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Too Fat or Too Thin
Learning to stand up to my family's insults
M.M.
headshot

Names have been changed.

When I was 5, I was diagnosed with chronic urinary tract infections (UTIs). I was frequently in the hospital with high fevers, nausea, and pain in my lower abdomen. All of the symptoms quelled my appetite, and my family began criticizing my thinness.

“Put more food on your plate; I can see your ribs,” my aunt would say to me every time I sat down to eat.

I was constantly bombarded with these comments about my body. My mom and my aunts were all on the thicker side. In Hispanic culture, if you don’t have a curvy body you are seen as less of a Hispanic. I was told I wasn’t Dominican enough due to my size.

When I was 7 years old I began to pile on food, even if I wasn’t hungry. I began to eat faster to not get full. I drank ginger ale to control the nausea, and I was able to eat meals without feeling the urge to throw it all up. I put on weight.

Stretch Marks and Shame

I thought that by becoming bigger, my family would begin to approve. However, I was wrong. Suddenly I had gone from too thin to too fat in their opinion.

That summer we went to the Dominican Republic for vacation. However, what was supposed to be a fun time turned out to be a time of self-loathing and humiliation.

“Come out and let me see how you look,” my mom shouted as I trembled, looking at my stretch marks in the mirror.

“You look beautiful,” my mom said when I came out in the new pink two-piece she’d chosen for me.

I was worried I looked bad, but I thought to myself, “My mom knows best, and if she says I look good I believe her.”

We walked out of the changing room and I stumbled upon my brother. He started laughing.

“Fat cow, who let you out dressed like that? Go back and change. I don’t want you to embarrass me.”

I believed he was right and I kept repeating this moment over and over again in my mind. I felt like a monster that needed to be hidden away. I ran off, crying.

I’m Not a Fat Cow

Over the next few years I got called different names, from Miss Piggy to fat cow. But the worst of all was “skinny melon.” My brother used this name to tease me for not being skinny.

One Christmas Eve at my house, I walked up to the buffet and served myself some food. I heard snickering behind me.

“Are you sure you should be eating all that food, fat ass?” my cousin said.

I looked around to find my four aunts and my grandma staring at me. I was waiting for someone to defend me. My two supporters, my mom and my other cousin, weren’t there yet. In fact, the only time my cousins taunted me like this was when my mother wasn’t around. I knew that it was me against them. The look on my face said, “Help me.”

No one said anything. In fact, my aunts also contributed. They often spoke to my mother about how my body wasn’t ideal and laughed along when my cousins spit out their vicious names. I felt like I had a spotlight on me and everyone was against me.

I yelled, “So what? I can eat whatever I want.” In tears, I rushed to my room. Another cousin, who is my age, came in and said softly, “Don’t worry, he didn’t mean that. Don’t pay attention to him.”

Her words didn’t make me feel better. I kept replaying the words “fat ass” and hearing my aunts’ tittering, over and over, as if my brain was stuck on repeat.

That night my mom said, “You are beautiful.” I dismissed her words because she was my mother, and of course she would see her only daughter as beautiful. As I was falling asleep, I realized that except for my mother, my family did not accept me thin or thick. What would I have to do to conform to their norms and be accepted?

I was a little overweight, but no one else I knew commented on my body. The only people that made fun of my weight were my family members.

Taking Control

One night, I was reading online that having a healthy diet can help prevent urinary tract infections. My diet consisted of overdosing on carbs such as large bowls of pasta and rice. I binged on chips and doughnuts before bed. What if that triggered the reoccurrence of the UTIs? I had already switched doctors twice, and my parents and I didn’t have much confidence in the new one either. So I decided to try this, although none of the doctors had suggested it.

image by YC-Art Dept

With my mom’s help, I began eating more lean food. My mom didn’t keep as much junk food in the house. I replaced white rice with brown rice, white bread with whole wheat bread, and switched to whole grain pasta. I ate more vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli. Whenever I craved something sweet my mom would make me a fruit salad. I stopped drinking soda, replacing it with water or cranberry juice, which is also known to prevent UTIs.

I began to lose weight. I arrived at a healthy weight and maintained it. I wasn’t too thin like I was at first, nor was I overweight. My belly became flatter and my thighs and arms weren’t as thick. One aunt, who had laughed at me, began noticing a change in my body, and encouraged me to keep it up.

I was overwhelmed with her kindness, and it made me feel accepted for once. However, I had been put down and criticized for so long that my self-esteem about my body was low. I needed to learn to love myself.

Feeling Comfortable in My Body

Over the next two years, when I went for my checkups, the doctors noticed the frequency of my infections was decreasing. After getting one almost every month, I went almost six months without one.

The idea that I made specific changes and had helped myself get better gave me a sense of empowerment. I felt less burdened and more confident.

I stopped wearing the baggy T-shirts and sweatpants I used to wear because anything remotely tight around my pubic area could irritate me. I bought my first pair of blue denim jeans, and a turquoise blouse. I felt beautiful. I finally felt comfortable in my body and appreciated it rather than feeling like it was a curse.

I walked through the halls at school radiating confidence. People noticed.

“Wow, you look amazing today.”

“You look different, but I love it!”

“I love your outfit!”

I knew this change wasn’t just the clothing.

Finally, the infections disappeared completely.

Standing Up for Myself

The voice in my head that would constantly tell me I was ugly stopped whispering and started listening. I realized that I just needed to feel healthy for my confidence to shine through. For the first time, I felt confident enough to stand up to my family members.

When my aunt was serving me dinner one night, she put way too much rice on my plate.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t want this much food,” I told her.

“Are you sure? I know you have a big appetite.”

“I’m positive. And I don’t like how you assume that I want food all the time. It makes me uncomfortable. Can you please not make assumptions about how much I want to eat? I understand you may see me as fat, but I don’t eat that much,” I responded, nervously.

“I’m sorry for making you feel that way. That’s not my intention,” she replied.

“It’s fine, just don’t do it again.”

My aunt told my other aunts and cousins how I felt and they became more careful with their words. When I was younger, I’d allowed their negativity to push me further and further from self-acceptance. But now I was able to stand up to their negative talk about my body. Most of my family, including my cousins, aunts, and grandma, apologized after I spoke up. They didn’t realize how insensitive they were being.

Then my mother, who I hadn’t told about all the name calling until now, gathered my whole family together to talk about this. We acknowledged that many times we insult one another as a way to tease or kid around, without being aware of whether we are being hurtful. We came to a mutual agreement to love and support one another rather than putting each other down.

Now my family takes my feelings into consideration and makes an effort to encourage me to appreciate not just my body but my intelligent mind.

And that’s all good. But I also learned to try and be less bruised by others’ opinions. Yes, criticism hurts. And it’s impossible to control what people think of you. But it is possible to be in control of the way you internalize and react to that criticism.

My family’s comments about my body were based on their own ignorant, preconceived notions of what women’s bodies should look like, as well as their own insecurities. Now that I understand this, it makes it easier to deflect any criticism I get, no matter what it’s about or who it’s from.

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(NYC-2017-05-14)

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