Back in 2006, I took a road trip to interview 42 women in 16 states about their experiences of being fat – from childhood to present day. I had intended this to be stage 1 of a multi-phase plan to interview women all over the planet and then to amalgamate and fictionalize their experiences into a book of monologues for stage performance, not unlike the Vagina Monologues. I was thrown off my path by both a lack of funds to continue and a series of deaths/losses in my social circle. I also lost my aim for a bit because I noticed that the major undercurrent in all the conversations wasn’t necessarily fatness, but shame. I wanted to explore this further, to separate it out, to explore the intersections of shame among all oppressed communities. This, however, is a lifetime task. And in the meantime, there is still the boundless and constantly deepening pressure of Fat Shame.
I woke up this morning remembering how many people talked about being kicked out of ballet class as a kid for being too fat. I was amazed how often it came up. So I decided to try my hand at writing one of those monologues to see how it felt – and to see if I could at least use the information I have to make a start on this project, even if I don’t have at hand what I need to complete it.
I won’t be sharing all of these publicly. But this is the first and it is very clearly a draft. I would love your feedback. Imagine it performed aloud as you are reading it.
Ballet class. 2nd grade. Mama arrives to pick me up and I light up as she enters the room. I want her to see what I’ve been learning. I wave my arms to catch her attention and start dancing on tippy-toes around the room. I’m mostly making it up but I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know that.
Mama pulls a smile that doesn’t make it all the way up to her eyes and turns her back as the teacher catches her elbow. They’re talking with heads bent toward one another. The teacher has an open stance and she keeps pointing at me. Mama has her arms crossed across her body, curled in and frowning. That’s her angry look. I’ve seen it enough to know. I stop dancing.
I wonder if I’ve done something wrong. The teacher keeps waving her hands and Mama won’t look at me. I drop my gaze and turn my little pink shoes in towards one another. I wait.
In a habit that, even at my young age, is already too familiar – I leave myself. I tuck up from my skin and climb into my head. I’m listening to the music and, in my mind, I am twirling and twirling, my arms are curved into perfect shapes and my legs leave trails of glittering light behind me. I am in pink lace with a crown of diamonds in my hair. It’s the court of a beautiful queen and she rapt with delight as I dance for her.
“Let’s go.” Mama says. I drop into the room again as she roughly grabs my hand and pulls me toward the door. “My shoes!” I say “I can’t wear them outside!”
“It doesn’t matter anymore.” she snaps. “You don’t belong here.”
A hot flush of humiliation burns into my cheeks. I pass a group of girls, clustered together near the door. They whisper and giggle and stare, except one. She looks at me with pity. That feels even worse.
I don’t know why it happened yet. As Mama buckles me into the car, I start to cry. She’s storming but she’s not saying anything. I know better than to ask but I can’t help myself. I’m crying too hard to make sense. These are new feelings and I don’t have enough words for them yet. All I manage is a plaintive “Why?” and “What did I do?”
“I told you you were getting fat.” she said “And now you can’t dance. You’re too fat to do ballet. The teacher says you’ll damage your feet and you’re holding the other girls back because you can’t go en pointe like them. GODDAMNIT!” she shouts. She pummels the steering wheel. “All that money, for classes and costumes and driving you here every week. Do you know how much this costs? This was supposed to HELP you lose weight. Do you know how embarrassing it is to have your parenting questioned because your kid won’t stop sneaking cookies in the middle of the night?”
I am horrified. I’ve never seen Mama like this. I look down at my little belly. It pooches out a bit. It’s round. Soft. I know I don’t look like the other girls in class but no one seems to really care. Jasmine can’t go en pointe either because she fell off her bike last month. And teacher won’t even let me try. I know I can do it if she’ll just let me try. I say this to Mama.
“Didn’t you hear me? You’re TOO FAT! You’ll hurt yourself! And your teacher can’t take responsibility for that. Do you understand? She doesn’t want you in class anymore. Not unless you lose weight. And by then you’ll be too far behind and you’ll have to start all over again. I’m not paying for this twice. You can’t dance any more. It’s over.”
The reality sinks in. No more ballet. No tiaras. I will never dance in the court of the queen. A sick, hot feeling fills my stomach. Shame. I am ashamed. Not just ashamed, I am changed by it. I have never before thought to question what my body is and is not capable of. I have never thought of my body as a danger to itself. I’ve never really given much thought to my body at all, except to dress it up in silly clothes and use it to climb trees. I have always been chubby, since the day I was born–but suddenly my own soft belly seems foreign. Alien. I poke it with one finger. It bounces back defiantly. There is something on my body that shouldn’t be there and it’s my fault. I stop crying. I wipe my face and something in me hardens. It’s my own fault. I don’t get to be sad.
These years later, I keep re-living that moment because it’s exactly then that everything changed for me and my body. My mother apologized for yelling at me but she never took back the meaning behind what she said. It could have gone so differently. And that’s the thing that kills me. I was never going to be a ballet star–not because I wasn’t capable but because I really wanted to be a journalist. None of those other girls in my class ended up being Prima Ballerinas either. In fact, there isn’t a single girl who came out of that town that ever amounted to anything on stage — I did the damn research! But that’s not the point.
The point is, those girls, the ones that got to stay, they got to see the proud smiles on their mother’s faces at recitals. They got to wear pink lace and tiaras. They got to be kids. But most importantly, they got to maintain a sense of trust in their bodies. They got to form a relationship with it. They weren’t divorced from it by shame or chased out of it by the unfounded fears of careless adults. Sure, they had pressures as they went along – all of us do – but no one ever told them that they couldn’t be anything they wanted to be with the bodies they had.
But me — my body went from being my favorite playmate to being a constant source of self-loathing. I internalized that fear of “damaging” myself and I stopped being a daredevil, running and climbing trees. I stopped being physical in general and curled up instead with books or music. I loved softball but I never went out for the team both for fear of rejection and the simple belief that I was incapable of being competitive at anything. I lost my skin. I became a big, floating, disembodied head.
It took me until my 20s to even start questioning all those beliefs I had. By that time, all the crash dieting had killed my metabolism and I was realizing that I might just have to deal with being this size indefinitely. Something about the realization that it might never actually change felt freeing. I’d been dragging myself begrudgingly to the gym for months as part of my diet plan and I hated the monotony of it. The boredom of the treadmill and the weightlifting and the stupid rubber ball squats was making me feel homicidal. I liked feeling strong and I liked moving, but this all felt like punishment – over and over and over again – I’d been punishing myself for years and had gotten nothing from it but fatter and less joyful.
Suddenly, I had a thought. I called my best friend and told her to meet me at the fabric store on her lunch break. No questions, I told her. Just be there. I met her at the door holding yards of pink crinoline and elastic. “We are making Tutus,” I said “And then we are going to do some goddamn ballet. Pick your color.” She thought I was insane but she was used to thinking that, so she played along. I called every fat girl I knew and did the same. I was not taking no for an answer. Three weeks later, in the basement of a local church, six fat friends and I started Fantasia Ballet.
We were terrible, but that didn’t matter. We were full of joy. We were grounded in our bodies. We laughed. We wore sparkly tiaras. We recaptured ourselves and that feeling of joy in our skin. We even started performing recitals for friends and family. Every time we had a recital, the number of attendees grew. Not only were we becoming better dancers, our joy was palpable. And we still meet every Thursday.
Even now, some days I still have to remind myself to climb down that long, winding staircase from my mind into my flesh. I am angry that it took me 20 years to undo the damage done in one afternoon. I am angry that the narrow-mindedness of this ridiculous consumer culture stripped me away from my body for so long. But I embody living proof that it is never too late to take yourself back.