I was talking about this with some women the other day. We’re all full-figured women who’ve lived our lives on the heavy side of the scale, rather than the lighter, and each of us had horror stories to tell.
I shared a story of going through the cafeteria at school during the second grade, and being dished up a portion much smaller than those around me who had all paid exactly the same amount of money. When I asked why I got less, the lunch lady smiled sadly and said, “You don’t really need that much, now do you?” This from a woman shaped like a potato dumpling. I turned bright red, the others around me laughed, and I started packing my own lunch, sitting by myself to eat until I found some accepting friends.
I still not comfortable eating in cafeterias or buffets. I feel myself turning bright red as I gather my food as fast as possible, imagining the people ahead and behind me to be judging my choices and always finding me a greedy glutton. Even in restaurants I try to be seated in a sheltered booth or hidden nooks.
In the fourth grade, I already outweighed my teacher. How do I know? Because she decided she would weigh each student, post their weight, and use those numbers to show children how to find the average weight of each person in the class. For shitz and giggles she jumped on the scale too, adding her paltry one-hundred-ten pounds to the mix. After every other student in the class had been weighed, she called me up. To her credit, she had her scale discreetly hidden from class view, but I was having none of it. I told her I wouldn’t do it, an extremely assertive statement for me. She threatened to call my parents and give me a ‘C’ in math, a subject in which I’d always received ‘A’s. I sobbed, telling her I didn’t want to do it, that the other kids would make fun of me, but in the way of adults in authority she had her way, insisting my weight would make a ‘huge’ difference in the class average.
For the next two weeks I stared at a graph filled with pieces of masking tape, every student’s (and the teacher’s) weight written on masking tape, displayed on one full wall of the class. When we each had to add our tape to the board, I had to place my little square all alone in the highest right hand corner. Because the wall graph was so large, I had to pull a desk over to the wall and climb up to put it in the right place. The teacher was so pleased she even invited the principal to admire it, and I blushed when she threw a look right at me. Whether it was sympathy or judgement was difficult for me to decipher when I was nine years old, but by then I’d already learned to assume the worst.
I never felt the same about math after that. What had been challenging and exciting became threatening and difficult. My growing fear of math eventually turned me away from career choices because I was sure I would fail statistics.
Were the lunch lady and the fourth grade teacher bullies? I’m sure they would not only reject that accusation, they’d become defensive and offer excuses for how and why it was for my own good. I’m sure in each of their minds, at the time, it didn’t seem like that big a deal to them. But here it is a half century later and both incidents are still fresh in my memory.
It is my opinion that both women were bullies, using their authority over me as a child to humiliate and publicly shame me in front of my peers. Their actions didn’t help the school or students in any way, but both times I was directly injured.
The cafeteria might have saved a penny or three by shorting my plate each time they served me, but since I was unwilling to go through the lunch line any more and began bringing my own lunch, all they did was lose a paying customer. The damage done to my psyche was far greater than any financial reward reaped by that judgmental lunch lady.
I’ve never forgiven my fourth grade teacher. The rest of that year was a nightmare of humiliation for me. The kids teased me, of course, but I was the daughter of the local pediatrician. All I had to do was remind them that my father had seen them naked, and they pretty much backed off. And after a while my naturally funny personality made a place for me in the social hierarchy, and my diligent intelligence earned me respect from both students and teachers.
Of course, those two incidents stand out in a life of humiliating moments when people decide to either fight my arguments and constructs by tearing down my looks, or decide I just don’t feel bad enough about what they perceive to be a personal failing. They were the first bullies, but they were in no way the last.
Is it true that learning to handle the bullying made me who I am today? Possibly, but just imagine the me I might have been if no one had ever judged me solely based upon the shape and weight of my body.
Fat shaming has been around for too long. It is dehumanizing and cruel, based on the false social construct that slimmer is better than fatter. It is the last refuge of those who cannot create a winning argument. In other words, fat shaming is for losers.