I live in the suburbs about 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles. We’re not that hard to find, and if you happen to be a flat-earther it’s even easier: just head north on the 101 freeway and right before you drive off the face of the planet, take a hard right. I go to L.A. a lot, but I avoid certain parts, like Venice Beach, because I eat carbs, exceed the weight limit and am considered fat.
Okay, I’m not really fat, I’m chubby. I certainly don’t fit into the L.A. stereotype of a woman (or the entire North American continent’s stereotype of a woman): the type who exercises and starves herself to death just to fit into someone else’s ideal of what a woman’s body should look like.
Fat was in the cards for me. I was a fat kid, which was difficult because no one likes fat kids. I got fat-shamed by pretty much everyone: schoolmates, teachers, my parents, and especially the media.
School was difficult also. I hated it because it had nothing to offer me. Kids were mean, teachers were mean, what was the point? The only thing I was learning was to hate myself even more. I didn’t fit into the narrow mindedness of school administrators and teachers; I was a round peg and they were square, rigid, and tried to fit me into their square holes.
I ended up dropping out of high school. Yep, I’m a high school drop out. They really should change that phrase though, it makes it seem like I was the failure, when really, it was high school that failed me, so I left.
In elementary school, I did have this one teacher who, although wasn’t the nicest person, was really into books and reading, and I loved that because I did too; books were my escape. I was a voracious reader, I always had a book with me. I would hole up in my room, safely tucked away from all the heartbreak the world was offering me, my nose inches from the pages that were capturing my attention.
So this teacher would read to us every day for an hour after our lunch break, which was my absolute favorite part of the school day. I remember her reading us The Hobbit, which would not necessarily be one of my preferences, but she made it magical. Every day I looked forward to resting my head on my desk, closing my eyes, and listening to her bring Tolkien’s characters to life.
One day, she thought it would be a good idea to have her students learn speaking skills by reading aloud from a book in front of the class, like she did, which would be a good idea if you weren’t a fat introvert like I was. She brought in a big pile of books and told us she would go through a stack, call out the title of the book, and when you heard one you liked, to raise your hand and she’d hand you the book to read.
Well, the way my mind worked, there was always a delay in processing any information I would receive, so it would take me a moment to capture it, process it, and then respond. The teacher called out this one book that sounded really good to me, but because of my mind’s delay process, it took me a moment before I excitedly raised my hand.
By that point, she has already moved on to the next title, which ironically, was called The Fat Cat… and can you get where I’m going with this? As the title suddenly registered with me, the enthusiastic hand that was suspended above my head slowly sank, and any joy I had about the task completely drained out of me.
I sat there frozen.
My teacher, the one I counted on to guide and educate me, asked out loud, in front of the entire class, “Do you want to read The Fat Cat?” To say she was insensitive is like saying Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have bad manners.
You could hear a pin drop. The entire class was staring at me, waiting in anticipation for my answer, because they knew my life at that moment was over, and they wanted to bear witness.
It was a lose-lose situation: If I said no, I was going to be humiliated because everyone was gonna know I didn’t want to read a book titled The Fat Cat… but if I said yes, I was going to be humiliated because I’d be reading from a book titled The Fat Cat.
See what I mean?
The pressure was building. I sat there contemplating my fate, and I could sense my teacher’s impatience, so I blurted out a shaky “Yes.” Then I had to get up in front of the entire class and read from this fucking book! I could’ve said no. I could’ve ran out of there crying, hopefully garnering some sympathy in the process, but I didn’t. I stood up, took the book from my teacher’s hand, and proceeded to read it out loud.
It was a kid’s book, sorta like Dr. Seuss, so every other sentence was talking about the goddamn Fat Cat. I must have said that phrase 20 times, and each time I said it, the class snickered and guffawed. To make matters worse, the boy I secretly had a crush on was sitting in the front row.
I was inadvertently fat-shaming myself.
It was one of the toughest days of the school year. But you know what? I finished the book, walked back to my desk with my head held high, pretending I wasn’t humiliated and that it didn’t hurt me to the core to have my fellow classmates laugh in my face, and took my seat with as much pride as I could muster.
I did it, and I survived, and I found out I had a propensity for public speaking. It made me a little stronger, and I believe I made a tiny dent that day, momentarily taking the shame out of the word fat. Not for them… not for my classmates or my teachers or my parents or anyone else that was cruel towards me… but for me. The kids could snicker and point and laugh at me, but they couldn’t take away my my resolve… my bravery and courage.
And to me, that lesson is more valuable than anything that comes out of a school book.