I have this vivid memory of being about 22 and in the car with my mom. I was home from college for a weekend. And we were at an ice cream shop in my hometown. My stepdad walked to the ordering window for her and brought back a sundae. She was so excited about it. She was around 150 lb. overweight at the time. To her this was a treat that she didn’t allow herself very often. To my stepdad it was one thing he could do for his sick wife. For me it was a meaningless errand that I was running with my parents.
As we were about to leave, I looked out the window to see a man and his twelve year old son in the car next to us laughing and making fun of my mom for daring to enjoy an ice cream sundae at her weight. I remember being torn between wanting to punch this man in the face and wanting him to just keep quiet so my mom didn’t hear.
A little background on my mom: when I was a child she started having frequent migraine headaches. Her doctor dismissed these as normal. But her health began to decline. My mother had volunteered at my elementary school weighing around 115 lb. and standing 5’5 tall. By the time I was in middle school she began to struggle with her weight, have even more frequent headaches and struggle to leave the house sometimes.
Finally, when I was in high school her doctor discovered that she had a brain tumor on her pituitary gland. A somewhat risky surgery removed the tumor during my senior year of high school, but left her pituitary gland damaged. She had Cushing’s Disease. Her health became very complicated from then on. I know that because whenever she would end up in the hospital for something (losing consciousness because of a urinary tract infection, etc.) that’s what the doctors would say, ‘your mother’s health is complicated.’
My mom in 1980. I’m the baby.
My mom in the the early nineties. These were middle school years for me. By this point she was having headaches, but hadn’t been diagnosed.
This is my my sister with my mom post-surgery. I was probably in college at this point.
At some point during all of this my mom developed diabetes, painful joints, nonfunctioning adrenal glands, heart problems, anemia, low blood pressure, thyroid problems, sleep problems, anxiety, depression, and blood clots. She took a ton of medication including steroids. They all had their own side effects. And over time she gained a lot of weight. Her health became very complicated. Could she have had more control over her health and weight? Probably some, but not completely and not like most of us. She felt increasingly terrible.
Through all this though, she was a mom, a grandmother, a wife, a daughter and a sister. She continued to take me to lunch when I was in town, make art, sell antiques at the flea market, and answer my phone calls when I was having a rough day or had a question about how to bake a potato. Only in the last couple of years of her life, was my mom unable to really live a normal life. Her pain became so powerful, and she became so exhausted that moving from one room to another was a struggle for her. Still we talked frequently. She laughed frequently. And she still showed up for my daughter’s first birthday, even though it was a two hour drive and she would die less than two months later.
Fat activism became a thing I was really aware of only towards the end of my mom’s life. It has changed the way I think about my own body. But when I follow the movement I mostly think of her. When I see a 200+ lb. woman dare to enjoy food, clothes, or life, I see my mom having the strength to push herself to show up until the very end. But I also see the confidence that I wish my mom had been able to have when she was instead afraid to see people from high school out in public or ashamed to wear the clothes that she felt most comfortable in because she thought it’d “look ridiculous” post weight gain.
Now, for every photo, news story or ad that dares to celebrate a person who is overweight, there is some asshole who feels convicted to shame that person. They will reply in the comment section on Facebook or write their own article or blog post about how this person’s happiness and/or success is somehow an affront on everyone else’s health. And when I read/hear this person’s point of view, its like they’re talking directly to my mom. They’re telling her that her new outfit, the one whose print she adores, that fits her perfectly, is disgusting. They twist her story to say that her happiness and courage is teaching everyone else that they shouldn’t want to be healthy. They seem to think that the last ten years of her life should have been spent inside in complete shame.
If you happen to be this person, or at least sympathize with them, here’s what you don’t seem to get: The fat person that you just can’t let other people celebrate might be sick like my mom or they may have gained weight after experiencing emotional trauma, they may have a different body type but actually have pretty healthy habits, or they may eat a whole lot of calories.
The point is, you don’t know. And unless they feel like telling you their story, its not your business to know. Because, like my mom, we all live in bodies and circumstances that are only somewhat within our control. And like my mom’s, all of our bodies are temporary. But every single one of us deserves to live and enjoy life in whatever body we’re living in. Sometimes that means recognizing the beauty in that body. And sometimes that means eating the fucking sundae.