We want to think that we can outgrow and move on from the bad things that happened to us as kids, but something will always stick. That’s how I feel about being bullied: I’d like to say that I’m over it, that it happened more than 15 years ago, but really, there are parts that have stayed with me and are probably a big part of the adult I became.
I was the fat kid. I’m still a fat adult. From the ages of 7 until 10 the other kids in my school took it upon themselves to make my life as miserable as possible. While I’ve apparently blocked out a lot of specifics, there is one incident I still remember.
I still think of it as one of the worst days of my life. Yes, other awful things have happened – broken hearts, deaths of loved ones, watching 9/11 unfold on TV – but when I think of terrible things that have happened to me, this is always one of the first places my mind goes. I don’t really remember how it started, but it was in fourth grade, I think it was toward the end of the year, and it was in the music classroom. I had been taking part in some college study about overweight kids and as a result had lost several pounds. Somewhere along the line I’d divulged my weight to a girl I thought was a friend. She apparently told someone else and the whole class suddenly knew the number (I should point out I still don’t know if she told someone to mock me or to defend me, so I can’t assume nefarious motives on her part). Suffice to say, it was ugly, and I went home feeling worthless and probably crying.
I lucked out. It got better after fourth grade because most of my bullies went to a different middle school and the ones that remained sort of left me alone. I guess losing the mob mentality helped. So it tapered off, and while I had to deal with the occasional obnoxious person in middle and high school, it was nothing near as extreme.
Of course, a lot of the damage was already done. I’ve had low self-esteem for about as long as I can remember. I still have a hard time making friends and I freak out when people try to get too close to me. Plus, I’ve battled depression. I know I can’t say for sure what caused that, but I’m certain bullying can’t have helped.
It isn’t all gloom and doom. There are good things that have likely developed from it. I have abundant empathy toward anyone who is marginalized. I don’t suffer fools or put up with anyone who abuses others. And I developed a strong sense of not caring what anyone thinks about me, which probably came about as a defense mechanism.
Hard as it is to talk about, I bring the subject, and my experience, up because it seems like it’s only getting easier for bullies to do their work. I can’t imagine how much worse my life would have been if I’d had to contend with idiots on Facebook after school instead of escaping to books or the few friends I had. There were no national outcries that kids like me were damaging the economy to empower my bullies. Don’t get me wrong – teaching kids how to manage their own health is important and I believe Michelle Obama means well. However, the language being used across the board rings a little too closely to the things that used to get shouted at me on playgrounds.
Maybe, in a weird way, being bullied helped my health, too. Because so many bad memories come up when I hear about weight and dieting, I figured out I needed to escape the damaging fat stigma and focus on what’s really important — health. Health At Every Size, to be exact. My “I don’t care what you think” side helped me find HAES, fat acceptance and fat fashion, all of which have provided boundless support, just by existing, and brought me closer to actually liking myself most of the time.
That is, of course, not to imply that everyone who is bullied has a happy ending — if this even qualifies as one itself. There are still suicides, years of therapy, and people who just aren’t happy. But we need to talk about it, about the bad sides and the parts that made us stronger. We need to teach kids not to bully and teach the victims that it isn’t their fault. And we need to consider how all of our words and actions have impact, even if it isn’t the impact we intended and even if our hearts are in the right place.