03 Dec

Empathy for My Teenaged Self

Memory is a mysterious force. Today I was cooking some cheese-stuffed pasta shells for dinner. It’s a dish I haven’t made as an adult, but one I did eat now and again growing up. I was always glad to get a dinner entree that I genuinely enjoyed, but I was routinely dismayed by the judgment that my dad and step-mom passed on my eating habits. I always wanted to eat more. Sometimes they told me no, others they would say, “Do you really need to have another one?”

Teenage boys are assumed to be constantly hungry. This incessant drive for caloric intake is not frowned upon, as it is in girls, but encouraged. Growing bodies need nutrition, of course. Teenage girls receive another message. The female adolescent body is ever at risk of being fat. As we all know, fat is the worst thing a young woman can be. If you’re fat, men won’t like you and that’s the worst thing of all.

I was always hungry when I was young. Actually, I am always hungry as an adult, but I am learning how better to manage my nutritional needs. A little knowledge and experience can make a huge difference. I’ve been reflecting a lot on diet, eating habits, and how to best eat for my body and level of activity. With these thoughts in mind when this memory of dinners past surfaced, I discovered a new perspective on myself.

I was always hungry because I never had the right food. I never went hungry. We weren’t impoverished and there was always food in the house. However, I lacked the practical knowledge of how to feed myself effectively. Left to my own devices, I’d cook a grilled cheese sandwich or get a pizza. I ate crackers as an after-school snack. Granola bars were a large part of my diet. This might sound obvious, but to me it feels like a revelation to discover that I was always hungry because I didn’t get enough protein or enough of the food I needed to recover from my daily life.

I wasn’t fat. Well, I was overweight but I wasn’t fat in the way we think of fat people, in the loaded sense of the word. But I wasn’t getting what I needed. If you’re told that nearly every food is “bad” for you, then everything becomes equal. Like when every email you get is “urgent,” then there are no urgent issues—it’s all equally important. My step-mom, for example, would see me eating cashews and say “Nuts are fattening.” Well, if nuts are bad and cake is bad, then, why not eat a cake? It all has the same conclusion: food is bad and you’re fat.

There was a year that my step-mom, her daughter, my sister and I lived in the UK. We regularly bought packages of cookies (gotta sample the local cuisine) and we’d all have a cookie or two after dinner. That was great except for when I started to sneak cookies after school when I was the only one yet home. Eventually this escalated to eating multiple cookies. The evidence of my crimes would be unveiled and my step-mom would ask “Who ate all these cookies?” while looking pointedly at me. I was too frozen with shame to respond.

I gained a lot of weight that year (whether it was a lot objectively or not is a question that I cannot answer, but I think I would have fared better if someone had told me it was normal for teenage girls to gain some weight). When we moved back home, my dad made us tacos for dinner. I had keenly missed eating Mexican food so I was excited to eat some homemade tacos. Of course, after eating two tacos and angling for a third I was met with “Are you sure you need another taco?” from my dad. I said I was and then he decided this was the right time to tell me I had gained weight and should stop. Thanks for the support.

From an adult perspective, I question why no one saw this weight gain, saw my eating habits, my emotions, and asked how I felt or if I was hungry or what I needed. Why the fuck would you tell a teenage girl she is fat. Why would you tell your step-daughter that, when returning home from a year abroad, all her friends will see how much she “ballooned out.” I can’t imagine ever saying something like that to anyone, let alone a child. I wish someone had seen what was happening and realized that I needed emotional support instead of judgment and shame.

When you’re fat, you assume it’s because you lack the self-control that thin people have. Or you’re lazy. Maybe you are too stupid to know that you’re supposed to eat right. These are the stories our culture tells us. If you’re fat, it’s your fault. Of course, this narrative ignores the billions that corporations spend to market nutritionally useless foods like breakfast cereal, sugary beverages, and snack cakes. It ignores the hundreds of conflicting diets (low-fat, low-carb, only juice, the tears of one’s enemies) that are backed by little more than the testimony of a thin white woman.

I am fat. I say that without judgment; it’s just a fact of my body. Recognizing some of the factors that have influenced a lifetime’s eating habits is helping me accept myself and accept that it’s possible to live healthfully in my own terms. I know I will never be thin, which is something I am fine with. However, I can be strong, active and confident all while being fat. I can choose what I need to fuel my life. I don’t have to be forever hungry or forever guilty. I can just be myself.