Labels and Irony


Fat and ugly.

I’ve carried those labels as long as I can remember. They were reinforced, unknowingly, by family, friends, and strangers.

Kids on the bus who spit in my hair and told others I came from ‘the Land of the Weird’.


7th Grade 1972

Friends who said ‘don’t worry, there are guys out there who value personality over looks’.

Everyone, every single person, who said ‘wow, you look so much like your mother!’. What they didn’t know was the conversations behind the scenes. Mom sitting on the edge of the bed telling me how homely she was, how she’d struggled growing up because of that. I heard her message, drank it in deep, and was reminded what I was every time someone said I looked like her. I still hear that message.


My mother, young


Mom at the cabin

I strove to never tell my child he looked like either parent. Let him be unique, himself, no mirror.



It is so vitally important to me that my son (who is handsome by the way) never hears a negative message from me. That he never absorbs someone else’s opinion and makes it his own. I’ve never allowed myself that same grace.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t angst-driven, depressed, traumatized. The labels were, and are, just a piece of the whole, just who I am, nothing to be done about it, nothing to stew over. And I’ve learned in a few potentially dangerous incidents that being fat and ugly can be protection. Rather like an odd sort of invisibility cloak. Well, there’s the opposite, too. One particular incident comes to mind where a family friend came to the house when my parents were gone, thinking I’d be desperate for male attention.

So I’ve perfected over the years looking in the mirror to check earrings or brush hair, without seeing. I avoid sitting where there might be a reflection visible. My husband rarely sees me naked. It’s hard to find photos of myself because I avoid cameras. Again, nothing I brood over, just a part of life.


Then, a couple of years ago I was sifting through photographs and found one of us siblings standing in front of the fireplace. I wore a burgundy dress that had been a favorite. Soft and flowing so when I went Scottish dancing, it swirled. I stared at that photo, shocked. I wasn’t fat. Busty, yes. But shapely. How could that be? I remember so clearly loving that dress even though I was fat. I knew I was. And yet, I wasn’t.

How could my self-image be so warped? So blind? At least, back then.


Another time period when I knew I was fat and now see I wasn’t as big as I thought

Ugly was still there. Nothing to be done about that. Though by then I’d adopted mom’s phrase of ‘homely’ as it seemed less negative. Easier to say. But not fat. At least, not back then, when I knew I was.

And that was the time period when I’d traveled with friends overseas and watched all the attention they received for being attractive American girls, while I was invisible. As it should have been, I thought at the time, because those friends were, and still are, beautiful, inside and out.

Life, the universe, karma, whatever you want to call it, has a funny way of forcing you to see. A few years ago I was diagnosed with lymphoma. The doctors told me it was in an unusual spot that they didn’t come across very often. The right parotid gland. Where is that you might ask? My right cheek.

Meaning a lump formed there that was visible every time I went out in public. Then a biopsy was done and it became even more visible. Then I started radiation treatments and everyone was focused on my face. That homely face. I still managed to avoid seeing it myself though.


Right after parotid diagnosis before lump got too big. Taken by a friend who made a calendar so sorry for the odd size photo.

Last year I developed a skin cancer on my nose. Surgery took care of it and for a week I went out in public with a big white banner bandage that said ‘look at this face!’.

Recently, the lymphoma has come back. In another odd spot that isn’t seen very often. At the base of my esophagus. For the coming month, everyone is going to be looking at my fat stomach. I mean, it’s even tattooed now, for treatments.

It dawned on me this morning that each time I’ve had this happen, it’s placed focus directly on the areas I despise. It’s directed everyone’s eyes to the places I wish I could hide.

What’s with that, universe? Some sort of sick humor? One last little poke at the weird one? Or are you saying, look? Look. Yes you’re homely (ugly), yes you’re fat, but how important is that in this short time we’re allowed to live?

I’m not a young teenager anymore who isn’t asked out to dances or the prom, or even visible to the eyes of crushes. I don’t waste time feeling sorry for myself, or even thinking about this very often. It’s just labels, a part of who I am, no more, no less, than my freckles or my height. So if it doesn’t bother me anymore, why does the universe keep pointing its cosmic finger at the worst spots?

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that cosmic finger.

Besides raise my middle finger.

The problem now is that if I put these labels, these words, out there for someone else to read, I’ll get compliments. Friends, probably a little horrified, will feel the need to reassure me by telling me none of this is true, that I’m actually pretty (they won’t be able to peel off the label of ‘fat’). And I won’t believe them. I’ll love them for their need to care for me, to lift me up from what they perceive as sadness. I’ll recognize their politeness. What else can you say to someone who mentions these labels except, ‘of course you’re not that!’?

They won’t realize that I’m not saying all of this as some sort of backhanded way to get, or ask for, compliments. I’m simply saying, these are my labels. This is who I am. These are the facts. And the purpose of this whole essay is to also say, how ironic is the universe?

Oh, and let me be very clear. Just because I wear these labels doesn’t mean I’m a victim, or submissive, or shy like I was in school. I am a strong woman and I know it. I love who I am on the inside. I wouldn’t change a single atom of personality.

In other words, I don’t need the reassuring compliments. These are, after all, just labels I wear in the face of an ironic universe.


About 1995

12 thoughts on “Labels and Irony

  1. I think so many of us grow up with “labels” — courtesy of our parents — that don’t fit, but have become part of our identity. I’ve certainly accumulated my share. Would you believe, that among other things, my mother insisted I had brown eyes and blonde hair? (I have neither, but did have blond hair when I was very very young). My favorite (ahem) one was the constant reassurance that it was okay if I just tried to be average. That applied to everything from grades to social acceptance to appearance — if I just tried, I could achieve average. Now there’s a goal — and commentary on the degree of disappointment my parents felt in me. My weight was my mother’s biggest outright complaint, though. Instead of fat, I was too skinny. I didn’t own a pair of shorts until a year ago (skinny legs with knobby knees), and I never wore short sleeve or sleeveless shirts if I could avoid it. I’d like to point out that I am now overweight — let’s hear it for menopause!

    Ah, baggage… isn’t it great? To be really honest, here, not a single one of your friends would ever tell you that you are pretty just to be polite. The honest truth is that you are beautiful (and I would have given anything to have had your looks when I was in 7th grade — or any other time!). You’ll just have to deal with it. It’s the truth from where we sit.


  2. I’m sorry to hear the lymphoma has made a reappearance, and I agree, the universe has a very strange sense of humor.

    Your seventh grade self is stunning. I spent a lot of my youth longing for red hair. There was no way for young me to comprehend the possibility that a Chinese girl could be considered pretty in this country. I assumed I’d have to be white for that, and clearly there was no hope of that ever happening. Or I’d have to be even more exotic looking (thankfully I didn’t try to make that happen). I wish I could have a talk with that girl I was — though I guess I do, every day.

    I won’t tell you you’re not fat, but I spent much of last night reading Lindy West’s amazing essay collection, SHRILL, and the way she owns her fatness (a long journey) is something to behold.

    As to ugly, though, in 100% utter and complete truth, I do not know that I could ever call anyone ugly. Or even homely, plain, what have you. I know I’ve said this before but the artist in me will not allow it. (The seventh grader in me, of course, thinks beauty only consists of a certain set of features on someone thin and leggy with Pantene-commercial hair, but thank god my perceptions aren’t ruled by my inner teenager anymore!) I can’t tell you exactly what I think of your looks, since we haven’t met in person (photos are so often deceiving), but I have yet to meet a face without beauty.

    I suspect this is exactly the kind of comment you were hoping to stave off, but would you be able to read this post from a friend and not remark on her labels? Whatever they were? The thing is, the labels may be facts, but facts have never been all of any story. And I think that’s what my comment (and perhaps Susan’s) is about. I see you proclaiming your facts and I cannot help but say, maybe they are, but you are so much more to me than your facts. And of course you know that, but I’m saying it again.


    • PS. I am a little worried it sounds like I mentioned Lindy West’s book because I think you should read it to feel better about yourself, or something like that. If it sounded like that, I can’t apologize enough. In truth I’m still working out how to articulate how much that book affects me, especially my personal relationship to fatness. But I should have explained that.


    • I love these comments here, Lisa. They could be a blog post on your site. And yes, thankfully, we are more than the sum of facts. I, too, wish I could talk to that 7th grader. Or better yet, face those years as the person I am now rather than the quiet kid in the corner that I was then. But who knows. I’d probably not be the person I am now without those years, and I’m happy with the insides!


      • I did think that if I had time, I would write a blog post, but time is in short supply these days. 🙂 Well, this sounds very weird, but I’m happy with your insides too! And mine!


  3. Lisa I am so sorry to hear about the lymphoma rearing its ugly head again. I hope that the treatments are tolerable for you and if there is anything that we could do to help you please let us know.
    Julie and Heinz


  4. You should have posted that picture with the Burgundy dress…
    I love the last with you guys in your uniforms! I can see how Art fell in love with you, you look so cute in that picture!! I always loved your hair, but I dont say it often since you dont like it. When I was younger I always wanted curley hair like yours and I had it dyed red for the longest time… ironic, isnt it?
    Over the years I learned to deal with what I have and I am happy with it now. But man did I hate my own hair and body.

    I always heard about not to eat this or that, since it was too fattening. Dont enjoy a second piece of that torte, one was plenty… I know she was just trying to look out for me, but I still carry that feeling with me that I am not enough. That I could be better if I just tried harder, exercised more and wasnt that lazy. I think lazy was my biggest label. I could have achived so much more , fullfilled more of her dreams because she knew I was smart enough to do.
    At least I have the peace of knowing she accepted my way of doing things and that I was just fine the way I am . I think that helped me accepting myself and my body.

    I know you didnt want to hear any if this but I need to just say that I love you just the way you are!! I love that I dont have to reach up high to hug you and you are soft to hug. I really like that! At least there is something to hug! 😉


    • You don’t have to reach high to hug! That’s great. Never thought about that as an advantage to being short. I’m glad you found peace within your relationship with your mother.


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