'I am Fat, I Grieve The Life I'd Have Had as a Thinner Person'

I have been married for 48 years to a fine man and am the mother of two wonderful children. I am an accomplished seamstress and have had my floral arrangements featured at college directors' board meetings. I do volunteer work in my community and have knit over 300 hats and scarves for homeless individuals. I am a cancer survivor and swim regularly at the senior center near my home after two total knee replacement surgeries. I am proud of these things.

I am also aware that what defines me in the eyes of many people is not included in this list.

Even knowing these things about me, many people look at me and make an instantaneous, incorrect conclusion: that I am lazy, undisciplined, uneducated, unhygienic and unhealthy. They will arrive at this assumption because I am fat.

I am not big-boned, retaining too much fluid, holding on to middle-age spread or pregnancy pounds or just inherently pudgy. I am significantly overweight—over 200 pounds—and have been heavy for almost all of my life.

I became aware that I was different, and not pleasantly so, as a child when I found it difficult to make friends and participate in a lot of the activities that other kids engaged in. I got used to being selected last for a playground game involving speed and agility but it stings to this day to remember that I was the only girl in 8th grade not chosen to be on a cheering squad where the only prerequisite to belonging was the ability to yell and clap. This awareness of being different became excruciatingly acute in high school when I was shunned at dances, often arriving home in tears, and finally asked a neighborhood boy to be my prom date since no one else would. I remember a teacher yelling during a softball game—loud enough for everyone to hear—to "put (your) weight behind it" when it was my turn to bat.

Karen Has Been Overweight Her Whole Life
Karen Spitzer Assenheimer says that because she is overweight, people assume she is lazy, undisciplined, uneducated, unhygienic and unhealthy. Karen Spitzer Assenheimer

In my adult years, my size continued to be an issue as co-workers would tell me, "you'd be gorgeous if you lost weight" and only the very wrong kind of men seemed to be interested in me, usually for all of the wrong reasons. I had glowing evaluations and solid relationships within my work environments, yet I was often passed over for promotions that went to more attractive people with lesser experience and education than I. Of course, I'll never know for certain, but I am convinced still that in some cases, those in senior positions to mine felt that my appearance reflected poorly upon the establishment that employed me.

I met my husband during a time when my weight was down somewhat but, still, I remember struggling to find a wedding gown suitable for a girl my size. There simply weren't many size 2X gowns available. It seemed as though designers figured that if a woman was over a size 14, she was definitely not marriage material.

When I had my children, my weight ballooned into the 200s and stayed there, long after the babies were grown and on their own. I'm sure they endured taunts from other children about their fat mother but being as precious as they are, I never heard any of it. But being "less than" while being "more than" has been a regular experience throughout my life.

I've been ignored in stores when someone thinner comes in after me and the salesperson fawns over her instead. I was even told upon entering a high-end clothing store: "Oh, I'm afraid we don't carry anything in your size," before I had said a word.

Karen Has Been Overweight Her Whole Life
Stock image. Getty/iStock

My weight has remained the same for many years now but not for lack of trying to change it. I have tried every program, medication and weight-reduction product available and underwent gastric laparoscopic stomach banding as well, all with minimal, short-lived success. I don't blame any of these tools and resources for my inability to become smaller—they've all worked for countless others. Rather, I realize that there are many emotional, psychological, irrational and aberrant reasons and assumptions that keep my pounds from budging.

Notice that I didn't say that I "blame myself" as I have worked ardently to banish the words and mentality from my self-perception. But I struggle regularly to like myself and I battle feelings of inadequacy often. After all, how can I be arrogant or ignorant enough to assign responsibility to others for my weight as I have been the sole proprietor of my mouth and what goes in it?

But what I have done is grieve over what I've lost and missed in a world that not only expects thinness in women, it actually celebrates it while sending a not-so-subtle message that despite her education, expertise and experience, how a woman looks makes a real big difference.

Our society often lauds a svelte, sleek body and equates it to worth, forcing many women to struggle to adhere to unrealistic and dangerous female images so often portrayed in the media. The look is glamorized and perpetuated as the look that women and girls ought to strive for in their efforts to fit the mold of how sexy, attractive and accomplished females should look today.

Imagine an adolescent girl—or boy, for that matter—who is struggling with the challenges that already go along with that difficult age, being barraged with this onslaught of misguided perfection that seems to be everywhere. What message could she possibly receive other than: "This is how you should appear and you're a loser otherwise"?

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents and recent data indicates that the suicide rate due to weight issues, particularly for young girls, is increasing. If this surprises you, it shouldn't. If it horrifies you, it should.

So here I am. Yes, I'm fat. I continue to work towards losing weight but have accepted that it's a marathon with starts and stops that I may not finish in this lifetime. And I am determined to make it OK with myself and others.

Karen Has Been Overweight Her Whole Life
Karen Spitzer Assenheimer has been overweight most of her life and says it has affected people's perception of her. Karen Spitzer Assenheimer

I am fat, but I am also a formidable trivia game opponent, I grow spectacular dahlias and peonies, I have read well over 1,000 books in my lifetime, I can swim the breaststroke for 30 minutes without stopping, I am teaching myself to watercolor and I am knitting a 7th comfort shawl for someone in need.

Sure, I'd like to wear a size 10 and maybe someday I will. It would be glorious and wonderful. But if not, I'll continue practicing—and celebrating—being glorious and wonderful already.

Karen Spitzer Assenheimer retired as a college alumni event coordinator. She previously held positions in human resources, health care, and as an Early Childhood Program Administrator. She resides with her husband in Hamilton Square, NJ.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.