07 November 2012

Constructing the fat kid in family photographs

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.

Charlotte as a child sitting on a boat

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.

Charlotte eating a plate of spaghetti

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.

Playing on a beach
Playing on a beach

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.

Charlotte walking on a beach

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.


Natalie said...

Wow, this really gets me right in the chest. Particularly this:
"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."

When I could put a finger on the difference, my height and width, it stuck out more and more in every photograph.

Anonymous said...

I'm feeling a bit overwrought today but these pictures just made me cry. Thank you for sharing them and writing about them. I think what I shed a tear about is that you were taught to associate these pictures with shame because of how your body and fatness and ladylikeness was talked about in your family. You look absolutely beautiful in these pictures.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Natalie.

I'm interested in how my body became a focus for so much anxiety and intervention. I think it says a lot about the social positioning of girls.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks kayisagay.

I can see now that I was a lovely kid, thank god!

Tracy T said...

Charlotte, I always enjoy your writing but I've been especially moved by these old photographs you've been sharing on fb and even more so by this reflective post.

The mixed emotions and memories that come from having a sense of ourselves as always the fat kid are powerful. The childhood lessons of being too much and not enough all at the same time meet the self-reflexive, radical, anti-assimilationist us’ of our future selves - what a wonderful mix. When all of this is alongside old photographs that both evidence these stories and prove them wrong, it all becomes even more interesting and confusing.

I have many memories and photographs that reflect similar stories about me in my family. I'll share this one about my mom's second wedding - I was about 10. I don't personally have copies of the photographs but they are fresh in my mind since I saw them at my grandmother's house when I was visiting her last week in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. I've been thinking this stuff along with you, Charlotte.

I remember my mom making the dresses for her wedding party (me and my younger sister, my two younger soon-to-be stepsisters, and my mom's long time best friend, Fay). My mom had been a young, poor, widowed single mom. She was an excellent seamstress so making us all simple, cotton sundresses with synthetic lace overlays in pastels was the perfect way for her to afford us all something nice. My dress was pink, my favourite colour at the time and as child of the 70s & 80s I have always loved lace so you’d think this dress, made just for me, would have been a dream. But I never really liked it. The dress was a source of body shame.

I was told by my mom many times as she made the dresses that my dress was the same size as Fay’s - that she was a grown lady, that I should be smaller, and that I should lose some weight before the wedding so that my dress would be smaller and look nicer – things like this. I remember Fay speaking to me about once too. I never did lose weight for her wedding but was continually reminded to try.

When I look at the photographs of me in that dress now it’s the first thing I think of: the memory of being a fat kid - the shame of the dress and my body – the shame of being too much and not enough. I look at the photographs now and see that the dress was cute. It fit me well and looked quite nice on me. I was chubby and wider/bigger than most kids my age but I was, as you put it, normatively-sized. It’s baffling to the me I am now that the adults in my life would shame the child-me like this. It seems at once totally typical and completely unbelievable.

Thanks for your post, Charlotte. It’s been good to write this down. I don’t think I’d ever told this story before. Kayisgay is right, you look absolutely beautiful in those pictures. I’ll post a copy of mine once I get one.


Charlotte Cooper said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story Tracy.

I love what you say about the child selves and the anti-assimilationist badass selves coming together in the reappraisal of these photographs. So powerful!

Looking forwards to seeing the pic, whenever it comes.


deeleigh said...

I can really relate to this. I always thought I was fat, too, and that's what my family always said. When you see pictures of just me as a kid, at least after growth spurts, I looked... well, just sort of solidly built. But when I'm with my friends, you can clearly see that I was always larger than the other kids my age (except for the other girls who were considered "fat").

Here's an example of what I would have considered a good picture, post growth spurt:
I'm on the left.
And here's a "bad" one: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8477/8166250849_5aa302b071_n.jpg

I was never put on a diet. On the other hand, I was told "no" a lot when it came to food, even healthy food. A few years after these were taken, my parents split up and we were poor enough to be food insecure for a few years.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for sharing, deeleigh.

deeleigh said...

Oh, oops. I'm actually on the right in that photo. The biggest of the girls.

Jen Jones said...

I recently went through my childhood photos with the specific purpose of looking at my weight through the years and came to similar conclusions. Although at times I was carrying a bit of chub/puppy fat in most of the pictures I was fairly "normal". I just happened to be bigger than other kids my age.

One really sticks in my mind. I'm sitting on a chair with my cousin who is 1 month older than me, we're bout around 8 years old. It was a summer holiday by the coast, I was self conscious the whole holiday of being in my swimming costume, at the side of her and her older sister, who was also thinner and smaller than me. They were both pretty petite little things and a direct comparison of the three of us made my feel bad.

Looking back at them now, I wasn't particularly fatter than them, I was just physically larger, well built and TALLER. I truely think that concern for my "weight" was unfounded, I just inherited a certain degree of largeness. I do believe these days that over concern for my size would have faded by the time my peers caught up to me, and I got older. But the shame and food pressure I felt manifested itself as overeating for comfort, which ultimately is what made me a fat adult and set about a life long battle.

Only now I'm done with it all - I've stopped fighting myself and my body can I look back and realise there was never anything "wrong" with myself as a child.

Now I see the same thing happening to my 7 year old niece, who is practically a carbon copy of me. She's well built, enjoys her food, tall and slightly on the chunky side. Her sisters are little, tiny, waifs in comparison. The youngest is actually very underdeveloped, and I can see already my older niece is starting to get the message that its wrong that she is bigger and is being compared to her tiny sisters.

It breaks my heart that all I can do is be there to support her and show her that as a successful, happily married, fat aunt there's a light at the end of whatever tunnels society puts her in, and help her navigate them. Sadly she's from a very complex family background of split families where I benefited from a very stable loving home. It's very worrying.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for your comment Jen. I'm sorry to hear about your niece. Sounds like you're doing the right thing in trying to advocate for her.

Anonymous said...

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad."

What I see:

1. Normal little girl with normal little tum, probably filling out in preparation for stretching up.

2. Normal little girl struggling with food that is tricky for a child to eat. Why didn't her parents cut it up for her if she was having so much trouble?

3. Wow, look at this kid, she's going to be an Amazon when she grows up! Sign her up for something rough and tumble, or teach her how to ride a bike if she doesn't like sports. She's going to need muscles on her long bones.

4. Apple figures: some people have them. Ohemgee she would look so cute in a pre-WWI dropped-hip frock with one of those cummerbund sort of sashes with a big bow in the back, and a matching bow in her hair.

I just want to give the little girl in those photos a big hug. And cut up her spaghetti for her.