around the world

Fat in Every Language

Here’s a fact: Fat people know they are fat. We live it every single moment of every day. Photo: Getty Images

I am fat. That’s probably the first thing you’d think when you see me. You might get past that after you get to know me.

One of my earliest memories is my grandmother, who would produce hundreds of homemade flour tortillas, and dozens of enchiladas swimming in cheesy, red chile sauce out of a kitchen the size of the walk-in closet of my last house in America. She used to call me Juanita Gordita, which means (because of the -ita diminutive in Spanish) “Little Fat Jona.” I also remember my uncle telling me that only fat people had dimples (not true, by the way, but he was a Catholic priest and I was predisposed to consider his pronouncements as pretty authoritative). I tried to fill in the dimples of my cheeks with Play-Doh but it kept falling off. Actually, I was a pretty normal-size kid. I didn’t get really heavy until after my mother died, but I grew up thinking I was fat, and knowing it was a failure of character.

When you learn a foreign language you begin with the vocabulary of a child, able to describe the world and yourself in only the simplest of terms. When I learned French I was able to announce to the class, “Je suis courte” (I am short); “J’ai les cheveux bruns” (I have brown hair); “Je suis americaine” (I am a female American); “Je suis grosse” — ugh (I am a fat lady). And fat is a continuing condition, not like having a cold (j’ai un rhume), which will pass, but WHO I AM — a condition as unchangeable as where I was born or the color of my eyes (mes yeux sont noisettes).

And French, I have to tell you, is right. No matter where I live (I’ve moved a lot) or what language I speak (I speak three), Fat is who I am: to people who haven’t met me (“the bathroom is over there, next to that fat lady”), to people who know me (“you looked so good when you lost that weight”); even to myself.

As an adult woman I have weighed between 140 pounds (and you can bet that’s the number that I put on my driver’s licence) to 267 pounds. At my lowest weight I was hired by Weight Watchers to ring up purchases and weigh women each week. On my name tag it said my name and the number of pounds I had lost: “Jona — 112lbs.”

I was a “Success Story™” for them and they wanted me to stand there as a beacon of hope to other women. It took me two years to lose that weight. At an average monthly cost of $41, plus food products (chalky-tasting caramel cookies were my favorite) and branded water bottles and special measuring cups — call it an easy $100/month, which is $1,200/year without counting grocery-store microwave meals, cookbooks, sweatshirts, and drink stir-ins to make my eight glasses of water per day more festive.

The leader of my group used to call herself a “three-time loser,” meaning she’d come to Weight Watchers three times before she kept the weight off. I would laugh along with everyone else but being a “three-time loser” isn’t funny. It’s their business model — a woman has some success at weight loss, and enjoys the support of other women at meetings. Then she “slips up” and returns to her former weight, or maybe a bit more, gets disgusted with herself (she’s “gross,” remember?), and goes back. Paying that $100, $500, $1,000, or $2,000 again and again.

And in the meantime she still feels fat. There’s a lot of positive reassurance from society as she eats less and loses the weight. But there is very little support for maintaining the weight, and the praise for each pound she has lost dries up and she realizes she is starving, working out five, six times a week, and nothing replaces the satisfaction of the praise or the enjoyment of the eating. No wonder the weight gradually comes back. And it’s even worse when something catastrophic happens, which it always does — it’s life after all.

For me the catastrophe was my father’s death, estrangement in my family, and my best friend moving across the country. There was something inside me that was open and desperate, and I filled it up with some potato chips. And then thought I should probably go to a Weight Watchers meeting to put on the brakes. But the truth was, after two full years of weekly meetings, I knew everything they were going to say about portion control, and keeping a piece of fruit in my handbag, and always being prepared — as if somehow had I measured out my four ounces of brown rice in a better way my life wouldn’t have fallen apart. I knew from experience that no one there would or could or should help me with the emotional issues I was having. Food was only a salve. So, fat again, I parted ways with Weight Watchers for good.

Being fat in America means you are a problem to be solved and a rich market to reap. Corporations, which make everything from supplements to weights to diet foods to clothing to the fake “Enorme” perfume for plus-size women that Tina Fey satirized in her television show 30 Rock, fill women with hate and self-loathing so they can make more and more money off of them losing and gaining the same pounds over and over. Being fat abroad is something else entirely.

Not long after quitting Weight Watchers, my husband was offered a job at a European company based in Holland. We decided to take a chance and move to Amsterdam with our son, who was then 15. I had gained weight from my days of being a before-and-after photo shoot for a magazine (reader, I was!) but didn’t weigh as much as at my top weight. In Amsterdam, everything about me was out of place. My attempts at practicing my Dutch were met with scorn and an immediate switch to English. Even my raincoat — a bright yellow — blared out my presence against the sea of black coats and gray sky.

But nothing made me stand out more than my size. Every sidewalk, tram car, and restaurant chair made it clear that in the land of the very tall and very slim I was a sphere, like Violet Beauregarde in yellow, rolling around and taking up more than my share of space. Which is not doe normaal (Dutch for “just be normal, do like everyone else”). Worse yet, struggling and homesick, I was, to the people who saw me, living proof of their worst American stereotypes. Suddenly I wasn’t just me, an overweight woman who was singled out as fat in her own country, but the manifestation of the fat, lazy, loud, insincere, stupid Americans that they always knew existed.

One day, about 12 weeks after blowing up my whole life and moving my family to what seemed like a very hostile environment, my son and I decided we would go to the cinema and see The Great Gatsby to cheer ourselves up and feel less homesick. We did what we sometimes did at home — skipped dinner to have popcorn for dinner instead. Already flummoxed by having to preorder our tickets for assigned seats on a Dutch website (none of these were cinema-hurdles back home where you’d just walk up and buy a ticket), we arrived at the cinema. We bought the largest popcorn (which is in fact a product they sold — we didn’t bring our own trash barrel and ask to have it filled) and settled in to enjoy our treat. I felt a tap on my shoulder, which was strange since I knew a total of three people in the entire country. I spun around, startled, and the Dutch man sitting behind me said, “Are you going to eat all of that? I see why you are so fat.”

I hadn’t spoken to him, bumped against him, or ever seen him before in my life. His words left me shaking, unable to enjoy the film, unable to touch the food. Why did he feel the need to say that to me? The Dutch frankness they are so well-known for often touched me in this way. People telling me that I was ordering too much food at the grocery store, or if there was a final piece of food on a communal plate saying, “You will be the one to eat that, I suppose.”

Here’s a fact: Fat people know they are fat. We live it every single moment of every day. Whether it has a physical cause like a prescription drug that saves your life, but makes you gain weight; or an emotional or psychological one; or is even simply a deliberate choice, we know we are fat. And if we ever forget it for a moment, there is a whole world to remind us. And you can say it aside, or in your own language — “dikke vrouw” (big fat lady) — or just think it while looking at us in disgust, but we always know that you know it, too.

I’ve been in Scotland for two years, where people are generally a little heavier (and they get plenty of knocks for it in the media, especially the English media, who like to poke fun at which vegetables people eat or don’t eat, and who reduce Scottish cuisine to a deep-fried Mars bar. But really the people here are individuals: tall and short and thin and fat and foreign and local and … individual). On our first bus ride, the photo of the family advertising using the bus for an outing featured a heavier-set man. My husband leaned over to me and said, “Hey, look, we are allowed here!”

Scotland is a chilly place, but people here will always make a cup of tea for you and will never fail to offer you a slice of cake to go with it. Cake, in fact, is part of the national pastime. Lovely, jammy cake; or lavender and lemon; or sticky chocolatey cake, all meant to be picked up with your hands. (My son always says of Scotland, “They eat pizza like cake and cake like pizza.”) It’s hard to navigate hospitality versus healthfulness. And I felt that I really needed to learn to make a good Victoria Sponge to fit in. Which involves eating more than a few subpar ones.

I wanted to get off on a good foot with our new landlords when we moved here (of course we didn’t, really. Pro tip: Never live in the flat below your posh landlords — it will confirm for them, physically, that you are beneath them). When I was making a trip home to the States, I bought a special toy one of the children wanted — a yellow New York taxicab. I delivered it to them with friendly American charm and as I walked away I heard the child say, to her not-model-thin mother, “Why is our new neighbor such a fat lady?” Her mother said, “She is a fat lady, but don’t say it.” So, today I’m fat. And American. And in Scotland. One or more of those things might change (like my address) but what really has to change is how many fucks I give about all of this. Here are more fun facts: I have friends. I am loved by an excellent partner (who also finds me sexy). I have a terrific kid. My cats like that I am cozy to sit on. I cannot define my own value by the amount of space I take up at a given moment. I cannot speak to myself in that language anymore.

This essay appears in the upcoming book, Nasty Women, available on March 8 from 404 Ink.

Fat in Every Language