BY MELISSA MINSKER
Part I: Fat Girl Rising
I thought about just rolling it up and taking it with me. No one would know and it would probably be ages before the flight attendant would miss it. All of my future flights would be less one humiliation. I’d never have to ask for a seat belt extender again.
Part II: Fat Girl Disappearing
In old home movies, I’m dressed in sweatshirts and bulky sweaters and t-shirts whose hems fall far below the waist. My hair is long and wild, a mass of curled frizz that halos out from my head in a swirl. I sound sassy and bossy, directing everyone in front of the camera. I want to be in charge, but I don’t really want to be seen. This was a theme of my life. Past the age of 12, I am visibly trying to disappear. I wander fewer and fewer times in front of any lens. Both moving and still images of me become rare. For a long time, I joked with friends that I was in Witness Protection and couldn’t be photographed.
I was editor of the high school yearbook and made sure that photos of myself were limited to my headshot and any clubs to which I belonged. Even then, I was sure to sit in the back row.
My mother sent me to have a series of photos taken when I finished my undergraduate degree. She wanted new pictures to send to relatives and friends. I kept the appointment with the photographer, careful to bring only an all-black wardrobe with me to the studio, and sat for the photos. When the proofs arrived a few weeks later, I rejected every single one and insisted that we didn’t need the pictures at all. Mom picked out a few that she liked and sent them anyway. My grandmother kept one on her mantle for years. When she gave it back to me as she began to purge so that she could move into a retirement home, I tore it into many pieces and threw it away. It was my only revenge.
When I became a teacher myself, I avoided the camera as much as possible. I work at a small school and avoiding having your picture taken is more difficult. Especially now that EVERYONE carries a camera around with them everywhere. Teenagers love being in pictures. They love it so much, they take pictures of themselves constantly. They can’t fathom your not wanting to be photographed.
Sometimes, I feel sad when I look back through old photo albums. There are so few of me beyond the age of 12 that it is occasionally difficult to even remember what I was like then. What happens, because I am so undocumented, is that all I remember is being sad, fat, unhappy, uncomfortable. I know that’s not how I felt every day. Yet, it’s all I’m left with.
Part III: Fat Girl Growing Up
For my 33rd birthday, my father offered to take me to dinner. He said, "Let’s go somewhere we never go." So, I suggested Diehl’s, a local place known for its 'home cooking.' We’d eaten there often when I was young, before we’d moved away from my parents’ hometown. In a booth near the back corner, he asked me what I was going to order. "I’m thinking about the open face roast beef sandwich," I said, innocently. He sighed, heavily, and shook his head. "That’s the worst thing you could order," he said, practically incredulous at my stupidity. This was a menu populated with entrees like Baked Steak, Turkey and Mashed Potatoes, Pork Chops and Applesauce, and Fried Chicken. I certainly hadn’t considered that we were aiming for healthy when we’d agreed to come to Diehl’s. Without warning, either to Dad or myself, I burst into tears right at the table. I was 33, single my whole life, and I was crying at the table of a home cooking restaurant on my birthday.
Some time after that, on a beautiful sunny day, I was walking downtown from my little townhouse to meet friends at a restaurant. I was wearing a dress. I remember the feeling of cool air along my legs. I felt good because it was such a pretty day, school was almost out, and I was happy to see the friends who were waiting for me. I was strolling on the sidewalk, in the shade, when a car — passing on Market Street next to me — rolled down its window and a young man leaned out. He said, "You’re fat!" and then the car sped away.
I didn’t cry that time. I’m still surprised I didn’t. Instead, I kept walking. It wasn’t the first time a man had commented on my body while I was minding my own business. Nearly every woman I know has experienced this in one way or another. Once, as I walked home from a bachelorette party, several men shouted "Hey Big Baby!" at me from across the street for several minutes before another woman in my party told them to move along. A homeless man once said to me, as I was walking in the park, "Lookin’ good big mama."
When I reached my friends that evening of the drive-by fat shaming, I didn’t tell them about what had happened. After dinner, they suggested we move down the street to a bar. I declined. I didn’t want to attract any more of the kind of attention I’d attracted on the way there. Just being in public was wrong.
Part IV: Fat Girl Beginning
Standing in the living room, I felt as beautiful as I ever had. I couldn’t have been older than 6 or maybe 7. My mother had spent an hour carefully curling and pinning my hair into a shiny updo. She’d also applied a modest amount of makeup to my young face: a swipe of pale lipstick, some pink blush, and a few swats of mascara across my lashes. My dance recital costume was made of purple satin with delicate lace details. I loved it. It made me feel like a doll. In my white tights and freshly painted ballet shoes, I was certain I’d never looked so lovely, so bright, as I did in that moment. Mom wanted photos before we left for the high school auditorium. She directed me to stand in front of the china cabinet. She arranged my arms into a graceful, balletic pose, and stood back to admire her work. I was smiling. I felt good. I felt great, really. I was ready to have my picture taken. She lifted the point-and-shoot camera to her face, squinting into the viewfinder and said, just before she snapped the photo, "Missy, suck in your stomach." Then, snap.
If there was ever a moment when I could feel something change in me, that was it. Before that moment, maybe I was often insecure or self-conscious. I don’t remember. What I do know is that I spent the rest of that evening carefully holding my stomach in tight. Despite 30 intervening years, I haven’t forgotten that moment.
Another time, walking across the parking lot of a shopping center, my mother hissed, "Tuck in your shirt. You look pregnant." Standing before a mirror at Carousel in a ruffled blouse, she sighed, "You’re just too big to wear a blouse like that."
In my lunch one week, she packed a small, green package of Snackwell cookies (famous for being 'fat free'). The girl across from me, who was digging into a Little Debbie Nutty Buddy, said, "Does your mom think you’re fat?" I was surprised by the question, and must have given her a quizzical look. "Those cookies," she said, nodding at the conspicuous green package, "are for fat people."
Mom weighed herself every morning. She would step out of her robe, letting it pool on the floor at her feet, and up onto the scales. Often, she would sigh as she looked at the number. Then, she would step off, back into her robe, and go on with her day. I never saw her skip this. It followed her brushing her teeth and was followed by her brushing her hair. It was as essential as any other part of her routine. The medicine chest was never without an opened box of Dexatrim. She kept the freezer stocked with Lean Cuisine and the pantry with boxes of Snackwell cookies and Diet Coke. It was the 90s and she purchased many items marketed as Low Fat. We ate a tremendous number of boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
For my brother, though, she stocked snack bags of Doritos and Little Debbie Oatmeal Crème Pies. He loved Cheetos and enjoyed more than his fair share of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The bottom drawer of the last cabinet was reserved for Jason’s snacks: chips, pies, gummies, candy, cups of Easy Mac, and fruity sugar drinks. It was never stated outright, but the implication was that I wasn’t supposed to consume these snacks. Jason played soccer and ran endlessly around the neighborhood with his friend and our portly beagle, Brownie. He swam with near boundless energy at the pool and rode his bicycle all over town. He was slim and frenetic with a shock of white blond hair.
What I learned, early on, was not to hide the empty Doritos and Little Debbie wrappers in the sofa cushions. That was a dead giveaway. Instead, I would fold them into tiny squares and slide them into the bottom of the kitchen garbage. If the kitchen was occupied, I would slip them into the pocket of my jeans and get rid of them later. The Hi-C containers were best left sitting next to the TV, just as Jason left them, because then they would get gathered up together.
I’d always been the fat girl who wanted to be thin. At age 12, I’d gone to Weight Watchers with Mom. At 16, she’d enrolled me at a clinic that dispensed the diet drug combo fen-phen. At 20, she’d taken me back to Weight Watchers. In between, I gained and lost and gained and lost. I’d binged on fast food, shunned all sugar, tried vegetarianism and then the Atkins diet, and had flirted with anorexia for one day before I caved to a craving for peanut butter.
After my mother died, I slowly gained more weight than ever and was horrified to realize I nearly topped 300 pounds. Still, though, it felt like my lot in life. Hadn’t I always been this way?
Following a series of moves and a career shift, I found myself digging through boxes of old photos with my brother. In one, we stand before a chain link fence (behind which were some Elk at a local zoo). He is very small, maybe four, and I stand just behind him. We’re both smiling and hugging a little. And I look…not chubby. My face is narrow. My legs are slim. My waist is just what a little girl’s waist ought to be: not too thin, not too fat.
The reality of this photo made me cry (I cry a lot, just to warn you). My brother was gazing at some pictures of our childhood dog, Brownie, and didn’t see. When had I had a body that didn’t look wrong? If Jason was four, then I was about seven. Seven. The same year I’d felt so beautiful in my ballet costume.
Part V: Fat Girl Breaking
For many years, I’ve had a voice in my head that tells me how terrible I look. She doesn’t hold back. In the mirror, she’ll look me right in the eyes and say, "Whatever. This is as good as it gets." Passing a reflective window, she’ll see my profile and wince, "Ugh, God, walk faster." In a dressing room, she’ll pinch my waist and shake her head, "This is really shameful. You are disgusting." I was telling a friend about this voice, which is partly my mother (although much crueler than my mother ever was) and partly me.
My friend asked, "What would you say to that voice if you could confront it?"
I thought for a long moment. "I don’t know. I guess I agree with it."
Being body positive is all the rage. Plus size models like Tess Holliday make being big very glamorous. Actresses like Lena Dunham revel in their imperfect bodies and show them off with confidence. Activist Jes Baker has published a whole guide to learning to love your perfectly imperfect body: Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls. There is a movement of women who do yoga and run and tout fitness whose bodies do not conform to the expected shapes and figures. I love this. I love Dunham’s HBO show, Girls. She is completely unafraid to look like herself. She accepts her body and dares others to be critical. I love Holliday’s beautiful, bold look — red lipstick and her spectacular Dolly Parton tattoo. I love Baker’s intense confidence. I am giddy praising these women for being themselves. They should be themselves because they are beautiful and smart and interesting…who wouldn’t want to be those things? When it comes to myself, though, it’s hard to be generous.
It isn’t just that I’m not as beautiful or talented as Holliday or Dunham or Baker. I have no way of knowing or comparing because when I look at myself, what I see is someone who is a disgrace. Someone who is not worthy of romance. Someone who must sit on the sidelines of life until she can get her shit together. I see the humiliation of asking for a seat belt extender on an airplane. I see the bitter disappointment of realizing that I won’t fit onto any of the rides at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I see someone who is alone because she deserves to be. And I hate her. I hate her for sabotaging any weight loss success. I hate her for loving mashed potatoes and Snickers bars. I hate her for eating yet another order of Nachos Bell Grande.
I inhabit these two worlds: the accepting, body-positive land of Lena Dunham, Jes Baker, and Tess Holliday, and the angry, bitter world of the mirror and Taco Bell. I desperately want to move, full time, into body-positive land. I want to embrace my flaws and find comfort in my (perfectly well-functioning) body. I want to love who I am and strive only to be even happier, even healthier, even smarter. But, I can’t seem to get away from the voice that speaks up each time I stand in front of the mirror. She’s not going to leave me alone without a fight.
Part VI: Fat Girl Mending
Recently, I flew on a tiny airplane. The flight attendant offered to let me take over the back row of the plane, which was empty. When I’d settled in, she asked me, with a kind of knowing look, if I needed anything else. With confidence I almost never possess, I said, "Yeah. I need a seat belt extender." She nodded and moved away to fetch it. As she left, I felt a surge of empowerment which probably seems downright silly to most people but felt like a revelation to me: it’s not some deep shame to need this thing. I’m big. The man sitting across from me was tall but very slim and athletic. I watched him struggle to buckle the belt across his lap. These seat belts were small. Very small. So small that even a person who looked perfectly fit wasn’t easily able to stretch it across his lap.
When she returned, the flight attendant discretely slipped the belt to me in a neat bundle. I smiled at her, charmed because, frankly, I didn’t need her discretion. I didn’t need to hide this from the other passengers. I would have proudly walked to the front of the plane and retrieved it myself at that point. I wanted to take ownership of what I needed. In order to take care of me, I need a seat belt extender. I didn’t feel shame about that. It was a relief because shame is the underlying motivation and feeling for nearly everything I do.
I know that my mother never intended for me to hide from life. When she told me to hold in my stomach that evening before the ballet recital, she couldn’t have dreamed that I would hold onto that memory for 30 years. I know that my father, who worries more than anyone ever should, never meant to make me cry at Diehl’s that fateful 33rd birthday. I know that my loved ones never wanted me to feel shame about being myself or to sit on the sidelines and scold myself for not being as thin as I should be. Yet, it is the way I feel.
Like everyone, I have taken cues and clues from the people I love as well as the society that surrounds me. Let’s face it: the society that surrounds me is not very friendly to fat people. Certainly not to fat women. We are the brunt of the joke, the image of disgust, the sexless killjoy lurking at the edge of life. Even the body positive movement, the step in the right direction, is still not far enough. More women in this world fall into the 'plus size' category than don’t. Yet, it is still news when plus size ladies are successful, beautiful, unapologetic.
I never had a role model who looked like me until I first saw a photo of Tess Holliday. I was 36 when that happened. It was the same year that a plus size model was featured on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. The same year that Lindy West published her memoir, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman about facing the world as a fat woman who no longer wants to hate herself.
Fat Girl Rising (Part II)
As I stepped off of that small plane, I left the seat belt extender in a neat roll on my seat. I didn’t need to take it. When I next need an extender, I’ll ask for it. And I won’t whisper. Because, let’s face it, I’m not hiding my body with black clothes. It’s not some dark secret that I’m fat. Everyone can see it. What they don’t know, perhaps, is that I’m also a whole person: a teacher and a sister and a daughter and a friend. I love animals and reading a whole book without stopping. My favorite place in the world is Savannah, Georgia and I feel most at home at the beach. I love giving people gifts and decorating for parties.
I am more than my body and my body is more than just fat. It is the vessel that carries me home each day. It moves and stretches and hums through house cleaning and long walks on the sand and into museums and across miles of school hallways. It pumps life into my heart with each breath and lets me enjoy sunsets, Frank Capra movies, Flannery O’Connor stories, midcentury modern decor, and tex mex food. It is parts and a whole and I am all of those parts and the entire whole. And I’m grateful for it. And I want to love it.
Melissa Minsker holds her MFA in Creative Writing from West Virginia University and has worked as a teacher, librarian, and writer. Currently, she is employed as a high school librarian in Frederick, Maryland.