There are an infinite amount of indignities that come with being a morbidly obese teenager. The obvious ones are the constant bullying and being gawked at by all of my peers as I walked by, but there was another side of it that wasn’t so obvious that hurt considerably more. You become so embarrassed that you force yourself into hiding.
To be 300 pounds at the ripe age of 17 means being constantly uncomfortable. Everything that makes high school awkward and terrible is exponentially more torturous. Having to undress in front of a group of boys every day, all at the age where they stop having the slender or puffy bodies and begin to form carved chests and defined shoulders, only to forcefully pull off the sweat-stained XXL shirt that has been stuck to my back since the morning bus ride.
As I took off that moist shirt to unveil the gut spilling over the waistband of my chafing-to-the-bone jeans, I began to feel like a zoo animal locked in a cage. I was no longer a human being, not a peer of these people and certainly not a friend, but a sideshow attraction. What followed would be considered the pubescent, emotional form of waterboarding. There came the slaps, the jokes about my jiggling man-breasts, the stealing of my clothes so that my moments of involuntary near-nudity were prolonged. There’s a part of me that blames those boys for the immense discomfort I feel at being touched by another human being. I apologize profusely to all past and future girlfriends.
By the time I’d managed to get my clothes back and waddle out onto the gym floor, I was too emotionally spent to participate in anything, and I knew that whatever game started was to be just a more well orchestrated version of what had occurred to me in the locker room, but with the added risk of taking a basketball to the glasses. More often than not, I would put my sneakers back into my locker before I came out in my dirty black boots to feign stupidity to my teacher, saying I simply forgot my sneakers at home. He would respond with an angry and heavy sigh, give me a zero for the day, and I would sit along the sidelines next to the girls on their periods.
The cafeteria was the other location where I’d experience most of my indignities and embarrassment. My fat ass looked forward to the opportunity to inhale my school’s horrendous food, so it was excessively bittersweet. I would order more food than most of my classmates, as expected from someone of my particular girth. I would hear snickers and jabs at my expense from behind me as I paid for my two slices of pizza, Snapple and over-sized brownie.
Then came the process of actually getting somewhere to sit. In the highly competitive world of high-school life, where you sit became a display of power as well as a social experiment. I went to a high school dominated by cliques and social stratum, and I never quite fit in to any of them. That was mostly intentional. It was easier to stay separated than to risk the embarrassment of attempting to make friends.
The tables in my cafeteria were built like picnic tables, with the benches attached to the sides. This presented a problem for me, as my bulbous legs had trouble getting over the bench and into the small gap between the table. Thankfully, there were rows of wooden benches along the side of the cafeteria. Usually, I would sit there and keep my head down as I tried to eat as inconspicuously as possible. It rarely worked, as I once again became a sideshow attraction for the student body.
As I sat on that bench, unsuccessfully attempting to hide myself, I would inevitably have insults yelled at me throughout the 40 minute period. Fat ass, fat fuck, tubby, etc. By the middle of my sophomore year I had become so used to it that they blended in with the chatter of the crowded cafeteria. They were the sounds of my every day.
What I never quite got used to was getting food thrown at me. That always hurt more. Physically and emotionally. There is a unique kind of indignity that comes with being pelted with food or garbage. It makes a person feel as though they are less than nothing. Less than the trash that now stained their clothing or gotten in their hair. Not to mention the Scarlet Letter-esque punishment of walking around school the rest of the day with a splotch on your white shirt from the pizza thrown at you or the brown stains on your backpack from the chocolate milk a senior had poured in it. Despite my most valiant efforts at occultation, I was never left alone, not for a single day.
Those cafeteria experiences are likely the basis for my immense phobia of eating in public that I deal with to this day. I’ve always detested going out to eat, and given the choice I will always go for take-out. The fact that it saves me money is only a happy side effect of my self-loathing and embarrassment, though that has always been my excuse. I’ve always seen people eat by themselves in a cafe or a small restaurant and never thought much of it, but the idea of eating by myself brings me right back to those experiences on the side benches in my high school cafeteria. In my delusional mind I may as well be in the center of the restaurant on a podium with a spotlight blaring over me. I’ve taken many a depressing lunch break in the seat of my car over the years, in the bitter cold or brutal heat, simply to avoid being seen.
It only got worse as high school went on. By the time I was a senior I had engorged myself so horribly, I had to start shopping in the “big and tall” sections of stores, if I could find anything that fit me at all. I stopped going outside most days, with the exception of my forced paradings around school, and only saw the few friends I had on the rarest of occasions. I didn’t go to the prom because the idea of asking any girl shook me into the core of my being. From time to time, I’d imagine that if I was asked by a girl I might go, but needless to say I never was.
Throughout all four years of high school, I never had a girlfriend. I had never kissed a girl or had one show any interest in me whatsoever, other than the interest shared between a spectator and an exhibit at Ripley’s Believe It or Not. I was almost 19 years old before I had held a female’s hand in an even somewhat romantic fashion.
I went through the worst depression of my life during this period, becoming suicidal around my junior year. I never had the nerve to kill myself, but it was a constant thought. For better or worse, I survived my high school years. I filled the frame of my senior photo in an astounding fashion. I made the unfortunate walk at graduation, baking in the heat on a too-small folding chair, surrounded by people I didn’t much care for and whom hated me, my chub rub growing increasingly disastrous.
After the unfortunate graduation and even more unfortunate photos —which I made sure were wiped from existence later — I went home to begin my life as a high school graduate. A feat which seemed unlikely at best between my suicidal tendencies and my piss poor grades.
Later that night, I stood in my bathroom and stared at the mirror in a catatonic state. I’d gotten in the habit of doing this over the past year or so due to my heartbroken bewilderment at my size. I would stare, shirtless in front of the mirror, tracing the blue and pink stretch marks that lined my stomach and inner arms like lightning strikes. The way enormous belly flopped down over my belt. How my thighs squished down together down to my knees.
In that moment I had decided that I was finished with all of the misery and indignities of the past 17 years of my life. I stared myself in the eyes, fighting back tears, and decided that I wasn’t going to do this to myself any longer. I was going to get healthy. None of that January 1st, new-year-new-me bullshit sentiment. This was genuine.
The next day I told my parents I was signing up for the gym. They were overjoyed; they hadn’t enjoyed seeing my spiral into obesity and self-hatred either. My parents said they would pay for my membership, which was necessary since I had no job at the time and the money from my holiday job the previous winter had long been spent. There was a gym within a ten minute walk from my house, so I walked there and signed up.
From then on I started walking everywhere. (Part of this was also because I had no driver’s license, but let’s pretend I did it for the good reason.) Every day I would walk to and from the community college near me, about 20-25 minutes each way, change, walk to the gym, work out, then walk back home. It was exhausting, but it didn’t seem as though I had any other option.
The next five years were filled with stress, varying successes and failures in weight loss, some health issues, flirting with an eating disorder, and many, many pairs of pants in various sizes. Regardless of all the tribulations of those years, I had finally managed to lose what I believe doctors refer to as “a whole shit-ton” of weight.
I went from approximately 315 pounds to 178 pounds. I went from a size 42 in pants to a size 32. XXL shirts to mediums. It was liberating. I didn’t have high blood pressure anymore. I didn’t have so much trouble breathing. I could even fit into those godforsaken picnic tables that stymied me all those years ago.
The one thing that remained of my old, fat self was all my mental problems and insecurities. It turns out that if you hate yourself when you’re fat, you’ll probably hate yourself when you’re thin too. Despite all that work, over 100 pounds lost, I was still hiding.
The most surprising effect of my ludicrous weight loss was gaining a form of invisibility. Everyone who lives in a normal suburban town deals with this situation at some point in life; while you’re out doing whatever it is you do every day, maybe at work, maybe out to eat, you’ll see somebody from high school that you haven’t spoken to in years. Sometimes, it’s someone you truly hated back then. Sometimes, it’s someone you simply knew of but never really bothered to get to know. Sometimes, you’re at a bar and the bouncer threw a meatball at you in the 11th grade.
There is always this gut-wrenching moment when you both realize that you recognize one another. You both question in your head if you should acknowledge it or not. I never even liked them in the first place, why do I have to say hi? Have they noticed me yet? Can I just leave? They’ve made eye contact. That’s it. It’s been acknowledged and now you are both locked in this social quantum where you both know and do not know each other until one of you just leaves the room.
Thankfully, since I’d lost the average weight of a Rottweiler, I got to sidestep this horrible scenario more often than not. When nobody realizes who you are, you get to hide in plain sight. It’s like wearing a mask at all times. After so much time trying to blend in, I was finally the wallflower I always wanted to be. I could finally be left alone.
Just the other day, I was working when I saw a girl I had a fling with several years ago. I had gone to high school with her as well, but we had reconnected several years after. It was a slightly uncomfortable situation, as those always are, but we were on good terms so it wasn’t so bad seeing her. After a moment of polite, catching-up chit-chat, a guy I remembered from high school walked up to us. His name was Chris, and I distinctly remember several instances of being berated by him which included him “scooping” my man-boobs to further humiliate me.
He stirred something in me that was halfway between fury and nausea. I gave him a divisive, side-eyed glance. I remembered from her Twitter that she had been dating him for the past several months. The poor bastard had a pot belly, a bald spot, and a tragic hairline, all by the ripe age of 25. Karma was sweet like honey and smelled like fresh peonies.
“It was nice talking to you but I really gotta get going, I’m a bit busy today,” I said, trying to dodge any further conversation.
She gave me a hug goodbye, and Chris turned to me and put out his hand.
“Nice to meet you,” he said.
Nice to meet you. I was floored. This guy had made me feel subhuman for years of my life and he didn’t even recognize me. It was an uplifting feeling. It reminded me of how much I have changed and how I am no longer tethered to the person I was back then. I smiled a self-satisfied smirk and shook his hand, not saying anything. I parted from the two of them, and shuffled away quickly, keeping up the illusion of a hectic work day.
As I walked away I heard her say to him, “Chris, we went to school with him.”
“Really? I didn’t remember him at all,” he replied.
I smiled while I thought about the idea of her showing him a picture from back then, to realize that the fat kid he berated those years ago had actually turned out just fine, or so he thought.
By no means has losing weight made me a perfect person, or even a happy person for that matter, but it has certainly helped ease my constant embarrassment, put behind the indignities of my adolescence, and made my life more tolerable in so many ways. And if nothing else, at least I get out of an awkward situation from time to time.
In many ways I am still hiding, and I will probably be hiding forever. But I don’t believe I am hiding from shame, or hiding from embarrassment. Not anymore. I’m hiding because I’ve chosen to. And that choice is all that mattered.