Okay. This column isn’t only about being fat. It’s also about intimidation. And it’s mostly about my Uncle Jack. I just wanted to start with a word that I am no longer supposed to use, because in doing so, I might hurt someone’s feelings.
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: FAT. Adjective. Notable for having an unusual amount of fat. Plump. Obese. Well filled out. Thick. Full.
Fat is not a curse word or an accusation. It is descriptive. Something you either you are or you are not.
Not only are we no longer supposed to use that word, when we see the characteristic manifested in another human being – plumpness, fullness, thickness...obesity – we are supposed to pretend that we don’t. Because to be FAT, according to contemporary ethos, no longer signifies that an individual is eating too much or possibly is having an adverse reaction to a medication (or to a Hershey’s chocolate bar); it now means to have “a different body type.” One that is every bit as acceptable, attractive, and sexy as those of people who are NOT fat.
People who are, in effect...what are we allowed to call them?
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: SLENDER. Adjective. Spare in frame. Gracefully slight. Small or narrow in circumference.
Over the past dozen or so years, we, meaning all of us – Chubby. Scrawny. Old. Young. Athletic. Slothful – have been bombarded by media, movies, books, and indignant activists (so much anger out there!) insisting that no one is more or less beautiful than anyone else, and that the rotund as well as the trim should have an equal opportunity to be cheerleaders, chorus girls, ballet dancers, and swimsuit models. In this new world, if we dare to exclaim, “But you’ve got a triple chin and your stomach is hanging over your bikini bottom like a mushroom cap!” we are insensitive oafs. And worse. We are BAD PEOPLE.
We are “body shaming” those of more expansive proportions.
Body shaming? Excuse me. Where the heck did THAT come from?
Okay. Now. On to Uncle Jack.
This whole Uncle Jack thing started long before I got married.
When I lived at home with my family, I had a mother who cooked balanced meals. All of us kids (I have four siblings) grew up riding our bicycles everywhere, working part-time jobs after school, playing tennis, baseball, or engaging in some other sort of sport.
None of us were fat, plump, obese, well-filled out, thick, or full.
After I left home and moved to New York to be a writer, I certainly didn’t have the money to eat out, and I never even considered the option of cooking. My idea of dinner was to go to the corner deli, buy a quarter pound of roast beef, a quarter pound of Swiss cheese, roll them up together, and eat them while standing over the kitchen sink staring out my window at the Empire State Building.
After years of such a modest intake of comestibles, I fell in love, got married, and instantly had one handsome husband, and one eleven year old stepson to take care of.
Therein lay the problem, because I didn’t know how to cook for myself, let alone for an entire family.
I had a vague recollection that I was supposed to provide three meals a day. I also had a hazy sense they were supposed to consist of a salad, a main course, soup, starches, carbohydrates, protein, fruit, vegetables, and dessert, all of which swirled around my head in a kaleidoscope of calories.
I was determined to be a good wife and mother.
I WAS a good wife and mother.
But I was also delusional, because as I continued to make elaborate meals, I denied that the waist bands on my clothes were getting tighter and that the sylph who used to stare back at me from the mirror had disappeared. I convinced myself (avoiding those mirrors, of course), that maybe I had gained a “leetle” weight, but also that if I didn’t say the words out loud, it would go unnoticed.
Which brings me to Uncle Jack.
My father’s brother was short. (The Vocabulary Police now demand that I call him “vertically challenged.” Ha!)
He had a big nose like a bird of prey (I’m not supposed to say that either, because it might imply that he was Jewish, which he was). He was slim, and he lived his life with a quiet joy and unselfconscious individuality. No one in the family knew what he did for a living, even though he was a lawyer. His wife, my Aunt Libby, used to say it was a good thing Jack wasn’t a doctor, as he would never have the heart to collect fees from his troubled patients.
Uncle Jack was entrepreneurial. That should have made him rich, but didn’t, because in almost every venture on which he embarked, he was at least 20 years ahead of his time. Hand-held devices that take one’s blood pressure and playful name-stickers for children are two products that come to mind. He’d bought a hotel, and then had to sell it when he found out that all of his “guests” were hookers and pimps; he did the contract work for shipping potentates; he helped dozens of lost souls with legal problems and never charged a cent; and he flew around the world for business meetings as casually as you or I would drive into town to get a pizza.
Best of all, though, he never forgot me. From the day I left home and moved to New York, he was always cutting articles out of newspapers that he thought would interest me, putting them into envelopes, and mailing them to wherever I lived at the time.
Uncle Jack loved that I was a writer and an adventuress. He never tried to hold me back, and he never told me to play life safe.
This is what he did tell me, though.
I had walked into his living room in Illinois after not seeing him for a year (the year I got married). He took one look at me, and the first thing he said was, “Shelly. You got fat.”
Snap your fingers. Just that fast, reality avalanched down on me. The sylph I had been was not in hiding, I had eaten her to death! The waistline I’d thought was a little tight was more like a tourniquet around my torso. And wearing my "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" was out of the question. I should have been wearing a pup tent.
If this had happened today, I would be expected to resent my uncle for his insensitivity and accuse him of “body shaming” me. However, that was not my reaction. What I instantly felt was...”I’ve been caught!”
Plain and simple, he was telling me a truth I had really known all along but had bullied myself (and everyone around me) into not mentioning.
My unconscious bullying may have worked with others who loved me. But not with Uncle Jack. He knew how a writer / adventuress / and woman-in-love-with-her-husband was supposed to look, and he knew that I had let myself down.
Fat. I was fat. It wasn’t a secret, and it wasn’t the “elephant in the room” everyone pretends not to notice, because Uncle Jack made it quite clear to me that I WAS THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM!
I went home. I learned how to cook healthy meals. I started to play tennis. I consulted my scale and my waistband DAILY. I returned to my mirror and told the sylph I used to be that she could come back.
Bottom line: I responded to reality instead of comforting myself with delusion.
So, to all of you out there who are wearing a few extra pounds...or rather...a few dozen extra pounds, I say this. If you enjoy being pudgy, that’s fine with me. You might be one of those attractive, stylish, and athletically rotund people of whom we used to say (but are no longer allowed to), “She’d be so pretty if she just lost weight.” I don’t even mind if you are clinically obese, although if you are a friend, I will regret losing you, as you will surely die young.
But if you have gotten to the point where you resent thin people, describe yourself as a “different body type,” and terrorize others into pretending that we are all equally attractive, and therefore you should be a swimsuit model, in the chorus line, or on the cheerleading squad along with girls who eat less and are 60 pounds thinner, then take heed. You can congratulate yourself for being more vociferous, politically active, self-righteous, sensitive, and certainly more “at one” with a virtually totalitarian culture determined to censure the free and intelligent use of language.
Just as I was when Uncle Jack saw me after my year of catastrophic eating, it won’t change reality. Not a bit.
Because you’ll still be FAT.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com