“Why do you always draw fat people?” Marli asked me. I looked down at my doodle, surprised. It was a few minutes before chapel at our small Christian boarding school. The girl I was sketching didn’t look fat to me – I thought she looked pretty and curvy in all the right ways. She looked like who I wanted to be, especially the curly hair.
“Let me see,” Marli demanded, and she took my pencil and notebook from me. She erased the edges of the girl’s face and drew them thinner, along with the chin. She added cheekbones and contouring. To me she looked gaunt. But Marli looked very satisfied with what she had done to my drawing and gave it back to me with a nod.
Marli and I had known each other for years. Our parents were friends, and therefore we had hung out at events and gatherings. But we weren’t exactly what I would call close, and so even though now we were assigned to sit next to each other every day for 45 minutes, I had no idea what went on her head. She had never been fat, but growing up she was a little rounder, and her mom had always been heavy, so I know she was conscious of her weight. And when she hit high school, suddenly she become less sturdy and more willowy.
I never really thought of myself as fat growing up, until other people told me I was. My mom always wanted me to go on diets with her, and I remember one of my brothers joking about the ground shaking when I walked. But when I look back at pictures from when I was a kid at those times, I don’t feel grossly obese. I look normal to me.
I did get fat. Some of it was due to diet and lifestyle, some of it was due to chemicals and surgeries, some of it was just laziness. Sometimes I think I got so used to thinking of myself as fat, that I just said to heck with it and ate what I wanted and did what I wanted and became the fat person I felt other people saw. I don’t know.
I think about that little snippet of time – that day the girl next to me told me my perception of beauty was different than hers. I often wonder which one of us had the body dysmorphia. Not that public opinion should matter, but it does. If we are honest, if I am honest, I want to be liked and thought of as beautiful.
Do you remember picture day? The lines for the photograph, the excitement about the little plastic combs, the different photo packages with the “Reflections” options and other things? I remember the third grade, when I had short hair and my mom dressed me in a pink leisure suit. I remember the buzz in the classroom when the picture envelopes were handed out and we all got to see how it came out. I looked at my portrait and was surprised. I looked like a boy, and my teeth were all crooked. I remember going to my bedroom mirror and comparing the picture I held in my hand and person I saw in the glass. I turned my head to count the freckles and brown spots on my face to see if they matched. I looked at this person every day, yet all my unique facial markers just blended in and I saw the whole, not the parts.
My mom immediately scheduled me for “make-up photo day” and in the next picture my short hair was now a more becoming Dorothy Hamill bob, with a very flowery blouse and burgundy jumper with her favorite rose necklace around my neck. No one was going to think I was a boy this time. Except of course, in the class picture, where I was standing oblivious in the back row, happy and laughing.
So who are we really? Which view is right? Should we go off of what we see in the mirror? What we see in print? What other people tell us? From a mathematical perspective, we might seek the average or the median perception – not as good as we think we are, not as bad as others do. But I’m not really sure I agree with that either. Even if someone else’s opinion is 100% wrong, than the average would make them up to 50% right, wouldn’t it?
And does it matter? Does it matter how others see us or just how we see ourselves? You can comment and tell me that it doesn’t matter what others say – but then when you try to tell someone their perception is wrong, does your statement matter? Because you are not them, are you?
So then, I wonder, do we just strip out the adjectives? Are only nouns truth? That day in chapel, I wasn’t drawing a fat girl, or a skinny girl. I was drawing a girl. But if I can’t use an adjective, I can’t tell you she was a happy girl with curly hair. I can just say she was a girl with hair. So adjectives matter, opinions matter. Good gracious, how do we figure this out?
There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer. We may never know – it’s like being a ship adrift on the sea of other people’s opinions. Having your face judged on Facebook. I’m sitting here, a thousand thoughts running through my head. There’s no pithy solution. No trope to draw this whole thing to a fitting conclusion.
I do think, however, that just like Marli and I saw 2 different things when we looked at my drawing, so do we all see different things when we look at each situation. We ask other people if what they see is the same thing, and if enough people seem to agree, we assume this means we are right. Is the dress blue or gold, though? Does majority win? What if all we are looking at, and agree upon, is nothing more than the Emperor’s new clothes? What if we have been told it is so, and rather than fight the tide, we all just agree to see what we think we should.
Ultimately, it becomes a philosophical vs. factual debate in my head. Either way, I would rather see a happy girl with curly hair vs. a fat girl who needs to lose weight.
So maybe when she asked me “Why do you always draw fat people?” I should have asked “Why do the people I draw look fat to you?”