A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature: over 400,000 monthly users
People of a certain age will remember the dominance of JCPenney in the 1990s. Affordable, comfortable clothes adorned the shelves of the department store’s various branches; it offered enough name brands to make it appealing to kids and their caregivers alike.
I mean, Southpole, anyone?
My mother found plenty of husky clothes for this big boy on the racks of JCPenney stores across the South and the Midwest. I probably was ambivalent about them when my mother initially purchased them, but then, as I realized how much they allowed me to cover myself, I grew to appreciate them more. Husky clothes for a husky boy – it made sense.
For the first five years of my life, I was relatively small, and then my girth grew. I developed an affable, agreeable personality to avoid the taunts that inevitably come with being a big kid. This method worked until about the time I was 12; at that point in my life, due to some long-forgotten inspiration, I resolved to lose a significant amount of weight.
I saw this endeavor through, likely shedding fifty pounds from 2003 to 2004. I became so small that my mother began to warn me that my diminished form could impact my kidney function, describing the demanding process of dialysis as she did so.
I agreed to gain the weight back, and then I continued to gain weight throughout my years as a teenager. I arrived at college as a solidly big guy. The taunts of childhood turned into more subtle forms of mockery as I navigated the terrain of a culturally diverse university in the nation’s capital.
These slights be damned, I settled into the reality of having lived in my body for nearly twenty years at that point. I employed humor and wit to distract from my large size; based on their reactions, people seemingly appreciated this method of engagement. My personality allowed me to deflect when it came to my weight.
As I transitioned from college to law school, my accomplishments met my personality to provide enough cover from my body and its size.
I completed my first quarter century on Earth with some form of mastery on how to conceal my body enough to not make it even the remote focus at any given time. This period of my life – my second tour in D.C. – was made infinitely better by my ever-present cognizance of how I navigated the world as a big man and my intentional selection of some of the most compassionate friends a large guy could have. I hit a stride – my weight was there, but it didn’t dominate my thoughts like it had during my adolescent years.
I journeyed along this path for a year and a half, and then a dear friend, Desireé, loaned me her copy of Hunger by Roxane Gay. Normally, it takes me about a month to finish a book; I read Hunger ravenously and completed it within two weeks. Dr. Gay’s description of an inconceivably terrible childhood trauma and its relationship to her subsequent weight gain enraptured me. I so greatly appreciated her candor on a topic that affects all of us in very intimate, piercing ways throughout our lifetimes.
Finishing that masterpiece made me reconsider my relationship with my size and pushed me to interrogate my previous decisions to make myself less noticeable in social interactions.
For one, I started thinking about my attire to gatherings centered around bodies of water – whether pools, rivers, or oceans. Prior to reading Hunger, I approached these outings something like this – the funny big guy clad in the t-shirt at the pool will usually be given a pass, if conventional wisdom governs?
From 2000-2018, I made it a point to almost always have a shirt on when I entered a body of water in public. I would indulge in my love of swimming and floating without fear of my large frame being scrutinized.
It worked relatively well; I shared laughs with friends and social acquaintances over this eighteen-year period without being knowledgeable about any slights made about my weight. I created a comfortable groove that I barely questioned until that life-changing memoir came on the queue. Instead of internally interrogating how I appeared in these social circumstances, one consistent thought emerged – why was I so afraid of being seen in my divine fullness?
I kept these thoughts to myself as 2018 wrapped up, but I was ready to operationalize the answers I’d formed as 2019 dawned.
Along with these considerations of the weight I carried, I entered the new year of 2019 still mourning the loss of my maternal grandmother, as well as considering a move from D.C. to Texas. I understood this period in my life as both a possibility and an opportunity. A possibility to bring a newly discovered appreciation for my large body to Texas, and an opportunity to shed some of the shame that I felt about my weight for twenty-seven years at that point.
I reflected on both thoughts, giving a good deal of consideration to my grandmother and her opinions about big people. Grandma Jackson typically reserved her harsh commentary about large folks for women she deemed to be too big. I contended with the paradox of this ire, recognizing the notes of sexism within it – that I was shielded from – as I got older, but also registering the disdain of fat people that it ultimately signified. I mentally walked through the contradictions, honoring Grandma as a newly minted ancestor and acknowledging that her physical absence allowed me to forge my own legacy in her honor, extricating anything I deemed worthy of removing from my worldview.
I settled into my new apartment in Austin, more than willing to push my former boundaries and experience legitimate pride in my body.
I started small. I swam in my apartment complex’s pool shirtless. I slept in the same manner. I researched more writing and speaking engagements from Dr. Gay, picked up Thick by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, and I followed Sonya Renee Taylor on social media. All of these luminaries provided unique insights on how anti-Blackness intersects with fatphobia to reinforce to so many people that their bodies are inadequate and worthy of their contempt. As I grew more confident in my body – understanding the ways in which this discontentment had been built by a personal and collective history – I also had moments where I reverted to the psyche of that husky kid trying on large clothes from JCPenney.
The true test came in December of 2019. My dear friend Amber was turning thirty, and she invited a group of us to commemorate this milestone with her in Palm Springs. My self-assurance with my weight grew consistently in the six months directly preceding this trip. Before I flew to California, I’d even gone on a shirtless walk around Lady Bird Lake in Austin – an activity I’d grown to greatly enjoy during my time in the city and a previously unthinkable way to do it.
Amber is known to many as the High Priestess of Black Joy, and I knew that she would cultivate the spirit that her moniker evokes throughout any celebration that honored her. It was the end of a decade, an incomparable thirtieth birthday, and the holiday season – my body was well-equipped to carry me through this momentous occasion.
We converged in Palm Springs from every corner of the country, unified by our commitment to Black joy, Black feminism, and our unyielding love for Amber.
That weekend was everything you’d imagine a proper thirtieth birthday party to be. We ate well, laughed, smoked, and shared so many stories, toasting Amber and ourselves along the way. In a signal to my completely conferred happiness with my body, I appeared on Amber’s Instagram stories without a shirt on – something I wouldn’t have even thought about doing a year prior to that date. I felt 180 degrees away from that husky boy; in the process of experiencing that glorious weekend, I imagined that some form of full acceptance of who I’d grown up to be – over the course of twenty eight years up to that point – took place.
To top off this transformation, at the zenith of the weekend, we recorded a choreographed twerk video, led by the inimitable Director of Praise and Twerkship, Jazmine Da K.O.S Walker.
That weekend reinforced that my body belonged to me and should be uplifted as often as possible as I continue to draw breath.
The events of Amber’s thirtieth wrapped up, and we all went our separate ways – perhaps even anticipating some form of a reunion in December 2020. Of course, that expectation far departed from reality. The coronavirus pandemic settled in, and I decided to temporarily move back to my parents’ home in Oklahoma. It turns out that the weight fluctuations that come with a once-in-a-century global health crisis tend toward gain over loss.
I came home physically and proverbially – as an adult with much more confidence about his size contending with the kid who returned – in some form – to the circumstances of his childhood.
In 2020, I engaged in conversations with my parents and sister about fatphobia and its relationship with the false equivalence of big people and poor health. They were moderately receptive, but semi-frequent exhortations to watch my caloric intake came from their mouths.
I found the balance where I could; I took my characteristic walks to get fresh air and relieve stress – any impact that this light form of exercise had on my weight was merely incidental. I pushed back sometimes when I considered the examination around my weight to be too much; I bit my tongue more often.
I thought back to that kid meandering throughout various JCPenney Stores in the 1990s and 2000s; I wondered if his present relationship with his size made him proud. I figured that it did, with a big fuck off to minor periods of self-doubt.
I found comfort in the nuance – in the recognition that my relationship with my body didn’t need to be perfect all of the time. It was sufficient to find and hold onto periods of contentment where I could.
Finally, I also acknowledge that people believing my big body to be bad wasn’t always awful; obesity is considered to be a co-morbidity for purposes of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
I finished the process before April began.
Stigma around fatness may still exist for now, but at least I’ll be around another day to fight for its termination.
As always, my body will carry me through that fight to others I must face.
Andrew Reginald Hairston is a civil rights attorney, writer, and doting uncle who divides his time almost equally between Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. He loves, fights for, and writes about Black people.
Copyright 2021 Andrew Reginald Hairston