What Does It Mean To Be Fat?

By Amy Stephenson

I am a floating head attached to the most wildly unpredictable thing on earth.

I am 18 and I work at a record store in the mall and there’s an H&M directly across so I go there, almost every day.

I try things on — a wide leg trouser, a fitted jacket — and take them off. What I am doing is playing dress up, trying to figure out what my body actually looks like. I am a floating head attached to the most wildly unpredictable thing in the universe. I have a persistent fear that I will have gained three pants sizes since I was here yesterday, and simultaneously a desperate hope that my years of trying not to eat ever will catch up with me, and as if by magic my thighs will be a palatable circumference.

Presto, a mid-calf length twill skirt. Change-o, take it off.

I am 22, I live in Alaska. The girl who works in the office with me — Bethany — is gorgeous. She’s taller than me, with dark hair, wide-set eyes, and a Michigan accent.

She tells me she’s trying to lose weight; she can’t stand her body after giving birth to her son. My own mother frequently expresses the same annoyance. Bethany says her husband’s father calls her BOB, which stands for Big Old Butt.

I am a floating head attached to the most wildly unpredictable thing in the universe.

While in Alaska, I cut my hair to the shoulder, the shortest it’s ever been. For the first time in my life I see my cheekbones, and I love them. My mother is shocked, more shocked than when I eloped. “People would kill for your hair, Amy, what were you thinking?” she wails into my phone.

I join a gym.

I am 8, maybe I’m 9, and I’m on the phone with my Dad. I’m telling him about a brochure that came in the mail from an agency looking for child models. We’re joking about it. Flippantly, I tell him that I wouldn’t audition anyway, because I’m heavier than the girls in the brochure.

“Amy, don’t say that about yourself,” he hisses. “Listen to me, I’m serious, don’t ever say that.”

So I don’t mention it again. Ever.

I am 30 and my hair is the longest it’s been since I cut it off 8 years earlier. I know my mother would say it’s too big, too frizzy, but I stopped speaking to her three years ago.

I’m finally seeing a physical therapist for my ankle. She says the word “diet” and my palms start to sweat. She thinks that my ankle might hurt less if I cut out some foods that cause inflammation in my body. She says it gently, kindly. She never gives the command “lose weight,” and to my surprise, I believe that she doesn’t care whether I do.

The day she suggests a diet, I come home, lock myself in my bedroom, and throw a tantrum. I scream into pillows, I kick my feet, it’s fucking agony through and through, because by age 30 I have already thought enough about food to fill three lifetimes and I swore I never would again.

Later, I press my palm to my hammering heart and I tell myself in the mirror, “I’m here for you. We can do this. It’s not like the other times.”

I am 25, and I am falling down a flight of stairs. On the way, an important part of my ankle tears in two. While my body falls, my brain is at the top of the stairs, furiously calculating how many gym days I will miss.

There is a photo of me being loaded into an ambulance on a stretcher, and I’m throwing up horns, a morphine-diluted smirk on my face. But inside I am stone-cold panic.

I am 23 and I live in Louisiana. I am unemployed for the first time since 15, so I am in the gym five days a week and running on the other two. I am the thinnest I’ll ever be, but I tell everyone that I’m shooting to lose 20 more pounds. My words are salt; I am casting a protective spell around my body.

I make a friend in Louisiana, her name is Allison, and she’s a tiny bombshell redhead with a smart mouth. I am infatuated with her. She’s a bored army housewife, like I am. She’s also a photography buff, so we like to get loaded and do photo shoots. We drink gin and dress her up like a pageant girl. We drink tequila with pickle juice and don vintage nightgowns and draw on our faces with liquid eyeliner.

It’s Friday night and we are trashed on military special whiskey from the commissary, so we cut up a book that came in the mail called “America’s Most Beautiful Babies.” The book is just hundreds of pages filled with regular-looking baby faces in a grid, a first name under each. We strip down and decoupage our bras and underwear with baby heads using scotch tape. We stick a few on my dog. We stand in front of a map of the U.S.A., me and Allison and the dog, and her husband takes pictures of us. We’re laughing so hard we can barely breathe.

Illustration by Katie Tandy

Later, we flick through photos to figure out which to post on our blog. In one, you can’t see our heads. I ask her which body is mine — it’s a serious question, I am dead sober. “Is that me?” I guess. “No, that’s me,” she says, and looks at me seriously.

I am 26 and I am back at the gym despite constant pain and a persistent limp, but I cannot stop myself, because when I’m sitting still I’m convinced that I can feel my body gaining weight. I’m in therapy now, for the first time, and my therapist asks me what’s so scary about gaining weight. She asks, “What does it actually change about you, what does it mean, to be fat?”

What does it mean? I think about it constantly.

I call Allison. Through tears, I manage, “Allie, I’m sorry I haven’t called you more often since I moved here. I’m fat now, and I’m scared you won’t like me anymore.”

“Amy,” she says, “my sister is fat, and I love her more than anyone. You feel this way because when you were a child, the grown-ups in your life didn’t do their jobs, they were mean to you. Nobody cares about your weight. Not me.”

I ask her which body is mine. ‘Is that me?’ I guess. ‘No, that’s me,’ she says, and looks at me seriously.

It’s the kindest thing anyone has ever said to me, and I don’t believe it, not for a second. I prefer people who tell me the weight will come off once my ankle feels better.

I am 27 and I am barely holding down a panic attack as I go through my clothes, throwing out everything that’s too small. There are items I can’t bear to part with, so I stuff them in a Rubbermaid box and shove it under the bed, because if I have to see the small clothes every day, they will torture me. The telltale shirt, the telltale jeans.

Last week my mother emailed me to say “Amy, you’re getting so heavy I’m worried that you’re hurting yourself on purpose.”

I have gained 100 pounds. I wear my greatest fear and my deepest shame on the outside where everyone can see. Sometimes I have trouble leaving the house. I’m an arachnophobe and spiders are raining from the sky.

I am 26 and I am dropping off a friend at inpatient treatment for her bulimia, and we’re both crying.

She is crying because her bulimia was her jumping out of the tenth floor window instead of burning alive, and now she was going back inside, back to the fire, to try to put it out with her tears. I am crying because she managed to make enough noise about her disease that someone heard her, I heard her, and I helped her. Nobody is helping me, because I don’t know yet that, first, I will have to realize the house is on fire.

I’m 18, I’m 21, I’m 25, I’m 27, and I have dreams about being thin. I’ll catch a glimpse of a body I know to be mine, and dream-me is lithe, strong. The yearning for thin-me is as sharp as my dream hipbones, as the cheekbones framing hollows carved by X-Acto knives. These dreams are aspirational.

At 31 I have a thin dream, and suddenly that body comes into focus. It’s my body, my actual non-dream thin body. I look at pictures of myself from when my body looked like my dream body, smiling in the Louisiana sun, but all I see now is a deep, existential terror in my face, the tiny muscles around my eyes and mouth clenched with dread.

My eyes say, “Later, when I look at this photograph, will I even be in it?”

I’m 31 and I pull out the Rubbermaid container from under the bed. I’m shocked at what I thought was so important to keep: thrift store tees, a dress from Old Navy, a tatty cardigan with a hole in the armpit. I feel for that fragile, panicked girl, who never found her body inside the clothes.

Today, I need the Rubbermaid container to store the fat clothes. I’ve lost weight on this diet, a surreal-seeming fact I would prefer to ignore, only my clothes fall off me now. The dresses I’m saving are higher quality than the old stuff, so maybe I’ll have a few of them tailored.

Plus, who knows, maybe I’ll gain some weight again. These things happen.

This essay is part of a special series of content produced in conjunction with the live reading series Write Club in San Francisco.

Special thanks to curator and host Maggie Tokuda-Hall, who created an entire evening of female writers. Together we raised $1,000 (The Est. matched door donations) to be distributed among Homeless to Higher Ed and Girls, Inc.

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