When I was 15 and a punk rock wannabe at heart, I attended a plethora of shows at a venue in a strip mall in Sylvania, Ohio, called The Happy Badger. The Happy Badger, run by a family of hippies – the patriarch had been given the moniker “Happy Badger” while living in a commune, he told me one night when checking on a group of us kids who were basking in the sunset outside – was part internet cafe, part farm-to-table lunch spot, part concert venue, and part artisan market, wholly a beautiful anomaly in the Rust Belt in 2004. What I remember most about this venue was an art piece in the market section – all bright, rich hues of pink, yellow, blue, and green painted on the thick wooden frame of a mirror, a cream-hued plank spreading diagonally across the glass, emblazoned with “I’ve always liked the time before dawn because there’s no one around to tell me who I’m supposed to be so it’s easier to remember who I am.”
It was surely my silly, teenaged, wannabe-punk self that was drawn to that phrase, thinking that I was much more damaged that I was, that I was putting on some sort of facade for the universe to see. Somehow, through aging, I relate more to that saying – I bought a print of it when I returned to the short-lived Bowling Green Happy Badger location a few years ago – through my own choice, my own presentation, of my lumpy and obese body.
I can’t really remember the first time I felt ashamed of my body – in that I almost can’t remember a time that I didn’t. My mother drinking Slim Fast shakes in my childhood coupled with being the largest – in stature and size – of my friends for as long as I can remember makes me think it had to be in early elementary school, surely by the time I could fit into women’s sizes shoes when I was in 4th grade. I was gangly and awkward.
By junior high the general niceties of childhood had worn off and years of bullying began for me, stretching into high school. Usually about my weight, usually the coolest boys in the grade pointing and whispering or, more cruelly, asking me on “dates” to watch me blush and stammer and then returning to their friends’ uproarious laughter. A boy I considered a friend told me that designers didn’t make clothes in larger sizes because “clothes don’t look good on fat people.” I shrunk back into my ill-fitting jeans and band tees and considered disappearing.
College in Brooklyn was another series of general disappointments – plagued with sudden, immense anxiety, I holed up in my dorm rooms and apartments and isolated myself, possibly still anticipating cruelty from my peers and the general public. A shooting happened a few blocks from my apartment sophomore year, which my roommate happened upon the aftermath of, and when she returned to campus, unable to get around the police blockade, my friend group agreed to keep it secret from me if possible, anticipating my not wanting to leave my apartment knowing violence could be right outside.
However, in my college days, the fat acceptance movement was beginning to pick up steam. My friend Gabi started a blog called “Young, Fat, and Fabulous” and I wondered if I could be confident like she was. I started telling myself that I loved my stretch marks, that my big belly was worth revering, that surely I’d have endless confidence, become popular, finally lose my virginity, find people to love me, if I could just love myself first.
When those things didn’t happen immediately, my disappointment remained palpable – the thing about being in a struggle with your weight your whole life is that you set these arbitrary goals and deadlines for yourself, and that habit is near-impossible to break. I would issue a statement of confidence and then immediately wonder how it was being taken by those around me, negating any positive effect I was having to my self-esteem. I left New York and returned to Pittsburgh, quickly falling out of touch with the friends I’d made there, ashamed somehow at my lack of presence for four years of what were supposed to be the best years of our lives.
I’m not sure when I stopped feeling the anxiety about my size, when the tides turned, what made the change real. In lieu of pursuing relationships and building a social life, I threw myself into my career, ladder-climbing. I realized quickly that being the nervous, chubby girl wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I had to appear confident in my skin. My body would have to be good enough. Was good enough, really, in that it kept my brilliant brain awake and alive, and, frankly, no one else was going to praise it, so I might as well do so. In the way that positivity tends to attract positivity, I received waves of compliments from friends and coworkers as I boldly declared myself “fat,” not mincing words, complaining when things didn’t come in my size and rocking the hell out of the things that did. Inside, however, remains a mess – something I’m not sure that can be outgrown.
Nowadays, I work for a clothing company, crafting little punny names and descriptions for products, like a hipper J. Peterman catalog, and they’ve let me start to pour out some of my feelings onto their blog. “She’s really connecting with you,” the editor tells me of my relationship to our reader, my boss says “I’m so proud of you,” and yet I continue to evaluate just the way my lower stomach sags, how my thighs still cause friction and blisters every time I dare to not wear bike shorts under my dresses, I take all of this praise in stride and smile and nod and thank them and still wonder what magical thing someone is going to say to make me feel better about myself.
The bravado from having to be so constantly “on,” to be acutely aware of not criticizing my body, is exhausting. To be totally still and silent is welcome to me now – friends see me as a loud introvert, someone who can’t be at a party too long, who can’t be in places with too many strangers. I know I will fit into the chair in my living room and that this episode of the West Wing on Netflix isn’t going to judge me. There are no questions, nothing to perform for when I am alone.
I crowdsourced from my Facebook friends – my group of people, if I have such a thing, 600 of my nearest and dearest – asked, when was the first time you felt ashamed of your body? Followed, as I generally do, with a positive spin, the suggestion that we all need to be the people that younger version of ourselves needed, and the responses poured in, memories of comparisons to friends, of forced dieting, of well-meaning strangers, and the reality set in on me — we are all this way, we all can point back to a memory or a cluster of memories, the moment when we realized we were irreparably damaged in that very small way. I mused in a later comment, I wonder what I could have been, who I could have become, had I not spent every waking moment of years on years anxious about knocking things over with the span of my hips, of not being able to fit in a desk or past a table at a restaurant, of wondering what cutting words might be hurled my way next.
Could I have been a doctor? Might I have travelled more? Would I have found a relationship? Maybe went out for the volleyball team instead of fearing what the other players would have said of me? Simply known the reality and anxiety of not having to be aware of the amount of physical space I was taking at every moment? Perhaps, most cutting of all, could I actually have been smaller?
I wonder what I could have told me, 15 and bright-eyed and subsisting on the same lunch of four faux-chicken nuggets, single servings of chocolate soymilk and applesauce, hoping desperately to be a size 12, looking into an hand-crafted mirror in a small concert venue, seeing herself — what could I have told her? Nothing tastes as good as thin feels – except all the delicious foods she’s going to get to eat in the next ten years? You will never manage to be in this much control of your life in the next ten years? The world is working against you, why are you also working against you? Some day, this will all pass (or not)? I am starting to realize that it is nothing, that there is nothing, that would have stopped her from feeling bad about herself. Nor is there anything that can be said to me now. I can only be what I am, and that, in the power of comments I receive about being brave, bold, and beautiful for existing, is enough.
Katie Oldaker was born and raised in the Rust Belt. She spends her days in Pittsburgh, crafting product names and writing about body positivity for an indie e-tailer. In her spare time, she is an Associate Fiction Editor at Revolution House Magazine and is at work on a novel.
–Art by Marta Bevacqua
–Art by Alphan Yýlmazmaden
–Art by Seamus Travers