There’s a scene from Mean Girls (one of my favorite movies of ALL TIMES) that’s pretty poignant (no, not “You go, Glenn Coco” or, my personal favorite “You smell like a baby prostitute”).
Damien is singing at the school’s holiday pageant (not very well), but clearly giving it his all, despite being booed and heckled. Hell, he even gets sassy in the middle of the song and fights back.
While it’s clearly a very funny scene (um, hello, isn’t ALL of Mean Girls basically perfect?), there’s a certain seriousness to it.
Some may not get it.
But I do.
A few months ago, my one of my perennial favorite ladies, Jennifer Weiner, wrote an essay in Allure Magazine called “The F Word”. The dreaded word so many women beat themselves up over (and over and over again)? Fat. After past-his-prime critic Rex Reed insulted actress Melissa McCarthy by calling her “tractor-sized” and a “female hippo” last week, (and his refusal to apologize), I wanted to share J-Wein’s gem of an essay.
Jen gets it. We’re chubby soul sisters.
To summarize (but really, just go and read it for yourself—it’s worth spending a few minutes), Weiner recalls a recent conversation with her nine-year-old daughter, Lucy. Lucy is complaining about a “frenemy” (come on ladies—we all had/have them) and in explaining why she doesn’t like this girl, she says, “She’s mean, she’s bad at math, she’s terrible at kickball. And…she’s fat.”
Weiner, who calls herself “a size 16 on a good day,” then is forced to have a talk with her “blithe, leggy, honey-blonde daughter,” about using the “f word.” Weiner explains, “I’d spent the nine years since her birth getting ready for this day, the day we’d have to have the conversation about this dreaded, stinging word. I had a well-honed, consoling speech at the ready. I knew exactly what to say to the girl on the receiving end of the taunts and the teasing, but in all of my imaginings, it never once occurred to me that my daughter would be the one who used the F word. Fat.”
Weiner then recounts her own struggles (and shame) with her weight. In reading it, I saw myself. In recalling incidents from her life, I cried. I cried for Jennifer. I cried for every girl who has ever been taunted, mocked or made to feel she’s ugly, unworthy or unlovable. And I cried for myself. But, in truth, I didn’t need to read Jennifer’s accounts of her life. I’ve lived it.
I’ve struggled with my weight for nearly as long as I can remember. And, like Jennifer, I’ve never been at a point in my life when I haven’t been keenly aware of my size. A particular passage of her essay stuck with me:
There are five girls named Jennifer making their way across the Promised Land with my group that summer. “Oh, not the fat Jennifer,” I hear one of my tour mates saying matter-of-factly to another as we hang out by our kibbutz swimming pool, holding his hands out a good foot away from his hips to indicate my girth, “the other one.” So that is me: not the Jennifer who loves to read, or who listens to the Smiths and is the most sought-after babysitter in town. Not the Jennifer on the honor roll, the one who can swim a mile without stopping: the fat one.
I am incandescent with shame, knowing that fat is, by far, the worst thing you can be. Fat is lazy, fat is gross, fat is sloppy…and, worst of all, fat is forever. Michelle has a full-on Frida Kahlo moustache. Kim has terrible skin. But Michelle could wax and Kim could go on Accutane; I am going to be fat—and, hence, undesirable, unlovable, a walking joke—for the rest of my life.
It’s like Jennifer got into my brain, pulling out all of the fears, insecurities, and feelings I had supressed for most of my life. And she nailed it. I’m not Stacey with a killer sense of humor, who loves to read, and listen the Black Keys and Grace Potter and is great at her job. No, those things aren’t important. I’m Stacey—the fat one. That’s the only identifier that matters. And, for a long long LONG time, I believed that.
Jen managed to put down what every girl struggling with her weight is afraid of: I am going to be fat—and, hence, undesirable, unlovable, a walking joke—for the rest of my life.
For too long I hated myself. Early on I knew who I was: nerdy. I wore big glasses, was chubby, and loved to read. Translation: I was every twelve-year-old’s nightmare. I was never picked first…or second in gym class. I never sat with the “popular” girls at lunch or at recess. I was awkward and cripplingly shy, always afraid to speak up in class in fear of being made fun of. In junior high, the mean girls would call my house to tell me my best friend’s mom died in a plane crash. They invited me over to play and (without telling me, of course) gave me a hot dog that they got the dog to lick. They’d tease me mercilessly and, while being nice-ish to my face, would mock me behind my back.
I learned to always be on guard. I spent most of my adolescence in constant fear that people were being nice to me as a joke.
As a result, I had few friends growing up, preferring to make friends with people who would never disappoint me and didn’t care how much I weighed or what I looked like: characters from books. To this day, when I think about my best friends growing up, it’s hard not to say “Anne Shirley and Diana Barry, Claudia Kishi and Stacey McGill, the Wakefield twins, Ramona Quimby, Pippi Longstocking and Nancy Drew.” They were my confidantes. My soul sisters. My bosom friends.
And, at the age when girls start discovering boys, I had my first real soul-crushing, life-ending experience with the opposite sex.
I was in sixth grade. With my frizzy hair and big glasses in addition to being chubby, I knew I wasn’t on the top of any boy’s “crush list.” And, despite my shyness, I did have a few “friends” (Looking back now, I realize the girls I played with at that time were just as bad as the mean girls. I was just so happy to have someone be nice to me, even if it was only 50% of the time.). At a sleepover, we played the “Who’s the cutest boy in school” game. You know the one–everyone sits in a circle and takes turns saying who they had a crush on. When it was my turn, I blurted out a name. We’ll call him “JTT” (not because he in any way resembled the perfection that was Jonathan Taylor Thomas, but because that’s who I was obsessed with at the time). I begged my “friends” not to say anything. Obviously that didn’t happen. The next week, one of the girls opened her mouth that I had a crush on “JTT”. And when he found out his exact words (or maybe not exact. It was a long time ago and I’ve tried to push it as far from my mind as possible) were “Gross. Why would I like her? She’s fat.”
And there you have it folks. I was so ashamed and embarassed. I never mentioned it again and never told anyone what he had said. The “friend” who relayed this information to me, thankfully, let my romance with “JTT” end there and then (likely because she was so engrossed in her own twelve-year-old love life that she forgot I existed. to which I am eternally grateful).
That encounter in sixth grade cemented every fear I had about myself and boys, which followed me through to adulthood. I wasn’t thin, therefore unwanted. Even if a guy showed interest in me, I had a hard time believing it. I was always on guard, thinking it was a trick and I’d end up eating another canine-licked hot dog. I never thought I was worthy of a man’s attention. Too often I’d meet a cute, funny guy…and immediately foist him on my thinner (i.e. more beautiful) girlfriends. “He’d never actually be interested in ME,” I reasoned with myself. So I did the next best thing—lived vicariously through my friends. I’d listen with a smile to their dating woes and how well things were going with Mr. So-and-So. I had convinced myself that I was ugly, undesirable and undateable. It didn’t matter how funny, charming or well versed in sports trivia I was. I could be Tina Fey, Hannah Storm, Nora Ephron and Lucille Ball all rolled into one, but it didn’t matter. I was fat, thus, unloveable.
I did have one solace — I was smart. In my younger years I knew I would never be one of the beautiful and popular girls. So I settled for being smart. While never chosen first (and almost always last) in gym class, I was always among the first chosen on academic teams. My love of books, reading, history and science served me well. I taught myself that even if they could make fun of me for my looks, they could never make fun of me for my smarts. So I studied. And studied. And studied. I studied enough to earn a full scholarship to college. And, in college, I found myself. I met the women who would become my best friends and kindred spirits. And, even though I was still uncomfortable with my body, I found my identity. I was “a Brain” and I relished in it. I felt by being smart, it washed away any other identifier (i.e. “fat”). Instead of being known as “Stacey — the fat one,” I was “Stacey — the smart one.” I pushed myself into a career path that probably wasn’t right for me (law) because it’s what “smart girls did.” Even if it was like pushing a square peg into a round hole.
And then came the turning point. Law School (aka “The Big Bad”). Because I had done well in college and on the LSAT, I found myself starting my first year of law school in 2009, even though in the back of my head, I kept going “something about this isn’t right.” I ignored the little voice and, like Tim Gunn said to, I “carried on.”
And that’s when I fell apart.
I had based my ENTIRE identity around being smart and getting good grades. I let myself believe that unless I was known as the “smart one”, the only other identifier I could POSSIBLY be known as was the dreaded one: “the fat one.” When my first year grades came in, I was destroyed. For the first time in my life, I was NOT at the top of my class. Nowhere near the top, in fact. Somewhere around the bottom, if I’m being totally honest.
That was it. I had my entire identity stripped away because of some ugly curved letters. I lost it. I fell into a deep dark place and wouldn’t (rather, couldn’t) lift myself out of it. The depression had sunk in and all I could think was, “Well, you’ve done it. Now you are going to be known as the stupid fat girl FOREVER. No one will want to be friends with you or date you. You’re worthless. You should just die.”
And I almost did. In October of 2010, I tried to kill myself. I sat on the floor of my bathroom, holding a pill bottle, willing myself to do it. I had convinced myself that I was so worthless, I didn’t deserve to live. The world could do without one less stupid, fat person.
But, I stopped myself. I heard my siblings outside the bathroom door, laughing. To this day I have no idea what they were laughing at. All I know is that once I heard them, something told me to stop. So I did.
And then I got help. I’ve made big strides. I learned I’m more than a number on a scale, the size on a clothes tag, or a grade on an exam. I changed careers. I began to write again. I started (and failed) in training for a 5k. And, as cheesy as it sounds, I learned to like myself. I started to become comfortable in my own skin.
And, in reading Jennifer’s essay, I realized I wasn’t alone. My journey has been a solitary one (despite lots of help along the way from family and friends). But it has been MY journey. Because most of my friends are thin (i.e. I’ve never dicussed my weight issues with them), I never realized how many other women have been on similar/parallel paths.
Fat shaming is still alive and well (especially thanks to people like Rex Reed, Daniel Callahan, and 12 year old boys like “JTT” everywhere), but I can certainly say from experience: it does get better. To all of the girls and women struggling with their weight (and their self worth), take my advice: spending your life hating yourself and hiding in shame is no way to live. Find something you love and throw yourself into it. Surround yourself with positive and awesome people that love you, regardless if you’re a size 2 or 22. Take care of yourself. Don’t diet (dieting is stupid), instead change your lifestyle. Eat more fruits and veggies and less chocolate and fried food. Exercise. Buy a pair of jeans (or dress or top) that make you feel like a million bucks. Being overweight isn’t healthy, but it’s no reason to hide in your house Miss Havisham-style (which, sadly, I have done). The journey of a thousand steps begins with one.
I’m not perfect and I still have insecurities about my body. But I’m working on it and I take it day by day. And while I’ll probably never look like Kate Upton and I’ll definitely never be Beyonce (which ,sadly, is my cross to bear), I can be a healthier version of myself. And I can be happy, day in and day out with myself.
Which bring me back to Damien from Mean Girls. What that scene says to me is this: Damien knows he’s different from everyone else in school (because he’s gay? because he’s a little chubby? because he’s secretly obsessed with Gretchen Weiners’ hair? who knows), but he doesn’t care. Cue the singing of the Christina ballad about being beautiful and words not getting you down. He’s ok with himself–HE thinks he’s beautiful.
So let’s all take a cue from Damien. Who cares what the Plastics say? Don’t let them make you hate yourself because of how you look. And if that doesn’t work, take heart. At least you’re not this girl