“The Fat Kid” In All Of Us: Self-Esteem and Identity, Part 1

I have these regrettable memories of a tubby, ostracized classmate of mine from 2nd or 3rd grade. Charles was a fairly good-natured boy who, unlike the other kids, was heavy, clumsy and wore tacky cowboy boots every day. But like every other kid, Charles just wanted, no – needed, friends to play with.

Instead, we were cruel to “the fat kid.” We’d run away from him when he came near. We’d kick him from behind, unprovoked. And on the rare days we were generous enough to let him join in our play, we’d give him the unwanted role – always “it,” the chaser. I don’t recall us ever allowing him the childish thrill of being chased.

Every so often, I think back to that year and regret, “Why? Why were we, why was I, so mean to him? Did he ever do anything to us? To me? (No.) What ever happened to poor Charles? Did we damage him? Leave any lasting scars? (I hate thinking about it.)

I’m so grateful that a couple personal experiences from later years helped keep my unkindness at age 8 from slipping into snug, easy oblivion: (1) a pitiful observation about someone in law school, and (2) an excruciating lesson learned, or survived, in junior high.

In law school, there was this guy – very quiet, almost unnoticeable, of average height, with average looks and slightly slouched shoulders. He wasn’t a classmate but was always on campus. His girlfriend was a classmate of ours – an abrasive loner with a bit of a knack for breaking bridges. He’d follow her around like a lost puppy, meekly doing as she bade. He hardly spoke but seemed nice enough, normal enough, from afar. Those of us who noticed them couldn’t help wondering, “What does he see in her? He could find a nicer girl.”

Later, we got wind of the backstory. He’d been a “a fat kid” all his life. When their romance sparked, he was ever so grateful to be in a relationship. Over time, he dropped a lot of weight and was no longer obese. But he didn’t outgrow his insecurity, self-consciousness and poor self-image. He still saw himself as an undesirable. So he settled. And stayed. “That’s really sad,” we thought to ourselves.

Now who knows if the rumored backstory was true or not? But it was at least conceivable and would explain things. Whether it was truth or fiction in that case, it was certainly true in so many others. And that’s the real tragedy. When we can only see ourselves as “the fat kid”, and we don’t know how to accept him, give her the compassion and validation she needs, love him…her… me…maybe you.

By the way, let me address my politically incorrect, insensitive and casual spattering of the word “fat” in this story. It may be rubbing you the wrong way, making you cringe. But I use the phrase metaphorically, to sum up all the hang-ups, insecurities and negative views of ourselves that can follow us through life.

For truth be told, I was “a fat kid” myself. Not in a literal sense. I was a skinny thing with bony knees and clothes that hung on me like on a wire hanger. BUT. I learned, early enough in life, what it was to not belong, to be uncomfortable in my own skin, to feel and fear being unattractive and disliked, to be ostracized and extremely unpopular. I despised life in junior high.

It all started when I made the fatal, fat-mouthed, juvenile mistake in 7th grade of blabbing to an 8th grader that a friend had a crush on him. That friend quickly became the worst nemesis a 12-year-old girl could come up against. Mortified as only an adolescent girl can be, she hated, and I mean HATED, me from that point on.

It would’ve been bad enough losing her friendship, but as it turned out, she was also a “queen bee.” We were in that oh-so-fun stage of life when fitting in is everything and having a mind of your own is near impossible…and scary as all get out. Before I knew what was happening, our entire gang (and it was a big one) of mutual friends turned on me. At that age, few are strong or bold enough to go against a queen bee (or if you’re a boy, the alpha or ringleader). Conform or be destroyed. So her friends are your friends, and her enemies are your enemies. Me? I was the world’s pariah.

For the next year and a half or so, I was taunted at school, left “hate notes” in my locker, harassed by kids hurling insults and names at me on my seemingly never-ending 5-minute walks home from the school bus stop. When I moved on and befriended other girls, Queen Bee and her posse would pass by and humiliate me, shouting, “Why are you friends with her? You shouldn’t be.” I stood up for myself that time and ended up getting into a group shoving match, which only landed me in the counselor’s office, in trouble, bawling like a baby.

I thought I’d never live through it. So I’d secretly pray that God would just end it all.

Instead, He called my bluff.

On my 13th birthday, I was in a horrific car accident just a block from home. I was in the passenger seat, not wearing a seat belt. We hit a pole head-on at full-speed. I would’ve been thrown out of the car had I not been bent over tending to the hamster I’d just been gifted. Spared from flying through the windshield, the top of my head slammed into the glove compartment, splitting instantly, and my body was thrust down into the cavity reserved for the front passenger’s feet. The “whiplash” effect of the sudden halt caused my face to then slam into the glove compartment and my crumpled body to fling back against the front edge of the car seat. Two vertebrae just below my neck snapped instantly and I passed out.

When I came to, I realized my body was folded into the foot compartment. Intense pain shot through me as I tried to lift my body back up onto the seat. That’s when I looked down and noticed the whole front of my shirt was soaked in blood. I didn’t know whose blood it was or where it was coming from. I looked to my left and saw my older cousin, the driver, in pain but conscious. She could barely move herself but reached her hand out for the tissue box between us, pulled out a huge wad, and placed it gently on top of my head. I realized then that the blood was mine, pouring down from my head onto my neck and chest. I felt dizzy.

I could hear ambulances approaching. I heard paramedics talking about how they couldn’t get my door open, how they’d have to lower my seat back and pull me out from the back. But they weren’t sure whether they could move me safely. “She looks pretty bad.”

The last sight I recall before being wheeled away on a stretcher was my big brother, who’d dashed down our street upon hearing the impact (yes, we were that close to home). His eyes were filled with shock and horror. I remember calling to him, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die,” as they rolled me into the ambulance.

I hadn’t meant those anguished prayers, after all.

37 stitches were sewn across the top of my head. My back was broken. But I was lucky, for if the break had occurred just one or two vertebrae above, I’d probably be paralyzed, or dead.

A week after the accident, Mom looked incredibly relieved as she handed me a mirror. “Anita, you look so much better already.” Much to her surprise, I looked in the mirror and wept. I was a monster. The doctors had shaved the top of my head in a reverse-mohawk to do the sutures. My blood-red left eye was swollen shut, and the black and blue left side of my face so swollen it was flush with my nose. I couldn’t believe this was a vast improvement. I hadn’t been able to move, much less look in a mirror, since the accident. Mom felt horrible.

I stayed in the ICU for a week or two and then recovered at home for another month or so.

It’s an understatement to say this marked a pivotal time for me. I’d had the worst year of my youth – socially, emotionally, spiritually, and now physically. I’d prayed for death one too many times, only to learn the hard way that I hadn’t really meant it. Things must’ve hit rock bottom, because even Queen Bee and the gang came to the hospital to visit me and left me alone when I finally returned to school looking, or feeling, like a freak show. I felt like “the fat kid” times a million.

I have to confess. All these years I’d never fully escaped and outgrown that emotionally scarred preteen whose self-esteem seemed crushed for life. That girl who, until very recently, sometimes feared she’s unlovable, isn’t totally and completely known or cherished by anyone, doesn’t have any real friends, is secretly disliked, ridiculed. What dark, awful thoughts. When I imagine being an outsider hearing these hidden thoughts and insecurities, it just sounds like crazy talk. And yet…

That is the horrible and very false power of yesterday’s painful memories and of today’s ever-growing focus on self. Self-esteem, self-image, self-confidence, self-awareness, self-improvement, self-fulfillment… Self, Self, Self. Really?? We need more self? That’ll fix the past and heal our pain, once and for all?

I don’t think so.

But I finally know what will. At least for me.

Friends, I can hardly wait to share with you all that’s happened these past few months. The scared, scarred, self-conscious, self-doubting “fat kid” in me is changing, from the inside out. healing. overcoming. blossoming. But hold that thought! (Part 2 is coming…)

In the meantime, I owe someone a big apology. Better late than never, right?

Dear Charles,

I want you to know how deeply sorry I am. For back when we were kids. For all the ways I was cruel or unfair to you. I’m sorry I demeaned you or treated you as any “less than” me or anyone else. For you too were “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

I remember watching you tap-dance at the talent show – all alone on stage, in those funny cowboy boots of yours, to some lame music. I felt sorry, or embarrassed, for you at the time.

Charles, I’m a mom now. And everything is different, clearer. I’ve watched my kids, and well over a hundred others, perform at school talent shows. And every year, I’m totally and completely awed by every kid who goes up there. I’m blown away, not necessarily by their talents and skills but by their innocence, courage, and lack of inhibition and self-consciousness. They are how we all were created to be – innocent, brave, free.

I love their…their guts. And Charles, I love your 8-year-old guts too. So strange but the other day, I imagined you tap-dancing again and tears welled up in my eyes. I was so…proud. I didn’t feel pity or embarrassment this time. I felt proud of you, Charles.

I hope that the same spirit that got you up on that stage so many years ago hasn’t left you. If it has, I pray it will return. ‘Cause you are special. And you are loved, Charles. So very loved. I pray that you know that and never forget it.

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