It fascinates me when my grandmother lights candles. She moves at a lethargic pace, slowly igniting each wick as if she is watering a seed. My heart races while I watch her, because the flame spreads up the match quickly, yet her thumb never retreats. She doesn’t flinch as the fire moves closer and closer towards her vulnerable flesh. It’s as if her fingers are fireproof after decades of routinely evading the edge of the scorch.
That’s how I felt as a child in a fat body. In order to live my life, I had become fireproof— calloused to withstand the burning hatred and scorn aimed at my body.
At least that’s what I told myself. But deep down, I had swallowed fat shame and it burned every garden of self-acceptance inside of me. Even though I was sent generic, mainstream body positivity messages from an early age, I don’t have a single childhood memory that isn’t charred by fatphobia— the fear, hatred, and discrimination towards fat people.
At age 11, while I was packing for my first trip to a sleepaway summer camp, my mom sent me into Bed Bath and Beyond with cash to buy sheets for my bunk. I used the bulk of the money to buy a waist trainer and a thigh master, and bought the dirt-cheapest sheets I could find. I planned to hide my weight loss apparatuses from my mom under my bed and smuggle them out for nightly exercises. While I was paying, the lady behind the counter picked up the waist trainer, gave me a wink, and said “good for you, honey.”
At camp, I was forced to eat “horrendous” foods like pasta and white bread, which made me terrified of gaining even more weight. So when my counselor asked me why I only ate meat at meals and nothing else, I expressed my concern that camp was making me fat. She responded, “It doesn’t matter what you eat. As long as you exercise, you’ll still lose weight. But good for you for being health-conscious.”
When I was 12, my friend invited me to go on vacation with her family, so I used my savings from babysitting to buy a tube of fat-burning gel. After rubbing it on my stomach, I wrapped my torso in plastic wrap and left it on overnight to shower off in the morning. I performed that ritual every night for a week leading up to the trip, and the only outcome was bedsheets that smelled mildly like acid for a month. When I told my friend that the gel didn’t bring any results, she said “well good for you for trying, at least.”
At age 13, I tried to lose weight for my cousin’s wedding by joining a triathlon training program at a local gym. One day after practice, my coach asked me why I had signed up. I told her plainly, without shame or hesitation, “because I have a dress I need to fit into.” She patted me on the back and congratulated me for “taking ownership of my health.”
So in all these weight-loss endeavors, in which I walked around in a “before” body, only a temporary abomination, why didn’t body positivity save me from being suffocated by shame? In a world that constantly preached self-love and appreciating beauty on the inside, why didn’t body positivity help me, well, love my body?
Because body positivity was never meant for me. While it’s true that the body positivity movement was initially created by folx in marginalized bodies for their own survival, it has since been commandeered by thin women who cry “love yourself and love your body, as long as you’re not too fat.”
As a child, I exceeded the weight limit for who deserved unconditional body acceptance. In fact, dieting corresponded almost perfectly with my social image. It’s just what was expected of me. The nerds were always studying, the jocks were always playing sports, and the fat kids were always dieting.
Body positivity allowed everyone who heard my weight-loss confessions to celebrate my disordered relationships with food and exercise. Body positivity let euro-centrically beautiful girls wear T-shirts that read “love yourself” while not letting me sit with them at lunch. My friends reassured me that body-shaming is never acceptable, and then in the next breath discussed their upcoming diet— or everything they were doing to avoid looking like me. The movie stars of my childhood encouraged girls to appreciate “beauty on the inside” but still acted in movies that made fat people the butt of the joke. Body positivity allowed my pediatrician to have a conversation with me about maintaining a high self-esteem and then unnecessarily weigh me half-naked so that my weight charts would give me the “best possible outcome.”
None of these scenarios gave me justice, because body positivity was used by women who wanted to feel less insecure about their already socially-acceptable bodies. But it wasn’t enough to give me peace in my socially-unacceptable body.
That’s why I needed fat positivity. I needed to be told that in my fat body, without changing a hair on my head, I was allowed to have unconditional permission to eat, to stop feeling ashamed of how I looked in pictures, and to wear whatever I wanted— which were all the reasons why I dieted. I needed to be told that fat bodies specifically, not just bodies in general, were worthy of respect.
But I was deprived of fat positivity because the world was afraid of looking like me. And because unlearning weight stigma is taxing and incredibly difficult, to say the least, I was given body positivity instead, which was much more palatable for the adults in my life.
It is absolutely true that thin folx struggle with body insecurities as well, and all body image issues are painful and valid, no matter what you look like. This is precisely why fat positivity is necessary not just for fat kids, but thin children as well. A body hierarchy hurts everyone, because while those at the top may benefit from thin privilege, they still live in quiet fear of sliding down the social ladder — and they know the inferno that’s waiting for them at the bottom. The thin kids who saw me being bullied for my weight no doubt became insecure about their own bodies, because they were afraid of the wrath turning on them. This is why liberating my fat body would have given body peace to everyone.
I am no longer visibly fat. I guess my body changed sometime in later adolescence. But the world that chewed me up and spat me out hasn’t changed. And what about the culture that my future daughter will face? And her daughter? The world needs to change to acknowledge body fat as just another benign form of body diversity, to refute the idea that a fat body is a prison sentence, and generic body positivity won’t accomplish that.
My story is the story of all current and former fat kids who were told that they don’t matter because of how they look, who withstood hellfire for so long that their spark dwindled, who were given fire-resistant gear in public but encouraged to burn themselves in private. If we want to break the cyclical, generational trauma of body shame in our families and communities, then we owe it to our children to empower them with true body justice.
By The Fatphobia Slayer