“It doesn’t fit.”
I peel off the dress, tighter than a second skin, and angrily toss it back over the changing room door to my mother. Her voice reaches me from the other side, her pitying tone pushing me even closer to tears.
“I’m sorry … they don’t have it in any other size, honey. I already checked.”
Of course they don’t. They never do.
I quickly get dressed as I suppress the sob trying to escape my lips. It’s odd; you would think that I would get used to having the same experience every time I go shopping for clothes. Every time, I naively believe it will be different. Every time I am, once again, proven wrong.
As I wipe my face and leave the dressing room, I pass the trifold mirror, where a petite blond teen is trying on a bright pink sequined gown. She smiles in the mirror, turns, and strikes a pose. Her mother stands to the side, one hand on the mirror, as if she’s nearly blown away by her daughter’s beauty; she gushes about how beautiful her daughter looks and how perfect the gown is on her. I feel so sick of my own disgusting reflection that I look away, wading through the racks of clothes that are off-limits to me. My mom is looking through a rack of dresses, hoping to find one in any size bigger than a 16.
“Let’s just go,” I mumble, glaring angrily at the ground. She looks at me, opens her mouth as if to say something, then quickly shuts it.
“Maybe we could find something at Lane Bryant.”
The thought of going there to look fills me with a bittersweet mix of excitement and dread. On one hand, I’d actually be able to fit into the clothes; on the other, I’d hate being seen walking into a place known as a “fat store.”
I shake my head. “Let’s just go home.”
This is a common experience for me, and always has been. There is a definite split between slim or average women and “plus-sized” women, and I have experienced the rift many times in my life.
The first time was at the tender age of eight. Some of the girls in my second-grade class wanted to make a club, just a silly group that would meet on the playground at recess. I ran over and excitedly asked if I could join.
“You can’t. You’re fat.”
I frowned, unable to process what I had just heard. Fat? What did being fat have to do with anything? I stood there staring, not sure what to do. I had been so certain that I would be allowed to join; not only was I always nice to these girls, I had never said anything rude or mean to anyone. That was the first time I experienced prejudice because of my weight.
Fast forward several years. I was sitting at a lunch table in middle school with a group of friends, just laughing and talking as usual. Suddenly one of the girls looked at me, a smile on her face, and loudly proclaimed, “Tristan, you eat like a pig!” By then I had learned why fat was bad – fat is ugly, disgusting, grotesque – but I had not experienced anything so public since the playground incident. I turned red and slowly put my fork down. That was the year that I learned to hate eating in public.
I knew what it meant to be overweight: everyone believes you’re a slob, a glutton, a compulsive eater. People expect you to always supersize everything. Everyone thinks that you reach for chips when you’re hungry, and that all you drink is soda. When you go out in public, you always wonder if people are watching and thinking, Ugh, of course she’d be eating that. Look how big she is! The thought still bothers me whenever I go out to eat, that someone is silently judging my choices from two tables away.
The worst experience I have ever had, though, was later that year in math class. I was already made fun of for how I dressed. On this day, I stood up in class to go throw something away. As I did, a hand suddenly made hard contact with my butt, eliciting an embarrassingly loud slap that echoed through the back of the room. I yelped and turned around to see a male classmate who had made rude comments to me before laughing along with half the class.
“She’s so fat!” a girl stage-whispered to her friend. My face turned red and my eyes began to fill with tears. I wanted to run out of the room. I hadn’t done anything to any of them, and yet they humiliated and demeaned me in front of the entire class just because they could.
Now that I’m older, I don’t hear many overt insults directed at me anymore, but I still see prejudice everywhere: in the clothing racks at department stores, in the magazines that criticize celebrities who gain even a pound, in the catalogs and ads and television shows that glorify the slim figure as the definition of beauty. I hear it in the comments made amongst my little brothers and their friends.
“Fat! Fat! Fat!”
I hear it when girls walk down the hall criticizing themselves.
“I look so fat today.”
“I’m on a diet. Prom is coming up!”
“Ew, look how fat I am!”
And I see it every day in the mirror, but only because I’m told to.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.