Yesterday, a carful of teenage boys or young men, I couldn’t tell which, drove by whooping and yelling raucously as my ten-year-old daughter and I were walking the dog on a break from revising the YA novel we’ve written together, a day after I posted on social media about how difficult it is for women and femmes in this society, continually judging ourselves and each other for our bodies and weight, policed by misogyny, ableism, and consumerism to see ourselves as objects who must starve, or at least, deeply control ourselves at all costs to be deemed acceptable. My daughter had scooted a few paces ahead of me with the willful dog pulling her on, and she recounted later that she couldn’t distinguish what the carful was yelling. But I heard them loud and clear as they passed us.
“Hey fat girls!” and a carful of cackling as they gunned it down the street, squealing around the corner and out of sight.
When I was ten, I dreamed of being a writer someday. I lived in the borderlands in a sometimes violent household, and I’d skipped a grade for my precociousness and intelligence — and was awarded with a classroomful of middle school boys who teased me relentlessly for my developing, overflowing body, my breasts not the tiny buds of the other girls but grown-woman breasts already, in need of C-cups. In just a couple of short years, much older boys and men would see this facet of my body — in fact, it’s all they would see. And I so desperately wanted to be loved… to be accepted and adored the way the thin girls were. The thin girls who didn’t have to give anything of themselves they didn’t want to. Didn’t have to kowtow or show off or strip down. They could be mean to the boys and the boys kept coming back for more.
But I was a fat girl. And the rules were different for me.
Back then I was only slightly chubby — more curvy than fat. But I didn’t fit in. And we all knew it.
Now, at thirty-seven years old, boys are still making fun of me for being a fat girl.
It doesn’t matter that I could be their college professor at the community college down the road. That I have amassed degree after degree, earned award after award for my eight books published over the past six years — to acclaim in NBCLatino, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and starred reviews in Publishers’ Weekly, just to name a few. Doesn’t matter that I’ve raised two children who are kind, empathetic, compassionate, poetic, funny souls with aspirations wider than the sky and the wherewithal to accomplish them.
That I’ve dragged myself up from mental illness and post-partum depression like no one’s business, those stygian depths… that I’ve spent a lifetime healing from sexual abuse and that my creative work, mentoring, and teaching practices have now has helped hundreds of other girls, women, and femmes who have experienced trauma, body shame, and abuse in their own precious lives.
When a carful of boys and men pass by me on the street, they judge me by the one litmus test through which this society puts all women —
Is she thin enough?
My daughter did not hear those boys. And perhaps it’s because she was singing too loudly with the dog barking wild accompaniment. She was drafting in her head the next pages to the sequel of our sci-fi/fantasy book about a precocious, world-traveling survivor of a girl. She was searching for fractals in the natural world around her, patterns that speak to some mathematical beauty in the creation all around us. She was dancing along the sidewalk to the beat of her own drum.
She didn’t give one f*ck about that carful of boys.
And I mothered her that way.
Women, we’ve gotta mother this world, loves.
Y’all, we’ve gotta school the next generations of boys and men, and yes, all humans, even as we unbandage our own wounds, let them glow brightly in their purplings, their swellings, the deep pain and shame of what’s been done to us…
Unshame ourselves. Unshame each other.
My first instinct was to flip those boys off.
Yes, the mama in me was suppressed a moment or two by the wounded girl who learned early to lash out wildly to defend herself. Don’t you dare mess with me.
How else could I have risen to the heights I have if I wasn’t protecting myself?
This world claims to cheer on underdogs — but when the underdog is a fat girl or woman, all this world wants to do is crush her. In a vice designed to squeeze her thin. Starve her into submission.
She is not treated compassionately and respectfully by her peers, her teachers, her doctors.
She is not awarded the pay she deserves.
She is not listened to. She is not seen or heard.
She is ridiculed.
No matter how damn good she is. Almost without fail.
So yes, for a moment, I wanted to curse those boys out. Wash their mouths out with soap.
But then I sent a prayer to the Universe that those boys or young men would encounter a situation, and soon, in which they would be forced to learn the deep truth of what it means to respect each other. To respect girls and women. To respect themselves.
I will not carry the shame they and everyone like them has tried to shove upon me with their cruelty and callousness. With their jokes that are knives. That are weapons meant to destroy girls and women like me.
We will not let them destroy us.
When I was a ten-year-old girl, I would wear my mama’s sweaters and the kids at school would laugh at me because they were oversized, and they would say destructively cruel things about my beautiful, talented, nurse of a mama — who worked her way from a CNA to a Doctor of Nursing throughout my lifetime. A Mexican-American woman who was not allowed to go off to college after high school, so she married and had children and did the best she could in a sometimes volatile relationship with an alcoholic man who called her a Brick Shithouse for the weight she’d gained. She put herself through school anyway — and became La Doctora.
Growing up, I remember dancing to Richard Simmons with my beautiful mama in our converted-garage of a family room, the wall A/C pumping wildly to cool us down in the 110-degree broil of the Mexicali bordertown in Southern California where we lived.
When I was twelve or thirteen, she took us to Beverly Hills to Richard Simmons’ exercise studio where we danced our hearts out with him and his classful of gorgeous, exuberant souls in bodies of all shapes and sizes where all were welcomed with love and compassion.
These bodies carrying us are containers — and we should take care of them as best we can. Yes.
But they are only containers.
It’s our spirits that matter. Our curiosity. Our openness to new ideas. Our creativity and imaginations. Our willingness to try and fail and try again. Our willingness to dance when the music is on and even when it’s not. It’s the love we have for ourselves and the world around us. The love we have for each other.
My mama taught me that.
My gorgeous doctora of a mama who was also called a fat girl. And survived all the cruelty spewed at her for not fitting in.
How can any human overflowing with such vast light, such beautiful shining joy and creativity and intelligence be expected to fit in?
So all of you whose hearts are fat and spilling over with abundance —
From this fat woman who was a fat girl and who will always be too much for this society —
You are beautiful, love. You are vast. You contain multitudes.
I see you. I love you.
Never, ever, ever stop shining.
Jenn Givhan is a Mexican-American poet, novelist, and mama from the Southwestern desert who’s earned fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and from PEN Emerging Voices. The author of four full-length poetry collections and the novels Trinity Sight and Jubilee, her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, POETRY and many others. She raises her children in New Mexico and can be found coaching, inspiring, and empowering girls, women, and femmes on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. She is currently writing a memoir about what she’s learned as a Fat Woman. Read more about Jenn or reach out and share your own story at jennifergivhan.com