“To the people who love you, you are beautiful already. This is not because they’re blind to your shortcomings but because they so clearly see your soul. Your shortcomings then dim by comparison. The people who care about you are willing to let you be imperfect and beautiful, too.”
― Victoria Moran, Lit From Within: Tending Your Soul For Lifelong Beauty
I hate to admit it but I never imagined there would ever be anyone to love me.
After all, I was the fat girl. The message communicated to me for years was that I would never have a boyfriend if I didn’t change. My mother, thinking she was helping me, sent me to Weight Watchers in hopes that I would finally shed the pounds and become normal. When I was 9, I spent a week with my aunt and uncle in Baltimore over the winter break and was put on a diet. I was simply not ok the way I was. The hallmarks of my childhood revolved around my discomfort with myself and my body and with me, generally, feeling like a freak. I lived the vicious cycle of being overweight and eating because I was depressed that I was overweight and being reminded that I am overeating which is contributing to my being overweight, rinse and repeat. I believed that I was too fat and that being fat made me ugly. It felt like a death sentence. Being fat means you are undesirable – in every single way. And, from a very young age, despite my fantasies about falling in love and living happily ever after, I suspected that my path might be different. I loved Cinderella’s story and was always captivated by the moment when the prince gently guides her petite foot into the glass slipper. Unfortunately, I always identified more with her ugly step sisters but secretly fantasized that a prince would find me and see that what I looked like on the inside did not match up with what the world saw.
Because of the incessant messages and the firm belief that I would never measure up in my appearance, I learned to compensate at a very young age. I soon abandoned my Cinderella fantasy and became fiercely independent. Despite my strong desire for the fairy tale ending, I firmly asserted that I would take care of myself and never rely upon a man (or anyone) to take care of me. My wall was being constructed. In adolescence when the other kids were starting to pair up, I stood alone. I began building my fortress of solitude that would protect me from the hurt and rejection of the world. As others were coming of age, I was coming to terms with my loneliness. I was learning to accept that my outward self would always trump my inside. My weight would mask my inner beauty. My thick shell would prevent others from seeing through to the tenderness that existed beneath my skin.
Slowly but surely I grew to hate everything about myself. I was always labeled as the smart kid but I knew that was code for ugly. If I was pretty, no one would call me smart. They’d tell me how pretty I was. No one would feel the need to compensate for my lack of attractiveness by reminding me that I was a smart girl. However, being a smart girl, I knew that my grades and academic prowess would be of no use to me when trying to find a date. I was convinced that all that mattered was that I fit into the right jeans. My thick calves and chubby knees would not be excused when I presented my report card to boys to show them my impressive GPA. I didn’t believe I was good enough. I thought I would never measure up. Well, actually, I would measure up too big.
What started as a lack of self-acceptance because of my weight resulted in me spending most of my teenage years depressed. I knew that I had to keep my feelings hidden on the inside because I needed to find a way to endear myself to others. I had to try to squeeze myself into a fit that was not comfortable. I had to wear a mask, pretending that I didn’t notice that I was different from the other girls. I shielded my eyes when I passed the mirror so I didn’t need to see the girl looking back at me. In order to play the part, I needed to imagine I looked like the other girls.
I cried frequently, mourning what I had already lost – what was so cruelly robbed from me. My self-esteem was gone and I watched as my friends all dated while I secretly harbored crushes. Even though I had many friends who were boys – they loved having me as a best pal they could share their deepest thoughts with – I never had the confidence to even entertain the idea that they could like me in that way. Sure, they could trust me. I was safe. I couldn’t break their hearts yet mine was regularly shattered. My closest friend in high school was a boy I adored. I believed he was my soul mate but I was destined to being “just a friend” because I was not pretty like the girls he dated and I accepted that as the gospel. Ironically, it was in my yearbook that he wrote “Let’s make a date – you, me, June 26, 2000.” We would meet up 15 years after graduation to reconnect. We would reunite. We were committed to each other. I imagined, straight out of a John Hughes movie, that I would show up at the football field after 15 years apart and I would suddenly be the girl of his dreams.
After surviving the taunts and teasing of elementary and junior high school, I managed to find a place for myself by high school. I was popular. Suddenly, my brains were an asset as was my well-developed sense of humor. Plus, being so broken from what was happening in my home, I had compassion and was a great listener. I was the girl everyone could turn to for help. I was a safe harbor for everyone – especially those boys who had not yet figured out (or had figured out but couldn’t admit) that they liked other boys. Everyone liked Tammy. But, still, I did not believe anyone would want to date me. I didn’t think I was worthy or acceptable of a conventional courtship. I did my best to engage my chameleon skills but I stood out. I had so much baggage lugging around behind me and I wore the scarlet letter of being a fat girl. No matter how cool I was, no matter how many friends I had, I could never escape that. I lived an existence on the fringe. I placed my toe inside the circle every now and again but, in truth, I lived outside, on my own.
My size and self-imposed disdain validated everything my mother and sister told me throughout my younger life. They warned me that these days would come. They predicted my fate and encouraged me to gain control of my weight before I stared down the barrel of the gun. Before I was the girl who might not have a date to Prom. Before I was always the third wheel. Before I was scarred by rejection. Before I started living out the self-fulfilling prophecy that I was destined to be alone. And, despite the fact that they both had their own struggles with weight, my mother and sister were not like me. They always managed to have men in their lives. My sister had a nonstop flurry of boyfriends from her early teens and my mother was engaged to be married by her 18th birthday. Me? I was a virgin on my 18th birthday.
In college things changed a bit. I saw myself as more than just that fat girl but my walls were now firmly in place. I closed myself off. I was determined to live my life independent of a man. Sure, I wanted to have sex but I would do it on my own terms. I was now convinced that I could be successful in my life regardless of whether or not I found love. I continued to seek out a partner but set the bar low. I knew I had many gifts but, in my eyes, beauty still eluded me. Now an adult, I was still challenged by this childhood paradigm. I still believed that my weight would doom me to a life alone. Yet, I was beginning to consider that, perhaps, I had not drawn the short straw in my family. At this point, my mother was on her fourth husband and my sister was working on her second. In contrast to them, I considered myself lucky. I knew I did not want to live my life being evaluated based on the number of men I could pile up like a stack of used match sticks.
My story has a surprise ending. Well, not a surprise to anyone who knows me but a surprise to anyone who knew me. I did not follow my self-prescribed destiny. I did not fall victim to a life of loneliness. I did not journey down the road of life alone and without love. In fact, out of nowhere, like Cinderella’s prince, my man appeared. My foot was the only one that would fit his glass slipper. He knew, without any doubt, even before he tested the shoe that mine was the perfect fit. He was not the first man to find his way to me but he was the only one who ever made it past the surface. He seemed to have some special tools to chisel away at my walls. He rejected them, seeing past them and appreciating what lie beneath. He told me how beautiful he found me and how much he could not live without me. I tried pushing him away, certain that one of my more attractive friends would suit him better. I sought protection in fear that I would wake up from this dream only to realize that he was an oasis in my desert.
In fact, he was very real and very certain that I was the girl for him. He saw my imperfections and found beauty in each and every one of them. He looked past what I portrayed to him to see the love I was holding in reserve. He fancied my brain and did not see it as a compensation for my lack of good looks. He saw it as a complement – a completion of the package. He saw me like no one before ever did and showed me what beauty really looked like. He viewed me through the lens that we put on when we fall deeply – romantically or platonically – in love with another. We have the ability to see their beauty in everything they do and they become more beautiful by the day. We look at them and find serenity. They bring us peace.
It has been nearly 30 years since high school and that reunion in 2000 never happened. I didn’t need to become the girl of my friend’s dreams. Besides, by 2000 I was really fat. Fat with a baby in my belly. And I was more beautiful than I ever imagined I could be. Sure, today I still struggle with how I look and worry about it but, as many of us come to realize with age, beauty has many definitions. My self-confidence and my vulnerability make me beautiful today. My spirit and my soul are what continues to draw people to me and I never worry about having to overcompensate. That’s the best I have to give. And, despite the fact that I try to look my best, my focus on my appearance is now about how it makes me feel rather than how others view me. I know that the fat girl still lives inside me – whether I am a size 6 or a 16 she always will. She threatens to come out and show herself every now and again but I comfort her and remind her that she is so much more than that.
She is loved.