In the first week of seventh grade, Tobin Rahn called me fat, and his friends endorsed him with their laughter. I remember the hurt and betrayal I felt. We had been in school together since kindergarten. I thought of him as my friend. I went to his birthday parties, and he went to mine. We talked and laughed together all throughout sixth grade. I didn’t see him over the summer, but I didn’t think much about it. We got along, but I didn’t call him one of my best friends.
When I saw him, on the first day of seventh grade, I realized something. Tobin was cute. It had never occured to me before, but it did now, and powerfully. I spent two days dreaming about Tobin. I thought about what it would be like to be his girlfriend. I thought about kissing him, which made me blush, because it was the first time I had ever thought about kissing a boy.
Then he turned my life around. I didn’t realize it at time — sometimes, the turning points in our lives are only visible when we look back at them — but that day he set the course of my life for years to come. He called me fat, and his friends laughed, so he called me ugly, too. Then he did it again the next day, and the day after, and each time, he found a new way to say it.
After years of thinking about those incidents, the actual words exchanged and the other faces involved have blurred, but I’ve come up with what I believe to be the reason for his actions. The friends Tobin and I had shared, and the people he spent most of his time with, were all girls. Something happened to Tobin that summer that made him turn away from all his friendships with females.
I can’t speak as to what it was, precisely, because I haven’t spoken to him in years. I suspect some masculine figure in his life, someone that he respected, disparaged him for having so much femininity in his life. I’ve looked him up on Facebook. He has a boyfriend, now. Perhaps had just begun to discover the truth about himself, and it scared him. So he surrounded himself with boys, and due to some twisted view of what it meant to try to be one of them, he hurt a girl.
I know that none of that matters, really. It’s just meaningless speculation that doesn’t change what he said or the effect it had on me. It’s a fault of mine, though, that I get stuck on things that happened in the past. I overanalyze them and try to discover the whats and the whys, even though I’ll never the discover the truth. Even if I feel I’ve discovered some satisfactory answer, as I have with Tobin, it’s mostly something I constructed out of my own fantasies, patched with little bits of reality.
Sometimes I look back at pictures of myself from that time period. I wasn’t fat. I mean, yes, there was a layer of softness over my body. I wasn’t yet a twiggy little stick figure. My stomach pressed up against my shirt just enough to make it taught. My thighs made contact with one another. My cheeks were full and slightly rounded.
I liked to eat, because food tasted good, and my mother was a good cook. She made dinner for us every night, and she loved to bake: cakes, cookies, you name it. Her food brought me joy.
I never told her what caused her food to stop making me happy. I never told her why I stopped eating her sweets. I couldn’t stop eating her dinners, not without alerting her to what I was doing, but I threw away the lunches she packed and I told her I wasn’t hungry for breakfast in the morning.
I know that I hurt her, because for several years, she stopped baking. She thought I didn’t like her cakes anymore. She thought her cookies weren’t any good. I might have told her that. I’m sorry, mom. I was hurt, and I didn’t mean it. I shouldn’t have hurt you, too.
I began to lose weight, but Tobin’s taunting didn’t stop, and neither did his friend’s laughter. I joined the track team. I spent my time in my room — which I had once used for reading — doing improvised cardio workouts. They were absurd an ineffectual, because I was too afraid to ask anyone how to properly work out, and I was terrified that my parents would know if I searched for things on the computer.
I remember the first time I tried to exercise in my room. There wasn’t much space. I had perhaps three feet, give or take, between my bed and the walls. I tried to run laps around my bed. However, I was further limited by my paranoia about my parents hearing me, so I wound up just tiptoeing as fast as I could, back and forth, over and over again in a U shape.
By my freshman year of high school, I had dwindled into nothingness. I felt constantly light on my feet, as though I might float away. That had less to do with the weight loss than it did with the caloric deprivation, I’m sure. I felt good about how skinny I was. I could fit my whole hand around my bicep. I felt proud of myself.
My friends told me I looked good. They congratulated me for my weight loss, told me, “Wow, you look so much better!” At the time, I thought their words were good and helpful. Now, I realize they only served to perpetuate the hurt Tobin had begun inflicting on me.
Tobin himself was gone from my life. His family moved away, and he went to the ninth grade in another state. It didn’t matter, though, because he had helped me discover I wasn’t pretty. I didn’t need him to tell me anymore. I was glad to have lost all of my fat, but I had internalized his taunting. Now I taunted myself. I could never be thin enough. I pushed myself further and further, willing that layer of fat to leave my belly.
I hated that I could pinch the skin of my stomach between my fingers. To me, that meant I was still a failure. I still had weight to lose.
I learned a lot about makeup during my eighth grade year. Tobin had said something like, “Even if you’re skinny now, you’ll never be able to do anything about your face.” So I covered my face up. I watched tutorials and read magazines, and I constantly asked my dad to buy me makeup, because my mom wouldn’t do it. He did, though, because he wanted his little girl to be pretty.
My initial attempts weren’t attractive. I made my lips too red, and my eyeshadow too bold. Somehow, I wound up with the awkward green eyebrows of a woman four times my age. The taunting was worse, for a time, until I forced myself to improve.
I feel like nobody I knew for my first two years of high school knew what I even looked like. They saw a walking sapling with a face so flattened and changed by shading and contouring that, when I cleaned my makeup off at night, I didn’t recognize myself.
I began dating Taylor Jones toward the end of my sophomore year. He was my first boyfriend, who also happened to be a complete asshole. The only reason I even started dating him was because all of my friends had already had at least two boyfriends. I hated that I was the only one who seemed unable to attract a man. It made me feel even uglier.
Taylor seemed nice enough, at first. He told me I had nice eyes. He said, “Wow, you’re so skinny,” which at the time I thought was a compliment. He even took me to a movie once. He tried to make out with me, but it was something sad that made me cry. At the end, he seemed disappointed even though he said he enjoyed the film.
Taylor broke up with me the week before school ended. He left a note in my locker. He never told me why — actually, we never spoke again — but my friends shared with me that he told all of his friends his reason. His new girlfriend, Asia Greene, had boobs. I didn’t.
I don’t think I need to mention that this added a whole new reason for me to hate my body. I was paper thin, with a stomach that wasn’t just flat: it was concave. Unfortunately, that meant that the parts of me that boys want to be rounded were flat as well. I had no boobs and no butt. My friends — yes, they were terrible friends — helped me cement that fact in my mind.
“Maybe you could get implants, Tammy.”
“Yeah! We could start a GoFundMe. I bet lots of boys would give you money.”
“Totally. They don’t like it when your chest is flatter than theirs.”
I had four more boyfriends before winter break of my senior year, because I thought I had learned something important: boys wanted sex. If you could promise them that, or hint at it enough to keep them going, they would want to be with you. I didn’t give them everything — I wasn’t ready for that, yet — but I made do with my hands and mouth.
Each one of those boys left me for another girl. Three of those girls were my friends. All of them had boobs, which is what I focused on as the real reason why I had been abandoned. Nevermind that all four boys struggled to get past my anxiety and constant need for a reassurance of my worth to them, or the fact that I desperately pressured the last two into sexual acts because I thought that was the only way to keep them around.
I spent a lot of my winter break crying. I didn’t hang out with any of my friends. I hid my tears from my parents. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I had let them know how much I was suffering. Maybe they could have helped me.
I began to eat, more and more. If I felt bored or tired, I got myself a snack. I gave up on trying to be beautiful. I had realized that I just wasn’t meant to be pretty; that, no matter what I did, I was just going to be me, and there would be a reason for boys to find me ugly or insufficient.
The only positive thing that came out of that winter break was that I asked my mom to bake me some cookies. I told her that I missed them, and that I was sad she had stopped. My mom cried, that day, and hugged me. I think that’s my only happy memory from that winter break.
By the end of my senior year, I was large. I had stopped exercising completely. I ate whenever and whatever I wanted, and often, as much as I could. I told my friends, and my parents, that I actually felt healthier now. I told them I had taken control of my anxiety about my weight and my appearance, and that I had learned that it didn’t matter what other people thought about how I looked, as long as I was comfortable. I even stopped wearing makeup.
None of what I said was true. I was purposefully destroying the creature that I had been previously, because I hated her.
I transitioned to a new group of friends somewhere in that junior to senior year time period. My old, skinny, attractive female friends faded out of my life one by one. I intentionally befriended people who I thought were plain, unattractive, or just average. I found that, bizarrely, they had a confidence my old friends had lacked. None of them were worried about being the prettiest girl in school, or the hottest guy. I respected that. I hoped that, if I spent enough time with them, I could learn to be that way, too.
I used those people to feel better about myself. It was shameful. I don’t think they even liked me. They were all just too kind to turn me away when I came to them seeking friendship.
I lost contact with them when I went to college, which just serves to indicate how much we care for each other. In a way, college was like a fresh start for me. I never again spoke to anyone with whom I went to high school. I made new friends — genuine friends, ones who I didn’t seek out inorganically. I even got a boyfriend, my first since my disastrous turn during my junior year.
Reggie Bleakman was, actually, the most stereotypically handsome guy I ever dated. He had a kind face, an illuminating smile, and muscles like a movie star. Every moment I spent with him was filled with a sort of suspenseful disbelief. I expected the illusion to come crashing down around me. After all, I was (I told myself) not nearly as attractive as him. How could he possibly be romantically and physically interested in me?
We didn’t go on dates very much. We spent a lot of time in my dorm room together, laughing, playing video games, watching movies, and having sex. He was filled with what felt like a constant desire for sex, and honestly, it was okay. He was good at it and I found him very, very attractive.
One day, I worked up the courage to ask him a question that had been plaguing me. “Reggie, why haven’t I met your friends yet?”
“What?” Reggie asked, trying to look confused. He was a bad actor.
“You’ve met all of my friends,” I said, because I knew he had heard me. “Just last night, when were headed to your car, some guys called to you. But you waved and we just kept going.”
“I just didn’t feel like talking to them right then.” Reggie took my hand. “I wanted to get back here and spend time with you, babe.” He locked his eyes onto mine. I almost melted.
I just managed to turn away, shaking my head to clear the fog caused by his handsome face. “Okay. But last weeked, your family came up to visit you. You didn’t even tell me, Reggie. You lied and said you had to do stuff with your frat.”
This time, Reggie’s look of confusion was genuine. “How do you know that?”
“Because Karl saw you out to dinner with them,” I explained. “He was sitting in the booth right across from you.”
“I didn’t even see him there.”
“Yeah, well, that’s because you barely pay any attention to my friends,” I muttered. “Look, I just want to know why, Reggie. Can’t I meet some of the people that are important to you? Next time my parents come up, I want you to meet them?”
I remember the distinct look of discomfort that came across Reggie’s face. It was exactly like the time he’d been goofing around and got a terrible cramp in his calf muscle. “You just… I don’t think you’d understand, Tammy. Can we just leave it alone?”
“No. Tell me, Reggie.”
He sighed dramatically. “My dad, and my brother, they’re total bros. You know? They look just like me but they’re not as, you know, accepting. Of different body types.” He paused. “My friends are the same way. They’re just constantly ragging on fat chicks and laughing at fat dudes.” He forced a smile. “You know I don’t mind a little cushion, but they would never let me live it down.”
My face felt hot, with either anger or embarrassment; I’m not sure which.”You don’t want them to meet me because I’m too fat?”
“Well, I mean, you know…” Reggie trailed off. “Kind of? Yeah.”
Until that moment, I hadn’t even realized that he was intentionally hiding me. It hurt, but in that moment, I came to a sort of realization. I was not the problem. I was not the one who was too ugly, or too fat, or not good enough. I decided that I was not going to let his words destroy me, because I had taken the words of too many others inside myself and used them as weapons against MYSELF, and that was the only way that they had power.
I said goodbye to Reggie. I said it calmly, and somehow, I was not sad. I felt disappointed, of course, but I began to understand that it wasn’t my looks or my weight that was ever the problem. It was the pressure that was being put on me by others who had pressure upon themselves in return. If I faced that pressure, broke through it, and let it slide past me, none of it mattered.
I began to eat better, but not because I wanted to look better. I just wanted to be and to feel healthier. I began to exercise some, for the same reason. I stopped thinking about boys and whether they liked what they saw when they looked at me. For that matter, I stopped worrying about whether girls thought I was pretty, either. It didn’t matter.
I’m married, now, to a man name Karl Gilbert. Yes, the same Karl that told me when he saw Reggie out with his parents. We’re happy. We have two daughters. I’m really glad that I learned what I did, even though it hurt, because I hope I can use it to help them. Maybe I can help them to understand before they get hurt, too.