Open Letter to a Fat, Suicidal 13-Year-Old

I recently received an e-mail from a 13-year-old girl.  She reached out after reading my memoir, Read My Hips.

She wrote:

For the longest time i have hated myself so much that i would cry when i got undressed.  And i would wish that ‘If I can’t be skinny, i might as well be dead.’ 

I had even tried puking up my food after I ate, starving myself, diets, everything. 

I had even gotten to the point where i was going to commit suicide because i decided that if i was fat that I didn’t deserve to live.

Here’s part of my response — to her, and to the world that she and I live in.

You know, I remember being a teenager like it was yesterday.  As an adult, I sometimes feel like I have “dual personalities” – in a good way.  I remember the point of view I had at 13, but I can see it through the more experienced eyes of a 41-year-old.

Me, age 14. I had the Duran Duran sweatshirt custom made at the mall.

Sometimes my friends and I talk about things we thought when we were in middle school or high school, and we always end up making a similar comment:  “When you’re a kid, so many things feel like such a HUGE deal.  You never realize how COMPLETELY INSIGNIFICANT this stuff will be later.”

The culture we live in is not kind to fat kids.  And I won’t lie and say it’s kinder to fat grown-ups.  It’s not.

But here’s the good news.  When you’re an adult, you have contact with LOTS more people than you do when you’re in school.  And you WILL find people who see you as a COMPLETE PERSON.  Not just a fat girl, or a thin girl, or whatever size girl you may be.

And there’s even better news.  When you’re an adult, your brain changes.  And that means the way you experience life can change, too.

You know how a two-year-old child isn’t capable of understanding WHY she shouldn’t jump around and scream in a quiet room, no matter how many times you explain it to her?  Because her brain hasn’t developed to a point where she can understand those concepts.

Teenagers’ brains aren’t completely developed, either.  This might be one of the reasons why things can seem so drastic and terrible when you’re a teen.  Things that we adults sometimes look at and say, “What’s the big deal?  It’ll pass,” or “So what?  What do you care what he/she thinks?”

Once you’re out of your teens, you’ll be better able to separate your own experience from the chatter of stupid people outside of you.

For example, when I was your age, I used to care SO MUCH how people perceived me, and I put a lot of importance on clothes.   The clothes people chose to wear served as a form of social shortcut.  You could tell what someone was all about — or at least what they wanted you to think they were all about — based on what they wore and how they wore it.

And I wanted people to come to all kinds of cool conclusions about the kind of person I was, based on the clothes I was wearing.

Unfortunately, most of the time I couldn’t afford to wear the kind of clothes I really dreamed of wearing, or they didn’t come in my size, or my mom wouldn’t let me wear them, or I thought they didn’t look good on my chubby body.  But still, I had this whole self-identity organized in my head, and it was based on a collection of imaginary outfits.

But now, it all feels so silly to me.  I mean, I still appreciate beautiful clothes, don’t get me wrong.  But here’s what’s changed: I’m more interested in EXPERIENCING an exciting life.  I don’t want to merely LOOK like I live a certain kind of life.  I don’t even care what an exciting life is supposed to look like. I make the rules about what makes a satisfying life for me.

Nowadays, instead of caring soooooo much about what other people think when they look at me, I care about what *I* think and feel about the things I’m seeing, hearing, tasting, touching.

Does that make sense?

Me, in the yearbook photo for the 7th grade newspaper staff. Now I ask you: what 7th-grade kid in PUBLIC school wears a BLAZER?

Because life is short.  It seems long when you’re 13, but it’s not.  So I want to see, hear, touch, experience as many wonderful things as I can while I’m here.  Including loving other creatures and being loved by them.

I want to feel happy and excited as often as possible.  And there are all kinds of things that make me feel that way.  Melodramatic old movies.  Propelling myself through the water of a swimming pool.  Jumping into frothy waves in the ocean.  Traveling to foreign countries.  Losing myself in my writing.  Teaching writing classes and watching my students thrill to their own achievements.  Playing with my sewing machine.  Helping my writing friends with their books.  Talking about mind-blowing ideas with my friends.  Touring old Victorian houses.  Scouring flea markets for cool old stuff.  Watching the History Channel.  Sleeping late in clean flannel sheets.  Baking pineapple bread.  Petting animals.

And as I’m doing all these things, sometimes I feel giddy, or proud, or silly, or amazed, or satisfied, or content, or passionate, or curious, or deliciously tired, or I want to cry with happiness or make someone else happy.

These are all the things that I live for.

I couldn’t care less what some jerk thinks about my legs, my arms, my belly.  That jerk who thinks I’m too fat to live is missing out on a LOT.  Because if she looked for and found happiness in as many places as I do, she wouldn’t feel the need to judge or change other people.  That jerk doesn’t live as richly as I do.  Pitiful thing.

So I’m asking you never to consider killing yourself again.  Ever.  Because life does get better.

You don’t have much control when you’re a kid, I know.  But I want you to hang on, and get to adulthood.  Get to a place where you’re free to make more decisions for yourself.  And when you do, I hope you’ll make the choice to live a good life.  Because it *is* a choice.  And part of that choice is to refuse to let miserable, empty people make YOU unhappy — and that includes the people who create TV shows, commercials and magazine articles suggesting that only very slender people deserve the good things in life.

And by the way, you can live a bunch of lives in one life, you know.  You can be a business woman and a swimmer in your twenties; a mother and an inventor in your thirties; an archaeologist living in a vintage trailer in your forties; a lady who lives on a cruise ship in your fifties; a surfer and a talk show host in your sixties; a bicycle repair shop owner and a Chinese cooking expert in your seventies; a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English to children in Africa in your eighties.

You have SO MANY POSSIBILITIES ahead of you.

Promise me you’ll hang in there, because I want to find out what you get into in the next 70, 80, 90 years!

Love,

Kim Brittingham

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