Thank You For Calling Me Fatso

You never saw the tears I held back or the wounds your comments left…  Thank you for calling me Fatso.

I was in fourth grade. You remember, the year we were all awkward 9-year-olds with mock swagger. You were the girl with the long, blonde hair, new shoes and designer jeans. You were the kid who played club sports, went on family vacations to Disneyland and ate hot lunch. I was the other kid. I was the round, pudgy kid, the one with glasses held together with duct tape. Yeah. That kid. The kid picked last for dodge ball in that musty gymnasium, sweating it out extra hard as I waited for someone, anyone, to call my name. I was the monkey in the middle, every single time. I was the kid who never dodged the ball, taking it in the gut while you all snickered on the sidelines. I was the kid sitting alone in the cafeteria, eating my solitary lunch with my solitary self, surrounded by a sea of laughing, pranking, squabbling kids who at least had someone to argue with. As you tossed your half-eaten lunches into the garbage bins, you passed me by, and I silently prayed to the Saint of Forgotten Children for mercy. I prayed you would at least pass me without a remark, without an insult, without a jab. The Saint of Forgotten Children must have been busy that year because you tossed insults at me like peanuts to an elephant, nothing more than an afterthought for kids who went home to casseroles and family game nights. You never saw the tears I held back or the wounds your comments left. Thank you for calling me Fatso.

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Fast-forward a few painful years to middle school. You didn’t know it, but I was the girl silently suffering abuse at home. I was beaten until bloody, swollen and breathless. I was sexually assaulted while the other adults in the house looked the other way. Every morning I brushed my teeth, combed my hair and tied my shoes knowing that I would face another day of mocking, bullying and neglect. I put on a brave face on my way to school, and I held it there throughout the day, enduring the scorn and cruelty only one kid can truly heap on another. I left school every afternoon, steadying myself for the inevitable pushes, shoves and name calling that followed me all the way home. It was you again, now a cheerleader. You had even more friends than before. Your legs were longer and leaner. You had the ‘perfect’ body, so why did you have to mess with pudgy ol’ me? But mess you did, the snide lilt of your voice the soundtrack from elementary school, the classic song on repeat in my head. Thank you for calling me Fatso.

Nobody even bothered to look. Nobody even noticed I was gone.

Don’t get your hopes up that high school was any better, littered as it was with classes full of beautiful girls with perfectly coiffed hair, handsome football players and me. The problem is, the monkey stuck helplessly in the middle is never allowed to catch the ball. I had become, like the ball itself, something to be dodged. Oh sure, I tried to make friends. But deep in my soul, where the music still blared, I knew I wasn’t worthy, and I suspected I never had been. The torment I suffered from those fourth grade days in the schoolyard carried through, the bullying and insults worsening in middle school, until the ultimate insult was thrown my way: apathy. I became something worse than the object of your scorn. I became invisible. I gave up on friends; why bother? Nobody cared that I ate my can of green beans alone, in the bathroom stall, the only thing I could afford to bring from home. Nobody even bothered to look. Nobody even noticed I was gone. Thank you for calling me Fatso.

You may have heard, like I had, that college is where the kids who hated high school go to shine. Don’t buy it. College was a joke. I barely focused on classes, zoning out and finally skipping them altogether. Like my childhood, nobody noticed. When I stopped showing up to classes completely, nobody cared. That voice inside me, the one tapping along to the lyrics of my inadequacy, told me I wasn’t worth a college degree. I wasn’t worthy of an education, of walking across a stage, or of achieving my dreams, so why would I be worthy of any other form of self-care? The only thing that kept me company was your comments, which became my closest friend and confidant. We sat together, alone in my bedroom, eating ice cream and bags of Doritos, drunk-dialing Domino’s after our latest cookie binge. Your comments were my trusted sidekick through those years that everyone said would be the best of my life. Instead of acing exams, dating engineering majors or partying with my friends, I hosted a party of two: just your comments and me. Thank you for calling me Fatso.

I consoled myself with the only friend who didn’t talk back: food.

If college was a joke, dating was the ultimate prank. I carried your words with me onto every single date, sitting across the table from a man I dared to like, picking at my salad and barely taking a bite. Eye contact was impossible. I trusted your insults when, one by one, each man failed to call back, the phone familiarly silent. I packed your softly muttered jabs into my gym bag, making feeble attempts at health and fitness, only to find that your contempt and ridicule followed me right onto the treadmill. Every step I took felt like two, the weight of your criticism heavier than anything else. It laughed me off the elliptical, through the changing room (as if I’d ever change there anyway) and all the way back home, to the corner of my bedroom we knew so well. I consoled myself with the only friend who didn’t talk back: food. The memory of your ridicule held me tightly on those long winter nights, the sound of the TV punctuated only by the ringing doorbell. Domino’s again. Thank you for calling me Fatso.

Finding a job was the one thing I couldn’t quit, shrink away from or avoid. I had to do it. It coerced me out of my comfort zone, outside of that bedroom and underneath the covers of shame. It forced me to look people in the eye, compelling me to stuff your words into my plus-sized back pocket, where they sat silently until I was back home each night. There again, in the confines of my bedroom, I was free to eat away the pain. Oh sure, I was able to play the part all day at work. I laughed with co-workers, hunkered down to a work schedule and paced myself through office parties and lunches, but the minute I was home, those insults came hurling at me from the depths of my soul. Each muttered insult you flung my way hit me again with the force of those dodge balls, still leaving me winded and clutching my gut. The only thing that made it better? You guessed it. Food. Thank you for calling me Fatso.

That day was the day things changed

As a young adult, I successfully held several jobs, and with each passing year, your bullets left less of a sting. Sure, they were there when I met new people, hiding my feelings of shame and worthlessness between jokes and self-deprecating remarks. Your comments went on dates with me, but they were hidden away, like all the emotions I learned to bury years ago. But even tucked away, traveling right along with me, I began to live a bit outside of that bedroom, one step at a time. I began seeing a therapist who helped me realize your words held power over me only if I allowed them to. All these years, I gave you power over me, power to force me into a dungeon of helplessness and keep me there despite my desperation to climb out. Then, after years of struggle and hard emotional work, something amazing happened: I realized your words were just that. Words. They held no meaning unless I breathed life into them. I could choose to let them inside. I could choose to open the door, inviting your hateful comments to take up residence right beside me. Or I could choose to listen to the knock and walk away. Your words held no meaning unless I answered their call. That day was the day things changed. Thank you for calling me Fatso.

With this realization, I saw that I did have value. I mattered. People could like me if I only gave them a chance. So I did. I gave every person I met the chance to look me in the eye and get to know me. It was hard. Fear of judgment, ridicule and that old friend apathy haunted me. Would everyone feel the way about me that you did? Would everyone see the pudgy kid with duct-taped glasses? It was terrifying to let anyone really look at me. I brought out the record of your well-worn insults, and I sometimes played it, wallowing in that old, scratched soundtrack. But then, over time, I stopped listening so closely, because I knew better. I didn’t let your criticisms keep me down. I broke through the realization that those words, that soundtrack, could damage me and hold me back or become the power that propelled me forward. Thank you for calling me Fatso.

I knew that I was worthy of this man and of his love

With this newfound realization and sense of strength, I met the love of my life and married him two years later. My wedding dress was white, a flowing size 16. As I looked in the mirror that morning, staring at every imperfect body part, you visited me again. I saw your face in my mind, taunting me as you had all those years ago, brushing past me in the cafeteria with another cutting comment or icy glare. But rather than shirk back into another corner, another dark bedroom, I quickly dismissed your snubs, quieting that music in my mind. I felt your words begin to dissipate, just like the power they held over me. I raised my chin, looked myself squarely in the face and knew that I was worthy of this man and of his love. Thank you for calling me Fatso.

I went on to have four perfect and beautiful children. From the time I saw their tiny, scrunched faces, I vowed to protect them from insults like yours. I vowed to fill their precious hearts so full of love, acceptance and a sense of worth that they’d never have room to consider insulting another perfect and beautiful person. I vowed that my children be taught kindness, mercy and love and that they’d show those qualities in the face of adversity. I never wanted to foster in anyone else the feelings of shame or hopelessness I felt as a kid, and I never wanted to foster the cruelty and disregard for another person so many of you carried in your own hearts. I could have taught my children to be fearful, timid or bitter. That would have given your words even more power. Instead, I taught them to be kind, gentle and courageous. Thank you for calling me Fatso.

 

Love through movement rather than trying to outrun my demons.

I finally broke loose entirely of the hold you had on me several years later when I walked into a Jenny Craig center. I had over 100 pounds to lose, and I was ready. It was a hard battle, at times rendering me frustrated, scared and weary. This time, however, was different. I never retreated to the dark corner of my bedroom. I never gave up. This time I had my husband next to me, cheering me on every step of the way, reminding me of my value. He reminded of the incredibly meaningful life I led, of those four precious little faces staring up at me each day and mimicking my example, learning from my ways. Armed with love and support, I tackled the job ahead of me, learning to fuel my body with nourishing, healthy food and show it love through movement rather than trying to outrun my demons. Thank you for calling me Fatso.

I lost a total of 110 pounds. I became a brand ambassador and spokesperson, featured in TV ads, for a well-known weight loss company. I spoke to a group of several hundred corporate employees about my success and the road that led me there. As I walked up to that stage and looked out at the sea of people, scrutinizing every inch of me, I felt a sense of gratitude toward you. Your words were horrid. They stung far worse than a thousand bee stings. They still sting. But on that day, they no longer held me captive. I was free from the very words that held me hostage for over 30 years. I realized there were many others out there, victims who’d suffered disrespect and scorn like that you’d heaped on me. So many thousands of people are still struggling to realize their own self-worth. I had broken through to the other side, and if I could break through, I knew they could, too. Thank you for calling me Fatso.

We are deserving of friendship and love as much as ‘the pretty people.’ We are worthy.

With passion, empathy and determination to not only continue helping myself but to also help others, I created an online support community: www.runheiferrun.com. The name was born in jest, from a fun-loving friend who called me heifer when I started running. Unlike you, her words were said in loving banter rather than mocking ridicule, and they cajoled and pushed me into working harder toward my health. It worked. I worked. Four years later, I am still running. The Heifer community has grown to thousands of people, all of us doing the hard work to create healthy life habits and sustainable growth. We do this while fighting to keep the torment we suffered in our past just that: the past. We are helping each other go beyond the cruel words of others, to go beyond Fatso. Each of us has a story. Some stories may even be worse, yet we share one thing in common: hatefully scattered words no longer bind us. We’ve broken free, and we realize we have worth beyond insults. We are beautiful and strong no matter our shape. We are deserving of friendship and love as much as ‘the pretty people.’ We are worthy.


Melissa Kahn is a Jenny Craig brand ambassador and the proud founder of Run, Heifer, Run! —a fun-loving community of fitness enthusiasts dedicated to commonsense solutions for weight loss and healthy living. Melissa competes in triathlons now, having lost over 100 pounds, or the equivalent of 45 kilos of fear. She has maintained her healthy weight for more than five years—another proud accomplishment considering she's yet to meet a cookie she doesn't like. Melissa lives in Phoenix with her husband Dave (a pilot), four foul-smelling teenagers and two spazzy dogs who remind her that the glass blender is always half-full even when someone forgets the top.

Christopher Brisley