UNPACKING INTERNALIZED FATPHOBIA
Updated: Sep 9
by Oluwatobi Afolabi
A few days ago, I saw an old secondary school mate and right after he said hello, the first thing he said was, “You’ve gained a lot of weight. Do you know?”
I felt a lot of things immediately. It was rude, but the first thing I felt wasn’t offense. The first thing I felt was shame. I wanted to hide. I wanted to cover my face and cry. I wanted to run away, find a tent and cover myself with it.
This is something that I’ve carried for a long time. This is the shame that has been with me before I learnt how to project confidence, before I learnt that I could write, and before I learnt product design. It’s almost as old as I am. When this comment was made by my old school mate, the shame was victorious in its vindictiveness.
That shame was affirmed by this stranger’s observation that I had gained weight. This stranger, who had no idea what my health- both mental and physical had been like for the past few years, but felt the need to mention to me that I had gained weight.
When the friend I was with pointed out how rude his remark was, he laughed it off and said it was normal. And it is normal. It’s not unusual for people to mention your weight gain- or loss when they see you after a long time. It’s normal, but it really shouldn’t be.
The question implies that there’s a universal standard weight that people should be, and honestly, I don’t think that there is. Or that there should be anyway.
The second thing I felt was exhaustion. You see I’ve always known that I was fat. Even when I wasn’t, I thought I was the fattest girl in the world. I thought I was ugly. I didn’t just think it, I lived it. I would look in the mirror and see the ugliest, fattest girl in the world. Back in secondary school, I would layer up like an Eskimo in Antarctica.
My secondary school uniform consisted of a shirt, skirt and tie, but underneath my shirt, I would be wearing a bra, a tube top, a cami and then a cardigan over the shirt. I was trying to hide my hideous body. So I thought if I could wear layers of clothing- especially my thick school sweater even in the heat- no one would see.
After secondary school, I would wear big shirts still in the bid to hide. Although I am not 100% comfortable with my body, my relationship with it has improved since then. I do believe it is a never-ending journey. Therapy helps.
Last year, I was in Kaduna for work and I had packed my favourite pair of mom jeans. On the day I wanted to wear my jeans, the zipper wouldn’t go up when I tried to zip it up. I was shattered. I cried so much, like someone had died. This made me I feel like a tangible failure because I thought I was past feeling like crap whenever I gained a few pounds, resulting in me feeling like all the progress I had made was gone.
Thankfully, I got through that day because I was surrounded by amazing people.
Often times, we see growth as this linear idea, when it isn’t. Some days are better than others, but progress is made when I look in the mirror and am not immediately covered in self-loathing.
I found a poem I wrote about a year ago:
Tight little body
I remember those novels I used to read when I was younger.
The women in these books always had what the writers described as tight little bodies.
Bodies with concave tummies and wide hips with ample butts
I knew that I didn’t and don’t have a tight little body
My body is anything but tight
It occupies space
With love handles and thick thighs
It is not compact
I don’t have a concave belly, mine is pretty prominent
Like a kangaroo’s pouch
I used to think I had a tight little body though
And so I was a little surprised every time I looked in the mirror and saw folds and hip dips and thighs.
The body dysmorphia was real. For a long time, I didn’t know what size I was, or what I weighed. I guess I was kind of afraid to find out. I used to go thrifting a lot, when I was in university and something that happened a lot was that I would pick clothes that were two or three sizes too small. I’d laugh and say that I was terrible at thrifting but there was that underlying feeling that made me feel like I should be three or two sizes smaller.
I’m really thankful that my family is as loving as they are, because, through all the struggle, there was never a word about my weight. My family loves nothing more than to feed me. People who know my parents can testify lol.
So that guy I went to secondary school with was being an average Nigerian man. He probably didn’t think about that encounter but long after he left, his words were still stuck to my skin.
For someone who has carried that shame around for that long, I was and am really fucking tired. I’m tired of thinking there’s something wrong with the way I look, I’m tired of wishing I looked a certain way, I’m tired of people pointing and poking and commenting. I want to wear tight dresses and not have to worry that everyone is staring at my fat belly, or my huge arms, or my big thighs. I want to be able to look in the mirror and feel love, and pride.
I am so tired.
“Do you know?”
When he said that, I rolled my eyes because I do know. I know I’ve gained weight. I have eyes, and hands and I know when my jeans won’t zip anymore after a few months. I know, okay? And it doesn’t take a single thing from my value and worth as a human being. I am going to be kinder to myself, even if it kills me.
PS: I was going to add that I do yoga and exercise every day and the fact that I’m fat doesn’t mean I’m unhealthy, but fuck that. I’m not auditioning for people who don’t see my value outside my body.