When I was seven years old, Sister Irene, an elderly nun that we used to visit occasionally on Sunday afternoons at an open convent community, made a comment about me to my parents, in front of me. “You’d better keep an eye on Magda,” she said, as we sat in the cafeteria eating lunch, “you’d better watch her or she’ll grow up to be a fat girl.”
And there it was, this simple sentence that was uttered almost in passing in the middle of a meal. A sentence that no doubt Sister Irene forgot shortly after she uttered the words but to me they were words that shook my seven year old world. Before that moment, I was happily enjoying my meal, blissfully lost in the excitement and wonder of being a child. My general disposition has always been happy, it certainly was in those moments prior to realizing that there was something wrong with me. I remember my stomach cramping with nerves. I remember feeling as though a veil had been lifted and once it had been removed I realized that despite previously thinking life was happy and free it wasn’t and in the midst of it, I also realized that I wasn’t okay. I wasn’t good enough. That people who looked at me with smiles and friendly faces were actually judging me and every bite of food that made its way into my mouth. Only, I hadn’t realized before that moment that I might be “fat”, that there might be something about me that was causing scrutiny and worry in the eyes of others.
I had been blissfully ignorant of the world of dieting and weight worries, of self-esteem issues and of a complex relationship with food. But that one sentence changed everything. I realized that my parents were listening to Sister Irene, that they were contemplating what she had said. I began to notice that I was being watched at mealtimes and not at mealtimes. Family friends would remark, “Magda, you already had one you can’t have anymore” at parties and gatherings. The net of observers had widened.
I began to develop a fear of eating in front of other people. I became incredibly self-conscious about what others would think of me when they saw me putting food in my mouth. I began eating what was “allowed” at meals, or at the very least what wouldn’t bring additional scrutiny but then I would be starving later on. I would beg and negotiate with my younger sister to bring me food. Unlike me, she just didn’t have a big appetite and so everyone worried about her not eating enough and so having her go to the kitchen to get extra food wouldn’t be bad. Only of course, she wouldn’t be eating it, I would. And eventually that had to stop, especially when I could feel my sister looking at me in the same way as the others.
When I was a kid the old saying, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was really popular. We would blurt it out any time another kid would pick on us on the playground. Only, words do hurt and they bruise and they leave scars. I have carried my scars around for over 25 years.
My issues with food and my body image became a constant in my life. And the truth is I don’t ever remember a time after that when I haven’t been aware of the fact that, “I’m fat”. Even at seven … when I wasn’t. Her words and a culture that is just as tainted with the belief of those words became my truth. Fat girl, fat girl, fat girl … this is the script that has been running in every cell of my being for nearly twenty-eight years.
In my late teens, I made the connection to those words that came from Sister Irene and my lifelong struggle with weight and self-esteem. In some ways, it was a relief to call it out. To be able to say, yes her words crushed me and they changed the way I could look at food and the way I saw myself. They took away the innocence. Food became about so much more than just nourishment, it was linked to acceptance and approval. My enjoyment of food would always be scrutinized, and even when it wasn’t in my mind I was convinced that it was. I was sure that everyone looked at me the same way that she did that day.
But in the years that followed understanding that those words were this deeply embedded root wasn’t enough for me to shake off the weight. Both physically and emotionally. I remember having conversations with my mother about it and she would say, “well good, now that you know why this is an issue you can let it go and it doesn’t have to keep you down anymore. You can be free now.” And I wanted to. I wanted my life and my body to prove her wrong! “See, see, I’m not fat! You didn’t win!” I wanted to scream. It was as though I had to break this “prophecy” in my life in order to be free. And so naturally the only way to break it was to be skinny.
But a few weeks ago I realized something. Believing Sister Irene’s words about ending up fat wasn’t really the problem. Believing that “being fat” was the worst thing that could happen to me was the problem. I bought into the lie! And you know what I’m not the only one.
You see “being fat” is supposed to scare us. It is supposed to almost categorically assure of that a great number of joys in this life will be out of our reach. And I knew this.
I knew for example, that I could never be loved by others and certainly not by a man. I would never be popular enough. Heaven knows, you have completely vetoed your own chances of being considered beautiful because as a fat girl you know that you can only be “actually quite pretty for a fat girl.” You can even accomplish a lot of things in the world, you might even be a brilliant mind, a great artist, a wonderful speaker or any number of other admirable qualities and accomplishments but all it will take for someone to tear you down is for those words to be uttered … “ah, if only she wasn’t fat.” Because you know, being fat vetoes all of those things.
Only you know what … IT DOESN’T!!
I may have been crushed by Sister Irene’s words all those years ago but one thing that never left me was my happy disposition. I am actually a very happy person, I am an optimist. I believe that I can find beauty in the simplest and most ordinary things and that even when things look grim I have always been able to find strength and joy out of the ashes. And so, when I look at my life I see that despite the best efforts of the world to convince me that my worst fate was being fat, I have to say in my own life this hasn’t been an infallible truth.
As it turns out, you CAN fall in love, you can have a great marriage, and husband who loves you. You can have a beautiful family. You can matter to people and not just because you look a certain way. You can pursue your dreams and be the person that you want to be. Most of all, you can be happy.
Because the truth is that being happy isn’t guaranteed by external factors. Being skinny doesn’t give you a pass to preventing life’s heartaches and trials. I have know some miserable skinny people, just as I have know miserable ‘fat’ people. Life happens to ALL of us, regardless of our size.
Am I saying that you shouldn’t ever want to pursue being thin? Does this mean that I forgo health concerns because I think we should all dig our heels in and be fat? No.
What I am saying is this, if you spend your whole life waiting for the external circumstance to be perfect in order to believe that you have worth and value then you will wake up one day full of regrets.
A few months ago, I caught myself in one of these regretful thoughts. I wanted to plan a trip to the beach with my husband and kids. The first thought that popped into my head was, “maybe next year when I am skinnier.” And I had to stop myself and I sat there thinking, why? Aren’t ‘fat’ people allowed to want to enjoy these things? Don’t our bodies also enjoy the sand and the waves, the breeze and the sun? I had a good cry about how warped my own mind still is about the things that I am permitted to do or that are acceptable for me as a heavier woman to enjoy.
But I want to change that. I want to live my life to the fullest right where I am and how I am. Maybe in the future I will be thinner, as someone mindful of my health I hope so, but in the meantime my life can still be full of joy and wonder and exciting adventures. I am cannot allow these externals to define my existence. If I did, I would constantly be living in either the past or the future and ultimately robbing myself of the present moment.
I don’t want to spend my life chasing some ever-changing ideal that in the grand scheme of life seems so insignificant. If ever there was an appropriate use for the hashtag ” #firstworldproblems ” the way in which we women of the west obsess over our bodies would be it. It is a clear reflection of how much time we have on our hands. But the truth is we don’t have that much time. Time isn’t stopping for any of us and imagine all that could be accomplished if we focused on far more meaningful and important issues.
I imagine Sister Irene passed away countless years ago, though I couldn’t tell you when because my parents eventually stopped taking us to visit with her and life swept us in a different direction. For a long time I was angry with her and with myself for letting her words fester in me for so many years. And mostly, I was angry that I was allowing my life to be defined by her words, I was angry because I was fat. And it hurt even more. But the lessons that I have learned from those words have been immense. And not only in respect to being fat, but also in just how heavy words really are. Use them wisely and with compassion!
This is not a call to giving up on ourselves, an anthem of slothfulness or frumpiness. Rather it is a call to live life FULLY. To embrace these moments and this ONE LIFE regardless of whether our appearances are acceptable to others or not. Don’t wait to live. Don’t buy the lie. Fat is not the worst thing that can happen to you. Your body is not the worst thing that can happen to you. It is a tool that you use and so by all means use it wisely, but don’t be defined by it. When I look at the world, at history and at our current struggles, to allow myself to be defined by my flesh seems to cheapen and trivialize this life.
So perhaps it is time for some new bucket lists. Time to plan that beach trip. Time to be in those photos with my kids again … because even though I am usually the photographer, I was there too and I don’t want to fear being seen. Time to start chasing dreams without worrying that someone will point and say, “that’s so lovely, if only she wasn’t fat.”
I pray you chase your dreams too! I pray that you realize that you are not just your body. I pray that we can start thinking about the consequences of our words, about their weight and the lasting scars they can leave. And I pray for the healing of those scars in those who bear them.