I was going through old family photos yesterday. I have long been smug about my lack of an emo or Goth phase, but was reminded that I went through an arguably worse one: a fedora phase. And not only that, but a fedora phase that lasted almost two years. It was quite unfortunate.
But the funny thing is, while looking through these pictures, my memory of the past was corrected. In my mind, I was pretty much always a chubby kid, but apparently that’s not so. In fact, my chubby childhood days only coincided with my fedora days. For most of my youth, I was a skinny little wild-haired girl, feminine and cute.
So why is my memory so distorted? Partly, I’m sure, because we all hang onto bad feelings about ourselves longer than good ones, and partly because those years also happen to be the age when kids actually start to be people with personalities.
I was on the phone with a friend from school a while ago, and we somehow got to talking about fat kids. She too had been a beautiful little girl, skinny and pretty with incredible, angelic blue eyes. Everyone would tell her and her parents how beautiful and cute she was. Then, at some point, she gained weight, and suddenly all the compliments? Gone with the wind, and she was left craving validation, feeling confused and lost about where it had gone.
I don’t remember this so much. I know I was a really cute little kid, and my mother dressed me quite well, but I don’t have so many memories of strangers complimenting me, so I didn’t feel that same loss. Yet when I started to come out of the fedora phase, when I hit puberty for real and put on some height and thinned out, I know I started to get compliments again. Not so much from my peers — who never bothered enough with me to give a shit about the way I looked — but from adults. Comments on the fact that I’d thinned out, that I looked good. I remember being confused, because I had in fact gained weight. I was a growing kid. I hadn’t lost weight, I’d put on height! But this affected me too. I too loved validation, especially from adults, so if I hadn’t already internalized the need to be skinny by then, I sure did when I was thin again.
A coworker recently remarked that she’d never really been a hiker. That as a fat kid, she’d learned to hate exercise early. That she’d been taught it wasn’t for her. This too, I remember. I remember the year I decided I was a reader, rather than a doer. I had just gotten a beanbag, and every day after school I’d come home and promptly sit myself on it and open a book for the rest of the day. Exercise, I was taught early on, was not for me. In fact, it really wasn’t for anyone. It was work, and a chore, but some people happened to be good at it, so they did it to impress each other.
I remember, too, being indoctrinated into the Fat Kids Club. I remember picking up my friends’ eating habits, how they all hated to share, how mad my mother got at me when I’d mimicked my friend licking a cookie so I wouldn’t have to share half of it with my brother. I remember being told by my friend, at probably 11 or 12, to button the bottom button of my cardigan because otherwise it looked liked I couldn’t.
This friend was my fat-kid sherpa. She taught me the ways. I realize now that she was my guide because she had been thinking about her body for far too long. I once went shopping with her and a friend who was a year older, and the older girl told us in the changing rooms “not to suck it in.” I remember being amazed at her expertise. I remember her having the calorie counting app MyFitnessPal on her iPod Touch at 13 years old. I remember being taught what thigh gaps were while I still had one.
Looking at those photos of chubby little me, and then the me in middle and high school who still felt fat but really wasn’t, I wish I was never indoctrinated into that club. I wish I was never taught to hate and hide my body. When I look back at those photos now, I still have to fight an initial disgust reaction. It’s the old shame creeping back.
But then, when I fight past that knee-jerk reaction, I just see a kid. Just a kid in a kid’s human body. And I’m still just a young person in a young person’s human body. And I’m pretty over hating that fact.