Chubby for Life
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t chubby. Like being Indian, being chubby feels like it is just part of my permanent deal. I remember being in first grade, in Mrs. Gilmore’s class at Fiske Elementary School, and seeing that Ashley Kemp, the most popular girl in our class, weighed only thirty-seven pounds. We knew this because we weighed her on the industrial postal scale they kept in the teacher’s supply closet. I was so envious. I snuck into the supply closet later that same day to weigh myself. I was a whopping sixty-eight pounds.
Some of the first math I understood was that I was closer to twice Ashley’s weight than to her weight.
“Don’t be closer to twice a friend’s weight than to her actual weight,” I told myself. This little mantra has helped me stave off obesity for more than two decades.
My mom’s a doctor, but because she came from India and then Africa, where childhood obesity was not a problem, she put no premium on having skinny kids. In fact, she and my dad didn’t mind having a chubby daughter. Part of me wonders if it even made them feel a little prosperous, like Have you seen our overweight Indian child? Do you know how statistically rare this is? It will then not come as a surprise to you that I’ve never been thin in my life—except the day I was born, when I was six pounds.
It’s a small point of pride that I was a six-pound baby, because from my limited understanding of baby weights, that’s on the skinnier side. I flaunt my low baby weight the way really obese people must flaunt their dainty, small feet. It’s my sole claim to skinny fame.
As you can see, from then on, however, it was full-speed-ahead food paradise! In grade school, I would vacillate along the spectrum from chubby to full-on fat until I was about fourteen. Being overweight is so common in America and comes in so many forms that you can’t just call someone “fat” and have the reasonable expectation anyone will understand you. Here’s the breakdown:
Chubby: A regular-size person who could lose a few, for whom you feel affection.
Chubster: An overweight, adorable child. That kid from Two and a Half Men for the first couple of years.
Fatso: An antiquated term, really. In the 1970s, mean sorority girls would call a pledge this. Probably most often used on people who aren’t even really fat, but who fear being fat.
Fatass: Not usually used to describe weight, actually. This deceptive term is more a reflection of one’s laziness. In the writers’ room of The Office, an upper-level writer might get impatient and yell, “Eric, take your fat ass and those six fatasses and go write this B-story! I don’t want to hear any more excuses why the plot doesn’t make sense!”
Jabba the Hutt: Star Wars villain. Also, something you can call yourself after a particularly filling Thanksgiving dinner that your aunts and uncles will all laugh really hard at.
Obese: A serious, nonpejorative way to describe someone who is unhealthily overweight.
Obeseotron: A nickname you give to someone you adore who has just stepped on your foot accidentally, and it hurts. Alternatively, a fat robot.
Overweight: When someone is roughly thirty pounds too heavy for his or her frame.
Pudgy: See “Chubby.”
Pudgo: See “Chubster.”
Tub o’ Lard: A huge compliment given by Depression-era people to other, less skinny people.
Whale: A really, really mean way that teen boys target teen girls. See the following anecdote.
There have been two times in my life—ages fourteen and nineteen—when I lost a ton of weight over a short period of time. At fourteen, I lost the weight because of Duante Diallo.
In ninth grade, my class was made up mostly of the same kids with whom I had gone to middle school, with the exception of about twenty splashy new students. One of those students was Duante.
Duante Diallo was a handsome kid from Senegal who’d moved to Boston to play basketball for our school. He was immediately the star forward of our varsity basketball team. We had a not-great artsy-private-school basketball team, the kind made up of slender boys whose primary goal was to seem well-rounded for college applications. But you could tell Duante would’ve been the star of even a really good team. He was beloved by teachers because he was a brave kid for being so far away from his parents, and beloved by students because he was good-looking, a jock, and had an interesting African accent. Also, people couldn’t believe the stuff he had done in Senegal, like smoke, drive a car, have sex, live in a village, and hold a gun. When he was introduced at a student assembly, he chose to give a short speech where he taught us a sports cheer in Senegalese. In the hallways, small crowds would form around Duante as he shared stories from his past. Once he shot a cow with an AK-47. He was so popular you could barely look at him without being blinded by cool.
Duante was also, unfortunately, a tyrannical asshole. Maybe I should have gleaned this from the joy with which he told the story about murdering a cow with a massive gun. He fixated on me early in the year as being overweight and was open with his observations. At first it had the veneer of niceness. For example, once I was getting a drink of water in the hallway where he and his friends were standing.
Duante: You would actually be really pretty if you lost weight.
His face was gentle and earnest, as though what he had really said was, “You remind me of a sunset in my native Senegal.” It was confusing. All I could muster as a reply to this insulting comment was “thank you.” I was hurt, but I rationalized that maybe Duante had been around only extremely thin African girls his whole third-world life and didn’t know American girls had access to refrigeration, and that we didn’t have to divide up UN food parcels with our neighbors. (This may have been a tad racist an assumption on my part. Look, we were both in the wrong.)
By winter, I had not lost any weight, and in fact had gained about ten more pounds. This really bothered Duante. I think he felt he had gone out of his way to give me some valuable advice and I had chosen not to follow it, therefore insulting him. One day in February, I walked into the freshmen center, he stopped mid-conversation with his friends and gestured to me.
Duante: Speaking of whales . . .
I don’t even think they’d been talking about whales. The guys all laughed, but even I could tell some felt guilty doing it. I had been friends with most of them since we were kids. Danny Feinstein, who was my Latin study buddy, came up to me later that afternoon and told me that “What Duante said wasn’t cool.” He had a stoic look of noble do-gooder, although he had said nothing at the time of the insult. Again, I was forced to say thank you. How I continually found myself in situations where I felt I had to say thank you to mean guys, I’m not sure.
It was a tough winter. I had gone from competitive, bookish nerd to nervous target. If this was Heathers, I was Martha Dumptruck and this mean African kid was all three Heathers. I turned my obsessive teenage energy away from reading Mad magazine and focused on my diet. I didn’t have access to a lot of weight-loss resources, because this was pre-Internet. There was one Weight Watchers near us, but it shared a mini-mall parking lot with a sketchy Salvation Army, and my parents didn’t like the idea of taking me there for meetings. So I invented a makeshift diet formula: I would eat exactly half of what was put in front of me, and no dessert. Without exercising, I lost thirty pounds in about two months. A janitor at school whom I liked, Mrs. Carrington, would see me and say, “Damn, you’ve got a metabolism on you, don’t you girl?” The janitors were always in my corner.
I remember waking up in the morning and looking down at my fingers and seeing they had shrunk overnight. Suddenly I was freezing all the time, like those skinny girls in movie theaters are always complaining about, and needed to sleep with an extra wool blanket. My face thinned out, and my belly went away. I stopped wearing oversize college sweatshirts and corduroy pants with elastic waists. Light brown lines appeared on my upper inner arms that looked like little rivers headed to my shoulder blades. I actually thought they looked pretty, until my mom told me they were stretch marks from losing so much weight so fast. It was like a Disney sci-fi movie. Mom was impressed but didn’t want me to go overboard, which was impossible, because I was still eating a lot. I just had taken a break from eating like a professional football player. I loved all the side effects of losing the weight, but the reason I did it was so that Duante would stop making fun of me, so I could hang out in the freshmen center again, and not where I had been: across the street in the Fairy Woods.
I thought Duante would finally leave me alone, but he didn’t. One day I was walking down the hallway to class and passed Duante and his group of friends.
Duante: Remember when Mindy was like (blowing out his cheeks to make a fat face) a whale?
They all laughed. Come on, dude. Remember when? I’m getting made fun of because I used to be fat? The laws of bullying allow you to be cruel even when the victim had made strides for improvement? This is when I realized that bullies have no code of conduct.
Lucky for me, Duante was a bad student. English was his second language and that made everything harder for him. I delighted in the fact that he had to go to the middle school to take some of his classes. Sophomore year he broke his leg when he slipped during practice and collided with another student. For a sh...