I’m ten years old. I’m walking through the mall with my grandma. A lady stops us, flashes me an eager smile, and tells me that I’m ugly, but I have a kind soul.
She doesn’t come right out and put it in those words, you’re ugly. Instead, she says something like despite how you may look on the outside, but I’m not dumb. I know what she means.
She goes on chattering, waving her hands around, talking about the light shining from within me. My grandma is nodding politely along with her, indulging her, so I do the same. I know this stranger thinks she has paid me a compliment, but I can’t bring myself to take it that way.
I am ten years old. I still want to grow up to be a princess. Beauty is important to me. Even in the books I love to read, the Animorphs series and the Baby-Sitters Club, the protagonists are plain and unstylish at worst. I am fatter than the girl in Blubber. I’ve checked.
I would like to be plain. I would like to not be fat, I would like to not have a disability that contributes to my fatness. Every night I fall asleep praying that I will wake up living in some other, better body in some other, better world. I try my hardest not to picture a future where I will never be lovely and thin, but here in front of me is this stranger telling me that I’m doomed.
But it’s supposed to be okay, because I have a kind soul. (What ten year old cares about kind souls!?)
After a while, my grandma drags me away from the stranger’s side. She gives a poised, neutral nod and says, “Wasn’t that nice of her to say?”
I shrug. I go to the food court, and out of anxiety and shame, I order one kids’ meal and one adult meal and ask the cashier to hide them in the same bag.This isn’t the first time I’ve doubled up on food and it won’t be the last, although in another year, I’ll decide to take the matter of my body into my own hands, and I’ll stop eating all meals but dinner.
And in three years, when I’m finally approaching thinness, I’ll be at the butt end of another backhanded compliment here at the mall when a car packed with teenage boys passes me, all of them hanging out the windows and howling at me at the top of their lungs. That’s when I’ll discover that there’s no winning, there’s no correct body to have. I’ll wilt a little inside as my grandma attempts to handle the situation with the same adamant grace: “My, they certainly did like you, didn’t they?”
I try not to let this stuff stick with me, but it does, even now that I’m an adult who just isn’t interested in the pretty princess life anymore.
The stranger could have chosen to act like my favorite teacher, who encouraged me to be talkative and creative. I still remember how reacted when I turned up to talent show rehearsals in glittery silver sandals. He said, “Now that’s a pair of stage shoes if I ever saw one!”
The stranger could have chosen to act like the nicest nurse at the children’s hospital where I got my monthly checkups. When I had to have blood drawn, she held my hand and told me it was okay to feel afraid. Unlike so many others, she saw past my weight and height and treated me like the scared child I was.
The stranger could have chosen to act like my physical therapist, who complimented my determination, motivation, and accomplishments. Even though it was part of his job to help me stay in shape, he never commented either positively or negatively on my body.
But instead, the stranger chose to underline my appearance, as if my other good qualities were only useful as a way to make up for how I looked. I’m sure it was an honest mistake on her part, but I felt like someone had pulled a mask off my face and gasped in horror at what they saw.
Sixteen years down the road, I’m more comfortable in my own skin. I can take a compliment without turning it over and over in my mind, looking for the dirty side. I can brush off strangers the way my grandma once did, can look down my nose at them even from five feet tall.
That ten year old, though? She isn’t gone. Her legs still tremble in fear when strangers approaches her. She still tries to reach for food neither of us really want to eat, and she still looks in the mirror and sees herself fat, frizzy-headed, big-nosed, and unacceptable.
This isn’t the fault of a single stranger, by any stretch. I don’t blame her. But I do wish that instead of adding to the chorus of negative voices, she’d have been one of the few people who helped teach me how to take care of a frightened inner child who can’t calm down and won’t go away.