No one changes because you shame them into changing.
“Are you sure you should eat that?”
I can’t remember the first time I was asked that, but I was very young, maybe 6 or 7? I felt it far before the words were said aloud. The looks. The awareness of every cookie, every second helping. It was another person in the room. It was a bully at the dinner table.
It was a perfect reason to begin sneaking food. And sneak I did.
Let me say this now. Please internalize it: No one changes because you shame them into changing. Did you get that? No one. Especially a child. And if they do, it doesn’t take. It’s not out of self-love. It doesn’t come from a place of strength. It doesn’t last. It just leads to more pain.
I have been fat-shamed by my mother, my father, my grandmothers, boyfriends, work colleagues, strangers, and Weight Watchers Group Leaders. All of these people were wrong. At the time, I felt I was wrong. I took in their words, their looks, their comments. I believed I was bad, ugly, unlovable, fat, disgusting.
Are you getting the picture?
I’ve thought a lot about food, my body, my weight, exercise. I obsessed. I did this since I was 8 on a fairly consistent basis. My weight has always fluctuated.
As a young adult, I’d go on international business trips and fear weight gain, so I’d starve myself and come home a shell, jeans sagging at my hips. Later in life, after decades of obsession, pregnancies, chronic illness, thyroid disease, and medication, I gained weight. I’ve been up to 30 pounds “overweight.” And by overweight, I mean heavier than the weight at which I feel my best.
I have lost weight, consciously, with great care because of my history, never—well almost never—restricting any foods, but rather practicing moderation, portion control, and exercising. But this is not a post about weight loss. See, I got side-tracked because. Because, fat-shaming. Because, ingrained there is something wrong with my body. Enough. This has got to stop.
I remember the first time I found my voice. The first time I stood up to a shamer. I was in my 20s, living in Philly. I had a boyfriend, a job, an apartment, and I was doing well. I was in good shape, exercised regularly, probably too much, and most of my disordered eating was under control. But I became obsessed with one particular indulgence.
A deli in my neighborhood served sandwiches with sprouts, soups, and other health food type items, but I only had eyes for its glorious soft-serve ice cream air pump machine. Dispenser of my delicious indulgence. What would the flavor of the day be? Would it be peanut butter so I could swirl with chocolate, or would I just go with my usual, the vanilla/chocolate swirl?
I was a regular. And I’d always order a large. Though the calorie count wasn’t too high, I’m sure the sugar content was through the roof. But I didn’t care. There was a lot of air in that giant swirl, so the bigger the better for an eater like me, someone with so much experience restricting foods.
And then one day it happened: I was fat-shamed. Or portion-shamed. Or some kind of shamed. And I spoke up.
My boyfriend and I sat at our favorite table by the window. I was about to dig in when a little man in his 50s sat at the table next to us with his wife. He looked over at me, then at my cone, and as I brought it to my lips he made eye contact with me and said:
“Wow. That is huge. Are you really going to eat all that?”
And everything sank. Everything sank through the linoleum, through the concrete, into the Philadelphia sewage system, and into the Schuylkill River.
I wanted to die. I wanted to throw the cone in the trash. I wanted to throw the cone at him. I felt sick. My boyfriend knew. He was quiet, but he knew. He saw I was upset. I think he said something like “just let it go.” I remember thinking, I can’t let this go. This is not let go-able.
I tried eating. I tried ignoring the little man. I sat, I stewed, I was humiliated. And then I got angry. How dare he comment on what I was putting in my mouth?
So I finally said something.
“Excuse me,” I said trying to get his attention. At this point I’m sure at least three minutes had passed, maybe more. I don’t know, I was suspended in time.
“Sir, excuse me.” He looked up. “That comment you made before, about my ice cream cone? That was none of your business.”
“Oh, I was just joking, I mean it was really big. Come on, I mean it was so big.”
“Right,” I said, “It doesn’t matter how big it was; we don’t know each other. You are not my friend. You don’t get to comment on what I eat.”
He stammered, and again said he was just joking. It didn’t matter because I had found my voice. I stood up to my shamer. I hope he learned and never did that again. Ever.
He did apologize, but also made sure to mutter something like “I was just joking” to his wife.
My boyfriend smiled. He was proud of me.
And I got my appetite back. Wow, that was a good cone: peanut butter swirl.