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Alumni Profile

An excerpt from FAT

Jean Braithwaite

Jean Braithwaite's new autobiography chronicles her life in relation to her body's various sizes over time.

Jean Braithwaite’s recent memoir, FAT: The Story of My Life with My Body (2011, Snake Nation Press), looks at her relationship to her body — fat, thin, and in between — and at biases related to fat, fitness, diets and discrimination.

Braithwaite, PhD ’04, describes the diets that preceded her weight gains, the invisibility of her fitness as a large person, and her struggle for self-acceptance in a culture that discourages it. She is an assistant professor of English at University of Texas–Pan American. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Sun, the New York Times, and the North American Review.

Here is an excerpt from the new book:

Physical Education

At the end of sixth grade the school nurse measured me at 98 pounds and 60 inches tall — five feet exactly. It could be no coincidence that both figures hovered over major boundaries while I was just leaving elementary school. Something significant was about to happen to me, something lay just ahead, parts of me which had been latent until now, mere potential, like seeds, were about to quicken and emerge. It was 1973, a time when it was still possible for a girl my age to feel proud of her increasing size. I loved the Beatles and Cat Stevens; I was against Nixon, the Vietnam War, and pollution. The Age of Aquarius was dawning and I would surely grow up to change the world.

That summer when we visited my grandparents’ farm my mother asked my grandmother if she owned a bathroom scale.

“Yes, but it doesn’t work very well. If I just do even a few deep-knee bends, and get on it again it’ll say I weigh five pounds less.”

My father assumed one of his stock joking faces, the good-hearted moron. “Well, Mary, by all means: do a few deep-knee bends!”

“So what do you weigh?” my mother asked her mother.

“With or without the knee-bends?” said my father, but the women ignored him. They were intensely engaged with each other and he and I were superfluous.

“Oh,” my grandmother said, smiling coyly. “A hundred and twenty-nine. What do you weigh?”

“Oh,” my mother said. “A hundred and twenty… eight.” She looked archly at my grandmother. “And a half.” They laughed and changed the subject.

In seventh grade, the PE teacher began a study unit on body composition. Body types were: ectomorph (bony), mesomorph (muscly), and endomorph (fatty). One pound of fat equaled 3,500 calories. To lose weight, eat fewer calories or exercise more. Well, that was obvious, wasn’t it? For a week we were supposed to write down what we had eaten, then calculate the calories using charts in the textbook. I was not faithful with my record-keeping at home, and many foods my mother cooked, like lentil soup, weren’t in the charts anyway, so I ended up having to invent plausible entries the night before the assignment was due.

Next the teacher paired girls off to take each other’s measurements and see whether we could “pinch an inch” anyplace. Plump Anna Capelli was my partner. We checked the circumference of each other's biceps, wrists, neck, chest, waist, hips, thighs, calves, and ankles. We had to record these numbers on forms the teacher handed out, and beside them write our “goal” measurements and what we planned to do to achieve our goals. Anna copied down all my body measurements as her “goal” column. This seemed perfectly appropriate. I also wrote down all my own measurements again as my goal. Obviously in my case there was little or no room for improvement. But Anna argued, claiming she could pinch an inch on my calf. I was pretty certain that what she pinched was all muscle, but I could think of no way to say so that didn't sound conceited. And if there really was something wrong with my calf, then I had no idea what would make a good calf. Eventually the teacher supplied a compromise: I should maintain the same circumference but “tone calf for tightness.”

Lastly we measured each other’s height and weight. I had crossed the five-foot and 100-pound boundaries. I recorded the figures, then entered my actual weight on the sheet a second time as my goal weight. Anna was shorter than me so she had to look on a chart to find her goal weight. It would be simpler, I thought, if she just took both my weight and my height as goals. But of course there was no blank to record a goal height. Obviously the idea of having a goal height was ridiculous. Still, when I thought about it, I realized I had one.

Besides transforming the world, I had other secret goals, and one of them was to be six feet tall. The others were: to have sex, to be a genius, to win an Olympic marathon, and to live to be 140 years old, a greater age anyone ever attained before.

What body type are you? said the last blank on the sheet. “Mesomorph,” I wrote. Naturally. “I am an endomorph,” Anna wrote, in small round letters.

At the end of ninth grade I was five feet six inches tall and 120 pounds, numbers I considered ideal. In tenth grade when I discovered I weighed 125 pounds I went without food for a day and a half. For the next eight years I fasted for longer and longer periods and grew fatter in spurts. I never again weighed less than 125 pounds. And I never grew another inch taller. And I have not yet changed the world.

 

Braithwaite has advocated for healthy habits at every size since an unplanned weight loss almost a decade ago. Contact her at (956) 393-8175 or jeanbraithwaite@gmail.com.