A birthday party in my Chicano family looks something like this: all of my aunts are in the kitchen frying up tacos to eat with homemade rice, beans, and fideo while my uncles and the cousins are all scattered around the house, cracking jokes, watching sports, playing with the family babies, but mostly waiting for those tacos to hit the table. Food, aside from family, is always the major focus of our frequent parties and get-togethers. When I was growing up, my uncles would have eating contests to see who could eat the most tacos or the biggest piece of birthday cake. The winner would get bragging rights and cheers. Oh, and pats on the belly, which we all have. Almost everyone in my family is overweight, especially the men, to the point of priding themselves on it, seeing it as a feat to have eaten so much in one sitting and over time. Birthday parties also show the aunts and female cousins over-indulging and celebrating with food but there is always a sense of judgement and negativity lingering just behind the joviality. I am used to hearing a “this is going straight to my belly,” while watching an aunt bite into one more taco.
My family is big on nicknames and teasing – it’s one of the central ways we express endearment and familiarity. As a child, I was used to teasing coming from a place of love and so when my grandma would call me her little “gordita,” or “little pig,” I relished the attention. An older cousin, who I looked up to as a sister, called me “bally” because my tummy was big and round like a ball protruding from the center of my body. This was the same cousin who went on an extreme diet when she was 17 years old, spent hours exercising in her room, and binging on sugar free candy. I, a young chubby Chicana in junior high, watched my father go on the Jenny Craig diet. I watched him lose about 60 lbs (only to gain most of it back over a decade later) eating prepackaged meals that came every week in a cardboard box in the mail.
As the next generation of our family is born, I have seen these same insecurities passed down to the new children as their parents and grandparents comment on a two-year-old girl’s barrel chest or a three-month-old baby boy’s fat cheeks. Love is behind those comments but it is impossible to tell how these messages, coupled with messages from the media, will be received and processed by these children. For myself, the messages I received left and right, from so many sources, helped me form a toxic relationship between food and emotions, one that I continue to struggle with today.
Food and the body was always a major focus of attention and while some members of my family tried to fight this prophecy with strict diets, as a kid growing up with a strict Chicano father and a family that likes to eat, I quickly learned to equate food with emotions. Celebrations linked to food and happiness. On the other hand, food and eating was also linked to sadness and anger with my parents often engaging in explosive arguments before, after, and during family meals. Fear and anxiety I felt as a child found a release in second helpings, extra desserts, or sneaking sweets.
At school I was one of two fat girls in my relatively diverse classes and while I had plenty of friends, being in a minority size-wise was difficult. Watching my skinny friends borrow clothes from each other and go shopping at stores with clothes that I didn’t fit into still brings up feelings of isolation and literally not fitting in. In middle school, I was tagged the “Pillsbury Dough Girl,” and played along, “woo hoo”-ing whenever a friend poked me in the stomach. It was easier to put up a front instead of fighting back. I watched as these kids mocked other kids with differing traits, including the other fat girl in the class. While she was frequently called a whale or compared to the size of an amusement park, I took some sanction in the fact that at least my nickname was a cute white little baking mascot.
In high school, I grew isolated from my extended family, seeing them as symbols of excess, of difference, of “other.” Even though I was attending a predominantly Chicana all-girls Catholic high school, I immersed myself into the culture of the fashion magazines I’d been reading for years, the representations of skinny white girls everywhere I looked, and the fat funny woman, occasionally of color, that was suddenly popping up in the television shows and movies I was exposed to. I recognized my family’s difference, in both race and size, and shamefully removed myself as much as a teenager can. While I have yet to remove the Chicana or the fat from my core, as a teen, I sure as hell tried my hardest to fit into a culture that ostracized me from my onset. I needed that thin body, those white girl features, and the clothes and status to match it.
Once puberty hit, my father and I would get into epic fights – with him struggling to control me in any way he could and me struggling to maintain my ever-growing independence. I had been an emotional over-eater for much of my chaotic childhood, but now all of that got rehashed into a strict regimen of running miles a day and skipping every single meal possible. I developed an eating disorder in high school but it had been a lifetime in the making. While struggling, I convinced myself of two things – my family would never accept my need to be thinner, different, to fit in better and there would be no doctor that would take my eating disorder seriously after taking one look at my overweight body. Everything I had ever read or seen on eating disorders always showcased underweight rich white girls and here I was, a fat Mexican girl whose family just barely fell into middle class. Rich I was not. White I was not. Underweight, I definitely was not. I felt isolated from everything – from the society that simultaneously told me to hate my body, my weight, my culture and from my family that worshipped food and yet secretly, away from each other, hated their bodies and their attachment to food.
As an adult today, I have made huge strides in acceptance of myself, my body, my upbringing and my individual family members with their own struggles. I no longer feel the need to join in with my cousins as they bemoan our shared linebacker shoulders and barrel chests, a visual and genetic testament to our heritage and culture. Years of therapy and self-care have taught me ways to safely and respectfully distance myself from becoming enmeshed in my loved ones’ own insecurities and self-hatreds. The Fat Acceptance movement empowered me by normalizing different body shapes and sizes and by giving me permission to own and respect my bigger body and frame. I have achieved some solace and peace through growing up and the determination to get better.
No amount of personal growth or self-care, however, could compensate for the frequent appeals and pleas I was forced to make with insurance companies responsible for aiding in my treatment. Having been in and out of eating disorder treatment centers for my battle with bulimia had only helped to reinforce the stigma I feared as a teenager. Time after time, my doctors told me that my insurance would no longer cover my treatment because I didn’t meet the qualifications for bulimia nervosa.
These qualifications are usually determined almost exclusively by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a publication that not only defines anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) all by very strict and limiting definitions, but also undergoes regular revisions as the field of mental health advances. Patients that fail to currently meet the qualifications of either anorexia or bulimia tend to get lumped in with the catch-all of EDNOS. In April 2010, CNN.com reported on a recent study, published in the journal Pediatrics that found “more than 60 percent of patients with EDNOS met medical criteria for hospitalization and were, on average, sicker than patients diagnosed with full-blown bulimia.” These diagnostic restrictions can be extremely problematic considering that many people with eating disorders fluctuate between disordered behaviors and weight which may disqualify them from getting the proper diagnosis and therefore treatment he or she may need.
Because my behaviors varied greatly from restriction to binging and purging, my “official” diagnosis moved from Bulimia Nervosa to EDNOS and back again. Because I am fat and my weight fluctuates within “overweight” and “obese” on the BMI scale (yet another flawed diagnostic tool in the medical field), I did not always qualify for the treatment I needed. My constant obsession with food, the addict-like high I got from purging or from restricting, the food rituals and complications from years of abuse on my body were not always enough to guarantee necessary treatment. The medical and insurance industries told me that my struggle was not “enough,” was not worthy of notice or care, a message I am all too familiar with having grown up as a fat Mexican-American woman in Western society.
With a disorder that centers greatly on feelings of inadequacy and disenfranchisement, I didn’t need anyone or thing to validate these feelings. On a bad day, I already parroted the notions that I was not sick enough, not thin enough, not white enough, not rich enough. If only I had those things, I would have qualified for the treatment I needed and I would be able to pay for it myself. Instead, I was forced to find recovery out of treatment that is founded on the false notion that individuals with eating disorders fit a very specific mold, a notion that no doubt is echoed from bigger societal constrictions on race, size, and sex. Recognizing this fact and being able to relate it to the struggle I felt as a child to find a place in my body, my family, and my culture has been key to my progress for health and peace. Remembering how far I’ve come as a fat Chicana woman only makes how far I’ve left to go seem more attainable.
Today I have over four years of recovery but a lifetime of disordered eating. I fight hard every day, still fat, to maintain my recovery. And so far, I’m doing it. I’ve beat the odds.
Jen grew up as a Mexican-American queer feminist in Los Angeles. She is passionate about sociopolitical issues, especially coupled with the fashion industry. Jen believes strongly in body-positivity and previously made a living selling vintage clothing for fat women and men. The store was an experiment in creative reuse and providing a resource for plus size women interested in fashion, both present and past. Aside from fat fashion, Jen is also an advocate for queer and mental health rights and awareness. While she’s been writing and creating since she was a child, Jen took her first forays into publishing with zines, or independently published magazines, in her late teens. Her most well-known zine series, She’s Not a Morning Person, was distributed by independent distributions all over the United States, as well as in Canada and Europe. Additionally, Jen was educated in English from California State University, Los Angeles as an adult. While attending the University, Jen also edited the student submissions for university anthologies and magazines. If Jen’s not writing or knitting, she’s cooking up a vegetarian dinner, baking some yummy sweets, or watching a horror or documentary film. She currently resides in Los Angeles, CA with her three gorgeous cats.
Jen is the editor and lifestyle blogger at Skinned Knees. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jen can be found on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.
If you enjoyed this post, please take a few moments to leave a comment, or share with your friends using the share buttons below.
This piece really spoke to me. Thank you, Jen, for writing it. Stigma and irresponsible health choices were endemic in my family, too, and I’m still trying to make a come-back. Best wishes for your recovery.
Thank you so much for the kind words, Sarah. I appreciate it. Sending you much love and strength in your recovery.