What Being “The Fat Kid” Taught Me About Empathy
My heart jackhammered in my chest as I waited for my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Tarr, to call my name. When he did, like all of my classmates, I’d have to walk to the front of the classroom to get measured and weighed.
In front of everyone.
I felt sick to my stomach, wondering if I could somehow sneak to the bathroom without him noticing.
Instead, moments later I stood with my eyes downcast, trying not to cry as he announced, “186 pounds!”. Snickers sounded around the room. I retreated to my desk, cheeks on fire, wanting to die.
What It’s Like to Be Obese as a Child
Growing up as “the fat kid” was one of the worst experiences of my childhood. Being overweight meant never knowing who your true friends were — I’d be playing with Suzie on the playground only to have her ask out of the blue in a loud voice, “Why are you so fat?”
Humiliated, I’d mumble something about being big-boned and run to the swingset.
Every day felt like walking through a minefield. I never knew when the next cruel comment, fat joke, or mooing sound would come next.
In “The Emotional Toll of Obesity,” via healthychildren.org, this statement rings true: “For children who are overweight, living with excess pounds can be heartbreaking. In its own way, the social stigma attached to being overweight can be as damaging to a child as the physical diseases and conditions that often accompany obesity.”
Thankfully, I never suffered any disease related to my weight — maybe that was a side benefit of becoming a vegetarian at age nine. And while I often wish I could go back and re-do my childhood as a normal-sized kid, I know that being obese as a child taught me an important lesson: empathy for others.
That’s a skill many still need to learn. While there is a push for accepting differences these days, I don’t often see that when it comes to obesity or overweight individuals. Instead, fat-shaming and humiliation seem to be the norm.
This is especially true when it comes to women who don’t fall into traditional sizes. Ruby Lee has a great article on the negative way that overweight women are portrayed in books, movies, and real life.
Empathy: a Great Skill to Have
In addition to making a person nicer overall, empathy is a soft skill that’s highly sought after in today’s workplace. In a study noted in the Forbes article, “Empathy is the Most Important Leadership Skill According to Research,” the author notes that employees who believe their employers are empathetic are 86 percent more likely to navigate a balanced work/life balance.
And 50 percent of employees viewed their workplace as more inclusive when leadership was empathetic.
Employers, too, see the value of it. “…empathy in the workplace is positively related to job performance,” says an article titled, “The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace” in the Center for Creative Leadership
When You Know Better, You Do Better
Knowing what it felt like to be excluded or made fun of, I made it a point to make sure other “outsiders” felt part of things or at least like someone else cared about them.
I would invite other kids who weren’t popular to join in games at recess, to sit in my group of friends at lunch, or just say hello to them when everyone else ignored them.
Sometimes, I was brave enough to tell others to “knock it off” when other kids were being picked on relentlessly. I wasn’t perfect at this. There were still plenty of times my self-consciousness led me to ignore or turn my back on my less-popular peers.
And yes, sometimes I secretly rejoiced inside when the teasing and mean comments were focused on someone else.
Nature or Nurture?
It could be that I’m all wrong and my finely-tuned empathetic streak is just that — something that’s innate in me. Maybe like my love for animals and nature, art, and writing, it’s just part of who I am.
I think that growing up as “the fat kid” though, helped develop empathy. And when I eventually decided I wanted to slim down — for me — and lost 85 pounds at age 13 (another story for another article), I kept that sense of empathy. I remembered how it felt to be teased, bullied, and singled out.
As an adult, I still find myself looking for the “outsiders” — my tribe, wherever I go. When I attend conferences or other work-related events — even at church or the coffee shop — I keep an eye out for the people who seem self-conscious, uncomfortable, or like they’re worrying that they don’t fit in.
I see you, I want to say to them. I know that feeling. I get it. Instead, I usually introduce myself and ask if they’d like to join me at my table or in the seat next to me.
Joy Choquette writes about health and wellness, self-improvement, and writing. Published in numerous national magazines and on four continents, she also pens suspense novels set in Vermont. Sign up for her fun monthly newsletter for writing resources, updates from her writing office, and weird bits of trivia you can impress your friends with.
She loves making upcycled art, drinking hot beverages, and spending time in the woods with her family when she’s not writing.