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A Change of Heart
How I learned to stop hating myself and others
By Katharine Schneider

From Radiance Fall 1991

As a child I fantasized about being able to divorce my body at will, my "self" leaving my body behind, perhaps hidden in the closet, or under the blankets at the foot of my bed. The world this bodyless self would inhabit was a world of freedom, of weightlessness. A world where I wasn't judged by the size of my body but by the mind and soul that was my true self.

This fantasy was most vivid when I lay on my bed after school, perhaps eating a bag of chocolate chips or white bread with mayonnaise, swallowing with it the confused shame that dominated my self-awareness. Days of homemade polyester stretch pants and oversized blouses; mumbled excuses for not showering after physical education; boys chanting in time with my steps down the hallway, "Fat-ty! Fat-ty-fat-ty-fat-ty!" or steering wide arcs around me as they walked by, exaggerating the true size of my body; torturous walks home, losing track of the insults hurled out car windows.

My spirit world overcame me when relatives came to visit. I overheard their loud whispers in the other room: ". . . getting so fat . . . mother doing to her? . . . go on a diet before ..." My father's family, thin and obsessed with not getting fat. My mother, fat and obsessed with getting thin.

And me, learning it was right to hate my body because it was not thin, learning it was wrong to lie in the bathtub and appreciate the way my belly arched out of the water. My school friend and I, sleeping over at each other's houses, would lie awake at night and take turns pretending we had a magic knife and describing which parts of our flesh we would cut into and off. Or we would hope out loud that someday we could each take a pill that would transform us into gaunt models.

My mother had a special cupboard in the kitchen. This cupboard became more crowded each time my mother ran for a pen and paper to scribble down a phone number flashing on the television screen: "Lose all the weight you want and still eat hamburgers and sundaes! That's right! Money-back guarantee! Call 1-800- . . . " My mother would roll off the couch, furiously repeating the number until she could write it down. And each new product she ordered would be thrown into the cupboard with the rest (candy to suppress that "uncontrollable" appetite; little sponges that swelled up, filling that "bottomless" stomach; magic powders to mix with milk and drink three times a day to melt that "unsightly" fat) after a few days of no miraculous results. Invariably, these disappointments were followed by long days of eating, until self-hatred propelled her to scribble down yet another number.

The family physician said it was "shameful" to let me get so fat, and for my mother to be so fat herself. Like a good doctor, he conjured up a little white pill, a miracle of modern medicine, that would tame the beasts of our hunger once and for all. The result: sudden and prolonged hours of weeping, my eyes swollen almost shut; sweaty jitters during class; my craving to take more and more of those little white pills. Finally, those little white pills ended up in the back of my mother's cupboard with everything else.

At the age when my voice raised a pitch and I became giggly and silly interacting with the opposite sex, I met a boy in my typing class. He never knew how he inspired me. I began looking up the calorie content of a celery stalk, eating it, and then recording it in my daily log; weighing that chicken breast (four ounces exactly) on the food scale I had saved up money to buy; berating myself when the bathroom scale needle didn't point to a lower number each morning; further lowering my calorie intake, overlooking the clumps of hair that ended up in my brush each day and keeping secret the fainting spells that tumbled me to the ground, in slow motion, when I stood up too fast. Why, I was going to make myself thin. I was going to make him notice me.

I watched Miss America pageants and the women in soap operas and television advertisements. This was how I was supposed to look.

The boy in the typing class never noticed me, and the needle on the bathroom scale pointed to ever higher numbers just as quickly as it had previously dropped to lower numbers. This process of weight loss and regain repeated itself many times throughout the next several years of my life.

After some years of hoping and trying, I finally gave up on remolding my body or escaping my body. I began to grapple with the reality of being in my body. Tired of despising thin women for their thin bodies, tired of despising fat women for mirroring back to me my own body, tired of despising men for creating these unreal Ideals of womanhood, tired of feeling alienated, I decided to make friends with at least one person: myself.

My change of heart might have begun the night I danced naked in the dark. Or maybe it started the morning I let myself get undressed and take a shower without turning on the cacophony of critical voices in my head. Or when I befriended a thin woman who shared many similar body worries. Or the first time I let myself eat a pint of ice cream and enjoy it. Perhaps the changes all began the evening I suddenly felt compelled to let my body speak. I got out a piece of paper and a pen and scribbled furiously. All the pain and the oppression and torturous silence my body had had to bear for so many years-the pain of not being trusted, the pain of not being used, the pain of being fed beyond fullness, the pain of being starved-all came screaming out. And we cried-my body, my spirit, my mind-until we became one.

Looking back, I realize that the internalized oppression I was living with had been learned over many years and that freeing myself from it has been a long, patient, daily struggle.

Since I began this process, I have discovered new courage and pleasure in the world around me.

Some of the most beautiful things I've witnessed: Five fat women sitting in an ice cream parlor, napkins tucked into their blouses, eating ravenously, laughing, dribbling ice cream from a huge shared dish to their mouths. A fat woman walking briskly down the street in the afternoon sun, waving and smiling to the person passing in a car who made a comment about her size. A fat woman asking the waiter in a restaurant to find her a larger chair. A group of fat women sharing frustrations, encouragement, and their journeys of self-acceptance. A fat woman dancing, her round hips swaying, breasts swinging. The way my belly gracefully arches out of the warm water of my bath.

KATHARINE SCHNEIDER is a freelance teacher and writer living in Eugene, Oregon.


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