My History of Being Fat

by Jami Attenberg

Jami Attenberg’s novel ‘The Middlesteins’ is out today.

I was born 10 pounds, 7 ounces; fat from the get-go. There are pictures of my mother pregnant with me, walking around our neighborhood with my costumed brother on Halloween, the day before I was born. She is enormous. I am enormous inside of her. Nobody cares if you’re fat when you’re a baby. They say things like: There’s more of her to love, or Look at those chubby cheeks. And they mean it.

There were years I was an average weight, I think, but I was certainly fat by elementary school. I recall stopping by a friend’s house in the neighborhood once to see if she wanted to play with me, but finding only her mother home. The next day at school, my friend and some of the other little girls in our class laughed as I approached. “What’s so funny?” I said. “I heard you came over yesterday,” she said. “My mother said a husky girl knocked on the door. I asked her what ‘husky’ meant and she said it meant ‘fat’ and then I knew it was you.” Husky, they all laughed at it.

A new vocabulary word for them, but not for me. I knew so many more words than they did. Also, I knew that Husky dogs were from Alaska and had beautiful fur and could race sleds. Why bother sharing information with these girls?

I remember going to a birthday party at another friend’s house and playing a video game, checking out already from the world around me. I was so chubby that my pants rode down below my waist and my butt crack was revealed. Some boys stood behind me and shot a water gun at me, down my pants. I swiveled my head, appalled, and pulled down my shirt. And then I turned back to the video game and continued to play. I was approaching a high score.

I’m certain that all of this hurt my feelings. I am trying to remember what that pain felt like, but I have been in a perennial state of not letting it bother me for decades. Maybe I went home and cried. I wish I could remember. Let’s pretend I went home and cried. It’s probably true.

In junior high school, in the advanced English class, our teacher engaged us in a verbal exercise. She wanted us to learn about the powers of description. So she had us all stand up in a circle, and everyone had to go around the room and say one word to describe the person standing. Funny, smart, etc. And when it was my turn to stand, a boy named Mark said, “Thunder thighs.” Mark, you idiot, that’s two words. Even now, that’s all I’ve got in terms of a comeback. I was never that good with the burns.

Why was I fat? Where do I start? I was fat because I loved books more than people and instead of playing with other kids, running around and getting exercise, I had my nose stuck in a damn book. I was fat because my parents were a little fat themselves at that point in their lives, and I ate what they ate. I was fat because I was a latchkey kid, so I would go home and eat whatever I could get my hands on in the house. And I was fat because part of me didn’t give a shit; I already lived the life of a mind, and I didn’t care how I appeared to the outside world, so satisfied was I in my imagination. I was fat because I lived in the Midwest in the 1970s and everyone was a little fat then, and only getting fatter.

High school: tits and ass, not-so-fat, but never skinny. I dated very little, and sometimes I cared, and sometimes I didn’t. I started going on runs, right before I went to bed. I liked the way I felt at the end of the run. The streets of the suburbs were quiet at night. I used that time to picture a life anywhere but there. I hated high school. I would feel like a fat girl forever. I think I realized that even then.

College: As much late night drunk eating as my heart desired. Freshman twenty. Also I started smoking weed somewhere in there, and discovered the pleasures of eating while stoned. Every vice begat another. Gateway chub.

And then it was up and down for a decade. I started having sex, and, in my mind, as long as I was having sex, I was attractive, which means I couldn’t be too fat, now could I? Sex as a guideline for physical health. How about that. That’s how I saw it in my twenties. That’s not how I see it now.

It is the year 2000, and I weigh around 200 pounds, a fact of which I am unaware because I never get on a scale. (Although I find it out a few weeks later in the bathroom at my brother’s house, finally too curious to resist.) I am sleeping with a man who is not a very nice man, and perhaps not even particularly attractive, but he is quick-witted and sort of cool, and this covers up the not-nice part of him, at least for a period of time. Also, we are always fucked up in one way or another when we are together, either on booze or drugs, and I am still insistent on proving my own attractiveness to myself by having sex as regularly as possible, even if it is with terrible people. We are lying naked on his couch in his shitty Lower East Side basement apartment, and for some reason he is talking about other women he’s seeing, and I’m starting to feel terrible about myself. It’s this feeling that’s creeping slowly up my spine, an unfolding self-disgust, and then he says to me, “But you know, there’s something about a big girl,” and, after a pause, he pats my ass, and all of a sudden I realize he’s talking about me, I am that big girl.

It was another few years until I lost the weight. Lost, that’s what it felt like, that it disappeared one day when I wasn’t paying attention, and I never saw where it went. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, but I did. I went away for a summer to the woods in Northern California and started writing my first book. In exchange for a small cottage, I was tasked with taking a giant, cranky Tibetan Mastiff for hikes every day. I was introduced to yoga, and found that I loved it. There was no television, spotty internet access, and my cell phone barely worked. So I wrote. I wrote a collection of stories. I put my entire self into that book. And the book replaced the food. Whatever hole was in me that needed to be filled, writing books, for the most part has filled it. I realize this is not how it works for everyone, but this is how it worked for me.

But here’s the truth: If I could still eat like I did then, I would. I still do sometimes, though rarely. Definitely there are days when I cannot get full enough. But I enjoy being this thinner — but never thin — version of myself. I prefer my clothes fit in a certain way. And yoga and meditation have made me a happier person, stronger, more balanced, more capable of compassion, and a better writer. But most importantly: I want to live a long life. That, more than anything, is why I try to keep my weight in check. I have shit genetics in my family — cancer, heart attacks, all the fun stuff — and I have a lot I want to do over the next forty or fifty years, at the very least a lot of books I want to write, so I try to keep the goddamn weight in check, even when I don’t feel like it.

For the purposes of this piece, I got on the scale in the bathroom at the café near my house this morning. (I don’t have a scale in my house, because what do I need a scale for when I have Amazon numbers to obsess over?) I was at 156 with my clothes on but my shoes off, probably because I ate an entire personal pizza the night before because I found out a certain publication wasn’t going to review my book. (What is it about eating an entire thing, I wonder? Is there a sense of accomplishment? Or perhaps it’s that there’s nothing left behind to remind you of what you just did.)

Maybe tomorrow I’ll weigh 154 if I eat better today, but as of right now I’m three pounds away from being technically overweight, 158 at 5’6” being the danger zone on that chart I found on the internet. So right now I’m fat-adjacent. This is the territory I will travel in for the rest of my life.

Look, I don’t smoke anymore. I don’t do drugs anymore. I don’t date men who are terrible for me. I still like to drink, but I prefer to get up in the morning with a clear head and write my books, so I’m less likely to drink all night long. What I have left is food; that is my vice. And I will always want to eat a pizza when I am feeling rejected. And thus, my history of being fat is my past, present, and future. In the back of my mind, there is always a possibility of return. Fat-adjacency. But I like being responsible to myself. I like taking care of me, as much as I love food. So here I am. Alive.

Jami Attenberg is the author of ‘The Middlesteins,’ a novel about food obsession, families, love, the Midwest, and other important topics.

[Ed. — It’s really good.]