This blog is about four years in the making. It’s been spinning around in my head forever… sentences and paragraphs have been written over and over in my head… so it feels kind of surreal to sit down and actually embark on writing this blog. I only hope I can get my thoughts, feelings and perceptions out with satisfactory amounts of academic eloquence and appropriate amounts of humor.
So here it is, The Fat Blog.
I hate to admit it, but one of my biggest fears is being fat.
I know, I know… I’m not really allowed to say that. All bodies are beautiful and wonderful and it’s incredibly vain and not politically correct for me to say that as my number one fear. But there it is.
Fortunately, despite my genetic predisposition to low metabolism, unhealthy food choices and a sedimentary lifestyle, I’ve made it my (almost) thirty years without being ‘fat’. At least not according to American standards.
I remember the first time the ‘fear’ of being fat crept into my mind. I was around 8 years old and my mom was on a phone call with one of her cousins. I was supposed to be in my bed sound asleep, though instead, I was sitting on the floor by my bedroom door eavesdropping on the conversation, hoping to score some juicy family gossip. Unfortunately, instead of hearing some drama about my great aunt’s live in boyfriend or my other cousin’s next money making scheme, I heard my mom say,
“Samara’s really starting to get fat.”
That’s it. That one sentence. Of course, my mom didn’t know I was listening… and probably still didn’t know I heard that until she read this blog. But that one sentence entered my psyche and changed the way I viewed my little 8 year old body.
I don’t think I ever even thought about being fat before that. I mean, yes, my family members were mostly plump people, but that never really mattered to me.. they were my world. They were the coolest, funniest, most interesting people around me. Sure, I knew they were fat, but what did that have to do with anything? As far as I can remember, it was that one sentence.. that one sentence that I was never intended to hear, that turned ‘fat’ into fat. That turned being fat as something shameful, undesirable, ugly.
And at that point, I became ashamed. I began to believe that I was fat and being fat was shameful.
This twisted body image stayed with my for the majority of my life. I started dieting as early as I could and was always ashamed of the makeup of my Palestinian/Italian genes.
I have a distinct memory of weighing myself in the 8th grade and hitting 101 lbs for the first time. I was in my soon-to-be stepdad’s apartment bathroom and I cried.
But, again, I was never actually overweight. Looking back at pictures of myself from middle school and high school, I feel brokenhearted for that little girl, who was so petite, so perfectly beautiful and yet hated her body so much.
Freshman year of college, with it’s excessive drinking and drug use, pressures of school and social life and the death of my great grandma, ushered in the freshman 20. You can imagine how I handled that…
Coming home for winter break my friends and family could tell I had put on that weight and without trying to be too obvious… made it clear that they could tell. Soooo… when I went back for second semester I started a new diet. The slim fast shake and a nutrigrain bar a day diet and… successfully lost that twenty pounds.
My college friends praised me for how good I was looking as the weight came off and I vividly remember thinking that my friends were idiots because I was literally starving myself but all they noticed was how my jeans fit.
But hey… starving was better than being fat.. was it not?
Happily, I can say, that once I reached my goal weight I started eating in a more balanced way and have never drank another slim fast smoothie again. I was able to maintain a very normal, healthy weight throughout the rest of college. (Though, I never stopped believing I was fat.)
Flash forward to the World Race.
In 2010 I embarked on the wonderful World Race experience. The World Race, not to be confused with the Amazing Race, is an 11 month ‘missions trip’ around the world. You spend about a month in 11 different countries doing various service projects with a random group of individuals just about as crazy as you.
One thing the World Race experts told us before we left was that if we’re not careful we will all gain weight (men excluded… the men, they said would lose all their weight… ). They encouraged us to get in the habit of exercising and making our physical health a priority regardless of the country we were in or the circumstances we were living in.
Well, the experts were right and we ignored their advice. The women on my squad, with very few exceptions, all gained at least 10 lbs over the year. I came home a whopping 25 lbs heavier than I was before.
I attribute that weight gain to an unsteady diet of ever changing carbs, feeling entitled to ice cream or Western candy whenever it was available and then a bout of depression that only got harder to deal with every pound I put on.
Coming home after the World Race was no walk in the park for me. I could and probably should devote a blog to telling that story, but that is for a different time. Coming home from the World Race, I was fat. Beginning at 8 years old, I had always felt fat, but in 2011, for the first time, my BMI actually told me that I was ‘obese’.
Fortunately I had a distaste for slim fast and therefore, instead of going back to my tried and true starvation diet, I turned to something much healthier to try to get the weight off. I miraculously trained for and ran my first half marathon. and I lost not. a. single. pound.
Then I moved to Thailand.
I recently wrote a sort of ‘tongue and cheek’ blog about adapting to Thai culture. The things I mentioned were all very surface level, superficial cultural things that make for easy reading and light chuckles. The reality of cultural adaptation is a lot less funny.
Cultural adaptation is a bitch. (sorry).
While I have done, in my opinion, an extraordinary job adjusting to the new society that has become my home, there are certain things that I have yet to understand or be okay with.
One being the ‘news, weather, sports’ type talk about people’s appearances–to their face. Upon greeting a Thai person, you should expect to receive some sort of comment about your physical appearance. Apparently these comments, regardless to how we, Americans, understand them, are completely matter of fact and are in no way personal.
That being said, a couple of the first words I learned in Thai were: อ้วน (fat) and ก้นไหญ่ (big butt). I learned these words so quickly due to how often I was greeted with them.
Thai Person: Hi. You are fat.
Samara: :(:(:( dies a little inside.
I also learned very early on that here, in the Land of Smiles, I am not สวย (beautiful), but rather น่ารัก (cute) because the word for beautiful is reserved for people who are not fat like me.
Welcome to Thailand.
Let’s just say that wasn’t easy for me. A person with an already corrupted since of self worth and body image being called ‘fat’ to her face on a regular basis does not a merry person make.
By God’s good grace (and I mean that so sincerely) I realized that as much as I hated people talking to me in this way… I could not change the culture. And if I didn’t stop being hurt every time someone called me fat or let me know about my big butt, I would quite literally die. I decided that I had to be the one who changed.
At first, I thought that I had to be the one who changed in the more physical light.
I needed to loose weight.
So I became much more active than I had ever been previously in my life. I don’t know how many times I have completed Jillian Michael’s 30 day shred or how many of stupid Shawn T’s Insanity videos I’ve done… and I trained for an ran another half marathon…
Though try as I might, I could barely get the scale to move. (I lost about 6 lbs amid all of this.)
No, loosing weight to appease Thai beauty standards was not the kind of change that needed to take place. I needed to, once and for all, get over my fear of being fat. I needed, for the first time in my conscious life to be okay with my body. I needed to be able to be called fat (everyday, to my face) and not be affected by it.
Well, how the hell does one do that? (sorry again).
I wish I had a straight forward answer to give you. But, the reality is, that for the first time in my life I got really honest with God about my skewed body image. I got honest about the hatred I felt towards my body and I asked Him for help. I wrote down all my perverted belief systems about beauty standards and bodily ideals and asked God to show me what He thought. I asked Him to change my mind.
Within this process, I realized that I had corrupted the word ‘fat’ in my mind. I changed the definition of ‘fat’ making it mean: ugly, worthless, unloveable, gross, lazy, pitiful, shameful.
I had to ask God to redefine this word that was constantly being used to describe me.
It was not a quick or painless process. I cried. A lot. I had to continuously take the words from my peers and give them to God. I had to continuously pray to be washed from people’s comments about my appearance. I had to continuously forgive and ask for help forgiving.
Eventually, though, through the combination of my new and active lifestyle and lots of vulnerability with the Lord, I began to accept myself. I began to believe that not only was I not fat, even if I were, ‘fat’ does not mean I am those ugly words I used to associate with it. I slowly began to love my overweight self.
Despite about three years of trying to tell my Thai friends to not comment on my physical appearance, the comments have not stopped.
While I was still at my highest ever weight, I would try all sorts of tactics to explain how hurtful their comments were to me. I would use vulnerability, sarcasm, humor and/or straight up bluntness… but the comments never subsided. However, the pain that used to accompany the comments disappeared and I was able to just be annoyed with the culture that I didn’t understand rather than allow the comment to chip away at my self worth.
Over the last nine months the extra weight I had been carrying since the World Race has disappeared and I’m back to the weight and body shape that I had been before.
The funny thing is, the extra weight didn’t go away until it no longer matter to me if it did. I finally became okay with my new shape and just accepted myself as I was.
Now that I’m back to what was my previous ‘normal’ I wish I could say that the comments about my body have stopped.
Unfortunately they have not. They have just taken on a new form. Instead of ‘you’re fat’ I am told, ‘wow, you are so much more beautiful now that you’ve lost weight’ or ‘you look hungry’ or, my personal favorite, ‘if you loose anymore weight, you won’t be beautiful anymore.’
Basically… I just can’t win.
I try to not get too annoyed when I hear these comments. I typically reply with something corny along the lines of ‘thanks, but beauty has nothing to do with my weight’ or ‘thanks but I was always beautiful’ or ‘beauty is in the heart’. Honestly, it’s almost become a game to me.
I am not able to change Thai culture. Thank you Jesus, that that is not my responsibility. That’s a daunting task. But… perhaps, just maybe, I am able to help people change the way they see themselves.
The reality is that we will never live up to the world’s beauty standards. As soon as we achieve one standard, there is a new one that needs to be met. As soon as your weight is acceptable your eyebrows won’t be… and if your eyebrows are fine… you better focus on your frizzy hair… it’s an endless cycle.
Being honest, I’m really happy to be back to my normal weight. I like dressing up and putting on makeup, I like doing things that make me feel beautiful, but at the end of the day, as cheesy and corny and trite as it is, my beauty has absolutely nothing to do with any of that. The scale does not measure my self worth. (and if it did… shouldn’t it be the heavier you are the more worth you have?!?!?)
I am beautiful because God made me so. I was made in his image–big butt, thick calves, frizzy hair and all.
I’m not a mommy, but I am a teacher and a big sister. I want to live in such a way that my fight to love myself may cover the young people in my life. I want them to be able to glean from my victory. I want them to see me love myself amid my imperfections and an ‘non-ideal’ figure. I want them to carry every ounce of self worth and self respect that I have had to battle for.
No, I can’t change Thai culture, but I can set an example for the young women and heck, even the young men, in my life and perhaps their battle won’t be as long or as hard.