I've been going through some of the family photographs that I inherited after my dad died a couple of months ago.
One of the things that has caught my eye has been how family photographs constructed me in the family as fat. What I mean by this is that I can remember when the pictures were taken, the kind of talk that went on about them in my family, and how these pictures in particular were supposedly evidence that I was fat, and therefore deficient.
There are fat people speckled across my family tree, but I don't think of it as being a fat family. I think I'm the fattest of the generations that I know. I've tended to think of myself as always having been fat. What's interesting to me in the family photographs is that I'm not fat in all of them. I'm quite thin in a bunch of them, and mostly pretty normatively-sized. I haven't always been fat.
I don't know what this means in terms of me constructing my own fat autobiography, I'm getting my head around that at the moment. I'm wary of thinking along the lines of trauma making me fat, or emotional problems, or that my fatness is evidence of pathology. I think it's more complicated than that. Mostly I don't care why I got fat because I'm pretty sure that I'm unlikely to get any thinner.
Between 1975-1977 I lived in Hong Kong, close to a beach. I spent a lot of time on the beach, and there was generally a camera about. Dad had bought a fancy camera, taking advantage of the availability of technological bargains on the island at that time for people who had access to money. So I was photographed quite a lot in my swimsuit, playing on the beach. The beach is the place where I also learned to swim. I realise now that I was under quite a bit of surveillance but at the time I was oblivious to it.
I want to share a handful of pictures from that period that represent the family lore about my presumed fatness. The way I'm talking about them is quite harsh, and may or may not represent what was actually said, but reflects the messages that I internalised about my body from the way it was represented in my family as I was growing up.
This is me sitting on a boat moored off a beach on one of the small islands surrounding Hong Kong. Dad knew someone who had access to a boat and we'd all pile on it on a summer weekend, a load of people, and go to a beach, swim ashore, then come home again. Idyllic!
My slightly slumpy posture on the seat, and the tiny bulge of my tummy was taken as evidence of my fatness. I remember this photo being talked about, my tummy being pointed out. I thought of it as an ugly picture, something shameful.
This picture was taken on a walk around an island. Mum and dad were part of an ex-pat community, and communal walks were a popular way of passing the time at the weekends. Here we'd stopped to eat. I had a plate of spaghetti, I remember it now all these years later, spaghetti Milanaise. I had trouble wrangling it from the plate into my mouth. I got cross and tangled up with it. This picture was regarded as evidence of my greed and clumsiness in the family, maybe because of the guy next to me, Andy, who's looking bemused. Looks like I'm giving him the stink-eye and refusing to be made the joke. I was an embarrassment because I couldn't eat in a ladylike manner.
These two pictures are of me playing on the beach with my friends Kacey and Julia. I'm wearing a really fantastic halterneck swimsuit. We're all more or less the same age, but my friends are smaller and more wirey than me. I'm podgy in comparison, a bit of a lummox. I was aware of this difference at the time, but couldn't articulate it. I just had a feeling that I wasn't quite right.
This is me on another beach in another country in 1977. By this time I had been dieted by my mum, the food restriction had begun, and family anxiety about the size of my body was now explicit. My tummy was always explained away as puppy fat, but it never went away, I always had it. It was never regarded as just the way I was built, it was always a problem.