Looking back at childhood pictures, I don’t look as fat as I remember. It sort of flies in the face of a lot of my memories, because at the time, I felt like I was enormous.
When I was about ten years old, I was a part of a summer program at the local community college. While I wish I could share details to bolster the narrative, I can’t. I don’t know what the class was, who the teacher was, or why we were all outside playing. My foggy memory has washed away nearly the entire thing, except for the one part that is forever burned into my brain. It’s the one part that probably shouldn’t be.
There was a little girl there, running among the group. She had a bow in her hair and a frilly dress. You’d think she was plucked from a dollhouse and brought to life. As an adult, if I saw a kid like that today, I’d say, “aw” and tell her parents that she’s adorable.
As we all ran around outside, waiting for the bus to bring us home, this little Shirly Temple, with her bouncing curls, looked at me and said:
Oh my God. Look how fat you are! Ugh!
This was the first time we had spoken. There were no previous interactions, and she didn’t even know my name. The look of disgust on her face made me feel like the grossest thing on the planet.
While it wasn’t the meanest thing anyone had ever said to me, either in my home or out of it, it was stunning in its natural delivery. The fact that it was her first thought upon laying eyes on me altered the way I felt the rest of the world viewed me. If that was her first thought upon seeing me, I had to be shockingly fat.
Attempting to pretend like it didn’t happen, I continued running around with the other kids. My fake smile was plastered on and no one could see how twisted I was inside. Back then, the goal was always to show “the bullies” that nothing bothered you. So that’s what I did. I watched as all the kids began to climb a big concrete platform in the middle of the waiting area. Once on top, about five or so feet in the air, they all sat happily with their legs dangling.
Putting one hand on top, I started to climb up to join them. That’s when this frilly little girl looked down at me from the top and loudly shouted with venom in her voice:
Ugh! Don’t climb up here, you fat thing. You’ll make it collapse!
I don’t remember if anyone laughed. All I know is I stopped trying to climb it and went to sit alone on the curb until the bus came.
This little girl is a mystery to me. I don’t know her name or where she was from. I wouldn’t recognize her now or even a picture of her from then. Nothing about her would ring a bell. She never played another role in my life other than that one.
What do we tell little kids about bullies? Ignore them. Don’t let their words affect you. It shouldn’t hurt.
30 years on, that girl’s words still ring in my head sometimes. I can feel the feeling that I felt that day, all these years later.
Was she the sole reason I thought I was huge as a child and still, even now, look at myself from angles that only I see? No. There were other people who contributed to that. There’s my cousin’s drunken ex-husband, cackling at their engagement party, as his friend made fun of me. There were mean-spirited little league teammates, bitter schoolteachers, and others who all contributed too. Sure, “none of their opinions mattered”. Yet, they somehow all did.
Even knowing the truth didn’t help. The truth? It was never about my weight. I know this because sometimes it wasn’t. If it wasn’t someone noticing that I was “chubby”, it was my big nose. If it wasn’t my big nose, it was the fact that I was catholic with a Jewish last name in a town not known for its Hebrew relations. If it wasn’t the last name, it was the holes in my clothes or my rusted-out bike. It was always something. I could have been perfect and there would have been an issue to poke and a sensitive topic to prod. It’s not about any specific issue. It’s about hitting the nerve.
The truth is that these stinging comments all spill from the minds of people who have been through terrible things themselves. If I’m being honest, I’m not an angel here. I’ve picked on people too. I’ve “ranked out” friends and “dissed” other kids. You name the ’90s slang for it and I’ve done it. Kids can be cruel. I was a kid. I experienced cruelty and I was cruel to others.
I also know that my cruelest moments came when I was hurting the most. Throughout my life, I can’t recall a time when I was happy with who I was and then ripped into another person. Those moments always came when I was at my worst. They were last-ditch efforts to feel better about how low I was by dragging another person lower.
This is something I try to teach my children, but I feel like it’s all background noise. My voice rings out and I hear the echoes of a million adults from days gone by calling out from my mouth. We offer the same advice and give the same tips.
“Don’t let it bother you.”
“The bullies are more afraid of you than you are of them.”
“Hurt people hurt people.”
Yeah, cool. Knowing that the scorpion’s injured doesn’t make its sting hurt any less. The pain that you feel from the words that are said can stay for a lifetime, no matter how much enlightenment you have as to its origin.
Of course, over time, you understand things more. You look around and see that everyone, at some point, experiences the pain that comes with judgment from the cruelest of judges. You don’t learn to accept it. Instead, you learn that it’s a part of life. The meanest person in your life had a mean person in their life. It’s what made them mean.
The real trick? Don’t let them make you mean too. Stay kind. Stay positive. Lift others up, no matter how many times you yourself get knocked down. The goal is to drag you down so they are above you and turn you into a person just as vicious as them. Don’t let them. Others may hurt you or make you question yourself, but never let them dim what makes you brightest. If you don’t, then the bullies can never truly get to you.