors may suggest weight loss before testing for illnesses, which can mean denying life-saving care because of their refusal to diagnose a fat body. If you find yourself being “diagnosed fat” and you know that your problem isn’t weight related, ask the doctor these two questions:

  1. Do thin people get [insert illness, symptoms, etc]?
  2. What treatments do you recommend for thin people?

If they refuse tests for you, ask them to document in your chart that you asked for the test. They will often have a change of heart and run the tests.

Diets don’t work.

They just don’t. Restricting food (whether it’s whole food groups or calories overall) leads to long-term metabolic damage and you are all but guaranteed to gain back the weight lost, plus more, as your body reacts to the famine state of ongoing diets. Barring food allergies and intolerances, and food issues that arise from neurodivergence, the best diet is simply eating what you want, when you want it. (The book that helped me with this is The Fuck It Diet by Caroline Dooner, though I am working on a more intersectional bookshelf about this topic so I’m not solely promoting a thin white woman’s work).

There are lots of causes of weight gain.

You could be genetically predisposed to having a fat body. Or you might gain weight from stress, medication, pregnancy, or any of the multitude of reasons why people gain weight. Such as dieting for twenty years, heyyyyy!

You aren’t dirty, but you do need to clean differently.

There is no shame in this, my friends. We need to clean the folds and the rolls to prevent sweat, irritation, yeast, and bacteria. This means using a simple bar soap (I like unscented or with essential oils to avoid synthetic dyes and fragrances) and a washcloth to scrub yourself head to toe. Neck, back of the ears, all around the armpits and breasts, the belly apron, inner thighs, delicate areas, and even between your toes.

Also, if you’re white like me, you might not know that you need to moisturize after showering. We get dry skin too, we just can’t see it. (Thank you to Black women on Twitter for teaching me this).

Please get medical attention when you need it, especially routine checkups.

It can be shameful to visit the doctor as a fat person, especially when you’ve experienced anti-fat bias in the office or you’re seeing a new provider. But the routine maintenance of your body is just as important as a thin person’s, even though it’s not usually as accessible or kind. That’s a flaw of the system, not of you.

Your doctor has seen it all, and your body is not gross or a medical mystery.

I have an autoimmune condition called Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS), which causes painful boils to form in those skin-on-skin areas (primarily my thighs, but occasionally under my breasts or in the fold of my belly rolls). For YEARS I thought these were caused by being dirty and not cleaning myself enough, but no matter how much I washed, they always stayed. One day in the OBGYN office during a pap smear, my doctor said “This is hidradenitis, I can prescribe you something for that.”

Now that I know what the HS boils are, I can help control them with prescription ointment, simple soaps, washing well after sweating (especially after walking or sitting in a cramped space like an airplane or on a car ride), blemish patches, and wearing shorts under dresses to reduce chub rub.

It’s a great equalizer knowing that my fat doesn’t cause the problem and that the treatment is the same as a thin person’s.

Fill your social media with bodies like yours.

This was such a game changer for me. I used to fill my social feeds with aspirational bodies, thin bodies I hoped to look like one day when I had finally become my best (ie thin) self. NOPE. I unfollowed every fitness inspo account (and even some friends whose workout selfies were too much) and replaced them with glorious fat bodies in art, in self-assured poses, in sexy scenarios, in yoga poses I thought were impossible.

Fat and fit are not mutually exclusive.

You can be hella fit in a fat body. There is no one way to be healthy or fit. But also, it’s literally okay if you’re not fit. Fitness is not obligatory.

Fat people are an oppressed class.

And one of the only socially acceptable prejudices. By viewing fat as a moral aspect of one’s body (to pursue thinness makes you good, to be okay with fatness makes you bad) our society makes body shame a fact of life. You do not have to be a “good” fat person by hating your body and punishing it.

Wear the crop top.

Wear whatever the fuck you want. Baggy clothes, tight clothes, revealing clothes, modest clothes. Wear what makes you comfortable.

Know the signs of an eating disorder.

Babes. I need you to know that people don’t recognize eating disorders in fat people often. When we have EDs, doctors and friends celebrate our weight loss even if we are literally harming ourselves and not eating enough calories to survive. Know your personal triggers and signs of ED and build a support network of friends and family who can help you if you think you may have an eating disorder.

Eating disorders aren’t just about calories.

I once told my psychiatric nurse practitioner that trying to reduce single use plastic had relapsed my ED. She asked if I was controlling calories and I said no. She said then it wasn’t ED. But I was actively not eating enough food, because the food available was packaged in plastic so I wouldn’t buy and eat it. That’s still an eating disorder, still an obsession with food purity. I had simply changed from “eat clean/organic/vegan/paleo/whatever diet” to “eat plastic free.”

Your body is good.

All bodies are good bodies. Disabled bodies are good bodies. Fat bodies are good bodies. Your body is a good body, and I love you.

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