I was a pudgy kid. Some folks call it hefty or husky. Others may have called me chubby or chunky. To me, though, I was just fat.
Keep in mind, I wasn’t a gigantic kid. While I was overweight, I was never the largest in a class or group. I was, however, noticeably not “in shape”. Who noticed it? Everyone. I heard about it a lot.
Whether from friends or relatives or friends of relatives, there was always someone who spoke up. Back in the 1980s, people weren’t so concerned about the mental psyche of kids and how they viewed themselves. Sure, adults knew that saying something mean could hurt a boy’s feelings. Then again, the temptation of getting a laugh for calling him “a beachball with legs” was apparently a big thing to ask someone to give up back then.
Instead of obese, I felt something worse. It was like I was built differently than everyone. Every male in my class was, in my mind, at least starting with the correct base. They may be bigger or smaller around the edges, but they all were made from a similar, more normal, mold. Me? I was made from Jell-o and sadness.
If the laughter of grownups and kids, which was probably less prominent than it felt at the time, wasn’t enough to convince me that I stood out, it was this one story from eighth grade that hammered the point home harder than anything else. It’s not the worst in my life but definitely one of the most memorable. Sadly, it is 100% true.
I had tried out for the school basketball team that year. I knew next to nothing about basketball, but since I was still clueless for the next two years or so, I figured Junior Varsity tryouts would be a good place to see if I was a hidden prodigy. Maybe I was the next Larry Bird. There was only one way to find out. That’s by making a confused Mr. Bean-style attempt in front of a sea of judgmental adolescents.
I was less Larry Bird and more like Big Bird as I tripped around the court, missing shots, and fumbling basic dribbles. My mind kept drifting back to my elementary school gym teacher, who had died a few years back. When it came to mean adults, few held a candle to him. I could hear his ghost, whistle still in his mouth, laughing with each failed shot. The evil spirit of Mr. Scalfani aside, I had no shot of making a basket, much less the team. When my name wasn’t on the list, I wasn’t surprised.
A few months later, I was in my ninth-grade gym class, lined up in the locker room for some gym class nonsense. A group of older students were standing near me when one looked over as if he recognized my face. Sure enough, he did. Friendly as can be, he turned to me.
Hey, excuse me. Did you try out for the basketball team?
Me? Yeah. Yeah I did.
I knew it was you!
He turned to his friend.
I knew it was him.
He knew it was me. Me what? Me this:
Oh man. You know what? When you tried out…haha. Oh man. Listen, listen. You have like the skinniest arms in the world. You have the skinniest legs in the world too…
I had no idea where this was going. His friends were all listening and laughing too.
But, you have a little bit of a, you know, a belly. So me and the guys we all used to call you E.T. Ha ha. You know? Like the alien in that movie? Ha ha ha!
Here’s what made the whole thing worse. He wasn’t laughing in a way that told me he wanted to fight or bully me. In fact, nothing in his tone was confrontational. He was telling me this story as if he and I were talking about someone else. He thought I would genuinely find humor in this mortifying tale of strangers mocking me from afar for the body I was already miserable in. He thought I would join in on the laughter.
The worst part – I did.
It killed me inside but I knew that reacting with anything other than the ol’ “I can take a joke” giggle would earn me the scorn of my peers and brand me “unable to take it.” I also knew that screaming “I’m not E.T.” would make it a permanent nickname. So I smiled though it. It was good practice for when you have to smile through adulthood.
Today, though, my body is different than it was then. For starters, I’m a grown up now. Also, thanks to this heart surgery, my diet and fitness routine has changed dramatically. I exercise for at least 30 minutes a day and follow a pretty rigid pescatarian diet. I’m in healthier shape now than I’ve been in my whole life. That’s a fact I’m aware of. It’s one that my doctor verifies. That should be the end of the story.
Yet I still cringe at sight of most pictures I’m in. I always will.
I’ll go out to an event with my kids and happily snap shots of us all, only to come home and want to delete any of me because of everything wrong I see. I look at every imperfection and then spot even more. It can really ruin my brain for a while. When you factor in how my worrying about the way I look has died down as I’ve gotten older, it tells you where I was years ago. I am far from perfect, but even if I woke up one day and found out I was, I never would know it. I’d never even see it.
That feeling is there. That feeling will always be there. It stretches beyond being called E.T. or Shamu or some other fat-shame name during the time when they sting the hardest. For a kid, those insults are worse than mean, they’re true. When a ten-year-old hears “you’re fat” or “you’re ugly”, they don’t think, “This person is a jerk.” No. They think, “This person is just telling me the truth.”
Today, I tread lightly when it comes to how I talk to my daughter about fitness. I want my children, regardless of gender, to be the healthiest they can be – both physically and mentally. That requires more than just positive eating and workouts. It involves the words I say, the advice I share, and the images they have of themselves when I’m done. We’ve all had scarring moments from childhood and know how easy it is to continue that cycle, even if by accident. So, I don’t do it with my child. You shouldn’t either.
As my daughter grows up, I want the person in her mirror to be fit, strong, and beautiful. When that day comes, there will be no greater tragedy than if she’s the only one who can’t see it.