I don't remember the first time someone called me fat, though by second grade it happened with some regularity — our teacher's decision to end that year's class weigh-in by announcing the weight of each student seemed to legitimize the taunting; it provided my classmates with real ammunition, quantifiable proof that I was the heaviest kid in the room.
In high school, I stopped going to the cafeteria — no good, I knew, would come from eating in public. I also stopped going to my locker because the boys who gathered in the hallway and heckled me left me feeling vulnerable, embarrassed and even worse about myself than I already did. I have no idea how many sweaters or books I may have left behind.
Parts of my twenties were no picnic, either.
I forced myself to believe that things would change, otherwise I might have given up. And fortunately some things have changed: Random people — it was almost always men, by the way — no longer pull up beside me at stoplights to tell me I'm fat or to point me in the direction of the nearest McDonald's.
Now when someone calls me the f-word, it's because they're angry with me, upset about something I've said or done or written. They tell me I'm a fat bitch. A fat slob. A big fat loser.
And even though I know people say all kinds of stupid stuff when they're angry, even though I now know better than to let someone else make me feel bad, if I'm being completely honest with myself, and with you, being called fat still hurts. It is my Kryptonite. I don't go home and cry to my mom like I did in second grade, but sometimes, on dark days, I want to do just that.
Why can't I get over that word?
I've been thinking about fat a great deal because I've been paying close attention to this year's presidential election — and Republican candidate Donald Trump's fascination with the weight of others. Trump has mentioned New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's size, suggesting he lay off the cookies.
But women are his most frequent targets. Rosie O'Donnell, for example. Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe, who gained weight after winning her crown and was a subject of last week's presidential debate — Trump, who was an owner of the pageant at the time, accompanied her to a workout at a gym and, while photographers took pictures, said "this is someone who likes to eat." Also, he allegedly called her Miss Piggy. Even one of the campaign buttons seen at Trump's rallies carries a fat-shaming message: "KFC Hillary (Clinton) special: Two fat thighs, two small breasts, left wing."
And while it's surprising that someone who wants to be president of the United States speaks about women — or anyone — that way, the truth is, women are far more likely to be fat-shamed than are men. "Fat is used as an insult towards women more so than men because women are held to a standard that men aren’t held to,'' says Ginny Ramseyer Winter, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Missouri who studies health issues relating to body image.
Large men aren't generally viewed in a pejorative light; they're considered husky or sturdy or built like offensive linemen. Large women are viewed as lazy and ugly and sloppy and destined to live their lives alone in an apartment littered with empty pizza boxes and ice cream cartons.
Because our culture tends to pay more attention to women’s bodies — again, think beauty pageants — our culture tends to consider them fair game for comment. "Women are viewed as these objects for consumption in our culture. So (to many) that makes it OK to make comments about women's appearances that we wouldn't make about men's appearances," says Winter.
I'm not sure how many men can relate to Nancy Bakanowicz's grocery store encounter with a male shopper who stopped her to say: "Wow, you're fat."
"I'm not one of those people who can come up with a snappy comeback,'' says Bakanowicz, a 51-year-old public relations specialist from Warren. "I said, 'Go to hell.'
"I know I'm overweight,'' she adds. "I know I'm a bigger girl. I don't need someone to tell me. I was upset about it, thinking that if he sees me that way, everyone else must too. We've been told for so long that we're not OK ... and won't be unless we lose weight."
So while some of us may cheer the body acceptance movement, applaud Sports Illustrated for including plus-size model Ashley Graham in its swimsuit edition, and be forever grateful to designer Christian Siriano for dressing stars of all shapes and sizes — and starting a clothing line at Lane Bryant — our society has a long, long way to go.
The pretty Disney princesses — who are idolized by so many young girls — are never fat, after all. Nor are romantic leads in movies or on TV — yes, there's a fat character with a boyfriend on this season's NBC drama, "This is Us,'' but so far her story line has revolved around trying to lose weight so she can regain the life she lost to being heavy. In the workplace, large women are less likely to be put in positions that require face-to-face contact with customers. According to a Vanderbilt University study, overweight women almost always earn less than average-size women, and less than all men, regardless of weight. Another study shows that women deemed "very heavy" earn about $19,000 less a year than their average-size counterparts.
The anti-fat message is unrelenting. "Women in particular (are) getting it from the outside ... from the environment, from advertising or other people,'' says Adrienne Ressler, a body image specialist at the Philadelphia-based Renfrew Center, the first residential center for the treatment of eating disorders. "There's such an abhorrence of fat,'' she adds, that if you're a woman and "someone calls you fat, in our society, that's about the worst thing you can say."
Adds Bakanowicz: "We've been conditioned to believe fat equals bad, ugly, unattractive, unlovable, unworthy, disgusting, gross, lazy.
"I'd rather be called a bitch than fat."
Emphasis on looks
Even after all these years — even with women like General Motors' Mary Barra occupying corner offices of corporate America, even with Clinton holding her own in her run for the highest office in the land — our society doesn't just value a woman's appearance, our society values it over everything else.
"I think this goes back a long time when our only purpose was to attract a male partner and have children," says Winter. "We internalize our own value based on appearance and understand that appearance-related, particularly size-related, comments are the most hurtful because that is the most valuable thing in our culture for women."
Knowing that, people — often men — use it when they feel angry or threatened by women and want to put them in their place.
That's what happened to Rachel Lutz.
When the 36-year-old Detroiter, who owns a women's clothing boutique, declined a date from an online suitor, he responded by saying: "You're very fat, you know."
"My pictures didn't change; clearly one of the things he was attracted to was my body,'' says Lutz, who points out that the online guy had told her previously that she was beautiful. "It's a way to save face,'' she says of the comment. "The person tries to hurt the other person to make themselves feel better.
"The adolescent me would have been really crushed by that, but the adult me, just kind of shrugs. ... I know I'm fat. ... When I say it, my friends think I'm being self-deprecating. I'm actually meaning it as an honest term about my body that I'm no longer ashamed of."
As Leah Vernon, a 29-year-old plus-size blogger (beautyandthemuse.net) from Detroit puts it: "If you look in the dictionary, what the word fat is, I'm that. Instead of making this a bad thing, what if we make it a good thing? I am fat. I’m fabulous and fat. I’m confident and fat. I’m stylish, and I’m fat. We have to take these words ... at face value. At the end of the day, they are just words.”
More than a word
Except "fat" will never be just a word for me.
Being called fat reminds me that for too long, I allowed others to define me and hold me back. That for too long I shied away from things that might have exposed me or put me at risk of being singled out yet again — things that are way too personal to tell you, things that I never even told my family because I was embarrassed or scared.
I survived that awful time by forcing myself to believe my life would get better — and, to a large extent, it did. I'm a productive woman. My family loves me. I have friends who care about me. I have a job I love. I travel. I host parties. I speak my mind.
Being called fat makes me think of all the other big girls out there. What if they can't talk themselves into believing? What if they never realize their potential, never find their passion? What if they just fade away into nothingness?
Too often, the word "fat" is used as a weapon.
And I worry about all the young women who will find themselves staring down its barrel.