Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Written by Arianna Wheat
Photo by Leighann Blackwood on Unsplash
We rounded the edge of the lake at Lake Balboa Park. I had lived in the San Fernando Valley for the first 24 years of my life and had never been to or seen this park that sits majestically in the mid-valley region. The park features walking paths, trees, and paddle boats in the shape of giant swans that you can take out to the middle of the lake. I cannot fully recall the conversation but I remember the moment when my dear friend S casually mused, “I think everyone in LA hates themselves a little bit.” This was a sad thought but also oddly validating to my experience of growing up here, leaving, and returning.
There is something in the air here, (insert pollution jokes). The LA stereotypes of plastic people having plastic conversations in plastic houses, really only represent one small part of LA but the vibe is somehow pervasive. The proximity to tinsel town has created a thin layer of expectations that truly even the best of us cannot live up to. But LA in particular expects you to try to live up to the image. You are not really expected to be happy with who you are, what you have, your body, your house, your car, your status are all meant to be constantly improved until you die.
I grew up as a Fat Black child surrounded by mostly white straight-sized students for most of my academic career. I had accumulated 24 years of loneliness by the time I left Los Angeles. I didn’t have the words for my experience until I stepped out of it. Looking back I can see the many messages I received directly and indirectly about how Fatness was BAD and Blackness was not a thing to be celebrated.
I moved to Chicago and had my first Fat Bodied friends and it was such a game-changer for me. My friend B, pushed me into the dressing room and flung my first pair of jeggings into the room with me. I put them on. I put on clothes that not only fit my body but hugged my body, accenting the fact that I had a body rather than trying to hide it away. When I stepped out of the fitting room my friend proclaimed, “Look at you! You have LEGS!!! Look at your legs!” There was a time when I was too young to know that the world expected me to be self conscious about my appearance. I can see the image of me running around the playground in a chartreuse t-shirt and hot pink shorts. When exactly did I stop showing my legs? When did Los Angeles Summers become so unbearable for me? Being of millennial age meant that there was a dearth of plus-size clothing available to me as a child. There are photos of me at my sixth-grade graduation looking like a tiny middle-aged woman in a petite floral too--long dress and cardigan draped over my shoulders held together by one button, just enough to keep my arms covered. It would take years for me to understand that cardigans are meant to enhance and frame my outfits rather than hide me away. I don’t recall actively wanting to be hidden, but like all children of a certain age, I wanted to blend in, and feel a sense of belonging in my peer group.
In Chicago I wore sleeveless tops, I walked for the pleasure of it. I wore my hair naturally and wild, and I met up with my friends for $5 burgers Monday, at Bar on Buena. I moved to Oakland and pursued my master's degree in San Francisco. I heard the words Body Positivity, Fat Liberation, and Fat Acceptance for the first time. I was introduced to tumblr and got to see images of Fat Bodies in nature, experiencing joy and freedom. I was introduced to the revolutionary concept that my body is a good body, worthy of love and desire without me having to change. I do not have to be in the process of losing weight to be accepted. I got to hear the phrase that Black Girls are Magic and that Black Lives Matter as I stood in the birthplace of the Black Panther Movement. I found language for the feelings I didn’t know I was feeling. I finally saw myself in the landscape and it felt good. It also felt jarring to confront how much negativity I had internalized up to that point, and the many insidious ways it can creep towards the surface.
I write this having returned to my San Fernando Valley roots. Being back here reminds me of who I was and how much I was conditioned to not like myself. I am missing all the ways I felt reflected and connected. I am intimidated to try and rebuild it here. The self-consciousness creeps up, in the form of old language, and old expectations. But I am not the same person. Much like my peace lily that has traveled with me across the country and back, I feel as if I have outgrown this container and am in need of repotting. New soil, new sexy pot, new directions to discover. Though the feelings are very familiar, and the struggle is absolutely real, I have new tools to help me in the fight. I am reminding myself that I have other options than grinding myself down to be something I am not. I have the knowledge that there are others who may feel like I do. I may feel lonely, but I am not actually alone. I am writing this in the midst of a Los Angeles summer, and this time I’m wearing a pair of factory distressed denim shorts, with my hair wild and free.
Arianna Wheat is a storyteller, writer, drama therapist, coach, and intergalactic space goddess providing telehealth services from a spacious corner in Los Angeles.