What it feels like to be a paperweight

I remember the first time I used the word fat in front of my mother.

I was talking about a Pocahontas doll that I wanted. It was very tall and sturdily built. I was under the impression fat meant, well, large, in the general sense. I had been called fat before, but I was large in the general sense, I was both very tall and very wide for my age.

My mother immediately shushed me, and instructed me never to use that word again. That was the day I learned that fat was a dirty word.

I don’t remember learning that I was fat. It was as if I had been fat for as long as I had known who I was. Fat was me as much as I was fat. It meant very little to me until I learned fat was a dirty word.

As a young child, my name being associated with a fast food restaurant did me no favors, as far as fat jokes and tormenting go. My parents taught me fairly quickly to let other children’s cruelty roll off of me, and by the time I entered middle school the bullies had mostly lost interest in me. But the word fat followed me.

One of my first days of sixth grade, as I sat with my friends, the school bully ran up to me full speed and spat, “Do you know how fat you are?” By this time this was an old trick, just a new bully. I just smiled and said, “Yep!” I remember the look of shock and confusion on her face. After a moment, her attack posture faded and she just walked away, humiliated. She didn’t bother me again.

In eighth grade, I started starving myself. I would pretend to eat breakfast, then I would buy a lunch for a friend who couldn’t afford one, so my parents wouldn’t get suspicious about my lunch money. Dinner was a family event, so I had to eat something, but I minimized my food intake as much as possible. I started losing weight rapidly. This lasted five months and in he end I lost eighty pounds. I stopped when I went on a trip where every meal was in a group setting and I literally had to eat every meal of the day.

Starving myself was not about weight primarily, it was about the unusually extreme levels of stress I was under and my developing obsessive compulsive disorder. But what I learned along the way was that people are nicer to you when you’re thinner. People smile at you who before avoided eye contact. Random people approached me to congratulate me on my weight loss, who had before never spoken to me. I remembered that.

Over the next four years of high school, I slowly gained back the eighty pounds I had lost in those five months, and kept gaining. I was active, participating both in mandatory physical education and in my chosen sport, marching band, despite my asthma and back pain. I remember that every school year I was terrified that I wouldn’t fit into my assigned concert dress that I had been sized for in the first days of class. I always managed to fit, but just barely. I was self conscious, but didn’t talk about it or really acknowledge it, and everyone else just kind of pretended they didn’t notice.

Soon after I entered college, I discovered the body-positive and fat-positive communities and it was like a light went on. I felt suddenly like a weight had been lifted off me. I followed dozens of blogs and filled my days with images of beautiful fat people. I remember one in particular, featuring fat people and celebrating big bellies from that “unflattering” profile angle, called fat from the side I submitted a photograph of myself to that blog, eventually.

The effect of this community was transformative. I bought clothes that I liked instead of clothes that hid my body away. I started taking nude photographs of myself. I had started as someone who was, if not ashamed of my body, at least mildly embarrassed that my body inconvenienced other people. Within a couple years I was rocking my fat, hairy body, belly out. My presence practically shouted, I deserve to take up space.

I have remained proudly fat and proudly body positive ever since then, discovering new aspects of it through chronic illness and injury, and continued weight gain, finally plateauing at four hundred pounds.

Now I am coming to the next step in my journey of body positivity. I am in the process of getting approved for bariatric surgery.

I love the way my body looks. I love the way it looks in clothes (and without) and I love the way my tattoos look on it and I love the way that I take up space. I am not doing this because I want to look different.

At first I thought, as many do, that getting weight loss surgery is an intrinsically anti-body positive decision. That it is just a way to erase or eliminate fat bodies, primarily through shame. I have been just as barraged by the toxic ads for fad diets and weight loss surgery where the woman jumps into the pair of jeans six times her size and says “look at how far I’ve come!” as if her former fat self was some shameful past that she’s overcome. I promised myself I’d never be that person. And I won’t. What I view as shameful about my past is how people treated me because I was fat.

But here’s the reality: Being fat is making me sick. I have prediabetes, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, and acid reflux, just to touch the iceberg. My quality of life has slowly decayed to the point that I have, at points, considered suicide due to overwhelming chronic illness.

I whole-heartedly agree with the argument that everyone has the right to be fat and sick. I would never force weight loss surgery on someone who did not want it. What I have grappled with is, can I be body positive and yet choose to be less fat?

It took me a long time to acknowledge to myself that I can be fat positive without keeping my own fat. Because being fat-positive isn’t about forcing people to be fat. It’s about giving fat people back their autonomy over their own bodies. And I have mine. I am making a choice about my own body, based not on what society tells me I should do, but on what my body is telling me it needs. I am choosing.

And to be completely realistic, I’m not going to stop being fat. I will almost definitely shop in the plus size section for the rest of my life, and I’ll have hips and belly to show for it. But I’ll be healthier and happier and fat, just less fat than I am now. And I’ll still need the body positive movement. I’ll still need the fat-positive movement. I’ll probably need them more than ever as I adjust to what it’s like to have a body that feels and works differently, that I have to calibrate to and reclaim as it changes.

Being fat positive is also about making a difference. It is about insisting that fat bodies are just as legitimate as any other kind of body. And that the people who have these bodies should be treated with dignity and respect. We need to be teaching our children that the fat kid is just as likable and funny and interesting as any other kid, and we all need to learn that it’s not cause for celebration when someone loses an astonishing amount of weight suddenly for no apparent reason. Whether I am four hundred pounds or two hundred, I will always be working on sending these messages. Even if I don’t take up as much space physically, I will take up just as much space with my voice.

In the end, it is body positive to show love to your body. I love my body enough that I want to stay in it a long time. I want to run around with children with this body. I want to possibly give birth to children with this body. I want to go for long walks in the moonlight with my most beloved in this body. I want to wake up in this body one day and feel no pain.

And I believe I can. I need to make this choice first. For me.

Mara Passio