When I was a child, I lay in bed at night and fantasized about using a razor-sharp knife to carve fat off my body. First, it would be my stomach, and then my arms. My double chin bothered me too. I had started the habit of keeping my chin lifted up, so the beagle-like droop of my double chin wasn’t so obvious. It didn’t occur to me how horrible it was to think about slicing flesh off my own body. I just knew I hated being fat.

In an early photo of my siblings and me, I’m five years old, my brother four, and my sister nearly seven. He and I are chubby, with round knees and padded limbs. My sister is slender, with matchsticks for arms and legs. As a grown-up woman, it’s obvious I was genetically inclined to be a large kid. I can now brush off the unfavorable comparisons with my petite sister, “Wow, you two look nothing alike!” and have mostly recovered from the difficulties of being a lifetime member of the chub club.

I own FTO, the obesity gene, which I learned through genetic testing. Not that I needed the test. The pronouncements in DNA sites are often not that revealing, as in “you probably don’t have a cleft chin,” or “your hair is probably dark and curly.” Mine was “you’re likely to weigh more than average.” No shit, Sherlock.

Some people say, “Why bother fighting your genetics? You do you,” but huffing and puffing up stairs feels bad. So does struggling to bend over and tie my shoes. Aside from health reasons, others don’t treat overweight people all that well—and I’m not morbidly obese, just a hair past overweight. A little obese. If you’re a normal weight, think of yourself thirty pounds heavier. That’s probably what obese is for you.

I’ve been dieting and exercising since I was a young kid. I still have a little booklet I made when I was nine, with a motto, WMLW!—We must lose weight!—and illustrations of Sit-ups! Burpees! Touch your toes! Jumping Jacks! Mom dated it and noted the year. She thought it was cute enough to keep. She had no idea of how miserable I was.

It all started in third grade. A boy told me he had been in love with me, but he said he was forced to move on to a skinnier girl. We were both eight at the time. Eight years old! I lay in bed that night fretting. Why was I fat? I pinched the flesh on my stomach, holding it aggressively between thumb and index finger. I was mortified.

I was nine when I realized that I weighed a lot more than most of my peers. When the nurse arrived to my fourth grade classroom with a scale, my heart raced. A quick solution—the lavatory pass! I needed to escape this humiliation.

When I came back from the lavatory ten minutes later, the nurse stared at me and gestured me to the front of the room. Dead man walking. I knew I was going to tip the scales at over seventy. Sure enough, I was a whopping seventy-two pounds.

Around me, other kids were shouting out weights. Petite Cheryl was fifty, athletic Kathy was fifty-eight, and look who was well over seventy pounds, more than some of the boys.

Truth be told, I wasn’t the only one suffering on scale day. On the other end of the spectrum, little Thomas weighed forty-six pounds and after he was weighed, the boys swarmed him and carried him around the room, our teacher clucking like an angry hen. I went home unhappy. Maybe we had homemade macaroni and cheese for dinner. I ate slowly, and vowed not to eat seconds, which I probably did anyway.

By the time I was ten, I couldn’t understand why my peers and skinny sibling—who ate the same food I did—weren’t fat like me. Actually, why wasn’t I skinny like them? It was a curse.

In bed at night, I prayed to God—who I had little experience with—to make me thinner. Once, I pulled up the shirt of my little kid pajamas and saw that my stomach had sunk down into my ribcage, and thought he’d answered my prayer. I jumped up, delighted, and gravity returned my little potbelly. So much for divine intervention.

I didn’t need God’s help, really. I needed a nutritionist. My diet was a fat-and-carbohydrate smorgasbord of Cap’n Crunch, pizza, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread, and milk. Not only that, but I routinely sat in the attic with a single light bulb burning, reading my way through an encyclopedia set. I wasn’t all that active.

My siblings and I ate like most kids of working parents. Some dinners were healthy, but plenty were frozen pizzas and Coke. And so it was that my brother and I, with similar genes, had fat little bellies, but my sister was as skinny as a toothpick. While it was partly a genetic issue, we were eating the wrong foods.

Other kids in my class were fascinated with my adipose tissue, and sometimes they groped me—intrusive assaults I never liked. Even the guy who leased twenty acres from my parents, a middle-aged man in plaid flannel shirt and work boots, grabbed my lower belly, pinching it hard and exclaiming “That’s quite a spare tire ya got there, missy!” Why would an adult think that would be okay to do to a child?

Things got out of hand when I was about eleven. At that age, my body fat made it appear I had breasts. I don’t think I had actual breast tissue, although maybe my buds came on early. The hard little knots girls get under nipples, like the antlers that a little buck sprouts, would have been a sure sign, but I don’t remember them. I think I was just fat.

That was the year my classmates, led by a mouthy girl who later became a friend, clustered around me and advised that I really needed to wear a bra. They weren’t wearing them, but I really needed to. Finally tired of constant criticism, I talked with Mom and she bought me a “training” bra, the most uncomfortable thing I’d ever worn in my life. I’ll never forget it. There were two little cushy soft panels that landed squarely over my chubby little breasts.

The satin straps, with no elastic at all, constantly fell down my shoulders. If I didn’t wear the damn bra for one day, the judgmental girl gang would gather in a tight circle and gossip, shooting critical glances at my plump little-kid breasts. I was mortified, and if this was growing up, I wasn’t enjoying it one bit.

Fortunately, I grew fast the summer between seventh and eighth, and was suddenly quite thin. That was the beginning of years of weight loss and gain.

In my twenties, I didn’t have a car, and walked about six blocks to get to work. The twenty-year-old me didn’t arrive at work early, so I power-walked those six blocks. I was living on poverty wages (minimum wage), and I paid rent and electricity, so didn’t have much for food. It was the poor person diet—no car, no money, no food. I got really trim fast.

That changed when I got a job that paid well, and I had money for rent and food. A year later, I walked into a local pub after a weight gain of twenty pounds—from thin to zaftig (Yiddish for “juicy”). My dinner was usually a corned beef and Swiss cheese sandwich from the corner market deli, supplemented with Coca Cola in a big cup with ice. Once more, my dietary choices weren’t the best.

Stan, a dark-haired guy I knew from the local bar scene, walked up and said, “Oh, my God! You were the best-looking girl in this town! How much weight have you gained? Geez, turn around. I’ve got to see this.”

This actually happened.

I remember looking at my friend Kelly, whose jaw was to her chest.

“Order to-go food,” I told her. “I’m going to wait in the car.” I sat in the cold car, rain rendering me invisible through the windshield. Kelly came out with sandwiches after about fifteen minutes and comforted me, “That asshole. As if he’s any great shakes.” I was miserable.

When I went home, I ate dinner, then lay on my bed and dragged a blanket over my body and cried. Then, I got some ice cream, just like I did as a little unhappy fat kid. I tried to move on.

Stan’s insensitive remarks didn’t motivate me to diet. At that point, I was in an eating phase. I’d return in my own time to frenetic aerobics classes, measured food in cups and spoons, and daily weigh-ins. I always come back to that eventually. Sometimes I just get sick of being the person who doesn’t order dessert.

At twenty-four, I began community college full-time. That’s when I began dieting again. I was surrounded by younger, thinner people, and wanted to fit in. Also, I fell in love with Matt, a guy who was blind. I was absolutely smitten with him. Matt was in student government with me, and his best friend sat in our student government office and described women for Matt.

“She’s thin as a pencil, but has huge boobs,”

“Not bad, but about twenty pounds overweight.”

“Perfect body.”

“Oh my God, just no.”

I knew Brian would tell Matt that I was not pencil-thin, nor did I have huge boobs or a perfect body. It made me anxious, so I took action.

I started dieting hard. This meant three PE classes per term, dance class, radical dieting, and then, bulimia. I can hardly admit it, but yes, bulimia. One night, I was in my apartment bathroom throwing up a dinner I’d eaten with my roommate Kelly. Suddenly, I heard her voice,

“What the hell? Are you okay?”

When I unlocked the bathroom door, she said, “What are you doing?” I’d reached a new low. Fortunately, I’d just started the bulimia, so I was able to stop. I just needed that voice of reason to say, “Too far. Enough.”

That was just past the “Let’s Get Physical” days of Olivia Newton John prancing around in leotards. I had a dancer’s body and practically no body fat, and wore a size ten at 5’7”. I felt mentally tortured, comparing myself to the women in the media. No matter how thin I was, it was never enough.

And the guy I had the crush on? It turns out Matt had a girlfriend already. He became a good friend to me, but he died of kidney failure. His physical problems were much more devastating than mine, a strong reality check for me back then.

In several studies online, I learned that “ghrelin” is a hunger hormone that circulates around the blood. People who have the FTO gene have ghrelin (gremlin!) shouting at them to eat more and consume more frequently. That could explain why I’m often hungry. And I can’t lie: I just love to cook and eat. If I didn’t control myself, I could eat much more than I do. I have to put the brakes on at most meals.

One night, my dad and stepmom and I went out to the Country Buffet. My stepmom, a slender woman, had a head injury so lacked a filter. I could tell things were going to get embarrassing. She started staring and snickering at the obese people sitting around us at the all-you-can-eat restaurant. Dad looked at her and tried distracting her, but it didn’t work.

She suddenly whispered, “Oh, my God! They’re going back!” tapping with a pointed finger “hidden” behind her other palm at morbidly obese people plodding their way to the fried chicken and potatoes. Dad shushed her. When he couldn’t make her stop, he said, “Time to go,” and they argued in the car. She said, “It’s their fault they’re fat! If they don’t want people to stare, they should stop eating!”

It’s pretty common for people with skinny genes to think like this. It’s like they have special status, and are superior to fat people. I don’t think so. It’s like being born into wealth, or having a certain skin color, or natural beauty—it’s not like the privilege is earned. You’re born with certain tendencies. The emotional pain of being overweight or obese is miserable, but worse when people born under the thin star shame you. It’s hurtful.

I was born under the FTO star, and because of that, what I put in my mouth has to be monitored. I’ve had periods of time when I’m heavier, when I give up saying no to hamburgers, or ice cream—carbs in general. These periods of time coincide with death and illness of loved ones. Pretty sure my logic is, “Screw it. We’re all gonna die! Eat the pizza!”

It just is what it is. I think back about my little-kid suffering and feel sad for little-kid me, but those days are gone. I’ve researched, analyzed, and figured out my metabolism. I’ve figured out the science, and what I need to stay healthy.

In 2015, I was in a hotel in Santiago de Compostela, near the coast of Spain. I’d walked 500 miles in forty-one days. I looked at my body in the mirror. I was tall and muscular in my quick-dry pants and blue fleece. I’d just walked more than ten miles a day, for days on end, carrying fifteen pounds on my back. I’d walked over the Pyrenees Mountains.

I looked at myself in the mirror—shoulder-length caramel-brown hair, green eyes, a slightly worried expression. Definite girth. Strong, broad shoulders. I’m still a larger person, and always self-conscious about it, but damn—this body carried me safely across a continent—and you have to respect that. So do I.

About the Author

Debra Groves Harman

Debra Groves Harman's memoir Dancing in Circles: An Expatriate in Cambodia is forthcoming in 2019. She's won awards for CNF with Oregon Writers Colony and Two Sisters Writing and Publishing. She lives in rural Oregon, and is a substitute teacher and musician.