Slow songs, they for skinny hoes
Can’t move all of this here to one of those
I’m a thick bitch, I need tempo
Fuck it up to the tempo
Lyrics from “Tempo” by Lizzo
My musical tastes are the fashion equivalent of Mom jeans. In other words, decidedly unhip. My Sirius XM radio is preset to stations like Coffee House, On Broadway and Siriusly Sinatra. I never listen to popular radio.
It’s a bit of a disconnect, because I’m fairly obsessed with popular culture. I mean, I can tell you who Chris Martin is dating – Dakota Johnson – the breakup was just a rumor. But current music – I’m clueless. Thankfully, my bestie Carla is 20-something years younger than me and keeps me from being that old person. She introduced me to the singer Lizzo a few weeks ago and her music is everything I never knew I needed. For reals.
I don’t even know how to describe Lizzo’s music – you just must listen to it. She’s a classically trained flautist turned alternative hip-hop rapper and singer who’s single “Truth Hurts”is currently No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
I’m certain I look a bit like John Travolta in the opening credits of Saturday Night Fever when I’m listening to Lizzo on my morning walks. I strut. Well, as much as I’m capable of strutting. Her themes of body-positivity and self-love are empowering, thrilling and thoroughly badass.
And Lizzo’s lyrics have given me the guts to finally – FINALLY – write about something that has been heavy on my mind for years – weight. My weight. Your weight. Anyone’s weight who has been made to feel less than because you’re considered too much by THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD. I’m downsizing – see what I did there? I’m Marie Kondoing this bulky burden and celebrating the fierce and beautiful women like Lizzo who have dragged me to today – author Roxane Gay, actress and writer Aidy Bryant, and my sister to name a few.
I’ll start with some facts. I come from a family of large women – particularly on my father’s side. The Ore women are built Ford tough – it’s in our DNA. There are no petite women in our family. We also have freakishly large heads. True story. Years ago, my sister had a straw hat made for me by Oprah’s hatmaker – who informed her that the circumference of my head is larger than Oprah’s. You get a hat!
The first memory I have of my mother complaining about her weight was probably around the time I was in the 4th grade. My younger sister, my mother’s fourth child, was two, and mom had that baby weight gain that never quite went away. That would have also been the time I was introduced to Tab – one of the first diet soft drinks and quite possibly the vilest tasting beverage ever created. How do I describe it? If aluminum foil was a soft drink, it would be Tab.
My mother and her friends drank it all the time and I grew up thinking it was a mom thing that I would one day have to emulate. Well, I never had kids and I never drank Tab – but I crushed some Fresca and Diet Dr. Pepper back in the day. Disclaimer: Now that I know that diet sodas can cause strokes in lab rats and other fun stuff, I only have an occasional Diet Coke when I have a headache.
Mom and her coffee klatch all had multiple kids, all lamented their round stomachs, and all invested a lot of time in trying the latest fad diets – the Grapefruit Diet, the Pineapple Diet and the Cabbage Soup Diet were just a few of them. The diets all had two things in common – they were horrible, and they made my mother and her friends very grouchy.
So, I grew up thinking dieting was normal – well, at least for girls. I don’t remember the first diet I did but I guess I must have been in junior high. Funny, when I look back on pictures from that time, I look like most of the other girls in the photos – long hair parted down the middle and the awkwardly glum expression of a teenager, but I always felt bigger. Maybe it was because I never had a flat stomach – ever. The concept is still as foreign to me as cold fusion.
I never wore a two-piece swimsuit, much less a bikini. Just the thought of it would have made me spontaneously combust into flames. A sensible one piece has been the story of my life and shopping with my mother as a teenager are some of the worst memories of my childhood. There were almost always tears – mine and hers. I’m sure I blamed her for my inability to fit into what my girlfriends were wearing. Through the wisdom of years, I now understand that I probably didn’t really want to be wearing most of those things anyway. I was different than my friends and not having a flat stomach was just a part of it. I was gay, but back then I didn’t have the language for it – it was just another thing that made me not the same, but it was a thing I could more easily hide than a belly.
I loved sports and played on the girls’ basketball team. I was a pretty decent athlete, but I was not fast. And that was never more apparent than every fall when each student was required to participate in the sadistic Presidential Fitness Test. This was an archaic six event torture test instituted by President Eisenhower in the 1950’s because US kids weren’t measuring up to European kids in physical fitness tests.
The sinister P.E. teacher would stand with a clipboard and a stopwatch and time you doing things like the 600-yard walk/run (I mostly walked) and the ludicrous flexed arm hang that only the super skinny girls could do for more than a millisecond. I only remember these two specific events because they were the most humiliating. The good news is that the test was discontinued in 2013 and military training exercises apparently are no longer required for a high school diploma, but the psychological damage remains for some of us.
I gained weight after college and followed in my mother’s diet footsteps trying almost every weight loss program du jour – including Atkins – which when properly followed gives you the breath of a black bear – and the Scarsdale diet, created by cardiologist Herman Tarnower in the late 70’s. This plan was the precursor to all the high protein/low carb diets of today. Dr. Tarnower was famously shot to death in 1980 by his lover Jean Harris, the headmistress of the prestigious Madeira School. After two weeks on the Scarsdale diet, I had a better understanding of her motives.
Over the years, as I struggled on and off (literally) with my weight, I realized two maddening truths about our culture – thinness is regarded as a virtue and fat shaming is the last socially acceptable form of discrimination.
Just the word thin makes me uncomfortable – unless it is relating to mint cookies. My beloved Aunt Phyllis used the word as the ultimate compliment to someone. Not pretty, or cute or nice – but thin. And she would say it so it sounded like the “n” was another syllable – dragging it out so it would hang in the air. She was naturally thin most of her life (she was my aunt on my mother’s side!) and probably had no idea how her glorification of thin made me feel so inadequate.
However, I have known thin people – friends even – who consider themselves superior beings because of their thinness. This is not an appealing trait. Being blessed with the metabolism of a hummingbird is usually the stroke of luck of genetics – not character. And a lot of thin people love to give the unthin unsolicited advice about healthy eating. Here’s a little pro tip: Bag it, we’ve heard it. Ad nauseam.
And for the record, I’m a pescatarian – I haven’t eaten meat in decades – and I walk on average about 25 miles a week. I know about healthy eating and exercising, thank you very much. But hey, some of my best friends are thin and I love them just the way they are. Okay, maybe not when they’re eating that ginormous cupcake with sprinkles.
Fat shaming is way worse than thin flaunting and I’m over it. Two years ago, I read Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay – a raw and searingly honest account of rape, overeating, desire and denial that completely wrecked me. Often when I read a book (old-school, no Kindle), I underline the parts that speak to me. When I looked back at my copy of Hunger the other day, almost every page has an underlined passage. Like this one:
Fat, much like skin color, is something you cannot hide, no matter how dark the clothing you wear, or how diligently you avoid horizontal stripes. You may become very adept at playing the role of the wallflower. You may learn how to be the life of the party so that people are too busy laughing at or with you to focus on the elephant in the room. You may do whatever you have to do to survive in a world that has little patience or compassion for a body like yours.
And this one:
In yet another commercial, Oprah somberly says, “Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be.” This is a popular notion, the idea that the fat among us are carrying a thin woman inside. Each time I see this particular commercial, I think, I ate that thin woman and she was delicious but unsatisfying. And then I think about how fucked up it is to promote this idea that our truest selves are thin women hiding in our fat bodies like imposters, usurpers, illegitimates.
Gay says some of the things I’ve only thought in my head – or perhaps, on occasion, discussed with my sister. She writes a lot about feeling comfortable in your own body and what a luxury that must be – about untangling the social messages that equate your worth with the size of your body. I’m a lot older than her – she’s 44 – and I am not black, a victim of rape, or morbidly obese, so I don’t begin to pretend that our journeys have been the same. I just know that her writing made me feel heard.
And her writing made me question why I had never written about the weight of weight. Over the years, I’ve written about death, divorce and job loss – all heavy topics – but never weight. I finally realized that I was ashamed to write about it and that made me feel even more ashamed.
About a decade ago, I went through a tumultuous breakup with a partner. It was mean and public and played out on social media. At one point, one of her besties, a man, tried to tag a photo of me on Facebook with the caption LOSER FAT CUNT (yes, all caps). I had just gotten home from work when I saw it. My face was on fire as hot tears spilled onto my chest and I can remember feeling like a SWAT team had just broken down my front door. I felt so exposed – like a kid on the playground being called names in front of the other kids and I could hear the awful din of the collective laughing of the masses.
I thought about that Facebook post when I read Roxane Gay’s book and I felt embarrassed that the word that hurt me the most that awful night was fat. Shame on me. I let someone have power over me by feeling bad about myself. That was fucked up and Gay’s book helped me explore my power in a way I never had before.
Since then, I’ve tried my best to not be a party to other people making big people feel small. A few months after I read Hunger, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made the huuuge mistake of closing a public beach during a weekend-long shutdown of nonessential services. Hours later, he was photographed sitting in a beach chair with his family on the beach he had just closed. The rest is meme history and the none too flattering photo went viral over social media for weeks. I’ve never liked Christie, and I was itching to get in on the fun until I remembered that just because you don’t like someone doesn’t mean it’s okay to make fun of their body in a beach chair. Maybe that sounds a bit Mr. Rogersish, but that’s when the tide turned for me. I’m not the FB police, but if you’re “friends” with me and you post a fat shaming meme or video – you know the ones – a fat woman at Walmart – always Walmart – wearing a tube top doing something tacky – I will call you out. And by the way, no one EVER posts a picture of a thin woman in a tube top doing something tacky at Walmart.
I’m over it. It’s just not cool or funny to fat shame.
But I’ll tell you what is cool and funny – Shrill, the Aidy Bryant Hulu series based on author Lindy West’s bestselling 2016 memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. Bryant plays Annie, a journalist living in Portland, OR who wants to change her life – not her body. Annie is smart and funny and sexy, and makes bad choices just like smaller women.
At the end of a really bad day, Annie reaches critical mass with the messaging that her body is what needs to be fixed and says, “It’s a fucking mind prison, you know, that every fucking woman everywhere has been programmed to believe. And I’ve wasted so much time and money and energy, for what? I’m fat. I’m fucking fat. Hello, I’m fat.”
The six-episode series made me laugh and cry – sometimes at the same time. Being seen will do that to you. And here’s something else – Bryant is the star of the show and she gets to wear the cool clothes and the cute shoes and have sex and all the other things the big girl isn’t usually allowed to do on TV.
Annie is most of the women I’ve ever known – big and small – she’s just trying to live her best life and I want to be her best friend. I think I really want to be Aidy Bryant’s best friend. I follow her on Instagram, and she radiates joy. I love her and her message of body positivity and I’m thrilled that the show has been renewed for a second season.
I watched the series again a few weeks ago when I was with my sister in California. My sister is seven years younger than me, but she’s way wiser and braver than I’ll ever dream of being. She has battled – and that’s the right word – severe depression beginning around age nine. In the 70’s, not too many parents or teachers knew what to do with a depressed child – which is not to say they didn’t try, they were just woefully unequipped with the skills they needed to help her. She found comfort in food, her “best friend” as she called it. Food never let her down and it always made her feel better for a while. It also made her one of the most wretched creatures on earth – an overweight teenage girl. For her, that meant no dances, no cheerleading, no drill team – but lots of teasing. It is agonizing for me to hear her memories of being made fun of – even after these many years.
And yet, she was voted Funniest, Best Personality and Most Spirited for senior superlatives. She became that life of the party that Roxane Gay describes.
My sister’s watershed moment of living as a big woman in a small world happened in 1998 near the steps of the U.S. Capitol at a candlelight vigil for Matthew Shepard, the gay student who was beaten and left to die near Laramie, WY. She was living in a MD suburb and was deeply moved by Shepherd’s death. She only recently told me that it was the first time that she had feared for my safety as a gay person. It felt important for her to be there that night to support me.
At one point during the program, she was standing behind two gay men and overheard them making fun of a very large woman in front of them. My sister was mortified and fully realized then the pecking order of discrimination – even the gays make fun of fat people.
My sister lives a full life these days and she would still probably win Most Spirited if her colleagues and friends had a vote. She lives her life out loud – especially when it comes to accessories. She doesn’t make herself smaller to fit anyone else’s expectations. And I wish I had half her chutzpah.
For a good chunk of my life, I’ve been told that I’m too much – too big, too loud, too emotional, too intimidating, too sentimental, too nice, too passionate, too sarcastic, too silly, too political, too out, too everything. Lately, I’ve been examining the connection between the messenger and the message and it seems like whenever I adjust my settings to suit them, it never works out well for me. It’s taken me a long time, but I think I’ve finally figured out that my job is not to make the messengers happy.
Whatever Lizzo song I’m listening to is usually my favorite, but if I had to pick one it would be “Soulmate” – her brilliant ode to self-acceptance and self-love.
‘Cause I’m my own soulmate
I know how to love me
I know that I’m always going to hold me down
(Look up in the mirror like damn she the one)
Yeah, I’m my own soulmate
I know I’m lucky. My dear wife loves me and tells me I’m beautiful almost every day – sometimes twice on Sundays. I know she means it and when she says it, I believe her, but these days I’m also listening more and more to my own voice – and it’s telling me that too much is just right.