The Next Generation of Activists
Reprinted from the Summer 1995 issue of Radiance
A crowded dance floor where young people of every shape, size, and color get along and let the music move them. I'm in the middle of it all, dancing with myself, having the time of my life, free of everything until . . .
"Hey, Lard Ass!"
"I didn't know cows could dance . . . if that's what you're doing."
"Why do they let fat people in here anyway? They take up too much space. Fatso!"
Four guys make ignorant coments and gestures to me - a night so incredibly free ruined by four obnoxious guys!
I'm Roxy Walker, a college sophomore learning to be a premed student, an actress, a model, a socially active person - and an authority on a social issue that desperately needs to be addressed. I'm a fat woman in the 1990s, and I'm fighting stereotypes.
Maybe I should back up a little. I have been fat as long as I can remember. My immediate family is a wonderful group of people I love very much because they have always been there for me. One of the reasons I like myself is that my parents have always made me feel that I can like who I am.
They believed in me and gave me the love that sustains me, the hope to follow my dreams, and the knowledge that if I follow my dreams it can't be too long before they come true. I'm lucky. A lot of fat people are pressured into diets by their families. My family never made me feel that I had to be thin; for me, the pressure to change came from other people.
It started in third grade. Before that, I was "normal." Then some kids decided I was the "fat girl" and taunted me. The taunts turned into ostracism, and then more pointed incidents.
A hurtful incident was in sixth grade. In art class I sat alone, working very hard, hoping to win some approval. When the teacher finally complimented me in front of the class, I was thrilled. I thought, Now they'll have to accept me. It didn't happen. The next day I came to class and found my art folder and all my work had been destroyed. Someone had ripped some things and stapled other things. None of my work would go into the art show because someone had destroyed it all.
After that year, my family moved. The schools were better, but most of middle school is a blur. No real incidents, just loneliness.
In high school, I finally found a niche as a student athletic trainer. I was one of the people who took care of the athletes when they got hurt and helped get them back to health. Most of them were older: juniors and seniors. Those athletes took care of me. I have lots of older brothers among those football players. I was lucky: their image protected me from a lot of people trying to hurt me. I felt safer.
Through athletics I made a lot of friends and had a fairly decent social life, but I always felt the pressure of being different. I never felt truly accepted or acceptable in high school. Besides the students who made fun of me, I had problems with various adults and school officials. This was because I never hesitated to stand up for myself when I felt persecuted by students or teachers. I had gym teachers and nurses fault me for my weight, call me lazy, and make me feel bad in other ways. I can talk about the gym teacher who made me walk three to four times what the other students had to run, just because I had a doctor's note saying I couldn't run. I couldn't do what the class was doing, so I was punished with more laps and less time to have fun with the rest of the class. I was often separated from everyone else.
I can talk about the teachers I intimidated with my intelligence and my willingness to stick up for myself. I had a teacher who thought that because she was a teacher she could tell me I would never amount to anything and couldn't handle any advanced-level work. I had a teacher who would actively harass me about my weight and make fun of me. I actually took my complaint of harassment to the administration, but they did nothing but warn the teacher about future behavior.
I'm angry with the professional world and the adults who ought to know better. I don't want to sound like I'm complaining about my life. Everything that has happened to me has made me stronger. The message I'm trying to get across is that no growing child should be subjected to such treatment by adults. I know that other children can be cruel, but I feel that if the adults of this world accepted their children more and taught them to do the same, soon children would not be so cruel to one another.
I was on the Jerry Springer Show in March 1994, discussing what it's like growing up as a fat kid. I can honestly say I'm glad I was on the show, but I was disappointed by the message that was projected. Springer was looking for emotional tumult, and I'm not willing to give that to anyone.
There were about thirty young people on the stage, most of whom were so excited about being on TV that hey were frantic. The show started with Jerry saying what a shame it was that this one baby was already being put on a diet. He then opened the forum for all the kids to share horror stories about being fat.
The first half of the show was devoted to the kids, with only the kids in the studio. For the second half of the show, the audience, including parents, was brought in. I sat onstage while Jerry conversed with about five sets of parents and children about how the parents made their children diet for health purposes and "so they won't go through what I've suffered for being overweight."
I was so angry at what these "loving" parents put their children through. One woman would oink at her daughter when her daughter opened the fridge!
Such parents make me thank my lucky stars for my wonderful parents.
After the parent-child segment of the show, Jerry introduced a "personal trainer" who helps children control their weight. This guy, whose main claim to fame was that he had lost several hundred pounds, didn't impress me a bit. He tried to make all of us feel as if we suffered from a terrible, debilitating disease called obesity and that we had to save ourselves through diet and exercise. We were never going to be acceptable if we didn't change.
I was hoping the show would push self-acceptance and being accepted. Instead, the show pushed dieting to be accepted. The age-old idea of "You change first, and then maybe the world will accept you" is an idea I'm not buying.
Between high school and Jerry Springer a lot happened for my self-confidence. I started college, and my first college class was Nothing to Lose: A Course in Self-Esteem for the Large Woman. The course, taught by Dr. Cheri Erdman (see Radiance, Winter 1995) and Jane Benson, changed my life. Two authorities finally expressed something worth listening to: I don't have to change before anyone else can respect or love me! It was this class that put me on the path to believing in myself first and foremost.
I can't describe the world that has opened to me in college. There are still those people who want to hurt me by telling me their opinions. But there are also magazines and activist groups, like NAAFA and AHELP, that uphold that I'm right and okay for feeling good.
I spoke at AHELP's 1994 conference in April about my experiences as a fat kid. It was incredible for me to be with a group of people who accepted me entirely and, like me, don't buy that we have to change to fit in. I began to feel that in some way I might be making a difference.
I hope that by writing this article I make a difference in other's lives. Writing this article has made a difference in my life, because it has made me realize how strong I am and that I'm not alone (a secret fear) and that I'm not wrong for fighting back.
I honestly feel empowered by my size. I think that I'm lucky to have this struggle to make me stronger and make me appreciate the struggles of others. I have to express that I'm thankful for what I am, for without, it I wouln't be who I am. And, frankly, I like who I am.
� ROXY WALKER lives in Wheaton, Illinois. She divides her time among college, working three part-time jobs, and training her new puppy, Phantom.
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