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DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: Weighing in on self-judgment

by Debra Hale-Shelton | July 5, 2020 at 11:48 a.m.

I was Facebook surfing when I noticed this post.

"You meet your 16-year-old self. You are allowed to say three words. What do you say?"

I knew immediately. "You're not fat," I replied. And I wasn't.

But I've felt fat for almost as long as I can remember.

I'm overweight now and have been for a long time, though I lost almost 40 pounds after heart surgery without even trying. It turns out that feeling rotten and a temporary distaste for most food can work wonders.

Still, I don't think a 16-year-old girl who stands 5 feet 51/2 and weighs 130 pounds is fat. Yes, maybe she--I--would have been healthier, not to mention prettier, if I'd lost 10 or 20 pounds. But in small-town Arkansas in 1966 when teenage girls were held to physical standards set by the likes of British supermodel Twiggy, 130 pounds ranked high on the overweight scale.

For those of you too young to remember Twiggy, let me describe her. Twiggy was the nickname given to Lesley Lawson, who at age 17 stood 5 feet 6 1/2 inches and weighed 90 pounds. She wore a bob haircut and had a waifish childlike look.

It would be hard for me to forget 1966. I was in the 10th grade at Marked Tree High School. I made mostly good grades, enjoyed a fun prank, hated geometry and had a crush on a boy way out of my social league.

I also dieted a lot. Boiled eggs were a frequent staple when I'd eat across the street at Mr. Martin's grocery, a popular lunch hangout for students at the time.

I always dieted about a week before I had to see my physician in Memphis.

I had to visit the doctor regularly because of health problems that I had misinterpreted as a blessing a few months earlier. You see, I was eating, eating, eating--five bananas at one time--but losing weight. Why, I was almost as skinny as Twiggy. Well, at 110 pounds, I wasn't quite that slim, but I was on my way.

Things weren't normal, though. I was eating more than most adults, maybe two, but still losing weight. I was nervous to the point of shaking and having to leave a movie matinee because I was itching so badly. My blood sugar was too high, and the doctor said I was diabetic.

Bloodwork, though, finally showed something else: I had an overactive thyroid. So the doctor put me on a large number of pills until I could undergo thyroid surgery. That brought better health, calmer nerves and, to my dismay, more pounds.

Before long, I was up to 130 pounds and hearing the doctor say things like, "Boys don't like fat girls."

No, they don't, I thought. At least they didn't like this one. I'd long ago figured that out.

Kids can be cruel. Twice, I remember boys, one a stranger, telling me out of nowhere that I needed to lose weight.

Adults can be cruel, too--often unintentionally. I've never forgotten the day one of my elementary-school teachers weighed each of her students, including me, at the front of the classroom. I'm fairly sure I remember what I weighed that day and the year before.

My parents were never cruel about my weight, though my dad worried about it too much, probably because of the diabetes. He knew the slimmer, the better, and kept tabs on it more than I liked.

So once I went off to college, I'd often go on crash diets a couple days before I'd come home for a weekend. Boiled eggs were again a diet mainstay. Combined with a form of bulimia you don't want to hear about, that did the trick with a few pounds coming off quickly each time, only to come back after I returned to campus.

Still, I look back on my high school and college pictures now and don't see a fat person. I see a young girl of average weight, not that much different from my friends. I see a college student who had little self-confidence and felt ever-so-ugly but who in some pictures was rather cute; even, dare I say, pretty.

About a year or so ago, I listened to the audiobook of Roxane Gay's painfully honest memoir, "Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body." I was never as heavy as Gay, who stood 6 feet 3 and weighed 577 pounds at her heaviest. Nor did I have some of the problems she's had to cope with--rape at age 12, for instance.

But Gay's assessment of the harsh judgment many overweight people face is frank and correct.

She writes that she lives "in a world where the open hatred of fat people is vigorously tolerated and encouraged. I am a product of my environment."

How many fat jokes have we heard about politicians we don't like? How many National Enquirer covers making fun of overweight celebrities have we seen at the grocery checkout?

Gay's book is anything but an inspiring read on how to be the next "Biggest Loser." Still, it left me feeling less penitent, even a bit rebellious, about my weight--which shall remain unspecified here other than to say it's well above 130 pounds these days.

But I'm no longer trying to chase that teenage boy up the social ladder, and frankly I don't care what most guys think of my body these days. Besides, at my age, I doubt many men are spending any time checking out my body.

The point is, I don't think many people realize how much self-image can affect a person's entire life. And each of us contributes to our children's, our friends', even strangers' self-image. If a teenage girl thinks she's too ugly to date, that fear likely will haunt her if she's single at 35. If her future spouse cheats on her, she may blame herself because she thinks she's too fat. It never ends. If it's not pounds, it's age, wrinkles, not enough makeup, too much makeup, too bossy, too submissive.

All this is not to say our health is unimportant. It is. But our health is much more than a number.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at dhaleshelton@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

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