“People judge you on what you wear and how you speak,” is an adage I was told as a child. Well, if this was the case, as a kid they must have thought I was an Untouchable. Purchasing apparel as an obese kid is akin to watching the sun wane in the twilight. The older and fatter you get the quicker the fashionable apparel slips away.
Even in kindergarten, I knew the clothes were getting tight. At that age I began to be called “fat” and “tub-o-lard.” I noticed that all my clothes fitted tightly. My mom would buy new jeans or pants but soon too those were tight. My underwear was also constricting, for I remember coming home every night with red stretch marks on my waist due to the tight fit.
Up unto around age 12, I purchased clothes at the regular department stores. But my years of binge eating and as a competitive pizza eater took a toll on me. When you entered junior high at my catholic elementary school, you had to wear a vest. Now any of you who have matriculated your kids in a private school know that you must purchase your uniforms at the designated affiliated store. Well, at mine, the largest XL clothes didn’t fit.
My mother asked the principal what to do. She granted us the license to purchase regular white polo shirts and navy pants at any store, but the vest was a different story. She said we had to figure something out or I could not move up to junior high. My mother, doing her best The Thinker impression, came up with an idea. So on my first day of junior high, I came to school wearing a vest. But a “special vest.” A vest made of two vests sewed into one! Similar to my unauthorized gym shorts, the kids saw right through this and the perfunctory spewed vitriol on me. “Two vests…one fatty. Hey, fatty did you eat the other kid? Is he going to come out in your shit?”
Later in my tween I was forced to begin frequenting the Big & Tall Store. Only one in the Houston area existed. It was located in Pasadena, a good 30 miles from my house. I have distinct memories of this place. A stench of shame emanated from it. The pictures of attractive Big & Tall “models” belied the dripping sadness. The tall adults, of which there were a few, were freakishly tall. They weren’t large basketball-player or linebacker-types. They likely suffered from Gigantism or Acromegaly.
The other obese kids saw each other and gave a nod of recognition and defeat. Looking at each other, mired in self-loathing, there was a commiserating bond. “You are in this freaky place too?” we telepathized as we followed our mothers around. The girls had it worse. Women, already inculcated into the self-defining importance of fashion, bore the heavier burden. The mothers openly berated them on their obesity, criticizing everything they tried on. It seemed they were more upset they themselves were at such a degrading place than the plight of their fat daughters.
Versace clearly never made a contract with Big & Tall stores. These stores should have been called “Overpriced, under-fashioned elastica land.” To understate their quality of clothes was as unpalatable as unflavored rice cakes. Bright clothes, horrible patterns, and of course the inflated prices abounded. As if it costs so much more to make a couple of extra inches of clothes to justify the 100% price hike. Of course the stores featured the ubiquitous elastic. After all, elastic is the obese person’s best friend…next to the food and the closet. It adjusts to your needs…more so than any person ever could.
Even as a teenager I would look at the adults and feel pity for them. And for me. I knew ultimately, regardless of my parents’ laxity and permissiveness, it was my fault that I was morbidly fat on the quick road to a stigmatized, abbreviated life. These patrons were already there likely on the road never to leave it without an immediate intervention. I didn’t want to become them….but I didn’t how NOT to become them. They didn’t want to be there. They didn’t want to be fat. They didn’t want to be the victim of whatever trauma occurred to them as a child that caused them to turn to food. But alas they were.
I loathed my “special clothes.” It was a gross stigma, a mark, that I was different than the other children. (Not tantamount to the holocaust tattoo but corrupting to the psyche nonetheless.) I looked around at everyone at school or at the mall and hated them. The fact that they took their skinniness for granted. The fact they could wear anything and eat anything without an utter thought how others couldn’t. My older brother, popular and handsome, was the epitome of blind carefree lifestyle. It was so unfair. I hated myself for getting into this position…which of course fueled the next binge.
Now I have perspective. I am able to fit into any clothes I want while obese people cannot. I wonder if the children of those obese teenagers at the store that I had solidarity with are in that plight. Same for their children…since obesity can be generational. I hope they aren’t. If they are, I pray they will lose weight the old-fashioned way or at least use the wonderdrug of the obese: gastric bypass surgery. Either way, survivor guilt pervades the adult me.
A. Gregory Luna, double-certified health consultant
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