Taking Up Space: The Battle with My Body

When I was little, I was so proud of the fact that I was one of the biggest kids in my class. I was tall and strong! I could run fast and lift heavy things. I could keep up with and out do all the little boys at anything we choose to do at recess. I wanted, more than anything, to be the biggest, tallest person at my school. I took up space and loved being alive.

TRIGGER WARNING for disordered eating/eating disorders underneath the cut.

This pride and sense of self-worth lasted until I hit the ripe old age of seven years old. That’s when the boys started calling me “big butt” and “thunder thighs”. After that, I didn’t want to be the biggest person at school anymore; I wanted to be “normal”. I desperately wanted to take up less space. I wanted to be tiny like the popular girls. This was my start to what has now been a seventeen year battle with my weight and personal appearance.

I have a memory from some point in elementary school that is quite vivid. In my 4th or 5th grade class, we were learning all about homesteaders and the teacher said that they carried packs that weighed over 100 pounds on their backs. Then she asked if any of us were 100 pounds yet. Coincidentally, my family had weighed me shortly before this and I knew I was around 110 pounds, but the fact that no one else raised their hand terrified me. I couldn’t be the biggest! I stayed silent and uncomfortable.

After that class discussion, one of the other students asked me if I was actually one hundred pounds, even though I didn’t raise my hand. She explained that with my height, it seemed only natural that I would weigh the most. She was right. I was several inches taller than most of the class and my body shape has always been broad and stocky. I weighed over 100 pounds not because I was “morbidly obese with death fat” (though I still had my chubby kid fat), but because I simply was big. However, the prospect of admitting I was the largest and heaviest child in the class sent shivers of fear racing up and down my spine. I knew that if I said anything resembling confirmation, everyone I knew would find out and make fun of me. I didn’t even really know what fat was or why it was an insult, but I knew it was bad, so I lied and claimed that I was 80 pounds.

In high school, I was not particularly popular. It took me a long time before my parents could force me to embrace fashion and traditional femininity. I like baggy sports clothing and I wore my hair extremely short. And, even though I was quite active, I was still rather large. I didn’t have an entirely flat stomach, my thighs touched together and I wore a size ten when everyone else existed somewhere between the sizes of two to six. People called me a dyke. As much as I’d be happy to embrace that label today, when I was a teen it was devastating. I remember looking at our photo board of pictures taken of students at school. One week there was a photo of myself and one of my best friends (the resident geek): our eyes had been scratched out. I was, to say the least, very disturbed. I did not fit the requirement of thin, pretty, feminine teenager, therefore I was an outcast. A gender deviant and a freak.

It was not until my last two years of high school, however, that my body image issues went from casual worry to grave personal disaster. In grade eleven, I tried to be Super Teen. I was heavily involved in academics, leadership, music and sports. I signed up for all manner of clubs and extracurriculars. I was busy every single day, often bolting between four different lunch hour meetings. Very quickly, my body started to give up. First, I got strep throat. It was a bad case and I was out of class for over a week in the fall, but I returned when I was still sick because I had too many responsibilities that I could not ignore. Consequently, I developed pneumonia a few weeks later and was out for a couple more weeks. I came back early again to finish my winter exams. I jumped right back into my crazy schedule in January. I felt terrible. I had trouble sleeping to the point that I kept falling asleep in the school’s main hallway. Eventually, my fatigue piqued the worry of the school staff and my parents. I told them that everything was fine. They believed me until the night that my mom had to stay up with me until dawn because I was so sick that I couldn’t breathe. I had mono. I lost an entire semester this time.

Now, a long description of my grade eleven mental and physical problems in an essay on my body issues may seem out of place, but it was a crucial period in my life. It was the year where, according to society, everything went wrong. When I look back on that time period, I really wish someone could have taken my teenage self aside and told me that I was fine just being a human being with flaws. The pressures that I faced from all of the adults in my life to be the best at almost everything were at times subtle, but also often explicitly intense. I was slowly being torn apart by my own mountainously high expectations. Now, almost a decade later, I feel like I have healed. I am confident in my abilities without a million sources of external approval. I am capable of managing my time and limitations. I learned a lot about my self thanks to that year of self-destruction, but none of that matters because I am fat.

Before the year of endless sick, I was very active. I loved to run and I played field hockey on my school team. Mono, however, took me months to fully recover from. I had to drop all sports in my graduating year. I also went through a period of terrible eating, not by choice, but by circumstance. I went on an exchange and had to eat cafeteria food for half a summer. Fresh fruits and vegetables were rather limited and most things were covered in a thick layer of gravy. Perhaps not the best healthy food for a growing body.

My activity levels and eating habits changed drastically right after I had been starving my body for two months. In the worst of my mono days, I couldn’t eat more than a bowl of soup because I wasn’t strong enough to chew or lift utensils. Consequently, I lost quite a bit of weight and was very perversely proud of that fact. Afterwards, however, I quickly went from a size ten to the utterly massive and terrible size of twelve.
My family noticed my weight gain right away and they were not happy. I was counselled to eat less because I was consuming too much for a teenage girl. I was never told to diet, but I felt guilty every time I helped myself to food. After Christmas, I remember lounging on the couch in my graduation hoodie when a family member commented that it looked like I had put on quite a few pounds over the holiday season. Now, seeing that I was wearing a hoodie the size of OMG GINORMOUS huge, so large that it was almost a dress and could have fit three entire Maggies in its folds, I was rather unimpressed with this person’s ability to tell if I had gotten fat or not. However, they just gave me a concerned look when I pointed this out and told me to eat fewer sweets.

Somehow, this extra size meant that I was failing at life. I was a loser. All of the other things I was doing didn’t matter because I was FAT. I didn’t know how to respond to all of these judgments. I felt bad, but I didn’t actually think that there was anything wrong with me. I liked my body (to an extent) and I thought that my family was being irrational and silly.

Shortly after I graduated, I stumbled across a still open chat window between family members who were discussing my sudden tipping onto the fat end of the body scale. I didn’t know what to do to make them stop, so I didn’t willingly speak with anyone on that side of the family for six months. It was passive aggressive, but at seventeen, I wasn’t quite ready to stand up to my parents and tell them to shut up. I went with the next best thing: ignoring the issue, hoping it would go away and slowly internalising the hate.

Unfortunately, the familial harassment didn’t stop after this quiet war of phone call avoidance. I was still living with my mother who bounced between supportive and not (she often warned me that men preferred thinner, fitter women so I should shape up before university). I took a year off of school and worked at Wal-Mart. Even though the job was physically demanding, money was tight that year and I bought most of my lunches from the store itself because I had a discount. However, Wal-Marts are not known for their healthy, nutritious food. I put on more weight. Family members began to buy me ugly, baggy clothing meant to hide my corpulence. I was a size sixteen by the end of the year, but I was still valiantly trying to hold onto the idea that what I weighed didn’t matter.

Then I went to university. I moved from my small British Columbia town to the cosmopolitan city of Montreal entirely on my own. It was perhaps one of the loneliest periods of my life. Sitting in my new dorm room, I watched all of the other girls move in around me accompanied by their parents and a truckful of furniture and electronics. I felt exceptionally out of place among these young women with cell phones, expensive clothing and designer purses. I also felt like the ugliest person in the world. I was, as far as I could tell in those first few weeks, the fattest, most comely person in my entire residence. I wondered if I would ever fit in and find friends, or if I should just slink back home and work at Wal-Mart for the rest of my life. Fortunately, my angst eventually lifted, I found a group of friends and I started to adapt. Not all adaptations, however, are healthy.

I lived in a women’s only residence. There was a lot of body hatred within those walls and it was contagious. In particular, there were a few people in my group who were particularly frantic about their own bodies and they tried to make everyone around them join in the self-hatred. Unfortunately, their efforts were very effective on me. In a residence, when the food is terrible, I discovered that it was very easy to just not eat very much. In fact, it was easy to skip meals altogether. Things didn’t taste very good or the food was off. Sometimes there simply wasn’t enough time to get to meals. I tried to limit my eating as much as possible. It became a personal challenge. Just how little could I eat and still keep functioning? How many lunches could I skip in a week? Or could I just make due with a little yogurt? Everyone feared the freshman 15 in that first year. It was like a phantom standing just behind the cafeteria door, almost out of sight, but always there, staring and judging. I was constantly hungry. I would sit doing homework late at night dreaming of food. I rarely kept anything in my room, save for some emergency soup and crackers and the occasional piece of fruit that I snuck out of the kitchen. Hunger gnawed at me everyday, but I was strong and told myself that I would get used to it.

As I said, when I arrived at university, I was a size sixteen. I spent four months fretting about how fat I was and how terrible I looked. I had a full length mirror in my bedroom and I stared at myself often, critiquing my stomach, my legs, and my torso. I was so utterly and completely imperfect that it made me weep.

In December, I climbed on a plane and went home for Christmas. After all of the overjoyed parental welcomes had ended, I was sitting with my mom when she told me that she wanted me to try on a pair of pants that she had. I grabbed them, slipped them on and they fit perfectly. They were a size nine. I had been so obsessed with being fat all semester that I hadn’t noticed the drastic weight loss that I had underwent. A rather unhealthy weight loss now that I look back at it. My family thought that I looked great and I was happier than I had been in months. I was beautiful and thin! It only took severe amounts of stress, sleep deprivation and disordered eating. That was a good trade-off, right?

Fortunately, when I arrived back at school, I went from utterly despising my weight and self, to merely wanting to maintain my current body and perhaps to lose just a little bit more. If I could be an eight, I would be perfect. Single digit pants. I hadn’t been single digit pants in years.

This particular state of being lasted for less than a year. I moved out of residence and into my own apartment with a new roommate. We got along fantastically. School was going well, I had friends and a social life. I was happy. And then disordered eating rose its vicious head once more. My roommate started to diet. She invited me to join her and suddenly my contentment with my body disappeared. I had put on a bit of weight once I had started eating proper amounts of food again, and I suddenly seen myself as a corpulent blob. I didn’t officially join her in her diets, but I started cutting foods out of my own diet again. I didn’t skip meals like I once did because my blood sugar issues no longer allowed me to do that, but I did start limiting my intake. At first it was minor. I stopped eating cookies and things like that. However, since I didn’t eat much in the way of junk food in the first place, there wasn’t much to cut out on a daily basis. So I started cutting portion sizes. I had always tried to listen to my body in terms of how much I should eat. However, my family always told me that I ate too much and had stretched my stomach. Maybe if I ate just a little bit less for a while, my body would be happy with smaller portions. As in first year, I began to fantasize about food. My body never got used to the restricted calories, even though I was trying to eat as little as possible for months and months. It grumbled and growled all the time. I would stare at the pantry, but turn away in disgust. I drank glass after glass of water, hoping it would help. It never did.

I lost weight again. People thought I looked great. I fit into my tiny size nine or ten pants instead of my massive size twelve clothes. I could sit down and my stomach wouldn’t press up and over my belt, leaving a bulge. I would stand in front of the mirror stroking my flat abdomen, amazed at the change. I was acceptable. I was thin.

My happiness did not last very long this time. I would see a bad photo of myself and fall into a fit of despair. I would look into the mirror sometimes and see a massive, awkward woman staring back at me, ugly and large. I had no one to talk to about these feelings because I was still afraid that everyone would confirm what I feared the most: that I was fat and therefore worthless.

Eventually, things began to change. The most important thing was that I began a relationship with my current partner. He loved me regardless of weight or size. He reintroduced me to the joys and tastes of food. I gained weight and it bothered me, but not nearly as much as it once had. I would concoct schemes of caloric reductions and exercise regimes, but I would never follow through with them as I once had because I had someone to remind me that I didn’t have to needlessly self-sacrifice in order to be happy and socially acceptable.

Secondly, I found the fat acceptance/liberation part of the blogosphere. The people there talked about things I had never even dreamed of considering. The message that it was okay to be fat, that it didn’t mean that I was unlovable, lazy, slovenly or unhealthy was a miracle for my self-esteem.

I am not perfect. I still find myself breaking into tears and whimpers at the thought of my weight sometimes. I have had temper tantrums where I have thrown clothing across the room in disgust. Sometimes, when my blood sugar crashes and I am about to faint, I can barely make myself eat because eating means getting fatter. I often judge food morally and guilt about what I consume. However, I am slowly getting better .

Currently, I am now a comfortable size fourteen. My body has shifted since my early university days and I don’t think I will ever be a size ten again without a lot of needless effort. Maybe I could diet and exercise myself down to a twelve, but I am comfortable here. I eat well and I am moderately active. I may be pudgier and softer than I want, but at least I am healthy and happy. I am no longer as obsessive about my weight, nor do I walk around dizzy all of the time.

However, the grips of body hatred will probably never leave me forever. A family member came to visit the other weekend. I was so concerned about the fact that I wasn’t thin anymore, that I went and bought one of those silly body shapers. Instead of the desired effect of slimness, I looked chunky and bulgy, my body pushed into an unnatural shape. My attempts at looking slim and trim made me look worse and prompted my family to tell me that I should be avoiding all body hugging clothing styles. Even when I was wearing properly fitted clothing, I was told to lose twenty pounds because everything was “too tight”. After all, I should be draping myself in fabric so as to hide my flaws. At one point, I was berated for not having a scale because I was “hiding from the truth”.

What is the truth? The truth is that I will always be large. Everyday I have to tell myself that it is okay that I take up space. I am allowed to fill the entire seat on the bus and not perch on the side because I am worried about inconveniencing someone with my body. I am allowed to wear clothing and stores should carry things that fit me. I am allowed to take pleasure in how my body looks and how it moves. I am a good person because I try to be kind and compassionate, not because of what I look like. I am intelligent and I spend a lot of time developing my mind. I am dedicated to social justice issues. I want to do things that help make the world a better place. All of these accomplishments and realities should not be and are not destroyed by the mere fact that I am fat. Fat is just a description, not a moral label. Taking up space is what we do as human beings. How we take up space defines who we are and how people will respond to us. I want to be confident in my space, believing that my largeness is just one part of me, not everything, and that it is certainly not something to be ashamed of.

7 thoughts on “Taking Up Space: The Battle with My Body

  1. I’m really happy to read your story because it resonated with me on a different level. The fat-fear gets at all of us. I’m a size six, and I generally don’t worry about my portion sizes. But still, I hear about my friends’ extensive exercise routines, and I think, “Well, I could be toned if I went to the gym.” And if I eat too much junk food, I think, “Well, gaining a few pounds won’t be bad, but what about if I get out of hand?” The thing with being thin is that everyone is telling you how jealous they are or how they wish they could eat like you, and you live in fear of losing that. That people will say, “Honey, you’ve always been so thin! What happened?” And then it feels like more of a judgment because you were thin /once/, so it really MUST be your “fault” you got bigger.

    Ugh…body anxiety is so annoying!

    • Hello Konkonsn!

      Yep, body policing gets EVERYONE. If you fulfil society’s current descriptor of thin, well, then, you had better not ever change because something must be wrong. That assumption that you’ve failed or something in your life has spiralled out of control if you put on a few pounds is so infuriating! I think you’re right when you say people end up living in fear of losing what thin privilege they have and that it eats at people terribly.

      I get caught up by the exercise obsession too. When friends talk about their gym experiences, I start guilting that I “only” exercise at home or outdoors and that I don’t track calorie burns or similar things. Then I try to remind myself that if I enjoy what I am doing, then why should I push myself to find more and more time to dedicate to something I really don’t find all that fun (all the power to people who like gyms. I can’t stand them).

  2. Thank you for this. I’ve also experienced disordered eating, and I really empathise with what you went through. I’m glad you’re in a better place now, though I agree that it’s a process that doesn’t really end.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the way women are expected to apologise for taking up space- your comment about sitting on the bus really resonated with me. I think public transport is one of the areas where those feelings come up for me.

    Anyway, great post. Wishing you well.

    • Many thanks for the comments and well wishes! They are much appreciated and I wish you strength in your own life as well.

      The public space issue is very problematic. There’s this societal perception that women should be able to fold themselves up into the tiniest possible space while men are allowed to flop their legs open and lounge. I’ve had many a trip on the bus where I either cannot move or refuse to move (on days when I am feeling ornery :)) and my space is not respected. It happens on the sidewalk as well. I have noticed that people will move for my partner (who is male) more than they will move for me.

  3. I have always been a small size, however, everytime I gain weight as certain times my family always makes it known to me. As if I already don’t know. My boyfriend is chubby, (I call him my Chubby Hubby) and he goes through a lot of fatophobia. Even my mother said that I shouldn’t date him because he was big. His mother is morbidly obese, weighing almost 400 pounds now. My boyfriend and I do everything for her, but she still goes to work every single day. Amazing woman.

    • Yep, I have never understood why people seem to think that I am incapable of looking in a mirror and seeing the changes in my body. Why yes, I have lost/gained weight! How thoughtful of you to point it out to me. After all, I lost all the mirrors in my apartment and I’ve been utterly lost without them!

      And I can’t believe someone told you to not date the person you loved because he was “big”. (Throws up hands at society)

  4. I’ve just come across this post and wanted to say thanks for putting your thoughts down. The title is so appropriate for my own struggles with body imaging, I spent my whole teenage life thinking I was “taking up too much space”. Being a 6 foot girl with a lot of short friends didn’t make things easy, also being a bit tom-boyish I even got the nickname “hagrid” (as in the giant from harry potter), which all my friends thought was hilarious but made me feel horrible.
    I also know how family can do this to you, I remember once aged about 16 sharing a shop changing room with my mum and she started crying because “I’d let myself get so fat”. I also have a sister who is a size 8UK/4USA and will spirale into days when she won’t get out of bed because she’s “soooo fat”.
    I’m glad you feel more comfortably with yourself nowadays. I can say nowadays that I no longer look at myself in the mirror and list everything that is disgusting, I now think in a more postive/constructive way like “I like this, this and this, need to work more on these other bits”.

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