Whenever I’d pass him in the school halls or on the playground, I never knew what to expect. Sometimes he was kind, caring even; he looked out for me. Other times, I’d be met with his jingle, “Francine, Francine, the big fat jellybean,” followed by thunderous laughter. He may not have laughed loudly every time, but the humiliation made it feel that way to me. This funny little rhyme felt like the worst kind of teasing. It was a catchy tune that engendered laughter from those around us – whether they knew either of us or not. But these hurtful words came out of the mouth of a person I’d sat in class with since kindergarten and had come to believe was a friend.
Our elementary school was fairly close-knit. Many of us attended the same school all nine years (K-8). But there were a small number of transfer students, as well. By the sixth grade, “Francine the jelly bean” was less annoying than a label that came from our newest transfer student. One of the many names the new guy called me was, “Big Fran,” with an emphasis on the “i.” So it sounded more like, “Biiiig Fran.” His comedic line was met with laughter from classmates, some of them friends.
And who could really blame them? Their reactions were the norm. It’s socially acceptable to talk about the “fat kid” because being overweight or obese is considered to be a problem well within a person’s control. Teachers and school staff rarely intervene. Many of them actually complicate the issue by laughing at what was said or not doing anything at all, which communicates to the bullies that they’re well within their rights to be as verbally abusive as they wish. In fact, “1 in 4 teachers see nothing wrong with bullying and will only intervene 4% of the time.”
“Approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day because of bullying.” I was one of those kids as a sixth-grader. I didn’t notice it until my dad brought attention to my pattern. I’d wake up in the morning and begin to get ready for school, but then I’d feel sick to my stomach. Sometimes I’d ask to leave school early because I felt sick. I couldn’t locate the sickness, but I knew I didn’t feel well nonetheless. As my father was the one to pick me up from school or drop me off at my grandmother’s house when there was an emergency, one day he asked, “Do you wake up in the morning feeling sick sometimes and then find that you feel better as the day goes by?” I concurred. He then said, “I feel like that sometimes, too.” He went on to say that on days when he feels ill or unmotivated at the start of the day, he finds that when he gets up and out and on with the day, he tends to feel better as the day progresses. He asked me if I thought that I could try to get up and push through the day even when I didn’t feel like it. And I did.
I don’t think I missed as many days of school after that conversation, at least not for vague illnesses. But my dad didn’t know the real reason I felt so horrible about going to school. Nor was he aware of the reasons I’d gained so much weight, at least I don’t think he did. I considered asking him if he knew that I’d been sexually abused, and if so, who’d abused me when I was young, but I didn’t want him to look at me differently in case he hadn’t already known. I couldn’t bear that. In a complicated way, he was my person. He was the one person I could rely on to accept me for me, but at the same time I thought that I’d lose his acceptance if he knew the truth. So I kept it to myself. Eating might have helped me process and cover up my secrets, but it didn’t address the problem. Nor did it cause others to have compassion for what I’d been told was a condition.
“Just stop eating,” some would say. “Run a few laps around the block; those thighs could use a workout.” Or “All you need to do is push back from the table, and then you’ll be all right.”
What they didn’t know was that my size had little to do with what I consumed while sitting at the kitchen table. My unhealthy relationship with food began at the age of eight. It involved secret trips to the store, stashing sweets in drawers, between mattresses and other hiding places, and then sneaking around to find a place to eat without getting in trouble. Waiting for the right moment often involved skill and tact that could have been better applied to other tasks, like violin rehearsal, but I’d become fixated on this idea that I’d somehow find solutions by consuming sweets. When my mother would find my stash, I’d be met with yelling, screaming, and the statement “And you wonder why you’ve gotten so big.”
Myths & Stereotypes about the “Big Kid”
I think one of the reasons it’s socially acceptable to tease those who are overweight or obese is that regardless of how much information is floating around, we don’t always use it to dig down to the root cause of problems. It seems to be more important to preserve the family name or one’s own pride by keeping secrets than to address problems.
So when it comes to the “big kid” or “big adult,” society says:
- She enjoys being this way
- She loves eating more than anything else in the world
- She thinks about food all the time and can’t wait to consume her next meal
- If she would just stop eating, everything in her life would improve
- She’s lazy and hates exercise
- She’s weak because she lacks the willpower to refrain from overeating
- She doesn’t care about her body
To the last point, it could be that she might not know how to exist in this world in her body; it may have been devalued, making it hard for her to learn to value it.
What Might Actually be True about the “Big Kid”
People feel comfortable when they can see a problem because it makes them feel as if they have some control over it. They know how to relate to it because it’s right there staring at them. But when a person points and laughs at an obese or overweight person, they’re not pointing and laughing at the actual problem. It’s more likely that they’re laughing at a symptom or a side effect.
Here’s what might actually be true about that person:
- She might have been deeply wounded
- By teasing her (or allowing her to be teased), you may inadvertently be blaming her for the event(s) that wounded her
- She may lack an outlet
- Her self-esteem may be so low that if an outlet were presented to her, she might decline to immediately engage
My voracious appetite wasn’t sparked by love for food. When I felt lonely and rejected. I ate. When I was confused about my chaotic home environment, I ate. When I wanted answers that no one would give me, I ate. Eating helped me process my thoughts and emotions. My problems dissipated, albeit temporarily.
It was a process addiction. Every step that involved acquiring and consuming food, particularly sweets, was what I’d become addicted to, maybe more than the substance itself.
Once, in the 7th grade, a teacher looked the other way when I physically defended myself against a female student who was talking about my weight. Although my actions weren’t the best resolution, I felt vindicated in that moment.
But instances like that were rare. Plagued by a deep sense of apathy, my weight became my identity. The need to lose weight, look different, and get over everything that happened became its own entity. I developed a desperate desire to be something other than what I was and to accept blame for circumstances I didn’t create.
I have gone through periods in my life when I refused to work out or eat well because I declined to believe I had to conform to societal norms. I didn’t want to have to look a certain way in order to be accepted because that meant I couldn’t be accepted given everything that had happened to me. When I was rejected because of my weight, I felt rejected because of the abuse and chaos.
The Thing about Validation
Ironically, even with my nonconformist attitude, I sought love and acceptance.
A few years ago I came in contact with a group of women who had attended the same elementary school I did. We went out a few times, and part of me felt good to be around them as a smaller version of my elementary school self. In a way it felt as though I was making up for the times when I couldn’t hang out with them as an adolescent. There was still distance, because we were never close, but in some distorted way I felt accepted by them even though I knew I still wasn’t part of the group.
It didn’t take long for me to get honest with myself by accepting the fact that my weight was still a gauge of worth to them, and their memories of the past were far more amusing than mine. Decades later, my size still had its own identity, and I was still the butt of jokes.
I’m learning to accept my reflection in the mirror. Each stretch mark, curve, dent, or bump no longer opens up a floodgate of shame. Instead, it reminds me that I’ve survived much, and because of that, I have the potential to overcome trials I’ll face going forward.
Now I choose to surround myself with people who value what’s in my heart, not how I look or what I have or haven’t accomplished. I’d rather have few friends than many superficial ones. I’m less reliant on temporary fixes that leave me less healthy and more frustrated. I try to love myself the best I know how, with the vow to continue to learn what that means and how it translates into my life.