I spent most of my life believing I was fat. I internalized attitudes about food when I was young that as an adult (and yes, fat) woman I now reject: being fat was bad, and it was to be feared and avoided, no matter the cost. I internalized attitudes about feelings that I also reject. These messages were more nuanced but yet the same as those I received about food: I felt too much, all of the time and other people wouldn’t be able to handle my feelings. My feelings were bad, they were to be avoided, and if I dared to have any feelings, I needed to have them alone.

For years, I was the embodiment of stoicism. Or so I thought. I escaped into substances from the age of 7 or 8, and the first one was food. Nothing compared to when I could eat alone, in the dark, and not worry about being the thing I feared most: fat. This created a vicious cycle of shame and guilt, so I binged to escape the shame and guilt. (Spoiler alert: this method of coping only creates more of the thing you are trying to escape.)

I wasn’t actually fat for the first 28 years of my life. That isn’t to say I didn’t think I was, which is the great tragedy of being average-sized in America: you don’t know you aren’t until it’s too late. Chronic illness and pain arrived shortly before my 27th birthday, my metabolism slowed down as I approached 30, and I got off the sauce for good, which led me right back to food. I came of age in a world where eating disorders were a “skinny girl problem” and with the absence of purging, it’s easy to delude oneself.

As I face my 30th birthday, I have realized there are two distinct Americas when you are a fat white woman: the world you live in as an average size woman who likely thinks she’s fat, and the world you live in when you actually are fat. For myself, I have removed judgment from the word “fat;” it is an adjective, a thing I simply am.

As an average sized woman, with “curves in all the right places,” as many a one-night-stand told me, there was a deeply imbedded fear that men would hit on you in public places because you looked good, because you put lipstick on, because you dared to exist. As a fat woman, I try to shrink myself. I try to avoid calling attention to my size. I am currently taking a night class that is held at a local high school, and the desks (those treacherous chairs with a desk attached on the right side) cut into my stomach and my left butt cheek hangs off the seat. Upon feeling like I was being sliced in half through my midsection, I scanned the room for an alternative option. There were none.I wondered what fat 16 year old girls were supposed to do, day after day? Suffer in silence? Likely yes. They likely shrink to appease the world that is created for average size girls. They pray no one notices their skin hanging off the edge of the seat more than the acceptable measured distance. They know they are fat, but I know that 16 year old me didn’t know that it’s just skin.That is all humans are, after all. We are feelings encased in skin

I can no longer function under the assumption any given store will carry my size. I am ushered toward stores that want my money, yet want to #DropThePlus. They want fat women’s money while simultaneously distancing themselves from us. They don’t actually want to be aligned with a woman built like me. They want to create the illusion that plus size women are a sea of Ashley Grahams, and read the comments on any article about her. Thousands of, but she’s not even plus size! But she’s not fat! Fat is to be avoided, fat is to be feared. Still. When I go shopping with my thin friends, they shop the cute selections at H&M and Forever 21 and wear me like an accessory on their shopping trip. (I don’t know anything about the plus size sections in these stores, which I am told exist. I have grown accustomed to there not being one, and my skinny friends grow uncomfortable in a plus size section, almost as if they are afraid of being seen there. Afraid of being fat.And let me be clear that my intention is not to take thin or average sized women to task, as they have their own struggles. But this, this shrinking I am expected to do? It isn’t about them.)

With Halloween arriving quickly, I am reminded more and more how, as a young woman, Halloween is a holiday for the average sized America. Protests will also arrive, saying that fat girls can dress up, too, but when Halloween as a young woman is mermaids and sexy nurses and sexy nachos (sexy anything, really) and we live in an America where fat women are either over-sexualized in the form of chubby chasing and BBW porn (which serves its place, don’t get it twisted) or stripped of our sexuality, I don’t know where I fit in. I have to find my place in an America I don’t understand, because if I go for sexy, I run the risk of having my name in the mouths of people who I don’t even want knowing my name, and while I know what other people think of me is none of my business, it’s more than that. It’s feeling okay in this skin but knowing it makes everyone else uncomfortable that you dare to exist in this skin, and not a more conveniently attractive mold.

Men are a minefield at any size, but they’re different mines. As an average sized “thick” girl, I was constantly being made uncomfortable for existing because men would hit on me, yell lewd things out their car windows at stoplights. Existing was my only crime. If I’m hit on as a fat woman, even in a casual setting, even when I sit there, with confidence in my true self and who I am, the thoughts that race through my head run the gamut: is he a chubby chaser? Is he mocking me? Did his friends put him up to this? Does he see me?And then, the blind hope that he does, and for me, personally, the fact that I don’t fit the fat funny sidekick personality trope is an albatross around my neck (I run on the quiet and reserved, introverted side of the personality spectrum). Still, my friends wear me like an accessory, and men only see me as a friend, if they see me at all. In my first year of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, I take solace in being invisible. This cloak of invisibility I wear, it keeps me safe. Yet there is a deep seated fear that no one will ever see through the fat girl who my America tells me can never be desired because I am too soft. I have too much skin, stretched too tightly. I am made to feel like I need to give up the dream. You know the one: that he falls in love with my mind and my body. It’s one or the other in my America.

Learning how to love yourself in a body the world tells me I am supposed to hate is a challenge. I’ve done it. I have separated the inside from the skin, and everyone’s journey is different. In my America, it’s the only way I could see it being done. I would like to leave you with a message, you in the average sized plains of America: I see you. I see your silence, your protests at being called plus sized, but co-opting the term when it’s convenient for you. I see you when you joke about how much pizza you eat, when it’s still cute. I see your discomfort when I call myself “fat;” you recoil like it’s a dirty word, tell me that I’m beautiful. In the words of Rachel Wiley: “Why can’t I be both?” I see you while I shrink. It is the great irony of seeing the world from up here: that the larger I became, the less I am seen.