Growing up chubby in a Filipino household is hard. As friendly and accommodating as the Filipino community is, the people are also extremely blunt when it comes to physical appearance. If you’re fat, they will let you know. Meanwhile, they offer you food the minute you arrive — and insist that you eat.
Society teaches us that being fat is undesirable; it means you’re ugly. That’s why I’ve always felt so ashamed of the jiggly rolls that make up my body. Because of my weight, I was the perfect target for ridicule in elementary and middle school. I’d constantly hear, “at least I’m not fat like you” and a variety of other fatty jokes.
After a long day of being bullied, home should have been my safe haven. But it never felt that way. My household included my parents, grandparents, older sister and my aunt. On top of the asshole bullies at school, I had six people at home letting me know I was fat on a daily basis.
My older sister would call me “blubber butt,” and I’d try to cover it by wrapping a sweater around my waist (because it was the ’90s), but it only accentuated the fact that I had a prepubescent ass that wouldn’t quit. On days when I felt extra self-conscious, I’d try on dozens of outfits until I found something that seemed to hide my belly. But all my effort would be for naught. As soon as she saw me, my aunt would pat my belly and say how big it was.
I would get upset and tell her I didn’t like it, but my aunt always found a way to turn the situation around, making me feel like I was wrong because I didn’t know how to handle criticism or was taking her too seriously.
Going to the kitchen? That was never fun. Even if I didn’t eat much, my grandpa would comment in a sing-song tone that I was always “eating, eating, eating” and should stop so I wouldn’t get any bigger.
Did my family say these things to be mean? With the exception of my sister, no. (Siblings are supposed to be dicks to each other when they’re children anyway, right?) My mom, who is sensitive and was also teased for her rounder physique, would tell me it’s part of our culture to be very blunt. Filipinos just say what comes to mind without thinking about the consequences or other people’s feelings. I noticed this any time I would attend family functions, where relatives referred to me as taba (“fat” in Tagalog). It got to the point that my ears would perk up anytime I heard that word, because usually it meant someone was talking about me.
In fourth grade, I entered puberty and gained even more weight. Suddenly I went from a women’s size 8 to a 16. I also learned about stretch marks. I was hanging out with one of my cousins, who proceeded to touch the stretch marks on my arms because she’d never seen them on anyone our age. Mind you, she’s naturally skinny. I felt like my own one-woman freak show.
Around the same time, my dad brought me to his high school reunion. After he introduced me to one of his friends, she looked at me and said in Tagalog that I looked like my dad and that I was fat. Did she have to say I was fat? Couldn’t she have just left it at “you look like your dad”?
We’re instilled with this insane notion that being fat means you’re ugly. It means something is wrong with you. Hearing my family use this word to describe me and hearing it from peers who wanted to hurt me left me feeling absolutely terrible about myself. My self-esteem was non-existent. But if I showed that I was upset over it, I would be told that I needed to learn to take a joke. What the hell was the joke, though?
Eventually, my mom and aunt realized how much it hurt, and stopped commenting on my weight. I think what did it was the time a Filipino nurse weighed me at a doctor’s appointment and said, “Oh, she weighs more than me!” to my mom. First of all, who the fresh hell says that in front of a child?! When she left the room, my mom looked at me and smiled as she said, “You got more taba.” That’s when I lost it. I cried, and through tears I asked why she had to say that when she doesn’t like it when people do the same thing to her.
My aunt started to stick up for me whenever my grandpa would make a comment about me eating. One time, I straight up left the table without taking a bite of the sandwich I’d just made, and heard her tell him in Tagalog to not say anything about my eating habits. Even so, I didn’t actually eat that much. There were times when I starved myself, but I was still morbidly overweight.
In 7th grade, the bullying got worse. I was teased for being fat and for liking *NSYNC and Hanson. What is wrong with people?! I started getting stress migraines. It got to the point where I was taking more Advil and other pills. At one point, I downed so many pills because I just wanted the pain to go away — all of it. I was too much of a coward to slit my wrists, so I chose a route that wouldn’t leave a mark. At that point, I was tired of living. It didn’t work; in fact, I only felt a little disoriented. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t even off myself properly.
I’m grateful I overcame it all. I still have moments where my culture’s bluntness gets to me, or I don’t feel good about my physical appearance. Still, I feel better about myself than I ever did in my adolescence.
Five years ago I started a blog chronicling my outfits, and it’s still going strong. At first, I started it because I’d lost a bunch of weight and felt very confident in myself because I looked good on the outside. But I only lost the weight because I was on medication to help get rid of a stress induced virus, and its side effects included loss of appetite.
I managed to keep the weight off until I fell in love for the first time, and then I got my heart broken. I’ve been dealing with the ups and downs of my body, but I’ve come to realize I’m worth more than my weight. I’m not ugly because I’m fat. In fact, I’m not ugly at all. I’m fucking gorgeous, and damn anyone who tries to make me feel otherwise.
Photos courtesy of author’s family collection; Final photo by Jennifer Khut.