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Growing Up Fat
By Amanda Patterson

 

Reprinted from the Winter 1996 issue of Radiance

It's hard to explain everything that I'm feeling right now: anger, confusion, and, above all, frustration. What makes other kids at school look down their noses at me? What gives people the right to judge me by my weight? I must be missing something, because as far as I can see, the answer is, Nothing! Yet, almost every day, I encounter someone who tries to tell me that he or she is better than me, that until I reach my ideal weight, I am nothing.

I'm a sixteen - year - old Mormon native of Phoenix. In fact, I've lived in the same house all my life. I have seven living brothers and sisters (one sister died before I was born), but now there's only five kids still living at home. I just recently got my own room. For the first time in my life, I have a place to call my own. The only thing is, my mother (being a mother), is constantly telling me to clean up my room. Unlike some mothers, though, she has a good reason. I am not, nor have I ever been, a neat and tidy person. I like the comfort of my own clutter around me. I don't necessarily like the way it looks, but I can't stand it when everything is in place. Don't ask me why!

I am about to start my junior year at Moon Valley High School. In more ways than one, I am different from the average teenager at my school. For one thing, I have almost always been overweight. I was chubby as a child, and back then everyone thought it was cute. I thinned out in kindergarten for a while and then went back to being chubby again. I've never been a very active person. I remember in kindergarten dreading PE class, because it was hard for me, even though it was just mostly climbing on equipment and playing games that most kids thought were fun. I sometimes tried to get out of it by making up excuses, like I had a stomachache or I was dizzy, until my PE teacher, Mr. Moon, started getting worried.

But I didn't waste the time I saved by not participating in sports or other physical activities. I took pen to paper and discovered I had a talent with words. This has helped me through a lot of hard times. I also like to sing. When I was in elementary school, I would combine my two hobbies and compose little songs.

For most of my childhood, food was my security blanket, something I could always depend on. Food became especially important to me at age five, when my best friend died. It was my grandma. After her death I became very unsure, and my life fell apart. I was in kindergarten then, so I barely even understood the concept of death. All I knew was that my grandma was gone and that it would be a long time before I would be with her again. I missed her. After having my very best friend yanked from my life, my five - year - old mind didn't know what to think. What if my parents or other family members were to die and leave me stranded like she had? They were all I had to hold on to, and hold on I did. Every morning when my mom drove me to school, I threw fits, suddenly crying and holding on to her clothes so that she didn't leave me. When my poor mother figured out the cause of my sudden clinging, she decided to take me to a therapist. Meanwhile, I was eating for comfort and had started to gain weight.

By first grade, I had begun to display a terrible and unpredictable temper. Therapy was helping me with my grief, but these unexplainable bouts of anger, alternating with periods of depression, were signs that there was something more going on. My therapist referred my mother to a psychiatrist, who discovered, after several evaluations, something that would affect the rest of my life: I had bipolar affective disorder, a condition better know as manic depression.

We had already known that mental illness ran in my father's side of the family. My older sister had been diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder when she attempted suicide. Later, my younger sister was diagnosed with the same disorder. My psychiatrist put me on an antidepressant called Tofranil, the first of many pills I would try before I found the right medicines that would work for me. For six years, Tofranil seemed to work for me. Only recently, after all this time of worrying about my weight, did my psychiatrist tell us that one of the common side effects of Tofranil is weight gain.

No matter how much I speculate about why I'm fat, the fact is, I'm fat. Right now, I'm five feet nine inches tall and weigh 260 pounds. I wear a size 24 most of the time but sometimes am more comfortable in a size 26. I know that I don't have it as bad as a lot of people do. After all, I have a family that I know will love me no matter how much I weigh, friends who like me for who I am, and a church that will always help and support me despite whatever mistakes I make in life.

But there are still times when I feel I'm all alone, because I am the only really fat member of my family. I often separate myself from the rest of my family because I feel so different, but that doesn't mean that we're not close. I can tell my mother anything. My dad is a police officer trying to support eight kids, so he is at work a lot of the time. But when he is home, he likes to go places with us and go swimming with us. My thirteen - year - old sister, Janalyn, comes to me for advice, which makes me feel closer to her than ever. My older brothers keep the family in stitches with their constant jokes and crazy antics. (Well, now that my oldest brother, Shane, is married and living in Las Vegas, it's kind of up to Joe to keep us laughing.) Charissa, my twenty - two - year - old sister, and I get along pretty well, but she is living in Germany right now, because her husband is stationed in the Air Force there. Bryan, the baby of the family at seven, is growing up so fast. Bethany, who just turned eleven, is probably the one that I feel the closest to out of all my siblings, because she reminds me so much of myself when I was her age, except for the fact that she is not the slightest bit fat. Stacey, twenty - five years old, and I are also very similar so much so that we sometimes repel each other. The main difference between us is the way we handle things. I've never seen her really cry, whereas I weep readily, any time, any place, if I feel the need. Actually, it depends on what kind of crying I'm doing. If it is a sentimental type of crying, then I don't care who sees me. But when it comes to my depression, I mostly keep to myself.

I am not the kind of person who likes to have three hundred What's - your - name - again? friends. I have a few really close friends and a few more casual, talk - to - every - once - in - a - while friends. But out of all my friends, there's not really any that I feel I can talk to about being fat. It gets lonely when all your friends are either skinny or they just won't acknowledge their large size. It's even worse when some of your friends who happen to be so skinny they could slip through the bars of a jail cell go around whining, I'm fat! I need to go on a diet! I have to be careful about what I eat or I'll end up looking like an elephant! What gives them the right to call themselves fat, when they are nowhere near being eligible to join the club?

One friend in particular used to drive me nuts! She would wrap the fingers of one hand around her waist and wail, Do you think I'm fat? I've gained a pound! For the longest time, I didn't even know any other way to handle it than by stroking her ego. Then one day, another friend mentioned the way this girl was acting and said that she was sick of it. I was so relieved. We started talking about what to do but we couldn't do anything until we figured out exactly why this girl constantly asked her nonskinny friends if she was fat. We knew her too well to believe that she actually did think she was getting fat. I did worry that she would develop an eating disorder, but then she would go from complaining about her nonexistent weight problem straight to bragging (yes, bragging!) about how people were always telling her that if anything, she was too thin. Apparently, she didn't catch the meaning of too.

It didn't take much thinking to figure out that she suffered from low self - esteem and was looking for someone to reassure her that she was an okay person. So, every time she would bring up the subject of her weight, my other friend and I would give her short, truthful answers and then change the subject. We would make it a point from then on to give her genuine, positive comments on things not having to do with her weight. She has since stopped mentioning her weight to me.

I believe that this I'm too fat attitude stems mostly from the media's unhealthy attitude toward health. If images of paper - thin models weren't everywhere, maybe there wouldn't be such a self - esteem problem in American today. Teenage girls everywhere see these pictures in magazines and clothes ads and think that unless they look like that, they can never be beautiful. They couldn't be more wrong! But they don't realize that because no one tells them they're wrong! So they begin a binge - and - purge pattern, take tons of laxatives, or just quit eating altogether so they can look like those models. I used to think that eating disorders were not common and that I probably would never meet someone who suffered from anorexia or bulimia. I have now met about ten people who are anorexic or bulimic.

My sister has a friend (I'll call her Heather) who is slowly dying of bulimia. She thinks that she will get fat if she changes her eating habits back to something healthy and life - sustaining. By now, she has decided that she would rather die than be fat. Heather's mother is overweight. Heather's seen the way people treat her mom, and she's determined never to be the way her mom is. She'll do anything, at any cost. Heather is pretty, but her face is bruised and swollen, her eyes are bloodshot, and dark rings circle her eyes. There is no grace in having to run to the bathroom every ten minutes because she's taken too many laxatives. She says that we're all going to die, so she may as well die thin and pretty. What she doesn't realize is that her beauty will have faded to nothing by the time she actually does die, and even her thinness will have given way to a swollen and bloated body. (These are parts of eating disorders that most people don't know about.)

Heather has a big problem with self - esteem, like my other friend. But everyone knows that you can't help someone who doesn't want to be helped. Heather pushes away those who get too close to her, because once someone starts caring for her, they'll want her to get help. That's when it's time for her to move on to a new friend, someone who doesn't know about her secret. Some secret! All you have to do is look at the girl and you can tell that she has a major problem.

If you are a thin person reading this, please don't ever purposely avoid saying the word fat in front of a large person. This hurts and angers me almost as much as when people tell fat jokes in my presence. Also, some people seem to think that it's funny to use us as entertainment for their friends. I often have had this experience: a member of a group of boys approaches me, already laughing, and tells me through his giggling that his friend over there wants my number. Then they all crack up, the messenger rejoins his friends, and they all leave. Often the boy who supposedly wanted my number loudly denies any such thing while his buddies give him a hard time. There are many of variations on this scenario.

Once, in seventh grade, the most popular boy in school was sitting with a group of his friends, and I was sitting nearby with a couple of other people that I barely knew. This boy, whom I will call Travis because I don't remember his real name, somehow turned his friends' attention to me, and began to make cutting remarks, like, I just love it when people are so fat they hang off the edges of their chair! He went on to sarcastically list all of the things he loved about fat people. I tried to ignore him, but was almost in tears. Then he jokingly got out of his chair and pretended to be trying to restrain himself from running over to the sexy lardo and making wild, passionate love to her on the floor she would break a bed! His friends by then were standing and making quite a production of holding him back while he strained to get away. I almost died of embarrassment, shame and heartache. It's hard for me to admit this, but I actually had a crush on Travis's best friend. I had suspected that he was also a jerk, but I kept thinking that I should give him a chance. Boy, was I stupid! He was laughing hysterically at all of Travis's mean antics.

Worst of all, I actually thought that they kind of had a right to say what they wanted to about me, because I was one of the lowest forms of life (you know, a fat person). I also was not experienced in defending myself. But now I can think of a million clever things I should've said to them. I just sat there and tried not to cry. After awhile, they lost interest in me and turned back to whatever they'd been doing before. I looked around to see how the people I was with had reacted. The worst I expected was that they'd just pretend nothing had happened. But to my anger and disappointment, they had deserted me when things got tough. Of course, I'm not friends with them anymore. Anyone who could so openly reject or abandon someone does not deserve my friendship. I've since learned how to handle these situations with dignity. I've learned who my friends are. You sure do get a different perspective on things when you're fat!

A lot of my friends are Mormon, which has helped me throughout my life with every kind of problem. The people in my church are very supportive of one another and try to make sure that no one feels left out of anything. When I need someone to talk to but don't feel comfortable talking to my friends or family, I can go to my bishop or one of the other leaders at church. They always make time for me and never act as though my feelings are trivial. My church is like a second family.

Then there are the Scriptures (the Bible and the Book of Mormon), which are also always there for me. I can just look up topics in the back and flip straight to whatever I need to read about. They help lift me out of my depression and strengthen my knowledge that I, just like everyone else, am a child of God. One of my favorite Scriptures is Matthew 17:20, which reads in part, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed nothing shall be impossible unto you. I wear a necklace that is a mustard seed in a charm with that verse on the back. It helps me a lot. My religion helps make me the strong person that I am. I have always been taught to stand up for what I believe in, which has helped me realize my self - worth.

Along with self - esteem goes courage. I realized this when it hit me that although I loved myself, I wasn't doing a very good job of showing other people my worth. I couldn't live a very productive life if I was not willing to take a chance and make strangers my friends. I still am wary of how other people will react to my size, but have found that since I have changed my shame into self - love, people automatically treat me better. It works like this: If I don't openly love myself and my body, other people may not want to, either. On the other hand, if I make them see that I am worth getting to know, then they will find it easier to change their outlook on fat people and become my friends. This is not a foolproof plan. If a person is going to hold onto fat phobia, then that person probably isn't worth being friends with. (I've been told this so many times, and it makes sense, but that doesn't take away the sting of being rejected!)

My writing helps me a lot with my self - esteem. Whenever I finish a good piece or someone gives me a compliment, I feel especially happy. It is a way to express myself, whether publicly or privately. My innermost thoughts go in my journal. My church recommends keeping a journal, I would probably do so even if I weren't Mormon. I write down everything that I think is important for future readers to know about me and my life. I intend for it to go to my family after I die. I have written letters to my future husband, which I will give to him on our wedding day, our first anniversary, our fifth anniversary, our silver anniversary, and our golden anniversary. They contain speculations about our life together: how many kids we will have and where we will live. I also tell him what my life is like now, so that he can know what I was like as a sixteen - year - old. I also plan on writing to my future children so they can know what their mother was like before they were born. And I do plan on having at least five children. I love kids of all ages. I also have been thinking about opening and running a petting zoo or a wildlife park. I love animals as much as I love kids.

When I think about my future, I like to wonder what my life will be like in five years. Will I be the same weight I am now? Will I be married yet? I've just started dating and I've only had one real boyfriend, but I do go to dances at my church and meet people through my friends all the time. Maybe we will be set up by a mutual friend like my parents were. Or maybe we will literally run into each other and go from there. I like to hope that we will meet in some interesting manner so that I can tell the story to my children again and again and have them never get tired of it.

One of my friends and I like to ask each other What if type questions. One question that we ask a lot is, What would you wish for if you could wave a magic wand and have three wishes granted? The answer is always different. But if someone were to ask me that now, my three wishes would have to be these:

1. I want to look and feel the way I want to: thinner (yes, I would like to lose weight, at least enough so that it's easier to shop for clothes), happy (no depression), and responsible.

2. I want a fun, understanding, and optimistic best friend who won't desert me and who has some of the same interests and values that I do.

3. This last wish may seem a little weird, but I would really, really love it if there were a way to videotape dreams so that other people could see what we see in our dreams. My dreams are always so fascinating and vivid I wake up wanting to share them with everyone, but I usually can't do justice to them by describing them. Maybe I'll study dreams when I grow up.

Those are my three most intense wishes, and I intend to make at least the first two come true!

There's so much more that I want and need to say, but I suppose I'd better save some for later if I'm going to be a professional writer. I'll write a book and call it Scattered Thoughts from Amanda's Head (SMILE). Anyway, I'd better go work on that book. C - ya!

AMANDA PATTERSON loves all kinds of animals, especially people, frogs, and giraffes. She is a huge fan of Cary Grant, Elvis Presley, Clark Gable, and old movies. Amanda also loves the cartoon character Ziggy and muffins. Her favorite color is green.

 

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