At the start of October, I was visiting Sydney with my family for my cousin’s 40th birthday. Before the party, my good friend Helen from Hells Bells came to join us for lunch. Helen is (amongst many other things), a piano and voice teacher. She told me a story about a student of hers, a girl of about 14, who is fat and worried that boys are never going to like her because of it. Helen told her about me, my rad fat self and my two boyfriends, and showed her my writing. So I decided to write her (and every other fat teenage girl out there), a little open letter.
Dear Fat Teenage Girl,
All your friends look SO pretty in their denim miniskirts and tight tank tops. Boys look at them at the train station after school, and they hitch up their school skirts to show off more of their legs. You would never dream of doing that. Nobody wants to see your huge thighs in a miniskirt, or your flabby belly and canteen lady arms in a tank top. When you get to the station after school, it feels like everyone is whispering about you and your ill-fitting school uniform as you walk past.
When you go to parties, all your friends end up making out with a boy, but you sit on the couch with your single Bacardi Breezer wondering if boys would like you more if you lost ten kilograms. In the summer, when there’s a pool party, or a beach trip, everyone else wears a bikini but you wear a long t-shirt over your swimsuit and wrap a towel around your waist as soon as you get out of the water.
You bury yourself in books and focus on your schoolwork so you have an excuse about why you aren’t dating anybody. You have crushes, but you never ask anyone out because why would someone want to date you? All your friends are dating but you’re not, and you tell yourself that you’re OK with that because you’re really committed to your schoolwork, even though what you really want is someone special in your life too.
On school holidays, when you go out with your friends to go shopping and see a movie, all your friends buy cute clothes from Sportsgirl and Supre and Forever New. While your friends are trying on skinny jeans and summer party dresses, you browse the accessories, because the only things from Sportsgirl that will fit you are shoes, earrings, headscarves and cute handbags and purses. You walk past the one or two stores that cater to plus-sized women, partly because you’re ashamed, and partly because you know that they won’t have anything in stock that suits you, because you’re not frumpy and middle-aged.
You wear a lot of black tights and shapeless dresses and big baggy jumpers and loose jeans – partly to hide your body shape, and partly because there’s nothing in the stores that both fits you AND that you like. You cruise op shops to find basic skirts and tops that will fit you that you can jazz up with all the accessories you buy when your friends are buying clothes. Someone told you once that horizontal stripes don’t look good on fat girls so you pass over that cute striped skirt that fits you in favour of a plain black one.
It’s so frustrating, isn’t it? You just want to be like everyone else; you want to wear cute clothes, and goof off at the beach in a skimpy swimsuit, you want boys (or girls!) to notice you and want to ask you out, and you want to invite someone special to your year 10 formal.
Well, much like Dan Savage does for gay kids, I’m here to tell you it gets better, fat teenage girl. It gets better.
I was like you when I was a teenager – in fact, all of the scenarios above are my very own experiences. I cared so, so much about what everyone else thought of me. I worried that boys didn’t like me as much as I liked them (which was A LOT, I was a boy crazy teenager), I could never find anything cute to wear outside of op-shops, and it was very annoying having to alter and adjust EVERY SINGLE THING I bought in order to get it to fit me. It was all just so frustrating – I worried that I would never feel comfortable with who I was.
But guess what? It gets better. It really, truly does. (And please forgive me, I’m about to go heteronormative here – as someone who is very firmly straight, I can only speak from my own experience). Whether you lose the weight or not is irrelevant – what matters is how you feel about yourself. If you truly believe that you’re the sort of girl that boys like, then you WILL be the sort of girl that boys like. And of course, fat teenage girl, if you you’re a lesbian, or if you think you might maybe be into girls more than boys, or if you think you might like girls and boys equally, or if you haven’t decided yet, that statement applies to you too. If you believe you’re the sort of girl that people of your preferred sexual identity will like, then you will be the sort of girl that people of your preferred sexual identity will like.
Somewhere around the time that I was 17, I decided that I just didn’t care anymore about what people thought of me. I decided I wasn’t going to try to be anybody else than who I was. I was going to do my own things. I was going to wear whatever clothes I wanted. I was going to buy the things I liked and that made ME feel good to wear, (which were not always the things that looked good on me). Fuck flattering, I thought. Fuck hiding every part of my body. Fuck the society that was telling me that as a fat girl I was ugly, that I was not sexy, that I was not worthy of attention, that I must hide myself and minimise my size and take up less space. Fuck all that.
I started wearing clothes I liked, and that made me feel good. I started walking straighter and taller. I started laughing louder, talking more to strangers, flirting with people. It wasn’t easy and it took a while, because at first I had to pretend I felt good and was confident, until eventually I legitimately felt good and was confident.
Somewhere around the time I was 17, I started going out with my first boyfriend. Now, I know better than anyone that correlation doesn’t equal causation, but I am also not entirely convinced that these were two completely unrelated events. At about that same time, other boys started getting interested in me as well. Now, I am certainly not saying here that I was fighting off teenage boys as if I was Megan Fox at a Transformers premiere, but I did for a while have a couple of boys interested in spending time with me for reasons other than my love of Star Wars and video games.
Since then, life has just gotten better and better for me. I am in love with two men (two!) who love me not because, or in spite of, but WHILE I am fat. There are plenty of men out there who actively seek out fat women as partners because they prefer the way fat women look and feel, in much the same way that there are men who seek out slim women, or blonde women, or women of Asian descent. There are plenty of men out there who love fat women in spite of the fact that they are fat – men who ordinarily wouldn’t seek out a fat woman as a partner but who have met and fallen in love with a fat woman. But both of my current boyfriends love me while I am fat. In other words, they didn’t choose to ask me out because I was fat, and they didn’t fall in love with me even though I was fat. They just love me, and I am fat. Like those two things exist separately, and converge in my relationships.
These are all valid relationship models – I am certainly not promoting one over the other. There’s nothing wrong with being loved because you are fat, just as there is nothing is wrong with being loved even though you are fat, just as there is nothing wrong with being loved while you are fat.
I wear impossibly high heels, and I wear short skirts without stockings, and I wear strapless and sleeveless dresses. I wear tight clothes and low cut tops and stockings attached to suspender belts. I drink beer and I flirt with men and I dance with little regard for who’s watching or what I look like. I live my life by my rules, and I am loved by my friends and loved by men who love me for who I am. I unashamedly take up space. My body is political. I am fat, and I am present, and I refuse to hide my shape under baggy, shapeless clothing. I refuse to use Spanx to mould myself into a more acceptable shape. I refuse to change myself, to conform the expectations of the society we live in. I will not hide.
What I am trying to say here, dear fat teenage girl, is that it gets better. You won’t always feel like you don’t quite fit in. You won’t always feel frumpy and confused about what you should wear. You won’t always feel like no boys (or girls!) like you. You won’t always feel unloveable. You’re at a crossroads, right now. Right now you feel like nobody will ever love you, that you’ll never look cute in clothes the way your friends do. But you’re not always going to feel that way. Clothing for fat women is getting better and better, slowly but surely – better quality, better style, more affordable, and if you’re straight and into men, you will find that there are millions (MILLIONS!) of men out there who will think you are beautiful and many who will fall in love with you when they get to know you. I am sure, also, that if you’re a lesbian and into women, you’ll find that the same thing applies.
Don’t fall for the trope that only the skinny girl gets to fall in love. Hollywood (and before that, fairytales) has been selling you a false bill of goods, and there are lots of fat women out there on the internet, writing about how they are both fat and rad, writing about the great clothes they wear, and writing about their lovers and husbands and wives and girlfriends and boyfriends. I would like to draw your attention particularly to the writing of Melissa McEwan at Shakesville, a woman I really admire for her smarts and her jokes and her great big heart and her dedication to her work. Particularly I enjoy this article she wrote on the occasion of her tenth wedding anniversary with her husband Iain, entitled Ten.
Love is incredible, and frustrating, and rewarding, and when you find it you will wonder why you ever doubted that you would.
Fall in love with yourself first, and all else will follow.
All my love,