One of my most vivid anti-fat memories from childhood was the summer I attended a Girl Scouts day camp. It was my first camp experience, and it was filled with the smell of rotting pine needles (lovely), swimming in a warm forest lake (even lovelier), and learning how to build fires and recognize poisonous plants.
What could mar this fuzzy, nostalgic memory of youth? One incident, which brought home to me, perhaps for the first time, that fat people are deviant, meant to be ridiculed and ostracized until they conform.
It was morning. Our camp counselors were older girls, who stayed overnight in the tents (unlike us little kids). They would often hold a sort of “pow-wow” in the morning dew, with the little kids sitting on logs in rows before them. They would talk about what they were planning to do that day, and give us our counselor assignments (I recall it was the first time I heard the word “latrine”).
Most of the camp counselors were thin or average. However, I recall that one of them was fat. The interesting part of this is that I don’t think I even realized it until that morning, when she was mocked, marginalized, and raked over the coals for the sin of being fat.
Before our assignments were given out that morning, a practical joke had been planned by a couple of the thinner counselors. One girl, a particularly sour-faced brunette with a ponytail, pulled something out of her pocket.
“What’s this?” she asked the little kids, who were speechless. “Is it a big pillowcase? Or maybe a sheet? It’s just — so — huge!!” And she stretched it over her head.
It was a pair of panties. Specifically, the fat counselor’s panties.
Now, in retrospect, the counselor wasn’t really that fat, nor were her panties nearly as wide as they were made to seem. In fact, she was likely about the size I am now, perhaps a bit fitter (I’m much more sedentary these days than I used to be, due to the thinness of my extra time and pocketbook, certainly not due to desire). But that’s really beside the point. The point was that she was markedly larger than her thinner counterparts, and THAT was her crime.
The fat counselor’s face went beet red, and she feigned a laugh. The little kids then began to laugh tentatively — sadly, so did I. Suddenly, that particular counselor looked a lot more grotesque to me – ridiculous, even. The mind of a child is particularly malleable to suggestion, and the suggestion that she was deviant due to her size made her LOOK like how they were painting her – bigger, grotesque, unwanted, unlovable, mean, lazy.
The fat camp counselor had the grace to laugh it off (though visibly humiliated), pocketed the panties when given back to her, and that was that.
However, that experience was to paint my vision of fat people and, as I moved from a slightly pudgy seven year old to a markedly pudgy thirteen year old, my vision of myself. It wasn’t until these past two years, when I’ve been involved in fat acceptance, that I’ve retraced this old memorial and laid a bouquet or two at its feet.
I wonder what that fat counselor is doing now, and how her life went as she got older. I hope she has found happiness and acceptance (especially from herself). I wish I could find her again, to tell her I am sorry for laughing at her, sorry for not knowing what I know now.