It’s a well-known saying on comparison that it is, in fact, the thief of joy. Speaking from the wearied experience of being a chubby child, teen, and adult, I can say with certainty it’s the thief of pretty much everything. Feeling comfortable in your own body. Enjoying food. Rest. Shopping. IT TAKES THE JOY OUT OF SHOPPING. (That, and not being able to find anything in your size, of course). Like most women, my childhood and adolescence were steeped in comparison.
There’s Always That One Kid In Class
I’ve always been crazy tall. I love it now (except when every normal dress becomes a mini-skirt…that I could do without), but as a kid it was just another thing that made me weird. I remember standing in line on school picture day in the third grade, and we were asked to arrange ourselves by height. As I stood in the very back, behind all of the boys, this kid Matthew* turned around and asked “why aren’t you short like girls are supposed to be?”.
Ideally, that interaction would have gone something like this: “Ok, first of all, MATTHEW, we’ve been in class together for like 4 months now, and you just noticed I’m tall? Second, girls aren’t ‘supposed’ to be anything (8-year-old me would use some sassy air quotes here), we can and should be anything we want without being called weird. Third, I’ve seen you eat your own boogers, so turn around, boogerhead.” Just kidding, I don’t condone name-calling. But something along those lines would have been a solid showing.
Instead, I looked around him toward the front of the line where all the Ashleys and Jessicas were congregated, and I felt…weird. Now, this isn’t a sob story. I posed for my picture like a champ, ate lunch, and then crushed a game of kickball at recess.
That particular instance of comparison didn’t scar me, or cause me to think less of myself. It was the constant stream of instances that would transform my perception of myself.
*Name changed to protect the boogerhead.
Always the Fat Friend
The next decade or so continued to reinforce my weirdness. As a chubby kid and teen, there are some things you just get used to. Family members mentioning your weight during the holidays, wearing lots of sweatshirts to “cover” your chub, and helping your skinny friends shop at Hollister (is Hollister still a thing?). Lots of holding things while they’re in the dressing room, pretending you just don’t see anything you like. You get the picture.
Anything requiring a swimsuit was a nightmare. A NIGHT. MARE. I don’t know how the experience goes for people who have never struggled with body issues. I assume they go to the beach/pool, enjoy it, and don’t spend the entire time worried about what their suit is or isn’t showing? Anyway, the teen years were rough.
It didn’t help that all of my best friends growing up were small. Now, hear me loud and clear: I am not saying that there is anything negative, wrong, or bad about being small. Women of every size are amazing and wonderful, and we should all love our bodies. Period.
That said, you know the phrase “always the bridesmaid?” well that was me, except it was more like “always the fat friend.” Don’t get me wrong, my friends were great. But they were all thin and none of them ever seemed to struggle with the same issues. They could buy off the rack. Prom dress shopping wasn’t stressful. They didn’t worry about jeans that fit, or school pictures, or weigh-in days in gym, or just generally taking up more space than they felt like they were allowed. They weren’t constantly on a calorie-restricting diet. It just wasn’t the same.
The Photos. Oh My God, The Photos.
Like a good chubby girl, I quickly mastered one thing: the group photo. Single photos are tough – there’s only you, and unless you can find something to hide behind, you’re kinda screwed. Group photos though? Position yourself behind your skinny friends. Turn to the side. Don’t let your smile get too big though, because chubby cheeks.
I also didn’t grow up in the age of digital photos. There was no “delete that, I look gross” feature in the disposable camera. You took your pictures, got them DEVELOPED at the PHOTO LAB like a CAVEMAN, and either did away with a memory because you didn’t like how you looked, or dealt with it. I did a lot of dealing with it.
The Thief of Joy
I’ll end this with some good news. I don’t “deal with it” anymore. I no longer cringe with self-loathing when I see a photo of myself. Comparison will always be something we all deal with and work on, but it doesn’t have to be all-consuming. Self-acceptance, and body-acceptance in particular, is a long, messy, often painful road.
Insecurities don’t just go away. I still catch myself hiding in the back of every group photo (“I’m tall, so I need to be in the back!” is the explanation I usually yell over my shoulder as I knock the elderly and small children out of the way to avoid being on the front lines). I still frown nine times out of ten when I catch my image in a store window reflection. Old habits die hard.
But – and I cling to this – if I keep choosing to push those comparisons away, to love the woman in the mirror with the same ferocity I love my dearest friends, if I keep choosing to show up every single day for myself, right where I’m at, and not ask myself to be anything more or less than I am – I’ll keep my joy, too.