Equal parts hurt, humiliated, and pissed off last week, I’ve been struggling to process something that you, Grown Man Who Called Me Fat While I Was Running, have probably already forgotten. As I ran my first lap around the park, something that I’ve been doing on a regular basis since September, I ran past your yard as I’ve done hundreds of times before. This time, however, as I rounded the turn and started to make my way past the playground full of families on a sunny, warm Sunday afternoon, I heard your voice loud and clear over the shouts and cries of the playground.
“WHOA! Guys, look at the really fat woman jogging!”
As soon as the word “fat” fell on my ears, I knew you were talking about me, and there was that old familiar feeling of my heart dropping into my guts. Raucous laughter came from your yard and I saw in my peripheral vision some heads from the playground turn to look at me. There was a split second to decide what to do with this. I was obviously not about to stop running just because you had very loudly and publicly made fun of me, but my desire to continue running past your house was nonexistent. Flight or fight response kicked in and a lump formed in my throat. I raced up the hill faster than I’ve ever gone before. At the top, I kept running, out of your line of vision, straight into the parking lot.
I sat on a bench, catching my breath, feeling like some kind of spectacle. A circus freak, maybe. With your words repeating in my head, it occurred to me that while I had been made fun of quite a bit growing up and even while I was teaching, you are the first adult to ever openly do so. For some reason, this hurt more than I expected it to.
Then came the tears, because I’m human and my feelings were hurt and I felt humiliated and disgusting.
I texted my mom because it was Mother’s Day and it seemed like the right thing to do. But also because my mom is probably the best person I know when it comes to not taking anyone’s shit. I did not inherit this trait from her. When it was clear that I wasn’t going back out onto that running path, she advised me to get in my car and go somewhere else, but to not give up and go home.
You see, guy, you were pretty quick to size me up, as it were, but you know nothing about me or why I was there. So let me tell you a few things:
- My name is Renee, I’m 31, and I’ve been called fat for my whole life. Well, for most of it. Since kindergarten, and every year of school until I graduated.
- I was active as a kid (and was still called fat anyway). I started playing softball after 2nd grade and played until I graduated from high school. 10 years, plus one season for the school team. I played basketball in 5th grade (I’ve only grown 2 inches since then, so it wasn’t meant to be). In 8th grade, I joined the track team, throwing shot and discus. 5 years of marching band kept me moving, as well. I coached softball for one year while I was teaching, and then, like many adults as they start to age, started slowing down and getting less exercise.
- I’ve spent most of my life hating running because, when forced to do it in gym class, no one ever encouraged me or taught me how to run. They just got exasperated with me because I couldn’t. My senior year of high school, a sophomore lapped me during the mile run, told me to “speed it up, fatass,” and then laughed with his friends. That was in 2000 and was the last time I really ran until 2013.
- Three years ago, at age 57, my dad very nearly died as a result of congestive heart failure, an enlarged heart, and arrhythmia. Sitting in his room in the ICU following the pericardium procedure that saved his life, I decided that I was going to get healthier so that never happened to me.
- I just moved to this area not quite a year ago. I viewed it as a much-desired opportunity for change. In August 2013, I made a goal to run a 5k. The following month, I joined a running group at the park that borders your house, and I’ve been running there regularly since then.
- When the group ended, I wasn’t ready to run a 5k. I kept working toward my goal. Maybe you saw me outside running while you were sitting in your house. I joined the spring group too, to keep myself honest.
- In December 2013, I ran my first 5k. My time was awful but I finished it running. I’m hoping to improve with the next one. There will be a next one.
Ultimately, you’re just a loudmouth asshole, and I know that. But I think your words hurt because when I hear them, I don’t just hear you. I hear the boy in kindergarten telling me that I’m fat. It had never occurred to me. I hear the two boys in my 2nd grade class who refused to do group work with me because they might “catch fat” from me and who taunted me on the playground, telling me not to use the kickballs because I might fall on them and pop them. I hear the popular girl who stomped on my foot in 4th grade and said “Stop standing near my friends, fatass.” I hear the car full of teenagers who drove slowly behind me while I was walking my bike up a hill with my friend one hot summer day after 6th grade. “What’s the matter, fatty?” they called out the windows, laughing. “You can’t make it up the hill?” I hear the boy I liked in 8th grade expressing repulsion that a fat girl liked him. I hear that sophomore taunting me during the mile run. I see a cartoon version of me, drawn by one of my students, slovenly like Jabba the Hutt. Or the two teenage boys who followed me around Target in the fall, laughing and making loud comments about me being the ugliest person there. Interesting that these were nearly all males (the girls whispered and giggled and judged, but at least did it quietly).
You, man-child, may have deeply hurt my feelings, but you are no better than these children. I’m sorry that your senses of empathy and common decency haven’t matured past a second grade level. What’s more, I can’t figure out why you feel that you are entitled to comment on a total stranger’s body, completely unprovoked. I was minding my business. I wasn’t bothering you.
After I returned to my car, I sat and cried some more, thinking I had failed for the day because I felt like giving up. I felt terrible about myself. Fortunately, my friends who are runners have been very supportive of me (all of my friends are, really). I thought of my mom’s advice and my friends’ encouragement. I didn’t want to let any of them down and I didn’t want to let myself down. So I drove to another park and completed my run in a place where everyone, even the teenagers, left me alone.
I’ve since had to return to the park where you made your comments because this is where my group runs. And I’d be lying if I said I felt no anxiety about it whatsoever, because I do. I hate running past your house because I’m terrified you’ll be sitting outside again and I’ll have to once more become the target of your loud public commentary. But it pushes me to get through there faster, so thanks for that.
There are a lot of cruel people in the world, and you’re one of them. Fortunately I have a lot of people to remind me that, despite my flaws, my speed, my struggles with improvement, I’m still trying. Most people would agree that’s way more productive and admirable than sitting on your back patio, obnoxiously objectifying and publicly humiliating people.