“Center of Attention” is a piece I submitted to the Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology. However, I don’t believe it was chosen and maybe that’s a good thing. So I submitted it to the local B.L.A.C.K. (Building Leadership and Community Knowledge) newsletter Uhuru. So will be published in the upcoming edition. But I also wanted to publish it here for all the bigger people (regardless of gender) who are struggling with body image. This piece is for y’all.
As a child, I loved summer.
No—I craved it. For me, that meant homework, teachers, and early morning risings to board the pencil yellow bus were a distant memory for three months. Until August, freedom was a luxury I savored for the most part—especially when I was permitted open space in the field behind my grandmother’s back yard.
The field was my go-to spot in the 1980s back home in Springfield, Illinois, where I was born, raised, and allowed to play as long as I was monitored by the older children. When them, I played baseball, Tag, Track and Field in this area, my feet feeling the soft blades of grass between my toes. It was one of the few places where my body wasn’t usually the focal point of negative attention.
You see, I was a fat Black girl—the only one in my immediate family—and I was often reminded of this. Whenever I’d stuff food in my little mouth, family members stared at me with unspoken disgust. My plump limbs were the punchlines for a variety of fat jokes made by cousins who displayed ill intent towards me. When school was in session, I was called everything from “Hippo” to “The Ugliest Girl in School” both on the playground and the bus. I also earned the reputation of eating more than my fair share of food during the lunch period.
It didn’t help matters that I was sexually abused by my aunt, who was a few years older than me. Though she herself possessed a rotund frame, she made it a ritual to criticize me and my body because it didn’t resemble that of a cousin known for her physical attractiveness. There were times when I studied my body while standing in front of the mirror, tilting my head to the side slightly and struggling to discover whatever flaw I had so I can rid myself of it. I did this every day for as long as I remember, the little version of me not understanding what the problem was. Why my body was such a flaw to everyone else.
As I grew older, I began covering my body with pairs of jeans and t-shirts—regardless of how much sweat dampened my forehead and everywhere else. Never again did I wear a tank top or swimsuit outside of my grandmother’s backyard. I wouldn’t dare to—especially with my cousins in town. At this time, I was fat and enduring middle school, so my body was not only ridiculed but physically assaulted by peers on a regular basis. On top of that, it produced a foul older because it harbored a bacterial infection I didn’t realize I even had. I thought it was the result of taking cold showers instead of the hot ones my family couldn’t afford to pay for. It took a gynecology visit to discover the truth, but until then I fantasized about having a body similar to the popular and much thinner girls. I no longer wanted the extra layers clinging onto my bones. I wanted it gone.
So when Spring drifted into summer, I didn’t enjoy it anymore. I found myself hiding in my room, not wanting nothing to do with the outside world. When I did engage in a summer activity, it was in shorts and t-shirt and even that was short-lived. Eventually, the shorts were replaced by jeans that screened my growing thighs. There were periods where I was thin enough for people to notice—men especially. But the weight eventually crept back on, despite the many times I stuck tooth brushes and writing utensils down my throat, the number of meals I forfeited, and the amounts of empty carbs I eliminated.
I carried decades’ worth of taunts within me well into my twenties and early-thirties, covering up my massive arms beneath thin cardigans, my legs with blue jeans or leggings. The toxicity of the self-hatred I felt clung onto every muscle and layer of fat stored in my body. There were periods when I wished I were a different person in another life. With another body.
Fast forward to 27 years old and living in Rochester, New York.
I am over 200 pounds (though you wouldn’t think so just by setting your eyes on me). As I said before, I carried years of body-shaming messages within me, on my shoulders, and back. In my mind. I was still wearing autumn wardrobe throughout the summer, uncomfortable due the humidity, yet safe from taunts pertaining to my body.
One day, I was in the Downtown Rochester area, heading towards the Family Dollar to purchase something I needed. I was wearing a cardigan over my black tank top as my tongue licked away the beads of sweat moistening my upper lip. The humidity was oppressive to say very least—so much so that even the shade failed to emit relief. The only thought occupying my mind was getting to the store so I can enjoy the breeze of an air conditioner.
I was actually a few steps away from the Family Dollar’s entrance when I heard someone ask “Aren’t you hot?”
I slowed my pace until I came to a complete stop, looking for the owner of the voice I believed was addressing me. My attention settled on an older woman with sepia shaded skin standing at the convenient store next to my destination. She stared back at me, confusion wrinkling her face as if she had never seen anyone like me. Here we go, I assumed.
“A little,” I said, downplaying my discomfort with a shy smile. “I don’t like the way my arms look, though.”
The stranger’s expression on her face softened slightly as she sucked on her teeth. “Girl, it’s eighty degrees! It’s too hot to care about what your arms look like.” She then walked away, leaving me to look on with a quiet shock at her level of bluntness.
Yet she was right. According to the weather report, the highest temperature was going to be about eighty degrees—possibly much more so with the humidity. Plus, the dryness of my lips indicated that I was becoming dehydrated and needed something to drink soon. And my sweating wasn’t helping matters. Reluctantly, I peeled off my cardigan and gave permission the sun to touch my arms. I swept my gaze around the open streets and sidewalks to catch any condescending stares from on-lookers, all the while clinging onto my cotton armor in case I had to hide again. But the strangers only walked past me, solely focused on their own destinations and not paying me any mind. If anything, I was an afterthought they avoided not out of disgust but because I stood in the middle of the sidewalk like a fool.
After my visit to Family Dollar, I started towards the St. Paul Street bus booth to board the next city bus heading home, water in hand, when I caught my reflection in a shop window. I stopped and examined my frame—truly studied curvaceous hips, my thighs, my circular belly as I rested my hand on its center. And then my eyes shifted to my arms—my untoned limbs constructed to cradle weeping children, embrace friends announcing the greatest achievement or most debilitating disappointment, arms associated with hands often prepared to either comfort or defend. I immediately noticed how the warmth brightened my skin, bringing out hints of orche and sun-kissed orange as a golden shimmer enhanced the beauty that is my melanin.
It’s too hot to care about what your arms look like.
The woman’s message seeped into my mind, into my spirit as my reflection and I admired one another, drinking in the attention we both craved and now received. This is my body, I thought as the toxicity of childhood derision bled from my pores and into an invisible pool at my sneakered feet before disappearing into the concreate. My body belonged to me and not the ones who critiqued it, mocked it, or used it for their own selfish gratification. These curves, these breasts, feet, hands, neck, stomach, and the inner workings orchestrated to preserve my existence and despite its imperfections and build, are mine.
And they are beautiful.