Here is the full transcript of My Big Fat Fabulous Life star Whitney Thore’s TEDx Talk presentation on Living Without Shame: How We Can Empower Ourselves at TEDxGreensboro conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Living without shame How we can empower ourselves by Whitney Thore at TEDxGreensboro
You may have noticed by now that I’m really fat, and that’s okay; you wouldn’t be the first.
Back in 1997 when I was in seventh grade, I heard a question posed about me in the locker room of my middle school. I sat hidden in a bathroom stall hunched over, not wanting to give myself away, when I heard a girl asked: when was the last time Whitney saw 90210? I was like more of a Saved by the Bell girl myself, and I’d actually never seen an episode of 90210. So I clenched my muscles and held my pee and waited with bated breath for the answer. And when it came, when she stepped on the scale, the girls erupted into laughter and I felt the familiar sting of embarrassment seeping into my cheeks.
It took me back to my fifth grade year on the soccer field where the boys had taken to singing a song about me called Baby Beluga that ended with: “she’s got a whale of a tale.” You might be picturing now how fat I probably was. It’s easy to conjure up a mental image of an awkward girl spilling out of her shorts, running up and down the sidelines, like hey I’m open. But if you have that mental image you would be wrong, because in 1995 when I was 10 years old, I looked like this.
And when I look at that picture now my heart aches because when I was just becoming aware that I had a body and that other people had opinions about my body, I became a statistic, like eight out of ten 10-year olds who today are afraid of being fat — 10-year-olds! That’s a real statistic. I bought the lie that diet culture sold me when I was ten years old that told me if I am thin, thinner, than enough, then I will be happy.
But at 10 years old I felt the furthest thing from happy. And so the emotion that I most connected with my body was shame. After that, shame followed me like a shadow. And after the 90210 incident, I knew I had to take action. So I grabbed the handle of my father’s toothbrush and shoved it down my throat until I vomited and thus began my nearly lifelong battle with eating disorders.
I continued to excel in school, to play sports, to dance. Shame and I won lots of awards and trophies. Sometimes, shame was like a really overbearing adult begging for a piggyback ride, and other time shame trailed a few feet behind me dragging its leash like a faithful dog never leaving my sight.
By the time I was 18 years old in 2002 and becoming a young woman, shame had solidified itself as my most faithful friend. It accompanied me to every dance performance, to every soccer tournament; it was even there in the bathroom with me at my prom as I hunched over at toilet and threw up my dinner, just minutes before being crowned prom princess.
When I moved to college that fall, I brought shame along into my dorm room, and I noticed that my body was changing. By the time I went home for Christmas break, I gained 50 pounds, and I’m thinking like, OK, I’m an overachiever, so clearly the freshman 15 is just not enough. I was getting mysterious bruises all over my body and I was like why am I bumping into door reason furniture, when do I get so clumsy but then I realized I wasn’t clumsy; my body was expanding so quickly that I had lost all kinesthetic awareness of it. My body literally didn’t know how to fit in its physical place anymore and similarly I didn’t know where I fit in the world.
To say that my weight gain was difficult would be an understatement. By the time the second semester was finished, I gained nearly 100 pounds and there was the sympathy from like the pretty girls who asked me if I like ever had a boyfriend. And then there was that one frat boy who had taken me on a dinner date in August, granted it was to Ruby Tuesday but it was a dinner date. And when he saw me emerge he looked right through me like I didn’t even exist. It was like I’d been forced into some social experiment against my will to put on a fat suit and parade about in public. The differences in the way that people treated average Whitney and fat Whitney were striking. Suddenly I was assumed to be lazy, desperate, sloppy, stupid and with every single pound that I gained my self-worth continued to shrink further and further.
So I became a different person after that. I quit my dance classes, I failed a lot of my academic classes and in a world where it felt like being a fat woman was the biggest taboo, I didn’t have anyone to talk to. Sure, there were times where I pulled myself up by the bootstraps and I said I’m going to go to the gym or I’m going to venture out to this party. But there was always a whisper, a dirty look and insult to remind me why I didn’t deserve to be in those spaces, so I would come back home to my apartment to the only friend that had never deserted me: shame. We would stay up late into the night commiserating getting drunk to no more pain. I’d order takeout for us both and do anything to avoid going out in a world that didn’t want me.
And of course, all the things that I had done to cope only compounded the problem and I continued gaining weight. In 2005, I weighed 280 pounds and my nurse practitioner swiveled her stool from in between my legs in the stirrups, checking her chart and announcing a little too cheerfully that she thought I had PCOS. Wow! My mind started reeling, because I did not remember learning about this STD in my seventh-grade sex ed class. But the more I learned as I poured over the brochures and the pamphlets — PCOS wasn’t an STD, it was a syndrome, a grouping of symptoms with no cure that affects one out of every ten women in America and is the leading cause of infertility.
And then like putting together a puzzle, other stuff started to make sense. The handfuls of hair that had come out in the shower, the coarse dark hairs all over my face, my period that had visited me only twice when I was 15 and never again, and of course my sudden and severe weight gain in my freshman year of college, I didn’t have an explanation for it then, but I had an explanation for it now. I was insulin resistant.
So would life with PCOS make it impossible to lose weight? Absolutely not. Would it be even harder? Absolutely, yes. And for a woman who wanted anything but to be fat, this felt like a death sentence. And then I got pissed off, I wondered why have I never heard of this thing? I wanted to know why I’d always been dismissed when I went to the doctors, told that I was young and irregular or I was drinking or I was on Prozac. But out of all those emotions that I felt, the one I felt the most of was shame.
So after college, I packed two suitcases, my clothes and shame, and I set off for Korea to teach English. I got promotion after promotion and I traveled the world. Shame and I made it all the way to the top of the Great Wall of China. We ate sushi together in Tokyo; we vacationed in Malaysia and Vietnam; we even sunbathed in Bali. But all of these experiences, it’s so wonderful, were tinged with that disgusting and city a shame that sucked the life and the color out of my memories and left me nothing but black and white and a never-ending wish to be thin so that I could really start my life.