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'Fat Girl': Unsparing Look at Growing Up Large

Judith Moore knows what you're thinking.

She knows what you're thinking when you're sitting in the aisle seat of an airplane and a very overweight person comes down the aisle, right toward you. (You're praying, aren't you? "Dear God, please don't let that fat guy be assigned to the window seat; please, please don't place him in my row!")

She knows what you're thinking when you're out to dinner with friends, and the fat person at the table next to you has a steak and baked potato with butter -- and dessert -- instead of abstemiously ordering a salad. ("Jeez! Show some discipline!")

She knows what you're thinking when you're in the dressing room of a department store, and an obese woman comes to check her hemline in the three-way mirror. (I'm not that bad, after all -- look at her!)

Judith Moore knows that many Americans find fat disgusting, and offensive. We're afraid of becoming fat. And we blame fat people for their own fat fate. Or we pity them. She hears what we're thinking, because she's had these thoughts about herself.

"I hate myself," she says calmly in the first pages of her book. "I have almost always hated myself." But not because she's lazy or deceitful or uncharitable or mean.

"I hate myself because I am fat."

This is why Moore wrote Fat Girl: A True Story. She wants you to know she knows, and she wants, she says, to be honest -- with us, and with herself -- about what fat not only looks like, but what it feels and smells like. Here's Moore, introducing herself to her readers:

"I am a short, squat toad of a woman. My curly auburn hair is fading. Curls form a clown's ruff about my round face. My shoulders are wide. My upper arms are as big as those maroon-skinned bolognas that hang from butchers' ceilings. My belly juts out. The skin on my thighs is pocked, not unlike worn foam rubber. When I walk my buttocks grind like the turbines I once saw move water over the top of the Grand Coulee Dam."

Moore doesn't feel sorry for herself, and she doesn't want you to, either. She simply wants to tell you about being fat from her point of view. And she respects herself and her reader too much to pretty things up, or hide behind gauzy metaphors. Sometimes fat blisters, she writes, when fat thighs rub together. Sometimes it has a distinct smell, as it did here, when Moore went on shopping expedition at a store catering to fat women exclusively. Waiting in her underwear for her waif-like sales girl to return to the dressing room with an assortment of fat clothes for her to try on, Moore is dismayed at her body's further betrayal:

"Sweat pops out on my forehead. Sweat forms under my breasts and blooms beneath my armpits. I'm freshly bathed and generously sprayed with deodorant and good Guerlain perfume, and yet I start to smell. I smell meaty..." (She buys an outfit and leaves the mall without, she points out, consoling herself with an ice cream sundae on the way out. That bingeing in the face of disappointment is a thin person's assumption about how and when fat people eat. They don't all do it, and the ones who do don't do it all the time.)

So Fat Girl is certainly about the intimacies of living with fat, but it's not only about fat. Fat is the end result of the eating Moore does to insulate herself against her family's massive unhappiness. Fat is her high-calorie substitute for parental love and peer acceptance.

Moore spent her very early childhood in a small Midwestern town, the daughter of a kind but depressed father (he was a lawyer from a moderately affluent banking family) and a mother whose thirst for upward mobility fueled her escape from her small town background. Moore's father -- who was lanky before marriage but who became huge not long after -- adored her. But he disappeared when she was a small girl, no longer able to bear the scathing tirades from Moore's mother, who was greatly disappointed that a hoped-for career as a singer was cut short by her marriage and Moore's birth.

The desertion made Moore's porcelain-perfect mother bitter. And the fact that Moore would eventually look like her large, sad father made her mother violently angry at her only child. Which led to frequent whippings with a brown leather belt Moore still remembers. The beatings were so regular that it wasn't until Moore was significantly older that she realized most parents don't beat their children.

So, alternately berated and beaten by her mother, Moore found comfort in food. She knows it well and writes about it with loving precision. Here's Moore dreaming about the last cheeseburger she ate, 15 years ago:

"I summon the moist and porous bun, melted cheddar, a beef patty, cooked rare, cool serrated dill pickle slices, chopped crisp lettuce, sharp grainy mustard and slicks of mayonnaise…The warm edge of slightly scratchy toasted bun, dense meat, melted cheese and the lettuce rest on my tongue..."

She gave up burgers because, over dinner one night, a quasi-drunk date cheerfully told her -- while biting into his own burger -- "you're too fat to (expletive)." That casual humiliation turned Moore away from burgers forever. But sometimes at night, when she can't sleep, she lies awake and mentally constructs the perfect cheeseburger.

There is plenty of grim to go around in Fat Girl, but it's not all grim. Moore says at the book's beginning that she hates neatly tied-up endings, and the reader won't get one here. But we will learn that Moore eventually breaks away from her miserable mother, goes to college (almost slim for a few years), falls in love and marries (and divorces), twice. She has two daughters, who are now grown. (One eats, in the daughter's own words, "like a pig" and never gains an ounce; the other walks down the aisles of the grocery store -- just looking -- and gains five pounds. She watches her weight carefully. And she, too, is slender.) She discovers an affinity and talent for writing, and works diligently at her chosen profession. She is now a senior editor and book reviewer for the San Diego Reader.

Moore's sunny apartment in Berkeley, which she shares with her beloved 10-year-old dachshund Lilly -- who is also overweight -- is filled with books, flowers, good food and wine. She's an accomplished cook, and often prepares meals for friends. And while she is immeasurably happier as an adult than she ever was in her mother's home, Moore is still haunted by memories of her harridan mother, even years after the woman's death: "I still have bad dreams about her, yea, many therapists later" she confesses, wryly.

At the end of Fat Girl, you are intensely grateful that your childhood was not Judith Moore's. And you respect her determination to craft a life that works for her, independent of what others may want or insist. And when you see grossly overweight people, you may well keep in mind Moore's admonition to consider that their fat is far more than the desire run amok for blueberry pie and fried chicken... What you're seeing is past pain made visible.

Consider that before rendering judgment.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.