On Being Called "Fat"

I’m reading a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Berg, the title of the collection being what lured me: “The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted (And Other Small Acts of Liberation).” Body weight and self-esteem are themes in several of the stories, but it’s the story “Full Count” that I (unfortunately) can relate to the most.

It’s the story of a pre-teen girl visiting her relatives in North Dakota for the first time in two years. She’s so happy to be there among them, free and innocent. She goes to the lake with her grandfather (whom everyone calls Bampo) and cousins, and after swimming, they all play tag. Janey, the main character, is “it.”

“[Janey] walks over to the bushes, laughing. There they all are, every one of them, including Bampo, crouched in the greenery and peering up at her. ‘I see you,’ she said. ‘Y’all come out of those bushes.’

“A kind of guffaw, and then there is the sound of Michael imitating her, saying in a high voice, ‘Y’all come out of those bushes!’ All the cousins laugh. For a moment, she holds the smile on her face, the bright happiness she was enjoying still inside her. But then Michael comes crashing out of the bushes and walks past her with a look of disgust on his face. ‘Lard ass,’ he mutters.

“She jerks back a breath. Lard ass. What does it mean?…

“She is not a stallion, wild and free. She is a girl whose bangs were cut crookedly last time and whose mother told her to stop complaining. Her teeth are too big and her eyes are too small…She does not have any friends, really. And here, the last, she understands she has gotten fat. She understands the reason for the looks that pass between her mother and her father when she asks for pie, for French fries, for more.”

The story ends with Bampo taking his grandchildren to Dairy Queen. Everyone orders something except Janey. She’s hungry, so hungry that she’s lightheaded, but she orders nothing.

When I was a kid, being called fat was the worst thing I could imagine.

And when it happened, it was.

“Try out for cheerleading with me,” said my friend Robin a few months into 8th grade. “We’ll have fun.”

Robin was one of the lucky ones. She was growing into her body proportionately, and she had long blond hair and perfect skin, too. In Robin’s world, trying out for cheerleading was as natural as breathing. For me, I could think of nothing more humiliating. But I was stuck. I knew if I told Robin no, she might not speak to me for weeks, and that was a fate worse than falling on my big-boned ass during a spread eagle jump.

So I stayed after school every day for two weeks, learning routines with the other 20 girls trying out for the four-person squad. It was the first time I’d competed for anything individually, and despite my emotional passivity, I am inherently competitive. My long legs came in handy, allowing me to jump high, do the splits, and nail a perfect cartwheel. By the time of the actual tryout, I didn’t care if I made the squad or not. In my mind, I was a cheerleader.

The results were announced over the loud speaker during daily announcements the following day. I was in third-period study hall with 30 other students from various grades. The room was quiet as Robin’s sister, a senior-high cheerleader, announced the new members of the junior-high squad. Debbie Megard. Debbie Skorr. Robin Martinson. Lynn Haraldson.

The older students at my table turned and looked at me and my face burned red. They smiled and gave me thumbs up and mouthed “Congrats!” I sat there, guts churning, not sure if what I was feeling was pride or dread. I pictured myself on game days, walking down the halls in my saddle shoes, short skirt, and orange sweater with the letter J on the front. People would know I was agile and spirited and not simply some number on the scale. I dared to think that maybe I wasn’t so awkward. Maybe I wasn’t so big-boned. Maybe I really was normal.

Then in the silence someone said, “Great. We have a fat cheerleader.”

It was Ricky, my sixth-grade boyfriend. His friends snickered. The study hall teacher told them to shut up, but the words were out there. I sat in disgrace, no longer the perky girl with the perfect cartwheel.
I was now a fat cheerleader.

1977, the photo from my yearbook.
I’m on the right with with the sloping bangs (stupid curly hair). That’s Robin on the left.

10 thoughts on “On Being Called "Fat"

  1. I think we all remember. You look perfectly normal to me in that picture. It's awful when someone makes you doubt yourself. Hugs to that insecure cheerleader and to the slim beautiful woman you are today.

  2. Isn't it awful the effect that comments from others can have on us. Especially when we're young. You don't look any bigger than the other girls to me. I think it's awesome that you could do a cartwheel. I never could, even when I was a normal weight in junior high. My friend had to grab my legs and throw me on over 🙂

  3. You look the same size as the other girls…I just wanna go find that idiot boy and punch him in the face for saying such a crappy thing. I admire young Lynn for going ahead and joining the squad after that…I would have hidden in my room forever.

    P.S. I have a similar bangs picture – think I was going into 5th grade, though. This was before hairdryers could fix things like that!

  4. Aw, Lynn! I'm thinking exactly Shelley said, and I consider myself a fairly peaceful person. (MeanyMe can't help but wonder if the *****-slap of karma has caught up with Mr. Big Shot. Not that it would take away any pain you suffered from it.) You were lovely then and now, and he was probably just sore about not still dating a cheerleader.

    Ah, cheerleading. I was on our school's very second string one year: the basketball cheer squad. I had only a flawed cartwheel, but I was perfectly loud. 😉

  5. Oh wow, that's quite a story. I am sorry you had to feel that.

    My cousin was a little heavier than me as a teen, and I was teased as fat… but SHE was a cheerleader and NO ONE called her fat. And I don't think she ever thought of herself as fat. I was baffled.

    And she grew up thin, too.

  6. You look like a normal teenager in your cheerleading picture, but I also remember how cruel some kids were, particularly in junior high school. There were times that I was also called “fat.” Those taunts gave me a very poor self-image that stayed with me, creating insecurity, even during the times in my life when I was definitely not fat. Unlike the old cliche, words can hurt, but you showed some of the spunk that has served you well, when you joined the squad. Good for you, Lynn.

  7. I once heard two boys talking about an elephant right as I walked by them. I was sure they were talking about me. I had gained a lot of weight going from 8th to 9th grade and felt eeenormous. Hearing that ruined my day….. obviously it has stuck with me. Words are powerful.

  8. Wow, what a great post and story. Thank you so much for sharing your vulnerability, it's not always pleasant reliving some of those early fat experiences.

  9. Isn't it funny how you were called fat and yet you look so 'normal' in that picture? I remember times when I was much bigger and I used to wish 'If only I was as 'fat' as I was in highschool.'

    I got picked on so much in school. I still care around a lot of shame from that, even though I shouldn't. My face still burns at some of the stuff that was said to me.
    Words can be very powerful.

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