My mom: “Joan, you already have two strikes against you. You’re black, and you’re female. You don’t need to be fat, too.”
  • My mom: “Joan, you already have two strikes against you. You’re black, and you’re female. You don’t need to be fat, too.”
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I didn’t know who this poor girl was to be so hated by Jimmy, but I felt sorry for her. I was the lucky girl who got to share a desk with him.

“It’s YOU!”

Kindergarten school photo. During the second half of my kindergarten year at Webster Elementary, my dad would sneak and buy Twinkies for me.

Kindergarten school photo. During the second half of my kindergarten year at Webster Elementary, my dad would sneak and buy Twinkies for me.

I always made sure that my crayons were lined up just so. My older sisters dressed me in their prettiest passed-down dresses and twisted my long hair into ponytails that only little black girls with “good hair” could sport. My coloring was within the lines — I had faultless technique. And I always gave Jimmy my most rapt attention.

No, no, no, no, no. Not me. I could count, I could put together big puzzles, and countless adults had told me I was cute. He had to mean some other girl. All I had ever done was adore him. He couldn’t mean me.

Joan in sixth grade. “You look like Frankenstein’s wife.” The girl who sat in front of me in Spanish, Sandy, said those words to me, unprovoked.

Joan in sixth grade. “You look like Frankenstein’s wife.” The girl who sat in front of me in Spanish, Sandy, said those words to me, unprovoked.

He turned back to his coloring, and I sat there.

I didn’t cry. I was the youngest of five. I knew better.

I went home and asked for my favorite lunch, a grilled-cheese sandwich. I never told my mother what Jimmy had said. I never told my sisters, either. But I stopped asking them to dress me up and do my hair. I asked my father to cut off my long hair so that I could sport an afro. My mother cried and kept my puffy braid.

I drew a house with a yard and put Sandy's family photos in the windows, drawing black rings around eyes, black gaps between teeth.

I drew a house with a yard and put Sandy's family photos in the windows, drawing black rings around eyes, black gaps between teeth.

During the second half of my kindergarten year at Webster Elementary, we were assigned to a new teacher and a new classroom. There were different tables — long tables shared by six students, instead of the small tables for two. I didn’t sit next to Jimmy, which was fine; he had been replaced by Twinkies. My dad would sneak and buy them for me. I measured everything by them. “Dad, do you love me more than a thousand hundred twenty million Twinkies?” He would say yes, and I knew I was well loved.

Two-day suspension from Pershing Junior High School in San Carlos. Sandy’s parents demanded that I be expelled. They called it vandalism.

Two-day suspension from Pershing Junior High School in San Carlos. Sandy’s parents demanded that I be expelled. They called it vandalism.

The summer following kindergarten is when the Twinkies, now joined by little gel-glazed Vienna sausages and vanilla ice cream, began to show how much I was loved. I was a slightly pudgy first-grader who turned into an even pudgier second-grader. The kids began to tease me. I was always the last to be picked for the kickball team during afternoon recess. No one wanted to play tetherball with me, unless it was to set me up for getting hit. (I was afraid of the ball and closed my eyes when it was coming my way.) I couldn’t twirl on the monkey bars like the other girls.

Current photo of Joan. I want to be sleek, not because I think it will make all my dreams come true, but because it will mean that I will have demolished the fortress I constructed.

Current photo of Joan. I want to be sleek, not because I think it will make all my dreams come true, but because it will mean that I will have demolished the fortress I constructed.

My parents watched me plump up. They tried to stem the tide. “Only one egg or one donut or one piece of chicken for Joan.” They encouraged me to eat salads and fresh fruits and vegetables. We started exercising as a family every Tuesday and Thursday nights. My father and I joined Weight Watchers. I swore that when I grew up I would never eat salads and that I would have fried chicken every night (no limit).

My mother refused to buy me girly clothes because they didn’t fit well. I was willing to wear clothes that were too tight, but my mom just shook her head. She shopped for me in the boys’ department at Sears, and my school outfits consisted of corduroy pants and Hang Ten crew-neck T-shirts. She promised me that if I lost the weight, she would take me back to May Company and buy me girly clothes.

Most of my youth was spent tomboyishly dressed while awaiting that elusive girly wardrobe.

The first week of school was always bad because all the girls sported newly pressed hair and pressed, new girly clothes. But Easter was worse, eclipsing even the first day of school. That’s when all the little girls got to dress up lacy and frilly in pastel colors, with white stockings and white patent-leather shoes with buckles. I could wear the shoes. I tried them on, not caring about having to grunt and twist awkwardly to buckle the straps, but they didn’t work with my Tough-skins jeans and flannel shirts.

In fourth grade, my mom called me into her bedroom. I didn’t know what I’d done, but I thought if I started crying in advance, she’d go easy on me. She sat me on her bed and held my hands. “Joan, you already have two strikes against you. You’re black, and you’re female. You don’t need to be fat, too.”

It was like I had parasites, things crawling inside of me, and I couldn’t do anything about it.

Black and female: two things about me that were bad, two things that I couldn’t change or fix. Being fat — or not being fat — didn’t change that I was black, didn’t change that I was female.

Nothing could.

All I wanted to do was eat.

I went from chubby to fat inside of a year.

I withdrew from other kids and began taking refuge in TV shows, especially my favorite, The Brady Bunch, where I could be any one of three very lovely girls. TV was later replaced with romance books, where I could be the beautiful, skinny, white, semi-helpless heroine, with men vying for my affections — cherishing me, rescuing me — all while eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. This made up for my real life.

I took refuge in being smart.


San Diego, California, 1977. Pershing Junior High School. Not 1957. Not Little Rock, Arkansas.

That’s the spray-painted greeting that met the first group of black kids bused to Pershing. I was on that bus, a participant in a voluntary ethnic-integration program that had been implemented in time for my introduction to middle school.

I wanted to fit in. I wanted to prove that I was smart. I wanted to be good.

But every day I wanted to fight somebody because “Niggers go home” was always in the air.

“You look like Frankenstein’s wife.”

The girl who sat in front of me in Spanish, Sandy, was pretty and popular and one of the local girls. She had turned around in her orange plastic desk chair and said those words to me, unprovoked. The whole class laughed. The teacher, Ms. Lundquist, did nothing. I was alone and without protection in the land of Lord of the Flies.

It was early in the school year, and I still hoped to fit in, or at least be invisible.

But there was no fitting in now. Sandy made sure of that. So, Sandy earned my “special attention.” Few people get it. It comes from the part of my heart where the blood is without oxygen, where it’s dark and full of noxious gases — a cold place where I’m more shark than human.

I would get Sandy if it was the last thing I did.

I only had to wait a week.

New to carrying a purse, she left it hanging on her desk chair. Her wallet was filled with Olan Mills family portraits, so I went home that day and sat at the kitchen table and created a work of art. I drew a house with a yard and put her family photos in the windows, only I did a bit of primitive Photoshopping first, defiling her pictures, drawing black rings around eyes, black gaps between teeth.

The next day I handed the paper to Sandy and said, “Someone wanted me to give this to you.” I sat down in my seat behind her and watched her neck turn pink, then fuchsia, and then she was up and running out of the classroom, but not before I heard her crying.

I felt vindicated. I had no regrets. Not one. Not ever. Even as I was called into the office — I didn’t care about the cost.

But I wasn’t stupid. I concealed my satisfaction because I had an important performance ahead.

I was blessed to have a wonderful supporting cast, the Pershing Junior High officials. They had let us get off that bus while the words “Niggers Go Home” were still dripping their black blood down the school walls. There had been no attempt to cover them up with a hasty coat of paint or butcher paper. They allowed teachers like Ms. Lundquist to turn deaf ears to the words of vicious girls like Sandy. At no time had we, the student body, been assembled in the auditorium and told that these racist, hate-based behaviors weren’t condoned, and that school and district officials were taking some corrective or other appropriate action.

These foreseeable attacks were swept under the carpet. And the targets were supposed to be okay with that.

When my counselor, Ms. Kroll, asked me to explain, I told my story of wanting only to fit in, and the laughter, and how the teacher did nothing. Ms. Kroll knew, just as I knew, what had gone wrong. She fought for me; she became my advocate. Sandy’s parents demanded that I be expelled. They called it vandalism. They called it theft. Apparently, they didn’t know the law of the jungle — “finders keepers, losers weepers” — it wasn’t theft.

Someone must have agreed with me, because I didn’t get expelled. I did get suspended.

My parents had to come to the school to pick me up. They had to meet with my counselor and the principal. I had to explain my actions. My parents’ faces were grim. While understandable, my justifications didn’t keep me from getting in trouble. The rule at our house was “If you’re in trouble at school, you’re in trouble at home.”

The incident with Sandy was only the beginning of my adventures of being integrated into predominantly white junior high and high schools: Pershing and Patrick Henry.

My other adventures included emotional attacks, like when my eighth-grade teacher, Ms. Hooten, asked me in front of the whole class if I lived in their neighborhood; she knew I was bused in. Or when she invited me to leave the classroom if the slavery part of the history film we were watching got to be too much for me. Some were physical attacks, like when the school bus was late to pick us up after school and white boys would drive by and throw eggs at us. But most were spirit- or esteem-crushing events, like having to change in the locker room and being dismissed by all the Barbies with their Farrah Fawcett hair and matching panty-and-bra sets, girls who bragged about what their doctor daddies had bought for them or where they had gone and what they had done on the weekend or what their dreamboat boyfriends wanted to do with them.

My sweet-16th birthday came and went without a party. My dad said I could have one, but I realized that there was no one I wanted to invite who would show up. By the time I was 17, I told myself that I really didn’t care. Kids were stupid, and high school was just something to be gotten through as a prerequisite to college.

No one ever asked me out.

I was raised in a military household by a father who was born in 1929, the first year of the Great Depression. Not only that, he had been in the Navy on submarines for many years. He could take a bath during the TV commercial breaks — in one inch of lukewarm water. He was used to doing without. Sacrifice, hard work, struggle, savings, and deferred gratification were his strong points. Having a lot of clothes or shoes was considered a frivolity, an extravagance. Perfume stank, and cosmetics were the tools of females of questionable values and common sense. Only my sister Kim braved that disapproval and wore make-up, heels, and clip-on earrings. My sister Chris and I toed the line.

I grew up in a house of silence. My parents didn’t argue or fight, at least not that we ever heard. They just didn’t talk. They raised silence to an art form, managing to not occupy the house at the same time. My mother worked nights, and my father worked days. In the in-between times, the rare occasions when both were home, my mom stayed in her office, the converted garage, and my dad stayed in the family room, with the Curtis Mathes TV — just about as far as they could get from each other.

I seemed to have misplaced my father toward the end of my 15th year. I had done the unthinkable: I called my parents on their silence game. “How can you work on your marriage when you don’t speak to each other?” My mother was thoughtful. My father was indignant. Who was I to pipe up? I was the lowest-ranking member of the family, and my opinion counted the least. I was temporarily laid off from my summer job at my father’s real-estate office — because I was tired, obviously — and decades passed in which he didn’t wish me a happy birthday.

It broke my heart a little. We never recovered the relationship that we’d had.

Norfolk State University, a predominantly black school in Virginia, redefined for me what it meant to be black. There were “yellow” (light-skinned) blacks, “high-yellow” (really-light-skinned) blacks, and “red-bone” (damn-near-white) blacks. But we was all “niggas,” no matter what the shade. And no one, except me, seemed to have a problem with the classifications. The word “nigga” was used between blacks as a fond description, as in, “Ooh, that’s one fine nigga over there.”

At NSU, the girls, whether they were fat or not, dressed up, and wore make-up. They rocked their straightened hair (God forbid if it rained — the campus would be deserted). Even the fat girls had boyfriends. But all the campus queens were really light or damn-near white.

I could have tried to be cute — do my hair, wear make-up, and dress up — there were people who wanted to help transform me. And, even without trying, I did get approached by an African student. He said he liked fat women and offered to help me with my math. I refused. He was in trigonometry. I was in calculus. It never would have worked.

Besides, I had no time for boys. I had to prove that I was smart. My major was physics.

Being a physics major intimidated people, especially white people. In fact, it shut them up.

Imagine the conversation between me and an older white woman sitting next to me on a plane. The subtext would go something like this: “Yes, I am safe to talk to. No, you don’t have to use small words. Amazingly enough, I don’t have any children. Yes, I am a college student. Physics…noo, not Phys-ED, Phys-ICS.” End of conversation.

And the beginning of my accumulation of power.

Throughout four years of college at NSU, I belonged mostly to the walking invisible.

But there were times when, passing by a group of boys, I would receive their attention. This was the kind of attention that I prayed not to receive. I’d look at my watch or the ground or at anything to keep me from having to make eye contact with them. But sometimes my prayers bounced back. “Woof, woof, woof.” That was a request for my special attention — I’d have to stop and look at them. “That’s the best you can do? Maybe you should go inside of the library, instead of hanging out in front.” Usually, something like that would put an end to it. They all had black mamas and sisters, and they knew when to shut up and stay down.

Not so the white boys at the University of California, Davis, where I transferred and attended my second four years of undergraduate school.

Same situation — just trying to walk somewhere and not be noticed (or, at least, not be commented on). “You fat bitch.” Okay, so I knew I was fat, but…bitch? Now, that was just uncivil. It was a fervent request for my special attention. I had to stop and look at them. “Who you calling a bitch? I don’t see your mama here. And if she was, I’d slap her for raising a DUMB FUCK like you.” His friends held him back while he strained to come after me. I laughed over my shoulder. A calculated risk, to be sure, but I’d won. At least some of them had common sense.

UCD, after NSU, was quite a change. It was like starting middle school all over again. I went from a predominantly black environment to a predominantly white environment. Davis, the city itself, was full of super-educated, self-congratulatory people who claimed to love diversity, and me, too. But, in reality, I was one of the scariest things in Davis — a large militant black woman.

What I experienced at Davis was a repeat of the feelings I’d experienced at Pershing Junior High School, only worse, because of its subtlety. (When it’s obvious, you know your enemy and can fight back. When it’s subtle, you’re never quite sure, and if you give people the benefit of the doubt, the bad ones can do deeper damage.)

I got angry, and I stayed angry for two years.

I could tell you why a streetlight was a racist representation. What held up the white bulb? A black post. But what got credit for providing the light? Right. The white bulb. But where would that white bulb be without the black lamppost to hold it up? Exactly. Racist.

I wanted to join the Black Panthers. I wanted to learn how to shoot a gun, how to throw a knife, and how to drive a big rig. All of those skills might come in handy when racial animus raised its ugly head to the point of physical violence. I almost joined a black revolutionary communist group (scared the crap out of my parents). I took fighting classes — street-fighting, self-defense, and jiu-jitsu. Mess with me and I’ll kick your ass. I then decided to go to law school. My people would need me to be a lawyer when the hostilities broke out again. And that meant: mess with me and I’ll kick your ass, and sue it, too.

Eventually, I chose Jesus over rage.

I had been an agnostic most of my life. As a child, I refused to accept that two of every living land and sky creature could fit into a boat. And since I couldn’t buy the package deal, I left it all alone. But near the end of my undergraduate stint, I knew that if I didn’t do something to get relief from my anger, I would burn up and self-destruct.

I knew that man couldn’t be the best of what was out there, couldn’t be the top of the food chain. Man was just too fallible and faulty to be the best. There was a force of good out there, and I decided to put the name of Jesus on it. That was the easiest, and made the most sense. My mother and sisters believed in Jesus. So, Jesus was just all right with me.

My anger evaporated, but my determination to become a civil-rights attorney remained.

During my first two years at UCD, I lost 100 pounds. I’d walk-jog one more lap every day around the rec hall until I got up to six miles a day. When I started, I was close to 250 pounds. I had broken most of my promises to myself. The first promise was that I would never let myself weigh over 150 pounds. The second promise was that I would never let myself get over 200 pounds. And the third promise was that I wouldn’t let myself get over 250 pounds. I didn’t want to break the third.

So, every day after class, before returning to the dorms, I would go to the rec hall and suit up like a warrior going into battle. Three bras, padding under the bra straps, neoprene sleeves for the knees, ace-bandage wraps for the ankles, and a large, loose shirt. Up onto the padded track I would go. Every day, I added another lap until I got to seven laps, a mile. By the time I reached six miles a day, the fat was melting off.

Health and everything about it fascinated me. I changed my major from Physics to Nutrition and Human Performance (that I went from Phys-ICS to Phys-ED was okay, because, ultimately, I was going to be an attorney). I sold all my physics textbooks and bought some girly clothes, including one long-sleeved, black-knit “come fuck me” dress.

But all of the miracles that I expected to happen when I lost the weight didn’t happen.

My life wasn’t perfect. College wasn’t the fun round of parties and adventures that I’d seen on TV. I didn’t have a lot of friends.

No one asked me out. The one white boy (who liked big-breasted women) who offered to provide steamy sex in the back of his truck (it had a camper shell) didn’t count.

I gained 50 pounds my first year in law school.

Every day in class I prayed, “Please, God, don’t let the professor call on me.” Being called on was a grueling 15-to-45-minute exercise in creating the thick sharklike skin that attorneys need to stand in front of imposing judges, to listen, think, and argue. Passing on having to answer wasn’t an option in the first semester. I didn’t drink or do drugs, but I always kept king-size Snickers in my locker.

My second year of law school wasn’t so bad. I’d learned the language of the law — not Latin, but Civil Procedure. I knew how to do legal research, and I knew how to write without using unnecessary adjectives or conclusory language. By then, none of my peers cared if anyone passed when called on — the pecking order, or ranking, had been established in our first year.

Still, I continued to pack on fat.

The classes I was taking — Constitutional Law, Civil Rights, Employment Discrimination — and the cases we studied, exemplified the injustice in the application and interpretation of the law. For most of the other students, they were just cases that had to be studied so that tests could be passed, so that class rank could be maintained, so that a job with a good law firm could be obtained. It seemed to be nothing to them but everything to me. I found myself reading case after case and feeling ill.

I had become sloppy-fat again, obese.

I shopped at consignment and thrift stores. I began building my legal wardrobe by buying beautiful suits and blouses by top designers for pennies compared to what they would cost brand new. What worried my friends was that the suits were all between size 4 and 10. Maybe they thought I didn’t realize that the clothes wouldn’t fit. It didn’t matter to me — I was creating the most beautiful wardrobe that one day I would be able to wear. But my girlfriends wanted me to buy something that I could wear immediately. Something that I could interview in.

They worried about my weight. It was unspoken, but they wondered who would hire me, as fat as I was.

And who was going to hire me with braids?

I’d received many inquiries as to what I was going to do with my hair. It was in individual braids. I’d been wearing my hair in braids since coming to UCD, so by the end of law school, they hung well below my shoulders. I would comb through and rebraid them once a week. I had no intention of giving them up so that I could process-straighten my hair in order to wear it in a manner deemed “professional,” or in order to look like an attorney.

I was fine. Maybe everyone else needed to reframe what an attorney looked like.

I continued to eat and buy my skinny professional wardrobe. By the time I graduated, I weighed more than 230 pounds and had only one suit that fit.

And no one had asked me out, aside from one of the few inmates that I helped as an intern in the UCD Prison Law Office.

While waiting for the bar-exam results, I returned home to San Diego and worked for free as a law clerk for an attorney friend of my father. I didn’t have a job lined up. I never interviewed with any of the law firms that came to my school.

After receiving my bar results, I worked for near-free in Los Angeles County, as an attorney at a small civil-rights law office. That “near-free” component opened doors that didn’t require that I look like an attorney. All the same, not looking like an attorney was becoming a drawback. Like, when I wanted to stand in the line at the attorney window and all the other people waiting in the regular line took it upon themselves to direct me to stand in line with them. “But I’m an attorney.” And when the clerk at the attorney window asked to see my bar card before helping me. “But I’m an attorney.” And when a judge that I’d not appeared before asked me if I was representing myself. “But I’m an attorney.”

It was time to look like an attorney.

I took out my braids and tied my hair into a bun with discreet scarves.

I started going on water fasts. I would fast the first ten days of the month. Before fasting, I never dreamed about food. But once I started fasting, I had dreams about food — nightmares, really, in which I ate out of habit. I would wake up terrified and angry at myself, knowing that it would be days before I could work up the willpower to start again. After three such water fasts, I had lost 50 pounds and looked like an attorney when I suited up.

Finally, somebody asked me out.

It’s amazing what hormones can do.

I had always wanted to have two kids by age 35. And I was a 31-year-old virgin with a small private practice. If I didn’t find a man and get busy soon, I would miss my deadline.

The ticking of a woman’s biological clock is the human equivalent of a bitch going into heat. I must have sent out a signal, some blinking green light flashing over my head. Within a couple of weeks of deciding that I had to have a man, I had three men asking me out.

“Eenie Meenie Minie Moe — I’ll take you and the other two can go.”

I got married. I had my son. I put on a lot of weight.

I tried to stanch the flood of weight gain using Kaiser’s Positive Choice program. I signed up for art-therapy classes and drank Optifast shakes exclusively for six weeks. I’d make two sets of bottles every day — formula for my son and protein shakes for me. I lost 30 pounds but began experiencing vicious abdominal muscle cramps. So I quit the Optifast program but stayed with the art therapy.

One three-week art-therapy project gave me a glimpse of something that disturbed me. One week, we made a collage of our joy. The next week, we made a collage of our pain. The third week, we had to cut both collages into strips and weave them together. I easily, quickly sliced up the collage of joy. But when it was time to cut up my collage of pain, I couldn’t do it. The teacher had to take a photo of my intact pain collage before I could cut it into wide strips. When I wove the two collages together, the wide pain strips overwhelmed the thin joy strips, so that most of the pain came through.

I stopped taking the art-therapy classes after that.

Long story short…my husband never had a chance. No real man could live up to the ideal heroes of my romance books. He often found himself the recipient of my special attention, and no relationship can bear up long under such exacting scrutiny. Being right or righteous doesn’t make for feeling special, loved, or cherished.

I did have an affair with Tony, a childhood friend, because he was ever willing to cherish me.

I would sit at the table with a big box of Frosted Flakes. Tony smiled approvingly at me from the box. First the flakes and then the milk. When the bowl was low on flakes, I would add more, then, when it was low on milk, I would add more, then, when it was low on flakes again, I would add more, then…until the box was empty or the carton was empty.

My son watched this affair intently from his highchair. I could see him surging forward, his eyes avid as I lifted the spoon to my mouth. When it was time for him to start on solid food, he never dribbled or spit it out. He didn’t need me to hold his spoon. His eyes, his impatient bounce, told me, “Just give me the spoon and back away, Mom. Just back away.”

I backed away from the marriage after three years, taking only my son and an additional 120 pounds. I backed away from my Lexus and from all of the community property. I’d gotten what I had wanted from the marriage. I had my precious baby.

I also backed away from the dream of having two children. One was enough for a single mom.

By then, I had closed my private practice and gone to work at a nonprofit law firm that served the indigent. I couldn’t do civil-rights law anymore. It was depressing work, and it took so much to do so little for so few. I could put my heart into it and still not win. The most mortifying aspect of it was when I realized that I, a tired, fat, black female attorney, might be the greatest impediment to my clients’ chances.

This was the heaviest I had ever been in my life.

I bumped into furniture and walls because I could not reconcile how large I really was and navigate accordingly. I had to prepare to stand up by rocking back and forth to gain momentum. I could only take my steps one at a time. I broke toilet seats trying to maneuver to wipe my butt, something that was becoming almost beyond my reach.

I was tired all of the time. I didn’t have the energy to run around with my son, to twirl him in the air, to roll down hills with him, like my mom had done with me. I had almost watched him fall down an escalator because I couldn’t move fast enough to reach him when he started to topple. That he caught himself had nothing to do with my ability to protect him.

I had let my fat power seduce me into thinking that it alone would sustain and protect me. By presenting only the fat and sanctimonious decoy, I’d assured — engineered, even — my own rejection-by-fat. No one got the chance to know the real me. And, so, no one could reject the real me.

In that moment of paralysis, as I watched my son nearly tumble down the escalator, I realized that I had failed, that I had deluded myself. This fat power of mine was a fraud. By relying on my fat power, I had failed all of the people that I had been trained to help as an attorney, and I had endangered or ruined all of the relationships with the males in my life.

I was a shepherd who’d allowed the wolves to pick off all of her sheep.

In January of 2005, life was a gray horizon for me.

My son’s principal saw me one day and gave me one man’s name: George Pratt.

Dr. Pratt was a psychologist who helped people heal instantly from emotional trauma. My first session with him found me rubbing a spot over my heart, tapping under my eyes, and repeating phrases like, “I accept myself with all my limitations, weaknesses, and strengths.” All the while, I was thinking, WTF — and I get to pay for this?

I went back the next day and could barely sit still. Every cell in my body wanted to bounce. I don’t know how it worked, but it did.

Within a few sessions with Dr. Pratt, I went organic, vegan, and mostly raw. Within a week, my energy skyrocketed. Within a month, my laundry list of physical ailments evaporated. Within a year, I’d lost 90 pounds. (I did have a little help with the last 60 pounds in the form of a gorgeous personal trainer or two.)

But that was almost five years ago.

So, I’ve lost 150 pounds. And I’m still fat. And I’ve always blamed it on Jimmy.

I could have just as easily blamed it on the black magazines, or my mom, or Sandy, or school officials, or…but the truth is that Jimmys are everywhere, in many different forms: loved ones, enemies, clueless people, TV, billboards, magazines, society.

In kindergarten, I adored that little boy. I believed he was perfect. And, so, when he rejected me, I believed that something had to be wrong with me. When I saw only light-skinned, straight-haired girls in the black magazines, it became even more obvious what was wrong with me. When my mom informed me of my two strikes, it became absolute reality. Like armor, I donned my fat power — education, training, and my special attention.

There wasn’t a thing wrong with me, until I believed that there was, and I built up my defenses.

Why am I still fat? After all this time?

I have to blame it on me.

I, like everyone else, started off life with a clean slate — whole and perfect. Then I picked up Jimmys along the way, and I held on to them and nurtured them into something they never would have been if I had known how to step over them in the first place. As an adult, when I realized that I was holding on to them and saw how they were ruining my life, I still couldn’t let go of them because they were my beliefs, and I didn’t know who I would be if I relinquished them.

But my fat power didn’t protect me.

All it did was circumscribe my life, compromise my health, and “Jimmy” my son.

Just like my parents had Jimmied me. Just like their parents and society had Jimmied them. They had accepted their Jimmys as truth and passed them on to me. I accepted them as truth and forced them on my son.

He showed me when he was five.

We were watching a movie in which a man slapped a woman, and my son said, “She deserved to be slapped because she didn’t know when to shut her mouth.” If that wasn’t shocking enough, he told me that black girls were ugly and white girls were pretty. White people were smart. He told me that he didn’t want to be black. He didn’t like his hair. He wanted to have straight hair, so that he could wear it like Superman.

I had somehow given birth to my son’s attitude toward women and blacks.

I wasn’t ready to accept it. I put him into all-black schools. Black teachers, black administrations, black traditions. No, no, no, no. My son couldn’t hate black people and therefore himself. Not when I had devoted my life’s energy to righting racial wrongs and advocating for civil rights. No, he just needed to have the TV turned off and be immersed in black history and positive black role models. Yes, that would fix it.

Because I couldn’t accept my part in his feelings, they grew.

At 15, he showed me again.

He told me that he would be glad when my generation died off, no offense intended, because all we did was remember past hurts and push them onto his generation. He wanted to be able to date (or marry) a white girl, or a non-black girl, without worrying about me being angry or disappointed.

My mind races to all the things I’ve told my son, and shown him, in my bid to prepare him for my reality. Which of my Jimmys have taken hold in his mind? And how can I help unravel the paths he’s gone down because of them? Can I help him return to a place of innocence, where he’s perfectly all right?

Can I do the same for me?

My battle is far from over, but at least I’ve found the right front line — this is what I choose to believe.

I have the keys to let go of being fat.

Being fat only serves as my prison: a size 12–14 pudginess that makes me look away when I see a sleek yoga goddess or a pilates priestess. The mirror mocks me — especially when I’m sitting or lying down — showing me a middle-aged woman who stood on the sidelines, guarded, watching, missing out on the juice of life.

I want to be sleek, not because I think it will make all my dreams come true, but because it will mean that I will have demolished the fortress I constructed. It will mean that I’ll be able and willing to give others the opportunity to experience the real me.

More importantly, it will give me the opportunity to discover and experience the real me.

Joan Jackson has left the full-time practice of law to become a raw-food consultant and teacher. Her website,, provides free education, recipes, and information on how to live the raw-food lifestyle.

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lulutxu Dec. 6, 2012 @ 9:36 a.m.

Such a well written and at times heart breaking story. Thank you for sharing your experiences and providing inspiration.


qpodad Dec. 6, 2012 @ 11:31 a.m.

Ms. Jackson, you write eloquently and with great passion. One of the best articles I have read in a while. Thank you for your candor and strong spirit, and best of luck with your new endeavor.


cqc3 April 16, 2013 @ 2:59 p.m.

The interesting thing about this story is that as much as it is about discrimination, it's also about how one chooses to perceive oneself. I didn't know Joan, but I was two years ahead of her at PJHS and PHHS, and I was also bussed from Southeast. Funny thing: I experienced more racism from other black students than I ever did from whites. Maybe I just didn't notice because I expected it from white students, but to many of the black students I wasn't black enough. I earned the nickname "the professor" from a kid at my bus stop in 7th grade because I dared to speak proper English (i.e., even then, I "sounded white.") Although I assumed everyone at school knew I was bussed, I don't remember it being nearly as big a deal to my fellow students as it was to me; although internally I felt the sting of being an outsider, to this day, many still express surprise that I didn't live in San Carlos, Del Cerro, or Allied Gardens. But my drive to succeed in life was fueled as much by the enormous homes and exotic cars I saw from the window of the school bus as it snaked up Madra drive as it was a feeling that I could be just as successful as any other kid at PHHS . I made many lifelong friends there who ultimately didn't care what color I was. I went on to study at USC and attended law school at UC Berkeley, and am now a Superior Court Judge (with dreadlocks) for LA County, all because I knew that nothing could limit my dreams except me. My senior quote was "If my mind can conceive it and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it." I wish I could have shared that wisdom with Joan; maybe it could have helped her to avoid some of the pain she allowed others' perceptions to inflict on her. Because it's less about your appearance than your attitude. Much less.


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