I remember thinking at age 13 that I was so fat I didn’t even belong in public spaces.
Even at that young age, I had been conditioned to believe that my body was a public commodity and that its imperfection was an inconvenience to the world. I’m 21 now, but I’ve struggled with body image for much of my life.
I went to personal trainers. I tried Weight Watchers. I tried Jenny Craig. I got a dietician. I went to therapy. I tried everything. And I got fatter.
You see, the more consumed with shame I became about the way my body looked, the more weight I gained. When I was 13, I was 5’7” and 150 lbs. Looking back at pictures now, I can see what I never could then: I was thin and healthy.
It was my fear over how the world treats fat bodies in public spaces that made my body fat. It was the feeling that I didn’t own my body—that it was public property—that prevented me from being a good steward of it.
This essay isn’t meant to be an argument against fat-shaming (although you certainly shouldn’t fat-shame), nor is it meant to absolve me of all responsibility over the way my body looks. Rather, I want to talk about the way ownership over my body was wrestled away from me and what I’m doing about it.
For many years, I felt as though my body was betraying me.
“I’d be pretty, if only…”, “I’d be confident, if only…”, “I’d be more likely to speak up in class, if only…”, “I’d go out more, if only…”, “I’d be better liked, if only…”, “I’d date more, if only…”, “I’d dress better, if only…”
These were my refrains. I held myself back in nearly every aspect of my life because I felt that my body was unworthy of carrying me into public spaces. My body being socially acceptable became a prerequisite to me being myself.
I became depressed and developed an anxiety disorder. Concerns about my body consumed every moment of my life. And I got fatter.
I wanted to get the cartilage of my ear pierced. All my friends at school were doing it and I thought it was pretty. I didn’t do it. My thought was, “If I try to make myself look pretty, will people think that I think it’s okay for me to be fat? How will they know how ashamed I am of my body if I decorate it? Is my body even mine to decorate?”
I walked a thin line between never calling myself “fat” (because that might make people uncomfortable) and subtly letting everyone know that I knew I was fat and was ashamed of it. If my body was a public commodity, then who was I to love it and decorate it? Who was I to make myself feel pretty? My body didn’t deserve that, and I didn’t deserve that. So I hated my body and my list of “if only’s” grew. And I got fatter.
The problem with being made to hate your body and letting it be policed by public opinion is that you can’t make your body healthy if you don’t love it. I wish I could say there was a light bulb moment when I realized this. I wish there was some prettily packaged piece of wisdom that I could distribute to all the girls who struggle the way I did. There isn’t, and I owe much of my awakening about my own body to feminism and the sudden infiltration into my life of women who loved themselves.
I got my cartilage pierced. I loved it. I felt like I owned my own body for the first time. I got double piercings. Then I pierced my cartilage again, and again, and again. I got a tattoo, and then another. I pierced my nose, then my tragus.
Most people I meet don’t even notice my piercings or tattoos; they’re small and inconspicuous. But to me, they are everything. They allowed me to take ownership of my body and begin to love myself. Every time I got a new piercing or tattoo, it was the smallest gesture that allowed me to tell the world that my body was mine, and it changed my life.
Now, I’m not saying that the solution to all your plus-sized woes is to go tat yourself up. But maybe now is the time to go buy a red dress or those heels that show off your legs. It’s okay—even wonderful—for plus-sized girls to dye their hair a fun color or wear bold makeup. We don’t all express ourselves in the same way, but the point is that we should express ourselves.
We are not public commodities, and we have no responsibility to anyone else to hate or love our bodies—no matter what our bodies look like. We are only responsible and accountable to ourselves. Whether we want to lose weight or just be happy in the skin we’re in, loving ourselves is a beautiful first step.
I still struggle with my size daily and I even have brief moments where I loathe my body. I still hold on to some of my “if only’s” and being a fat person is still hard. I see my friends visibly grimace when I use the word “fat” (I told you it might make people uncomfortable), and I still notice looks of surprise when people realize that a fat girl has dared to accept her skin and even love herself.
My struggle isn’t over. But now, my body is mine.
Katelyn Giel spends most of her time in daydreams about either dismantling the patriarchy or skipping around Disneyland, both of which are equally pleasing to her. She adores desert landscapes, Netflix binges, wishing she were Hermione Granger and pretending she’ll learn to cook someday. She’s been told she probably should’ve stopped drinking the cheapest rosé Target has to offer when she graduated college, but so far she’s yet to part with it.