The first time my teen patrons heard me refer to myself as “fat” they seemed unsure how to react. A group of teenage girls had gathered around a table in front of the desk I was working at and were discussing what might be considered typical adolescence topics: boys, hair, clothes, and their social lives. I heard one of them say, disgust in her voice, “I’m so fat today!” When I casually looked over to see who was speaking I saw a teenage girl who could not have weighed more than 110 pounds. I saw a teaching moment at hand, so I interjected, “You’re not fat. I’m fat.”
Conversation at the table came to a grinding halt as six heads swiveled as one to stare at me. They stared at me with confusion. I was new in my job, and this was one of the first times this group of girls had ever seen me. Their previous relationship with our library could have been classified as hostile, or at the very least, tense. They stared at me now as if I were deliberately baiting them into making a nasty comment about me.
I smiled at them and they giggled nervously, some averting their eyes from my friendly gaze. This was one of my first verbal interactions with the high school crowd of girls who frequented my public library most week days, so I wanted it to be a positive one. I could tell the girls did not know how to react to this statement and could not tell what my intentions were, so I made sure my smile was extra warm.
“It’s true,” I continued, keeping my voice sociable and pleasant. “I am fat. It’s just a word, that’s all. It’s not an insult. It’s no different than saying I have brown hair.” I pointed to my hair at this point and smiled a little wider.
They giggled again and shifted nervously in their seats. “That’s why you shouldn’t call yourself fat,” I said, motioning vaguely to the girl who had spoken earlier. “It’s not because being fat is terrible or insulting, but because it’s not factually true.”
“Um, yeah,” one of the other girls said to the speaker. “That’s right, you’re, um, not fat, I guess.” There was a moment of silence, as the statement hung almost visibly in the air. I wondered if this was the first time any of them had ventured to say this out loud: you’re not fat, had been brave enough to not join in the chorus of body hate, the repeated mantra of “fat, fat, fat!” that so often surrounds so many of us.
There was no giggling this time; they just continued to stare at me as I smiled at them. I went back to my work and a few minutes later, I heard them return to their conversation. This was an icebreaker day in my relationship with these patrons; I like to think that from that day on they thought of me as a person who, at the very least, told the truth.
By the end of the year, I know they thought of me as an ally and an advocate, an adult who could (who would) speak up for them in a library setting. I hope they also thought of me as a fat person because, as I told them that first day, that’s just what I am.
Angie Manfredi is a youth services librarian who blogs at Fat Girl, Reading, where you can find her thoughts on young adult literature, libraries, pop culture, and fat acceptance. She'd take Peeta Mellark over Edward Cullen any day.
More from living