A Change of
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
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:
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
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