There has never been a time in my life when I wasn’t fat. From my youth to my mid-20s, I felt the worst shame about my fatness and my shame felt valid because everyone and everything did a great job of reinforcing that for me. The TV shows I watched, the jokes I heard adults tell, the insults that were hurled at me for simply existing — all of it made it seem that fat equaled unworthy, and I took it deeply to heart.
Movies like Shallow Hal taught me that unless a man was literally hypnotized to believe I was beautiful, he’d never give me the time of day. MTV shot multiple Fat Camp episodes where kids are essentially mocked for their weight and given unhealthy coping mechanisms to lose it. Name any John Hughes movie and I can probably find a fat joke and not a single stitch of body representation. The messages were all the same: To be fat is to be something you should be ashamed of, and until you lose that weight, you’re undeserving of love and respect.
It's not a unique experience. It’s one that many, many fat people have internalized. And as a result, many of us at some point or another followed an unspoken code for navigating the world. Take up as little space as possible. That means from the seats we choose to the clothes we put on ourselves, the goal should be to minimize ourselves as much as possible.
While I feel like I have since evolved in my feelings toward my appearance and have abandoned the “code,” the journey to body acceptance (or even body neutrality) is one full of peaks and valleys. Part of that evolution means checking myself and my reactions to other fat people in the world.
I recently had to reevaluate myself when I saw what artist Lizzo wore to the 2022 Emmys. Watching her walk the red carpet in a voluminous red tulle number simultaneously had my inner child screaming for joy and in horror. Lizzo walked with her head held high in a dress that gave her nowhere to hide and, for a moment, I caught myself saying, “Sheesh, that dress just isn’t flattering.”
But what does “flattering” even mean? She looked show-stopping. She took up spectacular space. And what I was really reacting to is the fact that that dress, and frankly many of the others she wears, breaks the code. They don’t shrink her. They accentuate or fully show her curves with big, fluffy silhouettes or minimal body coverage. And while you might not buy some of these outfits for your 7-year-old daughter, I’d argue it is pivotal that they see her.
If, as a child, I had seen a fat woman who was confident in her body, not hiding it behind pillows when she sat down or dressing in clothes that were authentically her, I would have had an entirely different outlook on life.
The messages from the culture, from all the media available to me in the 1990s, convinced me that all of my emotional and physical problems would go away if I just wasn’t fat. Maybe if I’d had better role models, I might have believed I was deserving of love and respect, rather than settling for someone because I thought they were settling to be with me. I vilified the fat women I saw in the media — and by proxy, real life — because I truly, deep in my bones, thought that we were worthless.
Because Lizzo — and other body-positive celebs like Kelly Clarkson and Barbie Ferreira, though Lizzo in particular stands out — chooses to present herself as authentically her, there are so many young girls who can see a woman just like themselves being celebrated.
Lauren Gordon has been an editor and writer for 15 years and a mom for 4. Her passions, besides her family, is an intersection of plants, art, and angsty fantasy YA novels. While her toxic trait is thinking she can DIY anything and crying when she's angry, ultimately she's a fully transparent author who isn't afraid to share the raw, honest truth about motherhood.