Faces in the Mirror: On Being Fat in Private

The key, I've found, is angles. When I'm having a really terrible morning, or when I've been poking around Facebook and found that someone has tagged me in a truly awful picture, when I'm looking my worst, and today I'm in a really depressive state, I need something to get me out of the house without feeling like I'm drawing the entire universe's attention, like those diagrams where spacetime is just a big piece of fabric and the black hole is just sucking in everything it encounters. So I find one of the few items of clothing that I usually feel good in (unless it's what I'm wearing in the unfortunate picture), head into the bathroom, tease the hair a little bit, and make faces at myself until I find an angle that is acceptable to show the world, or at least that will buoy my spirits until I'm in the car.

Not all fat people are depressed, but the two seem to often go hand in hand. The speculation on whether this is because being fat makes you depressed or vice versa is misguided, and not only because the answers to both are probably yes. The problem is that in most cases, it's not the actual "being fat" that causes depression. We are all socialized to think that thin = superior, and to be fat is to be inherently less than. Internalizing the disdain that society has for our bodies and, by extension, us as human beings is almost unavoidable.

My experiences aren't universal, of course, and I hope that they aren't taken that way. But the flip side is that my experiences are most certainly not unique. And this is not at all to imply that fat people aren't happy or that on the balance, that we aren't happier than we are sad. But for many fat people, the experience of being fat in private life definitely has its moments of shame and sadness, but the mundanity of the whole thing can be difficult to understand.

In my previous piece, I wrote about the burdensome self-awareness that comes with being fat in public. Many of the responses were suitably sympathetic, and while it's appreciated, it made me realize that the story was woefully incomplete. I don't mean to finish it here; I could write reams on the experience of being fat and how it shapes the way I move through everyday life. But I think my piece put forward the impression that this is something that is constantly at the forefront of my mind, when the truth is much more complicated and, in a way, more painful.

I take an armful of clothes into the fitting room; not one of them fits, because sizes run small here, but nothing I picked out comes in a bigger size than the ones I've found. I have to be forced into a seat on a roller coaster and grit my teeth because I'm fearful the restraint will give way at any time. I commit one of the ridiculous errors that we all make every day – leaving my fly unzipped, having a pit stain in my t-shirt, missing some food that got on my face – and while it would normally be minor, I know that because of my size, it reflects on me in a different, more negative way than someone of a more socially satisfactory size. But I accept the embarrassment and move on, because it's going to happen again, and again, and again, because these are things that happen in life, and that's not fair, but to carry them around with me all the time is to allow our fucked-up standards of beauty and acceptability to rob me of happiness that I work damn hard to achieve. It may not be healthy, but as long as it's in the back of my mind instead of the front, it doesn't own me; I own it.

My relationship with food is complicated too. Compulsive overeating and binge eating are disordered behaviors (binge eating disorder receives its own classification as an eating disorder in the DSM-5). When I was a child, I was tall and lean and my hearty appetite was something of a marvel. As I reached adolescence and started putting on weight, the marveling gave way to concerned glances and comments that were as well-meaning as they were shaming. I've heard more than a few stories of parents saying shameful, frighteningly cruel things to their children for committing the sin of being too fat. Mine never presented that way, and I doubt that my parents meant for me to feel ashamed.

But I was definitely taught at an early age to eat one way in front of people and another way when I was alone. When I have time to myself, it still takes a great deal of restraint to keep myself from getting a huge amount of food and eating it all where no one can see me. If I'm going to dinner with a group of thin people, the urge to stop and eat fast food on the way to dinner is sometimes overpowering. I'm not always successful at resisting. This is followed by guilt, and shame, and humiliation, which only serves to make food more enticing. There's an initial rush to a binge that feels like a drug. Because food is neutral. It exists to be eaten. It's, at least at the start, an enjoyable experience that society has told those like me that we don't deserve. And when the binge is over, it's impossible not to believe it.

Depression does some terrible things to a mind. I saw a picture of myself recently that set off a minor tailspin. No one wants to talk about the horrible things we say to ourselves in those times. When I'm feeling happy, I don't want to believe them, because I understand that they're not true. But when I'm depressive, it's because I don't want people to think I believe them. The only thing worse than shame is pity. I don't want pity; I want understanding and respect and I want that for other people. When I divulge that I had a thought that was literally, "I don't understand how anyone could find me attractive", it's not because I want to be told it's untrue (whether people need to be told that they're untrue is another matter). It's because I know I'm not the only one that has that thought and a thousand others and I want other people to read this story and understand that they're not the only ones who have those thoughts either.

I'm not talking about my experiences in this lifetime as a fat person because I'm an unhappy person. I'm talking about them because I want to be happy more often, and I want other people to be too. Too many of us are being forced by the world to find a reason to be happy with ourselves. It's Pollyannaish to expect that one day basic human decency and respect will wash over the world, but our stories are important, if just so we all know that we're not the only ones making faces in the mirror.