Growing up “Fat”

I decided to start this blog because I wanted one where I could share anything that was on my mind, regardless of what it pertained to. I have other blogs, not on WordPress, that are for a specific purpose (politics, movies, etc.). This one won’t be like that. It’s pretty much whatever’s on my mind, that I feel needs to get out.

For starters, I’ll tell you a little bit about myself. I’m a North American man in my late 30’s, I’m married and have two children, and I would call myself on the lower end of middle-class, verging on poor. And I’m fat.

Now, I’m willing to bet that most people, when they read the word “fat”, probably had some sort of reaction, and most likely it was a negative one. You might have snickered, or frowned, or made some snap judgement about how I live. I get that. It’s natural. Even I react with revulsion at people who are fatter than me, even when I know I live in a glass house.

It’s been a real struggle throughout my life not to let my fat define me; to simply not feel shame about it. I can’t walk down the street without assuming that other people are looking at me and judging me for my weight.

Recently, I came across another blog post that stated the following, talking to parents: “Whatever you keep telling your child they are, that’s what they’ll grow up to be.” For example, if you constantly tell your child that he or she is stupid, they will grow up believing they’re stupid, and will be stupid when they reach adulthood. Because they spent their lives being told and believing that’s what they are.

This resonated with me. You see, I can’t remember a time in my life where my parents weren’t focused on my weight, and the amount of it that I was gaining.

See, here’s the thing; I grew up with a brother who was two and a half years younger than I, who was, in most ways, everything my parents wished I was. He was far more obedient as well as better in school. I recall my parents numerous times, to my face, comparing me to him disfavorably, on a number of topics. But no topic was brought up more often than my weight, especially when compared to his.

See, my brother was the kind of kid who had trouble putting weight on. I was the sort of kid who tended toward stockiness. This was due to my parents having, in their respective families, two very different body types.

On my father’s side, most of his relatives are tall, broad-shouldered, skinny, or at least of “average” weight, and red-headed. They also tend toward being musical, and while they’re not all redheads, there’s a lot of red hair going on. Also, they don’t tend to grow quickly, but they do grow to large heights once the growth kicks in.

Those on my mother’s side, more or less, tend toward being shorter, but reaching their full height very early, are a bit more on the stocky-to-fat side, and have darker hair.

My brother took after my dad’s side, almost in its entirety. I got three things from my dad; my height (I topped out at 6’2″, which actually makes me short compared to several of my cousins), my singing ability, and my hair color. I also got my father’s speaking voice (people have mistaken me for him over the phone more times than I can count), but that’s relatively minor.

Combining the “worst” of both worlds, I was a stocky kid who grew much quicker than my brother did. My brother was a tiny, shrimpy, skinny string bean of a kid pretty much right up until his last year of high school. He was lucky; Dad didn’t hit his final growth spurt until college. But I hit several growth spurts and hit them early. My last real growth spurt was in the eighth grade, and I think I only grew maybe one or two inches in high school. But of course, that only became evident later, after years of damage had already been done.

What does a kid who’s growing quickly tend to do? Get hungry a lot. But put yourself in my mother’s shoes. She had one kid who was unusually large for his age, and possessing broad shoulders, a barrel chest, and was pretty soft in the middle. The other child, who comes from the same two parents, who is being raised exactly the same, is much smaller, and seems to hardly put on weight at all. The big one is always hungry. The smaller one can rarely be convinced to finish his meals. What conclusion would you draw?

But it went even further. My brother was always moving. Even when he was supposed to be still, he would fidget and squirm. When given the chance, he was usually outside playing, running around, climbing things, jumping off them, and later, when he learned how, riding his bike. A lot. Everywhere. I was usually curled up with a book.

Now, in all fairness, I rode my bike as well. I would suggest that I did at least as much bike riding as my brother, perhaps even more so. But our preferences differed. He wanted to be moving when given the choice. I tended to prefer being still. He wasn’t much of a reader. I devoured books, and when I would finish one, I would look for another to start on.

Neither my brother nor I were all that into playing sports, but he joined in with his friends when they would start playing Football, Basketball or Baseball, whereas I preferred friends I could pretend with. My best friend during the early years of my development was a kid that played Star Wars with me. That was actually another thing that worried my mother; the amount of time I spent avoiding “the real world” and preferring the worlds I found in books, or, in some cases, movies and television. I had a strong creative side early on, and would write stories. I tended to always be developing a new story in my head.

As a result, my mother was convinced that she had one normal child and one fat, lazy child. And, for that matter, I was convinced that I was fat and lazy. By the time I was starting to think of myself as an individual, I thought of myself as a big, fat load. And others responded to me that way.

See, part of me looks back on the time from age seven or eight to the end of high school and thinks I had to be as fat as I felt because other kids made fun of me for my weight. Surely I was grossly overweight, right?

Not to mention that there is no question I’m a fat adult. So, I must have been a fat kid, right?

Except that in recent years, I’ve looked at pictures of myself at various ages again, through the eyes of a middle-aged adult with children of his own. And I was surprised at just how un-fat I was. Now, make no mistake, I wasn’t skinny. But I was far from fat.

I grew up thinking I looked like this:

I actually looked like this (as far as size):

As a teenager, I saw this when I looked in a mirror:

The reality, when I looked at old pictures of myself, looked a little closer to this:

Yeah, that’s Seth Rogen in his early twenties. Fat by Hollywood standards, but by no means dangerously overweight. That’s also what I looked like in the pictures of me holding my newborn son. I would have been twenty-three. And I believed I was morbidly obese even then.

From as early in my life as I can remember, my mother would pinch inches on me, pat my stomach to show me how much it jiggled, tell me to put down that book and get off the couch and go do something active (even if I had already spent a majority of the day on my bike), count calories, fat, salt, carbs, etc. of literally anything she bought for me to eat and would monitor my portion sizes like I would explode if she got the figures wrong. If we were invited to another person’s house for dinner, she would watch how much I put on my plate and tell me to stop filling after I had taken a below-average amount. Desserts were even worse. If the host was serving pie or cake, they usually would begin slicing, and when it came time to serve me, my mother would tell the host “he doesn’t need a slice that big” when they would go to cut a slice of equal size to the ones they’d cut for everyone else.

She would force me to weigh myself and then watch as the scale reported my weight. And yes, she did this even when I was still growing, and would completely fail to take into account that I was putting on weight because I was getting older. I would hit a growth spurt, and things would get worse. She was just sure that I was rapidly gaining weight because of how I ate, or the sort of things I ate. She would obsess over how many pounds I was. I don’t think there was ever a time she didn’t know my exact weight. If it was higher than she thought it should be for a kid my age, and it usually was, she would cut me back on every type of food I enjoyed eating, and then she would wonder why I would sneak extra food when she wasn’t looking.

I specifically remember her practically going into hysterics when I hit 110 lbs at age eleven. Maybe this sounds too fat to you, as well, but then, this is what I looked like at age eleven:

I’m the one in the back. My cousin’s head is in the way, but even what you can see shows that I was hardly a little lard-ball. What I was, was tall. Very tall for an eleven-year-old, and thick of frame with the aforementioned broad shoulders and barrel chest. The kid in the red and white, there? That’s my brother. He would have been nine here. Doesn’t he look closer to, say, six?

But he was what my mother considered normal. I was gaining weight, and fast, and had already broken one hundred pounds at a mere eleven years old. That just had to mean that I was dangerously overweight, didn’t it?

Here’s another shot of my brother and I, and a different set of cousins:

Here, I’m nineteen (far left). Getting bigger, but still not grossly overweight. My brother is the one in the white. He’s about seventeen here. Again, he hadn’t really started growing. I’m kneeling on a box, and he’s sitting on a stool, yet I’m still taller. By the way, my cousins are standing up in that photo. If I had stood, my head would have been cut off.

But at that point in my life, the damage was done. I knew I was a big, fat loser. And I always would be.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s go back to how both my parents treated me while I was still young. Again, I don’t remember a time when my mother, in particular, wasn’t stressed about my weight and how many calories, fats, carbs and the like were in the things I was allowed to eat. I recall expressing frustration somewhere around age thirteen that my life seemed to revolve around how many pounds I weighed on a given morning. My parents would constantly remind me of how much I weighed. If I lost weight, they celebrated for a short while. If I gained even a pound of it back, I got stern lectures.

And yes, my parents would fat-shame me, sometimes in public. I think in part they wanted others to know that they certainly didn’t just let me eat what I want and spend all day in front of the TV. They wanted people to know that I had done this to myself, despite their intentions. They would stick their bellies out and waddle, imitating me. My father described me (the me in the last photo above) as “fat as a butterball”. At this point, my brother was just starting to hit his only real growth spurt, and he often felt snacky. Didn’t matter to my parents. If he wanted to eat, he ate. If I wanted to eat, I had to clear it with them, and often was told no, or that I could have a few carrot sticks or something. Meanwhile my brother would make, and eat in one sitting, an entire box of Kraft Dinner all by himself.

And, yes, I got fat-shamed at school, too. Girls didn’t, for the most part, want to date me. I didn’t have many friends. I always felt awkward in social circles. And bullies, oh god, the bullies.

I mentioned that I don’t really care for sports. The truth is that I have about as much skill with athletic activities as I do interest in them. This opened me up to a lot of hazing. Look at the pictures of the kids above, and remember that I was about that size, as the pictures of me show. I was routinely expected by teachers, especially gym teachers, to be athletic due to my size. I was very tall for my age, even if I did stop growing early. I was broad, and I looked tough. I was asked at one point by a teacher if I played Football or Basketball. Not asked as in “do you play” but as in “which one do you play, because surely you play one or the other.”

With my shirt on, I looked like a bulky athlete. So why was I fat-shamed? Why didn’t girls like me? Why did I have so few friends? Well, the answer to the first is simple. It’s because I was forced to take Gym. And what do you do when Gym starts? You go change into your Gym clothes. You see where this is going, right?

As soon as my shirt was off, it was obvious that I was not the muscular powerhouse the kids at school had all been convinced I was, up until then. My chest size and shoulder width was part of the illusion, but my complete lack of muscle gave the game away. I had the beginnings of moobs, my mid-section was rounding out, and doughy, even if I wasn’t super-overweight, and I now understand that if I had possessed even slightly more muscle tone, and/or had any physical skills, I likely wouldn’t have been teased or bullied nearly as much. How do I know? I wasn’t the only kid my size at all. Quite a few of the other kids were my size. The big difference was, they had a few things I lacked. Physical prowess, at least a little more muscle tone, and lots and lots of confidence, at least by comparison.

And therein lies another major problem I had back then. Confidence, or lack thereof. And I don’t just mean in Gym class, I mean in all aspects of life. And that was the problem with girls and with friends. Any time I entered any social situation, I had no doubt that everyone who saw me immediately decided I was a big fat waste of space. If I liked a girl, I never had the confidence to approach her or say anything. This made me appear creepy, because I would do things like stare, moon over her, get friends to ask questions on my behalf, etc. And of course, if you’re one of the kids who gets bullied, other kids would prefer to stay away from you, especially if you’re awkward and nervous in social situations, which I was. Cripplingly.

In high school, I wasn’t as cripplingly shy, but only because I was determined that I wouldn’t be. What would I be instead? Whatever was “cool”. I had decided that who I was wasn’t good enough, so instead, I would try and become someone else. But who? When you start defining yourself by whatever’s considered cool, you eventually end up losing your identity entirely.

This kind of situation causes you to overcompensate. I was a wallflower by nature, and looking back, I should have just accepted that about myself. However, I was certain at that time that my natural state was not good enough, and so I began to look for what strengths I did have, and that’s where I started overdoing it (honestly, I started this in middle school as well). If I had a girlfriend, I decided she was the love of my life. Girls…rarely felt the same way. I knew I could sing, and I knew I could write. I had also caught the acting bug in 9th grade after getting a large role in the school musical, so I decided I could act, too. My desire to be accepted caused me to turn into a braggart about what skills I did possess. I couldn’t play any sport, but so what? I was the greatest actor, singer and writer in my school!

But I wasn’t any of those things, and when my ego about that came back to bite me, which of course it did, I was left feeling even more useless than before. Now everything had been taken away from me. I was fat, I wasn’t proficient with sports, I was shy and awkward with no confidence, rarely had a girlfriend, and only had one or two friends. Sometimes it felt like even my brother didn’t want to be associated with me at school. I got picked on daily, and didn’t have the nerve to defend myself. I tried ignoring the bullies, but that just made them more determined. And even when I got home, it didn’t let up.

Now, I don’t want to sit here as a middle-aged man and tell you all the ways my parents screwed me up. I actually hate it when utter losers in life sit around in their mid-forties or fifties and tell you it’s all their parents’ fault that they turned out like they did. And I don’t want to be that guy. I hope that’s not how I sound, though I admit, it probably is. However, I don’t blame my parents for everything. For one thing, I don’t have a bad life as an adult, or at least I don’t now, and one of the things that has improved it is my own attitude changing. But going back to what I said at the start of this post; as a parent, whatever you tell your child they are, they will believe you. If you raise your child constantly making them feel stupid, they will grow up stupid. If you raise your child constantly telling them they’re good for nothing, they will end up good for nothing. And if you raise your child to believe they are fat, don’t be surprised if they turn out fat.

For me, however, it wasn’t just that I was fat. That was a symptom, not the problem. It was a complete loss of self. I reached my thirties and still had no idea who I was. I knew who I wanted to be, and I knew that I had decided a long time ago that I would never be good enough to be that person.

Who I wanted to be was a successful writer with a wife and a family who recorded albums on the side.

How I saw myself, however was as a fat, stupid, lazy loser who was lacking in every part of his life. He couldn’t make friends. He couldn’t get a girlfriend. He sucked at sports. Sure, he could write, sing and maybe act a little. But even there, he fell short of the mark, and besides, who could turn meaningless skills like that into a career?

I was 22 years old, had just had a girlfriend break up with me, and was reminded of my shortcomings every day by parents who were trying in the only way they knew how to motivate me. They had no concept that their efforts to light a fire under my ass to succeed, get a good college education, get a real career, etc., was only confirming in my mind that the person I was simply would never be good enough. And now I knew that trying to be someone else wasn’t going to work, either. So what was I to do?

No answer seemed forthcoming. I was in college in an English Education program, but I didn’t want to be a teacher. I chose “teacher” because my mother had been one, and I wanted to make my parents proud and show them that I could be successful. Then I fell in “love” with a woman who said yes when I proposed, and I ended up dropping out of school. Now, the fact is that the act of dropping out of the Education program wasn’t bad for me, but really, I should have been pursuing some form of post-secondary schooling that would further me in my pursuit of my dreams, and not been so worried about the constant reminders that I’d probably never publish a book, that I should put my aspirations of writing on the back burner and focus on getting a career first, then write in my spare time.

What I should have done was take a writing class, or several, or take a course in something like Journalism or another literary pursuit. I should have let nothing stand in the way of pursuing my dream. Had I done that, you’d likely see my name on a book the next time you’re in a book store. But at this point, I sought nothing more than validation from others. Where my career goals were concerned, the idea of disappointing my parents was a thousand times worse than never achieving my personal and professional goals. I had lived my entire life feeling like I would never measure up in their eyes, and wanting nothing more than to finally receive their approval; an approval I felt I would never receive.

Even beyond my parents, however, was the desperation to feel loved by someone. That was, in part, what led me to propose to the first woman I thought would say yes. She did, and we got married. She’s the mother of both my children. To make a very long story short, she also is no longer my wife.

My first marriage helped enormously in cementing the idea in me that I would never measure up. I wasn’t good enough for anyone. My dreams of writing were crushed at this point; during my marriage they all but completely died as I found myself with no time to write and certainly no encouragement (in fact, still more active discouragement). Needless to say, it made me feel even more worthless, unable to measure up, and now I’d found two more things I sucked at; being a husband and being a father.

However, as an adult, I existed in a strange dichotomy. On the one hand, I had given up. I no longer even tried to watch what I ate, having gotten sick of it as a kid, so I went from being just a little chubbier than average to being actually fat, and getting fatter. But on the other hand, despite feeling no motivation to lose weight, I knew I needed to. I knew I could be more than I was, despite feeling like a complete loser. It was just that I wasn’t sure I had the wherewithall to try and actually become more.

I began to wallow in self-loathing, a process I’m still trying to put behind me. I saw nothing in myself but my failures, and felt that what strengths I did have no longer mattered, because I wasn’t good enough at them to actually be useful to anyone. My passion to write never completely died, but it was a guttering flame. See, I had decided at this point that I was defined by all that was wrong with me. I defined myself by my weight, by my complete failure to achieve my personal and professional goals, or at the very least, letting them slip through my grasp once I did have them.

So, there’s a cautionary tale, parents. Maybe you mean well. Maybe you’re just trying your best to motivate your kids or wake them up, but again, if you tell your child repeatedly that they are something, you’re pretty much imprinting it on their psyche that that’s what they are, and that’s all they’ll ever be.

See, one of the major problems with my attempts to lose weight as an adult is that I approached literally everything at this point with an attitude that I would fail. I didn’t want to fail, but I knew I would, so I did. I hated who I was because I was so wrapped up in what I felt I was. I saw no reason to lose weight, because I felt that if I did, all that would happen is that I would go from a fat waste of space failure to a less-fat waste of space failure.

And that’s when I was given a piece of advice that I will never forget. And from a very unlikely source. “Never forget what you are, for the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” Or, as I later heard it simplified, “Whatever you are, own it.” I needed to hear those words. Somehow, where no other words of encouragement, no other exclamations of “oh, come on, you’re not all that fat”, or “you’re a good writer” had ever managed, those words pulled me out of my reverie. They come from author George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novel A Game of Thrones. Like I said, an unlikely source.

“Whatever you are, own it.” Okay, I was fat. Did that, by itself, make me worthless? There were other fat people out there. I’d met them. All of them had more confidence than me. None of them, at least not to a degree that an onlooker would notice, let their fat define them. They weren’t wallowing in self-pity. They were fat, but they were owning it. Was there any reason I couldn’t do the same? I had failures, but who didn’t? Was I really going to live the rest of my life defining myself by all that I had failed at doing?

Now, it wasn’t as easy as just saying “I’m no longer going to be ashamed of my failures and my fat” and then going about my life like a champion, but having those words to focus on makes it feel more like I can achieve that. And it’s not easy. We live in a society where fat people are heavily stigmatized. Fat-shaming is the last socially acceptable prejudice. Yes, there are still racists, sexists, slut-shamers, homophobes, etc. But it’s no longer socially acceptable to be those things. But fat-bashers? Absolutely. It’s disguised as concerns for health, but really, most fat-bashers hate “fatties” because they hate having to look at them. We’re not pleasing to the eye, us fatties.

In fact, as fat as I was, I decided that I should not even try to date a woman who wasn’t at least as fat as I was. Now, this wasn’t a bad thing by itself, and several of the women I dated were fine people. They weren’t right for me, not because they were fat, but because I was only dating them because I didn’t think I could date anyone who wasn’t as big as me. I didn’t think anyone who didn’t look like me could love me. Let me reiterate: I am not saying that I was wrong to date larger women. In fact, I’m more drawn to women with curves. I am saying that I was wrong to assume that I could only date larger women.

Today, I’m happily married to the love of my life. And, to top it off, she looks like this:

This is us more recently:

I could never have married her unless I got over my self-pity and decided I was worth something, fat or not. I owned it, and now I’ve met the woman of my dreams.

And to top things off, I presently have a novel under review by a publisher. By “under review” I mean they’ve already decided they like it and they’re currently deciding if they want to buy it.

So now that I’ve spent time getting off my chest just how bad I have felt about myself for a majority of my life, I’m ready to face it, to lift myself above my failures and focus on living my life to the fullest, being the best husband I can be, the best father I can be, writing and continuing to, even if this present endeavor ends in rejection, to just keep going. To break the cycle of shame and become who I truly am.

And who knows? At some step in this journey, I may even be ready to drop some pounds as well.


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