“What’s the greatest lesson a woman should learn? That since day one, she’s already had everything she needs within herself. It’s the world that convinced her she did not.”
Gemuk: Adj. fat, plump, obese
I wish I remember who the first person was to call me fat. I’ve been hearing it for so long, I can’t remember. It was long before the nickname Taylor Fatty became popular in Jr. High (super clever by the way, kids.) It was long before my dance instructors told me to “suck it in.” It was long before my grandmother told me I was “going to get fat” if I continue to eat. It was long before high school when I stole my dad’s diet pills and stopped eating.
I genuinely don’t remember the first time. I also don’t have vivid memories of being called “fat” specifically. People were far too cruel to be that upfront about their disapproval — bullying. I remember feeling fat. I don’t know what it’s like to not feel fat. I’ve carried that feeling with me like a full pocket, weighing me down and reminding me of my flaws, always. I don’t remember a time in which I didn’t feel fat, big, uncomfortable. The feeling is a part of me, and has been always.
Except, it couldn’t be always. Because I couldn’t have been born feeling uncomfortable in a body of mush. Babies are meant to be chubby and cuddly. So when did that transition into people treating me like my size is an issue? Like my size is an open topic of conversation? Like my size is any of their business?I remember kindergarten: the day of a tornado drill and all the children having to line against the cubbies in a fetal position with our heads between our legs. I remember looking between mine and feeling sad that all I could see were my big thighs.
I remember Second Grade: playing at my best friend’s house and a group of (maybe?) high school cheerleaders practicing lifts outside. They soon began to practice lifting and tossing the growing group of young girls watching in awe. I remember backing away and going in the house when they got to me. I remember thinking there’s no way they could lift me. Who the fuck put it in my innocent baby mind that I was too fat for a group of high school girls to lift up?
I don’t know, but I can still feel the tightening, embarrassing feeling in my chest. It still happens when anyone mentions my weight — or my body.
It happened when a boy in high school told me if I wore short-shorts “everyone would throw up.”
It happened when a supposed-feminist and supposed-friend told me I had “some lady balls” for wearing the bikinis I do while on study abroad in Greece.
It happens every time someone asks if I felt like a giant while teaching in Korea, or when people ask if my students called me fat. (They didn’t, by the way. Because maybe even my elementary school students knew it was none of their business.)
It happened when I stepped on the scale midway through Peace Corps Pre-Service Training and saw the number hit 75 kilos — 165 pounds, and the staff member responded to my concerned face and questions with, “It’s ok, you’re still pretty.”
Indonesians are supposed to be shy. They’re supposed to be indirect. That’s what research told me before I arrived, and that’s what I was taught during training. Real-life experience, however, has shown me otherwise. Indonesians will talk to you, or make fun of you, about everything. Like, extremely obvious things that don’t need commenting on.
Not wearing make-up?
Wow! Tinggi sekali! Wow! Very Tall.
Oh! Kacamata? Oh! Glasses?
Lebih gemuk! Fatter.
Ahh gemuk. What a word. Thank you, Indonesia, for creating a word that sounds offensive even before you know what it means. It’s practically onomatopoeia: thonk! Boom! GEMUK! And boy, do Indonesians love the word. But, it’s not all their fault. Here, being fat is, supposedly, a sign of happiness, a sign that you’re healthy. To Indonesians, being called skinny, or short, is far more of an insult.
So with this culture of saying exactly what they think and observe about people and the fact that being ‘fat’ is good, my Peace Corps service has so far been just great for the ol’ confidence.
One of my first days in my new school, I had to explain to the group of female teachers that calling someone fat is an insult, that it’s hurtful. They all laughed at me unendingly and still comment on my weight constantly despite the fact that they know it upsets me. If I’m eating, they need to know what it is and they giggle at my hunger. If I’m not eating, it must be because I’m the silly American, afraid of getting fat, so they try to make me eat. They’re always shocked that I am capable of eating rice, and they ask if I miss bread. They talk about my appearance constantly, mostly because that’s just their culture of gossip. For them it’s normal and a way to get to know the new teacher. For me, it’s a stressor.The weight I gained during Pre-Service Training has continued to haunt me like a little belly-ghost full of rice — a Gemuk, if you will.
When I arrived at my permanent site, it was Ramadan, the fasting month. It was exactly what I needed and was looking forward to after three months of weight gain, oily skin, and being called fat daily (and also being told by my host family that they wanted me even fatter. As if there was a prize: whichever family fattened their volunteer up the most was obviously the best family, right?)
Fasting was easy. I dropped the added weight by, without distractions or excuses, getting back into my yoga routine and taking more control over the portion sizes I was eating. I finally began to feel like my self again, to be happy and confident again. I don’t get called gemuk on a daily basis anymore.
Except, now that’s a problem. Let’s return to the fact that being fat means you’re happy and healthy. Let’s remember that Indonesians say everything they notice about a person. Now, you have a recipe for my host family thinking I’m sad to be living with them and hate their food. Now, when I show my host-mom pictures of me from before Peace Corps, all she has to say is “lebih gemuk, lebih cantik” fatter, prettier.
I hear “nasi lagi,” more rice, over a dozen times a day. The first thing I hear in the morning and when I come home from teaching is “makan dulu,” eat first. She tries to add extra rice to my plate, she sneaks food onto the desk in my room, she brings me cake and chips and any other snack she thinks I might like. There’s no making her happy, because she thinks I’m not happy.
Keep in mind, I’m no size 2. I went right from the children’s section to the glorious double-digits in women’s when I was still in elementary school. A size 0 would maybe cover one of my legs — if the fabric was stretchy. Any weight I have lost in the months since training was extra, the Kediri Gemuk, I am at my normal and slightly above average, yet still healthy weight, but people still won’t leave me the hell alone.
There’s literally no winning.
I’m exhausted being talked to about my weight. It’s my host-mom’s business, it’s my coworkers’ business, it’s everyone’s business. I’ve heard it from “friends,” I’ve heard it from coaches, I heard it from pediatricians who were worried I ate too much junk food and wasn’t active enough. I’m tired of it.
And here’s the thing: I’m not even fat.
That’s right, I’m saying it. I’m twenty-three years old and I’m deciding it for myself. I. Am. Not. Fat. One more time for the people in the back: I AM NOT FAT. Guess what else?
IT’S. NONE. OF. YOUR. BUSINESS.
I wasn’t fat in kindergarten just because my thighs touched, I wasn’t fat in 5th grade because I wanted to quit soccer, I wasn’t fat in middle school because I grew larger than the boys at school. I’m not fat. I have never been fat. Fat is a stupid word and so is gemuk.
You know what I am? Healthy. My weight is not dangerous. I don’t eat pizza and candy on a regular basis. I exercise frequently. I, dare I say it, am happy with my body.
How dare people tell me all my life that I am too big. Thanks for stealing my innocent body image and trying to mold me into a size petite, World. I’m saying it now to make peace with every kilo, pound, ounce, gram, atom of my doughy and beautiful body. I’m saying it now so I can remember I’ve said it and I don’t allow nosy, but well-meaning, Indonesians to drive me insane. I’m not fat.
And it’s none of your business.