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obsessing over excess baggage

I was the fat kid.

The token ‘Fatty Boomba’ at primary school.

I relished tucking into a meal more than an excavation of the sandpit. I avoided the monkey bars because lifting my weight was a struggle. I was always the first chosen for trivia, yet the last for a game of kickball.

Although aesthetically, I was obviously larger in circumference than my peers, why would I believe it was something to be embarrassed of? Other kids were a lot shorter, others much taller. Other children had their unique quirks, if you consider snacking on art-glue a ‘quirk.’ Why would my baby fat be cause for concern? Why would it be any different to anyone else’s difference?

To be honest, I never realised why.

I was told.

The memory holds such clarity in my mind that I swear it happened only yesterday rather than 15 years ago.

It occurred during my first weeks of Prep. One day as I traipsed past the playground on my way to class, the silhouette of a grade six Neanderthal consumed my peripheral vision. Our eyes didn’t meet until he spat a malignant comment in my direction. The way he bellowed in disgust, ‘Ugh, you are so FAT!’ would make you think I was his arch nemesis. It was as if I was an adversary who borrowed his textas and never returned them.

In reality, I was a complete stranger. A preppie rendered speechless and immobilised. Physically unable to retort back to an alien who rammed such a loaded label right down her gullet.

Shell-shocked on the path, the weight of his words made me feel even heavier than I supposedly was. Sinking into the pavement, his ridicule morphed me from a naïve child into a damaged can of beetroot resting on the supermarket shelf. Something had gone awry in packaging because not only did I look different from the canned goods, I was undesirable. Defective. Flawed. No-one would purchase such an imperfect item. The mere sight would repel onlookers.

At five years of age, the gratuitous comments of a bully provoked me to be self-conscious of my weight. At 19, these destructive views surround me via another medium. It’s not only the schoolyard bullies who breed self-loathing.

The media also plays tormenter.

Magazines, television programs, and advertisements project unattainable beauty into every facet of public and private life. So much so that according to the 2010 Mission Australia’s National Survey of Young Australians, body image is the prime concern amongst 11-24 year olds, both male and female. One in five 12 year old girls would regularly resort to starvation and purging in order to lose weight. More than half believe the media think that being thin is the most important thing for girls to aspire to.

And the ‘ideal look’ to which they are aspiring is neither realistic nor ideal. Images of airbrushed celebrities and models become their norm, as do starlets professing quick weight-loss schemes and cheap cosmetic fixes.

These false reflections of beauty tarnish our reality. Even more worryingly, they blemish an outlook that is still in the process of formation – the perception of children.

The most disturbing part is that there are a number of campaigns targeting bullying, but not nearly enough against these damaging representations. The media follows kids home just like cyber bullying can. You can’t flip the pages of a magazine or change the channel without bombardments from infomercials spouting the miracle to weight loss, or ‘Raised Brows: Did [insert name of celebrity] really have Botox?’ articles.

The invasiveness of the media only reiterates the need for change. Deliberately exacerbating insecurities goes against the public interest. Not to mention that it is negatively impacting upon the self-esteem of future generations.

What’s worse is that even when average people attempt to permeate the picture-perfect mediascape, they are shot down for doing so.

This trend was apparent in the January 2012 issue of New Idea. A cover which provided momentary relief from the extremes the media usually bears. Four famous women, including Julie Goodwin the first winner of Masterchef Australia, flaunted their figures in swimsuits. Their variation in age and body shape was a breath of fresh air. Evidently for others, it was suffocating.

Ros Reines, a Sunday Telegraph columnist, denounced both Goodwin and the cover. Without any relevant medical data on the chef, she judged her as unhealthy purely by a photograph. Purely by appearance.

Like the opportunistic bully hovering stealthily in the schoolyard, Reines reminded Goodwin that she was a bruised beetroot can. She didn’t fit society’s doctrine of normal and shouldn’t pretend to.

The wave of weight-focused reality television programs further testify to this increasing societal fixation with the exterior. Although shows like The Biggest Loser highlight the importance of diet and exercise, the other message conveyed is less than wholesome. It says that until you lose weight, you couldn’t possibly love yourself or be loved. It says that shedding kilograms is the one path to self-confidence.

It says that happiness for an overweight individual is an unlikely, if not impossible, option.

Is it any wonder that children garner the same complexes which adults harbour? That kids, even whilst playing in the schoolyard, are learning distinctions based upon body image?

And these distinctions are enduring. Though I am one of the fortunate few to emerge from a bullying incident without an eating disorder or a lifelong battle with the mirror, the experience isn’t one easily forgotten. I went through the remainder of my early schooling aware that I was not the same as everyone else, and not in a positive way. Though it didn’t stop me from being myself, it forced me to adopt a rigid shell in order to combat those who could mock my appearance.

Eventually my weight evened out, but even now at an average size there are days when my reflection annoys me. I often wonder whether it’s due to the primary school perp, the press, or the pedantic insecurities considered innate to females.

Maybe it’s a ghastly combination of the three.

Ultimately, I would hope to see a time when there is a greater focus on how to lose those last inklings of self-doubt rather than those last few kilos.

It’s important to be healthy, but obsessing over excess baggage is anything but.

By Melissa Koutoukidis

(Image credit: 1)

Melissa Koutoukidis is an aspiring journalist and second year Arts student at the University of Melbourne. She has been published in The Punch, Melbourne Observer, and Upstart magazine among many others. You can follow her on Twitter @_Youve_Got_Mel.

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