From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

My Moment of Truth

Hi, my name is Candice, and I’m fat. No, you did not just walk into an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. I just wanted to get that out, right away. Some people might think it’s not politically correct to use such a vulgar term. They’d prefer I call myself some nice euphemism like “cherubic,” “voluptuous,” or for those lovers of Xena Warrior Princess, “Amazonian.” However, when you are thirteen years old, stand five feet tall on tippy-toes, and weigh in at 150 pounds, most kids your age don’t express your condition in such tender terms. I have been called such names as “Lardo,” “Wide Load,” and even “Candy, the Candy Terminator, No Candy Is Safe with Her Around.”

Ironic, isn’t it, that my parents named me after my own Achilles’ heel—food? But an ice-cream sundae is no substitute for a social life. Not even when they give you extra sprinkles. There is simply not enough ice cream in the world that could make me impenetrable to the hurtful things kids say about me.

I have always enjoyed the movies. It is a way of buying a ticket to the ultimate escape. Movies are a common thread running through most of my memories. Like the summer my parents sent me to a camp for overweight kids in upstate New York. I hated it. Being raised in New York City, I preferred sterile concrete to tick-infested woods. The only nights I ever looked forward to were movie nights in the old casino house. The spray of light from the old projector mesmerized mosquitoes from across the Catskills. There was always that one rebel mosquito that was strangely attracted to the images on the old, worn-out movie screen. It would dance across the scenes; sometimes it was a mustache, sometimes a beard, sometimes it appeared as a kind of weird growth on an actor’s nose. I felt like that lone insect in my own life. I was in the picture, and yet no one in the scene seemed to notice me.

That is what I remember most about my time at Camp Stanley. That, and the way we sat around at night discussing things like Chips Ahoy, Entenmann’s and Frito-Lay, as if they were friends back home we longed to see. And, for some, these were indeed their only friends.

I was a chubby toddler and progressed through life expanding ever larger. My size did not go unnoticed by my peers. You would think I would have grown tougher from the years of name-calling. You would be wrong. I enacted the classically wrong reaction every time: I cried. And I cried easily.

My mother would try to console me after school each day. She would lecture me, like a pathetic old football coach trying to boost the morale of his losing team. “They are just jealous of you, honey,” she’d recite regularly. “Just ignore them!”

But I knew that she was lying to me. I knew that the whole entire school, including the janitorial staff, could not be jealous of me. Yes, even the school janitor had commented about my size.

My free-flowing tears only loaded my enemies’ guns with powerful ammunition. Each of their shots hit the mark. Their constant taunts made me less than excited to go to school with each passing day. I was never going to be acceptable to them, and as a result, my self-esteem was becoming nonexistent.

One day, I was watching Oprah. She had a show on “Fighting Back.” There was a middle-aged guy on the panel. He was obviously losing his hair. He had a black fringe of hair around the back of his head. Then, way, way up on top only a few lonely hairs remained. They were like the lone survivors on a desert island. The man, in an effort to conceal his baldness, let his last few precious hairs grow quite long. With his comb, he could swirl them around his head like a cinnamon bun. He reminded me of a friend of my dad’s. He swam at our community pool. Whenever he stepped out of the water, his long top hairs would flop over to the side of his head. The wet strands of hair congealed together and appeared as some sort of love-struck sea urchin, nibbling amorously at the poor man’s sunburned ear. His bald head gleamed in the white-hot sun like an SOS. It was quickly noticed by all the neighborhood kids, who would laugh at his expense. But the bald man never seemed to care. He’d just carefully smooth the hairs back into place, suck in his gut and step out of the troubled waters. Maybe he didn’t notice those kids and their cruelty. Maybe he didn’t care. Maybe he was in denial. Denial must be like a kind of Disneyland for the adult mind. However, I digress. The man on Oprah did not deal as well with the criticism he received from his coworkers. He admitted that he had never fought back. He grew those few sad hairs longer, as if he could hide beneath them.

Oprah told him that he had to come out from hiding behind his hairs, that he was a smart man with a lot to offer the world. He should not let these bullies stand in his way. He must confront them. They did not dictate who he was in life.

“You,” she told him, “are the only one who is in control of your destiny!”

The whole audience cheered for Oprah. They cheered for the balding man. But most of all, they cheered for the free foot-massager and bunion remover they would receive after the show.

Was I like the balding man? Was I eating my way into hiding? My weight, like his hair, was something I could never hide behind. It was that day that I decided to fight back.

The next day in class my science teacher, Mr. Roster, was leading the class in a lab. Of course Jill and Haley, the popular girls, were chatting up a storm. Mr. Roster looked up quite suddenly. He was annoyed at their disturbance.

“Would you girls like to share what you are chatting about with the class?” asked Mr. Roster.

The whole class turned to watch what would happen next. They were like rubber-neckers around a three-car pileup. I also turned to look. Bad move on my part. Haley’s eyes hit mine like a dart hitting its target.

“What are you looking at, Chubbo? Time for another feeding at the zoo?”

Now the whole class turned its eyes to me. As I turned and looked back at the smirking faces something finally hit me. Maybe it was Oprah and the bald man. Maybe it was all those years of abuse, which had struck a final chord inside my very soul. Or maybe it was just the heartburn I felt from the tuna tortillas they had served for lunch that day in the cafeteria. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it was, it was my moment of truth. I would not look away. I would not cry. I was in control of my destiny. I would confront my fears. With fire in my eyes and total conviction on my side, I looked Haley and all the others who had ever hurt me in my life straight in the eyes and said, “Maybe your little friends aren’t afraid of you . . . but I am!”

Of course, right away I knew I had said the wrong thing. What I meant to say was, “Maybe your little friends are afraid of you . . . but I’m not!”

Well, it seems it didn’t matter what I said that day. The point is, I stuck up for myself. I didn’t run away. Haley and her friends never bothered me again. Maybe it was because they saw the fire in my eyes, or maybe it was because they thought I was totally insane. It just doesn’t matter. The important thing is that I confronted my fears, and I was still standing.

That was the day I felt like I was no longer watching the world from the outside looking in. I was no longer that dull mosquito thrashing wildly against the movie screen. I was in this movie now, and I liked the ending.

As told to C. S. Dweck

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