I struggle to remember the names of my best teachers—the ones who were kind when I really needed it, who encouraged me to create things, or who introduced me to what would become some of my favorite books, bands, or films. The cruel ones, however, have stuck with me. The ones who egged my classmates on as they bullied others. Or who shamed our appearances: our early 2000s butterfly clips, our poorly-dyed pink streaks, or something about our bodies, like our double chins.
Mrs. Kendall. The Wicked Witch of Sixth Grade taught health and science. For one whole marking period (a quarter of the school year), the focus of the class was nutrition. There was nothing in the textbook to suggest that Mrs. Kendall should have been discussing weight and body size. Instead, the chapters were devoted to deconstructing the food pyramid, explaining the value of different kinds of vitamins, and encouraging a balanced diet. Still, discussing weight and body size was precisely what she did.
She once told me that the reason I didn’t have a boyfriend was because “no nice boy wants to be seen with that,” gesturing at my stomach.
There were two fat kids in a class of over 20: myself and a boy called Bobby. The jabs started soft. “Healthy eating is more important than you realize,” she’d tell the kids. “You don’t want to end up looking like these two, do you?” She always meant Bobby and me. And this would always get a few giggles from those around us.
With time, the jabs got worse. She once told Bobby, who was somewhat larger than me, that he was destined to die by 16 if he didn’t lose weight fast. (She’d probably be unhappy to know that he’s nearly 30 now.) She once told me that the reason I didn’t have a boyfriend was because “no nice boy wants to be seen with that,” gesturing at my stomach. It couldn’t have possibly been because I was 11 and wholly disinterested in romance.
Eventually, she swore that Bobby and I were going straight to hell (this was public school). After all, gluttony (the act of eating more than is necessary for survival) was a deadly sin. So was greed. In her eyes, we were despicable children: our larger-than-average tummies clear symbols of our deplorable moral compasses.
Looking back, hindsight suggests Mrs. Kendall was batshit. Still, she was also the first of many people I’d encounter through my life who believed in a distinct relationship between food, body size, and morality.
Sixth grade was the first year I remember dieting. Restricting calories. Throwing away my packed lunches and telling friends that I wasn’t hungry if they asked. By the end of seventh grade, I was committed to my eating disorder. It would eventually be diagnosed as atypical anorexia: that is, anorexic without “looking anorexic,” as per a very limited definition of what an anorexic looks like.
I would never blame one person for my years of disordered eating (all in all, eight of them). I was bullied before her and after her, by relatives, peers, friends, doctors, school nurses, and perfect strangers alike. Media messaging never helped, either. Fat kids only made it onto TV to be ridiculed. My doctor practically demanded I develop an eating disorder at age 13. There were a lot of reasons.
Sixth grade was the first year I remember dieting.
What I do largely blame for my disordered eating is the idea Mrs. Kendall lived by: Skinny people who eat very little are good people. Fat ones who eat “too much” are bad people.
Culturally, the language we use to describe eating and body size are steeped in moral connotations. Foods can be “good” (lettuce, fruit, gluten-free toast) or they can be “bad” (brownies, ice cream, fried chicken). When we eat the “good” ones, we’re allowed to feel positive about ourselves. When we eat the “bad” ones, we’re meant to be consumed by guilt.
Similarly, dieting for weight loss (particularly if you are starting off fat), is celebrated. It doesn’t matter how toxic the methods for shrinking may become, so long as the end result is a smaller figure. If we break from a diet or weight loss plan to eat a slice of one dollar pizza from the street, however, we’re “cheaters.” We have failed ourselves, the system, and everyone who has to look at us, I guess.
Sixth grade was the first time I was actively taught that people who maintain a low weight are morally superior (and therefore bound to be more successful, clever, and generally better) than those who have bellies that wobble or bodies that just don’t fit into the offerings at the local Victoria’s Secret mall shop. And for someone like me—raised Catholic and subsequently obsessed with achieving “goodness”—the idea that my size might correlate with how good or bad a person I was became all-consuming. If I was good (if I was thin), I’d be better treated by others. By my classmates. By my family. Maybe even by God.
As I got older, it became easier to spot the holes in the argument. Plenty of thin people ate “bad” foods. Plenty of fat ones ate “good” ones. In fact, a lot of people’s body size seemed wholly irrelevant to their caloric intake. And if I was pushed to think about the “best” people I knew (the ones who were “good” because they were kind, honest, good listeners, open-minded, etc.), some were also fat. If I thought about the “worst” ones I knew (the ones who were “bad” because they were mean-spirited, judgmental, discriminatory, or otherwise un-empathetic), some were thin.
Even so, it wasn’t easy to cut ties with the idea that the link between righteousness and physical size was legitimate. Every time I tried, a before and after infomercial would seem to find its way to me: the image of a sad fat person alongside a happy thin one. The former was single, unhappy at work, and utterly self-loathing. The latter was engaged, up for a promotion, and full of renewed self-love.
Plenty of thin people ate “bad” foods. Plenty of fat ones ate “good” ones.
In the end, however, I realized that aspiring to thinness, out of the belief that thinness would bring me fulfillment (fulfillment in my relationships, in my academics, and someday, in my career), was far easier than tackling the things that were actually holding me back. My anxiety, for example. Toxic people who I loved, but who ultimately weren’t good for me. A religion that I didn’t identify with, but felt pressured to subscribe to. A fear of putting myself out there, because everything had taught me that doing so as a fat person would result in humiliation.
Going on another diet would have definitely been easier. But putting in the work to deal with the rest of it ended up being truly life-changing. It was dealing with all of my actual baggage that left me feeling good: good enough for everything I wanted to achieve and experience. What I found then was that the better I felt about myself—and the less concerned I was with ticking off some imaginary boxes for “goodness”—the better the people and opportunities that came into my life.
Another perk? Food (the “good,” the “bad,” and everything in between) became something I could enjoy again.