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The Fat Girl Allegory
Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, we are publishing “The fat girl allegory” by Andriana Mendoza. Andriana is a poet and short story writer from Hayward, CA. She has a Bachelor’s in English and Education from UC Davis, and a Master’s in Creative Writing Fiction also from Davis. You can find her works in the literary magazine Open Ceilings Vol II: Undergrowth, and deep in her iPhone notes. Andriana is an enjoyer of dogs and sad things. Her thesis was a collection of 130 pages of short stories affectionately titled Who Hurt You? She currently writes from the San Joaquin Valley but misses the Bay Area very very much.
When you’re overweight, it’s about mar y tierra sol y luna, body positivity looking like a big girl hugging at her midsection and sprouting from the earth, the curves of her figure akin to hilled roads, mountainous ranges. Skinny girls get the front page and can love themselves without perpetual land beneath them, not growing but existing. The metaphor of a fat woman begins and ends in the dirt, hand-in-hand with the grow through what you go through movement, something Rupi Kaur might have decaled onto her Prius. At my learned age I don’t mind the comparison, take what I can get from fat representation and paw at whatever scraps the world has left for us. I’d like to one day be beautiful without the metaphor, but if it takes some vato grabbing at my lonjas and likening them to wet clay in his Soundcloud years after, then I do what I must and fuck him anyways.
My mother has always found me pretty without the metaphor, says I look like a porcelain doll when I take my glasses off and put blush on.
You could do a little of this and maybe wear some of that Avon mascara your Nana got you. Yes, just like that. See, look at yourself, look at my baby.
I’m ten and sad and fat and conditioned straight out the womb to base my entire value on what fourth grade kids thought of me. And I would’ve bought the kind words if soccer boys were nicer to me in school, if I had a recess boyfriend who sucked on my lips behind the pine tree. I looked too much like Mike Wazowski then; I had that body type: little titties, fat belly, my ass the ghost of almost something. In my fat origin story, I say I was born destined for frog bod, but really it all began with an equal mix of poor people problems and golden arches.
And you really shouldn’t be mean to fat kids because sometimes fat kid moms have two jobs and no mans and think $5 Family Combos sound a lot better than lugging exhausted limbs into tan kitchens to whip up something “balanced.” We ate well, went to sleep with our tummies full, money left over for gas the next day. It was fine really, you live and you learn, look at life like old bread (just pick off the fuzzy bits and keep eating). So I became big and I stayed big, my consistently dainty mother glowing like a woodland goddess next to me, silver-toothed classmates snickering on about Candy’s hot mom.
When you’re grown, you can start doing your lips like this. I wonder if she felt like a Telemundo star when I watched her do her makeup, my hair still wet from a bath, sitting with my knees up on the toilet seat, head tilted, and following the curves of her lip liner.
You gotta go dark brown on the outside and pink on the inside. Look how full it makes them look.
Her clubbing nights were the highlight of my childhood, my mother acting her age and leaving the house for once. I saw her mostly in rubber work shoes and her hair in a knot, most days for my mother looking like 6 a.m. wake up, 8 a.m. school drop-offs, 5 p.m. pick-ups, comfy dinner wear, then finally bedtime. On the occasional special Friday, she’d put her face on, press mousse into her curls, pull heels and gold hoops from the back of her closet. I realized recently she must’ve been about 24 then, so dangerously close to my own age now. I imagine myself with two jobs and three kids, and in turn picture her like me, how she does and did then what I do now. So she’d go and be small and beautiful, and glisten like a dwarf star in any room, impish troll children lingering at her side. On those special Fridays, she was my live-in supermodel, a glamorous star like the ones on TV that I could peer at live and in person.
I want to clarify that hot mothers are not the reason nor ailment of a fat child, a minor wind in the general direction of burgeoning teen turmoil. My mother finds me beautiful sans allegory and yet still finds ways to plague me with it. Because school kids say mean things and your own family gives you shit, my mother constantly trudged and shielded us through influxes of anti-fat rhetoric we couldn’t always turn our faces, our ears, our bodies from. It’s the small things that hurt your feelings, obvious heavy-set humor any fourth grader could hurtle at me complete nothing against the wrath of old church ladies. It’s sitting with tias and trying not to slip down the plastic-wrapped sofas, lips clamped while they waited for another actress to walk through their telenovela. Oh no, look at that. How sad, she’s really let herself go.
If we’re gauging this in terms of the metaphor, these were my mud days, the buds of my limbs not yet unfurling through the surface. I finally breached in the fourth grade, my body nearly bending in half once I finally bore my chest fruit.
This is AB Candy, the era now forever remembered as the After Boobs years. I hadn’t made it through the weeds yet, but I’d finally measured signs of life somewhere. If I’d known what I know now, I’d have gone back and memorized every goddamn moment of my body changing, documented new inches with celebratory Facebook posts, tag all my tias and say Hey gals, my chichis are coming in! But all that comes to mind is the memory that it happened. I’d gone to bed flat-chested and woken up with weight pressing me into my mattress. If there’s doubt as to where this is going, I will repeat it: These boobs changed everything. Were I to chart the shift in mass that is my body, it’d look something like Pangea, geology graphs tracking major movement on my surfaces from minor to monumental. So without an ounce of consent and a rogue vessel, I left the fourth grade with a loaded 82 cm chest (aka 36DDs on a 10-year-old).
If my mother could have performed it herself, I’m sure she would’ve at least tried to exorcise my breasts right off me. She didn’t look me in the eyes that entire month, squinting and shifty when I dared come in her presence with those flesh demons strapped onto me. Although too young and modern, my mother has always been cautious of the female form, even now asking me (insisting vehemently, rather) to put on a bra when I’m around her. Thrice pregnant teen off premarital sex, she drew the line at overdeveloped little girls. Where that stemmed from, I’d guess, has something to do with her own trauma, the unsaid histories she’s still waiting to drop on me.
You can wear my bras for now, but they won’t fit for long. She’d said this at a time when I had already developed inches past her B cups. She handed me the frilly thing, pressed it to my palms, and most certainly sent a silent prayer to keep my breast the size they were already cursed at (my current F cups watching and laughing all-knowingly from the then near future).
After I’d finally been strapped down in my hand-me-down brassiere, I went on with my life, completely unprepared for the perpetual discomfort that’d follow me for most of my pre-correct-bra-size life (I even kept it on most nights, my boobs slipping past the cups and suffocating me in my sleep). They were like unwanted sandbags, described as floatation devices by many, and yet sinking me, the weight of them concaving the arch of my back. I didn’t know anything about the sexual gaze, the long list of expectations women were meant to meld their bodies into. I had in my hands one of mankind’s most powerful weapons and had no idea, more chest fat just another tally on my BMI scale.
In another essay, I’d write to my breasts like a love letter, ode, a million thank yous tied to white doves. I make peace and dig through all the extra shit to get there, keeping the misery of my young self in mind before the joy. I did not like them when they came in, and I hated my own flesh for allowing it. An extra notch on my list of me-to-me betrayals. It must’ve been too soon for big boobs to mean something; fifth and sixth grade passed without one pine tree kiss. At the end of the day, kids were still mean and I was still fat.
The descent of self-esteem through the years is actually quite sinister, movement downward seeping past collateral things like stomach rolls and body hair, lodging itself at the first sight of brain matter. It’s like all your happy wiring changes, reflections looking back at you not always the whole truth. I’d been and felt so unattractive that all the bad meant nothing to me anymore. I built a wall; I was the wall. I can’t put a name to what happened to me then, how I’d moved away from moony eyes at my mother wearing makeup and wanting to be pretty and holding out in hopes that I’d one day be the love of someone’s life. I went full insentient being in middle school, tore myself from earthly metaphors, and renamed myself class clown, funny friend, side character. There’s shame in letting your child self down like this, but I found it even more shameful to let myself mope on about it. The natural disaster had already happened. What was left but to make something out of the wreckage?
There’s contentment that comes from being a sidekick; people like you a lot more when you make them laugh. Funny fat friend was my superlative path, my chipmunk cheeks looking chipper in the eighth-grade yearbook after winning Best Personality. I was right up there with the good-looking kids, sacrificing my own self-confidence for a seat in the prom limo. Soft curves like mountain ranges, my breast the billowing pearl clouds just above them. I’d given up on the allegory of the earthly fat woman, and when it worked, it fucking worked. If I could I’d go back and say it sooner: body positivity was a lie, it hadn’t ever done anything for me. I’d be the clown a million times over, the plight for beauty so much easier when you remove yourself from the game. There were models, online baddies, Homecoming Queens universally beloved and existing on planes I’d never get to see. From the ages of 10 to 18, I’d found happiness in my isolation, the love of no one’s life.
I think there are good things that come to those who don’t date in high school, atonement for the unattractive and odd pariah types. You have time for extracurriculars, get to keep all your lunch nuggets to yourself, no partner to snatch them off your tray. I’d read House on Mango Street my freshman year and the hunt for a clique was over before it’d even begun. I was a baby creative, spending my lunches gnawing on nuggets at SLAM Club meetings, the AP Art gatherings, my hair a different hue every month.
That’s where I met May, a new student from Kenya that after many witty quips and shared interests, quickly claimed me as her first best friend. Our art teacher Ms. King had sat her next to me that first day, knowing I’d be someone she would get along with.
“The goal this week is portraits. Pair up and sketch up.” It was dagger on dagger, May and I deciding on each other from across the room.
“I’m drawing you with a unibrow you can’t stop me, it’s my artist interpretation.”
“Ok then hand me the green, you’re getting some rogue boogers.” Ms. King has already separated us for “incessant giggling”. We pressed the heels of our palms to our lips and shuffled our feet to hide impending laugh attacks.
May and I were a well-matched pair, her tall and slim figure 1 fitting right with my short figure 0. We had all the same interests, too: sad Tumblr poems and an overplayed 2000s emo playlist. May was the main character completely, the pride of the school when she came in second at the Youth Poet Laureate competition. I looked at May like I’d once looked at my mother, a child again admiring from the toilet seat.
“Okay, are you ready to see yourself?” She asked me, my portrait of her long forgotten as I snuck Cheez-Its from my sweater and reduced my chew noise to a minimum.
“Lay it on me.”
May was the best artist in our class, her art show pieces a hot commodity between the supportive teachers looking to spend some cash. I expected the booger gag, I wanted it, already cataloguing the teasing comebacks I’d have ready: Are you sure that isn’t you?
And it ended up that it wasn’t that at all. It was a girl, head tilted, mouth parted open. Sunlight to the left and the right side of her face shaded in cross hatches. The image of a woman, the edges of her shape gently smudged and softened. Square glasses, her frizzy hair highlighted in shades of blue.
“Who is that supposed to be?”
“No way. Why did you draw me like that?”
“This is what you look like.”
I knew she wasn’t wrong. It had all of my features. Tiny nose, thin lips, perpetually down turned eyes. It was a sketch she’d drawn in two hours, but it was a good one. She’d made me look like a real person, someone tangible.
I gave her a curt Wow, thank you. You’re so good, and I turned to my dwindling Cheez-Its, pouring them on the table and suctioning them into my mouth, the vacuum bit I knew would make her laugh. The portrait was turned in for grading, and I never spoke of it again, my first semblance of self-appreciation. My own perception and that of others weighed much too heavy on my mind. I wanted nothing to do with it.
May and I caught wind and drifted away from each other after high school. She’d asked me to apply to Berkeley with her, and the answer had always been a definite no from me. If I’d gone to Berkeley, I’d have to live at home for my undergrad, exist as I already did for a few more years while I finished school. That was worst-case scenario, a large yet silent reason why applied to a university instead of Marinello: because I never wanted to stay at my mother’s long term. Davis was good, Davis was NorCal middle ground and a perfect two hours away from home. May and I kept in touch for a year before we’d moved on, nothing sad, really, an inevitable stray. I knew things about her in passing: what she was doing now, who she was seeing, the book she’d written and sent me like she’d done for many other ex-classmates. I sent her congratulatory texts, unsure if she even had the same number.
I once read a tweet about the “UC to stoner skank pipeline,” a viral post I’d found surprising considering its mentioning of our cow town, the utter truth of it then lost on me. I don’t know who tweeted it or what clique they belonged to, where they got off making statements like that, but I’m currently living the harsh (and wonderful) realities of it. I came in collared up and hesitant, yet I left my undergrad with hefty files of my own nudie pics and pierced nipples poking through another bra-less afternoon.
I blame Tinder. I blame Tinder and all-Latina dorm floors. Groups of women who grew up Catholic and for the first time got a taste of actual liberation. My grandmother’s nightmare. My funny fat girl origins had made it generally easy for me to make friends, but I never thought it’d be like this, amplified by 100 with swarms of newly-18 girls doing anything to disappoint their strict parents.
“No, see, that’s why your eyeliner looks fucked up. You’ve got hooded eyes. Do it like this instead.” A friend lectured me mid first year, the other girls in our group scattered around my room with their feet up, the pads of their thumbs swiping against their phone screens. We were at the height of online dating, an era of young people fucking that only compared to the 50s Baby Boom.
“Candy, do you know you have tits? Not sure if you’ve misplaced them, but they’re under your shirt.” That was Steph. It was always Steph. Long hair, short tops, and blatantly uncensored.
“What’s wrong with my boobs?”
“Nothing. I’m just scared they’ve never seen the sun.” She wasn’t wrong. I was on my way to a frat party in the faded anime T-shirt I’d snatched from my brother.
And I know how it sounds, pretty girls trying to strip the tomboy, some “girl power” take that ignores its own misogyny, but I wasn’t attached to my masculinity in that way. I’d craved femininity forever, wanted to shift from one aesthetic to the other without the added You’re dressed odd today. I’d never allowed “sexy” because I hadn’t felt myself capable of it, bound the weight of my breasts so tight to my chest I constricted my entire being, big tees, baggy jeans, and beanies the only style I’d known for years. So sue me for snatching the offered tube top from Steph, letting her lick the Q-tip and fix the wing I’d failed miserably at. I was knee deep in the rush of independence, allowed myself to sink in it. I felt my petals bloom for the first time, my metaphor forever curled in, peaking its bud towards the sky. So I had the friends, released the boobs, looked myself in the eyes as I passed store windows, for the first time thought Hm, I could be worse.
I’m getting caught in the exposition here, placing my curious case before you so you know everything I was forced to make sense of. It was the whiplash right turn that revealed my entire self-worth to be based on what others thought of me, girl friends suggesting I could be attractive, making me think it could be true. I adapt to my environments like a water lily, a bio teacher May and I had taken together reminding us to always praise the flower’s resilience. Their lives are spent in perpetual weightlessness, forever floaters, shed their leaves to stay dry, sprout spines when they feel unsafe. In the fat woman metaphor of my life, I became a water lily, existing just above and refusing to confront the deepest parts of myself, happy to stay where it’s warm and the sun hits just right. There was beauty in my passivity, quick decision and “fuck it” attitudes forcing something out of me. Whether I made good choices I don’t know (I didn’t), but it was different than what I’d done before, and all the shit might’ve led to something almost good. I’m almost ok about it.
I’m referring specifically to the dating app thing, the way I let lovers treat me for a long time. In the love letter to my breast and my body that I’ll write one day is a list of people I’ve been intimate with, a separate section for every foreign flesh I let touch me. In that same breath I’ll talk about how it went, where I let him slip it in for the first time, how we made and killed babies through the ache of it. I’d talk about first dates, first orgasms, the taste of things I thought I’d never know. There’s something buried in all of that that means something to someone somewhere, but it feels like something for the next, distant phase of my life, another change for the water lily. For now I’ll say that somewhere between my first and second year I went from AB Candy to After Sex Candy, my intimate relationships with others catalyzing both the best and worst times of my life.
The worst was when I bagged (but didn’t really) a football player here, some 6’4” jock I’d met on Tinder, his profile bio proclaiming “thick girls only.” Red flag definitely, but I had the libido of a chihuahua and equaled height with “potential soulmate.”
I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of the level of toxic behavior we inhibited with one another, but it was good and hot until it wasn’t. A weekend guy who’d come to my door with a bottle of Jack Honey and extra Trojans in his back pocket. We stayed home on most nights, dates meant picking up fast food and eating in the car, on special evenings parked at river crests or lookout points, soft R&B crooning from his speakers. No future talks, no I love yous as the music played, moonlight coming in through the window and reflecting off the water.
What it really was; sneaky meetups, the bulk of our relationship veiled behind blackout curtains. I never stepped out into the sunlight with this man.
I’d spent half a year with this guy inundated and unaware that he didn’t want to be seen with me. “Thick girls only” but keep it hush-hush, save the family meet ups and day parties for someone a little more palatable than I was. I knew the realization cut deep when I found myself feeling sympathy, found myself still reaching for his number when I was my most vulnerable self. Skipping past the dramatics of a heartbroken college girl: that shit hurt. Another tally on the Hate Myself Jar, I’d settled down with my loneliness, found comfort back inside the nook of myself.
But I am the water lily, chameleon, fat friend gal that slapped on some clown makeup and went back to work, let the mix of anger and disillusionment slap the pathetics right out of me. America’s sidekick, the love of no one’s life, if I was destined for second place then I’d be the best silver medal anyone had ever met. I’d gotten my companionship and it led to nothing, my metaphor suffering from its recent drought and shriveling, earthly woman hidden under too much shade.
For the first time in my life, anger influenced my self-image, projecting outward not in. Yes, I was overweight, and yes I let mediocre dick be mean to me for half a year, but those were givens, things I’d come to accept as I entered my 20s. This point of my life is marked by anguish and an insatiable urge to get a rise from people, forcing them to look at my glory and shout Yes I’m ugly but I make a mean mac and cheese and can drink anyone under the table. Yes, I’m ugly but if I flex my chest just right I can sling a tit right over my shoulder, the likes of these bad boys something you might never get a chance to see.
Maybe not the most inspiring of end notes, but I do what I must to stay above water. I don’t think there’s any shame in that.
The Angry Years were the best ones. I let my hair grow long, bought fancy shampoos to start remedying all the damage I’d done to it since the seventh grade when I first started bleaching it, the porcupine frizz something I could fix. I cared for my skin, wore sunscreen outside, made time for myself (aka I bought a vibrator). I was a wall again, but this time a good one, something that finds peace in its stability. I’m not sure if it’s post-break up protocol to start changing things, but accountability for me looked like acceptance. It was less a realization of my own worth and more a tragic reckoning that you’re stuck with yourself for the rest of your life, the vessel that dick God lent you the only one you’ll ever get. Kind of miserable, but if it lit a fire under my ass, then it served its purpose.
Rehabilitation of the self involves making peace with people who were good to you, regardless if there were any olive branches left to extend. I turned to the Berkeley directory and found my friend May nestled deep in the Creative Writing department, a portrait of her face exactly as I had remembered and yet unrecognizable. She’d grown her hair out, dyed it red, posed for pictures with her arms crossed at her chest. I remembered her first book was here somewhere, collecting dust deep within my storage somewhere. I’d never finished it.
I hope this isn’t too weird but I found your email on Berkeley’s website. I want to say hello friend! It’s been so long since we last spoke :/ Sad that we lost touch, but hopefully everything’s been okay with you. I’m the same.
I heard you wrote another book, congrats!! You’re first one’s right next to me as I write this, I read it all the time.
Well anyways, I hope that you’re well and if you ever want to talk or meet up I’m here. I’d really love to have you around again.
A few lies here and there, some awkward cordiality, it was an okay email at best. I wondered if my letter would go straight to spam (I hoped it would), if she’d even have the time to consider old high school friends. I imagined what I’d say if we met again, whether I’d tell her about all I’d done to get through the years, the exhaustion of existence setting in at the humble age of 21. I could hear my roommate turn the shower on, the evening sky and tangerine rust filtering through the blinds.
My laptop chimed just as I considered where I might find May’s book.
Thanks so much for reaching out!! I’m doing okay, just totally shocked that you emailed me. I hope everything’s good with you.
To be honest, I didn’t think I’d ever hear from you again. I know the last poem in the collection was a little forward, but I understand now where I went wrong. I am sorry, but I feel an immense weight off of me knowing you read it and still emailed me.
I’m free to talk soon if you’re available, I’ll attach my contact info to this. Looking forward to hearing from you again!
Reading this felt like getting cold called in lecture and not having done that week's readings, a long uuuhh until the professor decides to mercy kill and move on. May had described her book to me once as a collection of poems she wrote in high school, polished up and stamped with her full authenticity. I’d read most of it and found myself simmering in a pool of knowing, laughed heartily at mentions of old bands we liked or whatever alt fad we’d been susceptible to. Her pieces were about her childhood, about leaving Kenya as a teenager, growing right at the center of Bay Area city life after, the given pains of the female experience. What could have possibly been in there that would make me angry at her?
I pushed out of my rolly chair, pulled back my closet’s sliding doors and ventured into depths of it that I hadn’t explored for years. Looking past my crafting supplies, old shoes I never wore, the hideous clothing I’d been gifted by distant relatives. Down there somewhere were all the books I hadn’t found the space for. I opened the luggage my mother lent me before leaving for Davis, shower droplets beating against tile the only noise as I dragged the zipper from corner to corner. I’d only undone two before the front flap bent forward, the weight of pounds of old junk collapsing its way through.
Whether I dug for minutes before finding it or if it slid gracefully out the bag at first opening, I don’t know, the technicalities of how I’d found May’s book forgotten under the rush of finding it, May’s note to me still scribed into the binding: Candy, let me know what you think.
I sat on my close floor, criss-crossed with the spine of it spread all the way, my fingers flipping through the pages, racing to whatever poem May had been so scared of.
The God of Pen and Paper, The Plight of the Rose, Worst Year of my Life, and then there it was, a perfect square piece with its edges all contained, the daintiest font in the entire book.
I imagine you in blue hues
your laughter cool droplets
kissing my eyelids. Dreams
Of you and I buried deep
amongst us, our hands
pressed tight and birthing
precious gems, the warmth of
you melting ice down my core.
Had you known all the ways I felt
you’d be with me now, tucked away
from prying eyes. Forever missed chances,
I offer now only a portrait of my love.
The orange light had gone to purple; my roommate shut off the shower, steel joints squelching. I was present and anchored to the floor but the air in my body was lifting out of me onto the ceiling. There was a film of fog at my eyeline, centers of gravity hanging on for dear life.
May had written a love poem. And in the grandest of unexpected turnouts, high on the list of things so wildly outside of my imagination, it was about me. I hadn’t been considered so thoroughly since the Art class portrait years ago, a gaze of admiration directed at me like I somehow deserved it. It was jarring, foreign, one of the most thrilling moments of my life.
What proceeded was a jumble of rushed limbs, untangling myself from the floor and hopping out just as my roommate walked in, a bellowed screech I hadn’t the sanity to consider. I clicked her contact card, the same number I’d always had saved to my phone. Waited three rings for the fateful Hello?
I believe the discovery is the story here, not the confrontation or hereafter, a simple exchange of Why didn’t you tell me you felt that way? and a snappy So you never finished the book.
We were too grown now to return to old high school feelings, at two opposite points in our life; May strapped down to another book deal and a long-term partner at her side, and me speaking quietly into the phone on my twin bed while my roommate packed a bowl and blew dark smoke into the air.
I was no longer the love of her life, but I had been once. Someone loved me once.
I dream of what she might have thought of me at 15, how my chubby face existed in her mind, the space I inhabited. She’d made room for me where I didn’t need to be and wanted me there anyways. If I’d known then what I know now, would I have accepted it? Believed her adoration and invited it in? I saw women like May in the light of natural phenomena, an erosion of land and the iridescence of a geode. I lived in a perpetual state of awe at those around me, removed myself from the disbelief, and accepted the bystander role with pleasure. I was the earthly fat woman although I refused to be, the metaphor so deep-rooted its tendrils could sprout from my mouth.
If May had seen me as a water lily, then I must have been one all this time without knowing. I considered the way she perceived me: I was the flower floating at surface level, my petals bloomed and open, beautiful face tilted up towards the sun.