All fat people are out of shape. You know, they can’t walk too far. They can’t take the stairs. They can’t do much more than hold down the living room sofa with one hand in a bag of chips and the other on a two-liter of soda. Yeah, and they smell funny, too. Oh, and don’t ever sit by a fat person. They make a helluva racket. You can hear them breathing. Yeah, just sittin’ there, you can hear old fatty wheezing away. It drowns out the radio in my car. I can’t even concentrate.
I heard some version of these stereotypes all my life. Not all of them were directed towards me, but certainly to people I love, people in movies, people on the street. Fat people.
Long gone are the positive associations once attributed to overweight people in the early twentieth century. Times were hard then, and a rotund form meant wealth and power. (See more about these nearly forgotten fatributes in Paul Campos book, http://amzn.to/29tPOM9.) But sometime around the 1960s fat began to equal lazy, stupid, stinky, sloppy, and all of the other nasty terms you can imagine. Although fat activists have come forward to attempt to reclaim fat bodies (really, all bodies), western culture continues to associate fat with undesirable.
Knowing this, I spent the better part of my life trying desperately to not be associated with fat, my fat, any fat. I thought maybe my intelligence would hide my fat. I imagined, I guess, that my doctoral graduation gown would forever cloak by large hips and thighs, even long after I took it off. Or maybe it would be my smile. Everyone knows a jolly fat person, and we love them anyway, right?
The other ways I attempted to erode my physical connection to fat connotations were more self-harming than wearing a mask. I used to spray perfume all over my body, including IN my vagina, to avoid smelling like a fat person. The end result, of course, was unbalanced Ph, and infections. I used to wear the tightest undergarments I could find, no matter how painful they were or how much they constricted my movement. Anything to keep my fat from noticeably jiggling. And, of course, I wouldn’t dare eating anything but salad in public. In the rare times that I did, I was reprimanded for eating the same treat they were having. Cake is only for the skinny.
But of all the things I did to attempt to deflect fat persecution from my own fat body, the most damaging was training myself to take shallow breaths. Yes, that’s right. I literally trained my body to take small, short breaths, even when I needed deep ones, so that I would not feel the shame of being fat. I just couldn’t stand the thought of sounding fat. Of someone hearing my breathing when they were sitting right next to me. Then, they would know that I am fat. It was the definitive marker, I figured.
I didn’t even know I had spent decades literally holding my breath until I took up yoga when I was 34. I remember that first time sitting on my mat when the instructor said, “Take a deep breath in. Now exhale it out.” For some reason, I managed to take in and release four breaths in the time he took to do one. I thought maybe I was just an exceptional breather until he came up to me during the end of the session and said, “You are almost panting, Christina. Take a deep breath. Keep going. Keep going. And now exhale.” In that moment, I felt dizzy and completely relaxed for the first time that I could remember. Barring sleep, I spent my life on the edge of my seat, and in that moment I realized that it was because I had practiced breathing quietly for so long that it was fully automated.
I started taking yoga to relieve anxiety, a condition I now realized was probably due in part to stifling my own breath. From that anxiety, I developed costocondritis, which is condition in which rib cartlidge is inflamed. In cold weather, it hurt to breath at all, much less take a deep breath. In fact, it is often called “the bracing disease” because sufferers commonly stop breath and hold their rib cages and arms tight.
But it wasn’t until I was swimming laps one morning, long after that moment in the yoga studio that I realized why I had been holding my breath. I finished my last lap, clocking in at 90 minutes of straight swimming. I was breathing hard, ragged breaths when I climbed the ladder out of the pool. Just then I saw a man walking towards the ladder, and I tried as hard as I could to silence my breathing, which was almost impossible. I tried to hurry out of the pool and away from him so that I could take some deep breaths, and just then, right there in my dripping wet suit, I realized that I had been holding my damn breath for decades because I didn’t want people to think I was just another out of breath, out of shape fat girl.
Suddenly, I was furious. I stomped into the locker room, tore off my suit, ripped open an empty shower curtain and got in. As the warm water rained over my head and shoulders, I cried. I cried because of how long I had been torturing myself so that people wouldn’t make fun of me or discount me for being fat. I cried because of just how utterly stupid that was. I cried because I understood that this war on fat people in western culture was killing me and so many others. That’s right, it isn’t that fat that is going to us, it is the lengths we will go to hide from the ridicule. It’s the diets, the fasting, the potions, the pills, the starvation, the eating disorders, the bingeing, the purging, the extreme exercising, and everything else we try just so we will not get called out for being fat and all that is associated with it.
Like the restrictive undergarments that left deep red grooves in my flesh, the diets that left me hungry and feeling worthless when I failed, and the myriad of other ways that I harmed myself because I do not fit some beauty ideal perpetuated by our warped culture, I refuse to keep hurting myself by breathing quietly so no one will know I am fat. It took me years to learn how to breath again, and sometimes I still lapse back into my old habits. But I will tell you this, I relish every deep breath I take. I pull that air in deeply along with love for myself, and I blow out air as loudly as I wish because I can’t hold it much longer.
**Note** This entry is an excerpt from my newest book, The Optimistic Food Addict: Rebounding from Relapse (Fall 2017).
If you want to read more writing like this, please see my other books on the subject of food addiction: The Optimistic Food Addict’s Recovery Journal and Activity Workbook and The Optimistic Food Addict: Recovering from Binge Eating Disorder.
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