I made a lot of changes to myself in 2017. Playing around with my appearance. Dressing in brighter colors. My therapist commented that it was like I was ready to be seen. That really stuck with me, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
Specifically, I was thinking about what it was in my childhood and adolescence that made me feel like I had to hide. Because I have been hiding, for over forty years. I know where it started. It started when my mom went to the doctor and had him put me on a diet for the very first time. I was five or six years old. I can vividly remember looking at these mimeographed sheets of paper that were telling me that for breakfast I had to have half a grapefruit and black coffee. I remember wondering if I had to have the coffee. (Diets were one size fits all in 1977-78.) I remember thinking that this would fix whatever was wrong with me. I don’t really remember thinking of myself as “fat” or that “fat” was a bad thing to be. I learned soon what that meant. When I was seven, I started third grade in a new school system, and for the first time, I started being bullied.
Bullying is awful and traumatic in the best of cases, but what I experienced was well beyond “there’s a guy who steals my lunch money”. For four years, I was one of the kids that every class has, the ones that no one likes and everybody picks on. My only friends were the other outcasts. Even my 3rd grade teacher didn’t like me. At first, I tried to find ways to fit in. But any kid who’s ever been bullied on that level can tell you, that never works. Any attempt you make to change gets swatted down. This would’ve been around 1979/80, and designer jeans were starting to be the thing. I was a fat kid, so of course, there was no way I was going to get a pair of Jordache or whatever was coolest at the time. My mom got me a pair of off-brand jeans that had “Pizzazz” embroidered on the pocket. I wore them to school and I was so excited. It took about ten seconds for someone to go “hey, she’s wearing pizza jeans!” Which was, of course, hilarious–the fat girl wearing pizza jeans. I don’t know that I wore them again to school.
I was that kid in school, and I was that kid at church. And at home, I was the fat disappointment.
That was around the time I tried Weight Watchers for the first time (of many times). I sat in meetings, the only kid, and I tried. I tried so hard. I was always the good kid, like if I could just be good enough, do well enough in school, be nice enough, it would erase the awful failure of me being fat. I remember being hungry at night and wanting an apple more than anything, but I knew I “shouldn’t” eat it, because I didn’t have any fruit exchanges left that day. When I did stray from whatever diet I was on, I was consumed with guilt and certain that I’d ruined everything forever and would never ever lose weight.
And the bullying kept going. It started happening at church too, bad enough that my family started going to a church in another town. That’s surprising to me now. The message that bullied kids got in the 80s was “ignore them and they’ll stop” or even worse “well you must be doing something”. Or that if you stand up to a bully, they’ll stop. For the record, that last one might work for boys–I know some guys who had luck with that–but it does not work for girls. My attempts to fight back, retort, ignore… it all either did nothing or made it worse. It reached a fever pitch in middle school. Kids wouldn’t let me sit down on the bus. The “popular girls” would say scathing things about my clothes, my attempts at makeup, my hair. I started “accidentally” missing the bus so my dad would have to drive me to and from school. I’d fake sick to stay home. All the things that kids do to try and protect themselves.
Invisibility was another protective attempt. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church, the type that teaches that women should “keep silent” in church, and be modest and not flashy and all that. So I let my mom dress me a lot of the time. What did it matter? I was fat, and there was no way I’d be able to find cool clothes anyway. I never really found my own style. Staying hidden, not standing out, that was what was safe. My only desire through elementary school and middle school was for people not to notice me. Because if they didn’t notice me, they wouldn’t pick on me.
The bullying got better in 8th grade, when I finally went to the school counselor and demanded that he change my class schedule. My worst tormentors were the other kids in the gifted and talented program, and the school had us tracked in all of the same classes as “advanced” classes. My counselor tried to talk me out of it–didn’t I want to be in an advanced class? For the first time in my life, I stood my ground, and he took me out of some of the classes, giving me a few hours of respite every day. I suspect that, plus the fact that I finally stood up for myself in a real way, made things start to get better.
But that stuff leaves deep, deep scars. It made me constantly self-conscious. Every time I was in public, it felt like everyone was watching me, waiting for a chance to laugh at me. I kept trying to hide. I did the bare minimum with things like my hair and clothing, and stopped wearing makeup altogether after college. What did it matter? I’d never look “right”. For me to even try was laughable. Even though I made enormous strides in accepting my body as it is, and finding ways to take care of it without obsessing about punishing it, I still didn’t really love it. I tolerated it. My body and I had an uneasy detente.
A couple of years ago, when I really started hitting some new peaks in my recovery from all of this, I started playing with makeup again, a little. I started experimenting with my hair, coloring it wild colors, making myself visible again.
2017, though. In January I got my first tattoo. Not to be too melodramatic, but it was life-changing. I had artwork on my body. I had permanently decorated myself. I started wearing makeup regularly when I’d go out. I started buying some clothes that I really liked, instead of just “is it cheap and does it fit”. I took hair experimentation to whole new levels, learning how to dye and even cut it myself. That level of control seemed to make a difference, to have pride in doing things myself. 2017 was the Year of the Selfie. I took endless photos of myself, and posted them online. The outpouring of support and encouragement was astonishing.
I started to view my face and body as something to be celebrated, to be adorned and decorated in ways that made me happy, and fuck anybody who didn’t like it. Fuck anybody who would look sideways at a fat 45 year old woman with purple and green spiky hair wearing motorcycle boots. I was happy. My body no longer felt like something to be ignored. I was finally ready to be seen. I finally started to feel “good enough”.
It’s been amazing. I can’t wait to see what I learn to do in 2018.
(Oh, and that image? That’s my tattoo, an Alliance starbird from Star Wars, with two reminders to myself in Aurebesh: “Hope” and “Rebel”.)