Baby Fat, Or Why the Ugly Duckling is a Rubbish Story.

Arty
asks:
I've always been pudgy and although I've always struggled with it I've recently learned to acknowledge that hey! I can look average and I have fairly nice parts. But I have a really large stomach, I mean, I try to eat pretty healthily I don't exercise as much as I should but I know loads of people with the same lifestyle but small stomachs. I'm 14 and recently my friend has started a serious relationship (they've been dating about a year now, she's a bit older than me) and it makes me feel insecure, not because of them but because despite everything I've done and all the progress I've made I'm always the ugly girl people ask out as a joke, and she and all my other friends aren't. my family make little digs about it but at the same time they say it's just baby fat and I'll grow out of it, I haven't grown for ages but my mum shot up when she was 15. IS it baby fat or am I just fat?
Sam W replies:

You're asking a common question Arty. I want to turn that question around a little.

What difference would it make if this was baby fat?

Your answer can tell you a lot about the messages about bodies, beauty, and worth you've internalized over the years. Everyone's answer will be different, and I can't tell you what yours is. But I can give you an educated guess as to a major reason why you're asking me the question you are.

The Ugly Duckling. Yes, the children's story in which a baby waterbird is mocked and shunned because it's not cute like other ducklings, only to transform into a beautiful swan once it hits bird puberty. The intended message of this story, I think, is that you shouldn't compare yourself to others. Or maybe it's about how we're each beautiful in our own way. I prefer a moral in which you shouldn't mock people because they may one day morph into giant, hissing birds bent on avenging their mistreatment. What this story, and similar stories about an "ugly" person suddenly becoming beautiful, actually does to those of us who aren't conventionally attractive is instill a narrative in which our ugliness will disappear as we turn into adults. Everything we hate about or have been shamed about in our bodies will melt away, leaving behind stunning facial features and a body that makes angels weep.

The danger is, we start pinning a lot of hope on that transformation. We craft a story for ourselves in which, if we can only hold on until the day we become swans, everything wrong with our life will become right. People will stop being mean to us, those we desire will want to date us, and we'll finally be able to truly love ourselves. The truth is, many of us never become swans. I would argue that's a good thing, as a world made up of only swans would be boring. But if you've invested a lot of hope in becoming one, when that transformation doesn't happen it can be devastating.

From what you've written, it sounds like you're hoping that when you hit 15 your body will act like your mom's and shoot up, ridding you of your belly. Does that happen to some people? Yes. Could it happen to you? Of course. Will it? Nobody can say for certain. So it's time to start preparing yourself for what to do if your belly doesn't disappear.

You've already started on one of those processes. You're learning to look in the mirror and like what you see. Keep doing that! One of the fun things about being young is that, while you're body and features are in flux, you're also at a point where you get to start experimenting with how you present yourself. I encourage you to embrace that process and discover what styles make you feel the most like, well, you. I also challenge you to find ways to love, or at least accept, the parts of your body that don't fit with common notions of "pretty." That could mean finding examples of famous people who share those features, or even changing the words you use when you think about your body (a "big" nose can easily become a "strong" nose). Read up on body positivity on places like The Body is Not an Apology (or here at Scarleteen). Do whatever you can do to make you love the whole shebang instead of some scattered pieces of it, so if you don't become a swan at 15 it won't feel like the end of the world.

Now comes the trickier part: dealing with people who treat your appearance as a joke. Positive self-image is a great defense, but if your weight is a frequent target of your peers or of your family, it can definitely weaken your confidence in your body. While the asking you out as a joke stings, you can rest assured that the issue there is not with you or your body. It's with the jerks who think it's funny to ask someone out and then go, "LOL, like anyone would want to date you." Being on the receiving end of that sucks, but there's a silver lining in there. These dudes have helpfully identified themselves as people who are unworthy of dating you because they think making fun of people's looks is hilarious (not a good trait in a partner).

I sense a little anxiety in your question as to whether having a belly will make you undateable, or that you'll only be desirable if you stop being the "ugly duckling." You're not the first person to feel that way, and you won't be the last. It sucks to feel like your friends are worth dating and you're not. I want to assure you that being the last of your friends to start dating does not make you worth any less as a person. Something to hold on to is that, regardless of how your body changes as you get older, there will be someone out there who thinks it's a work of art. In spite of what many media and societal messages tell us, human attraction is quite varied. There's no one, perfect way of looking that will insure you an endless supply of suitors. Beyond that, remember that we don't date people based on looks alone. There are dozens of parts of your personality that make you awesome, and any partner worth having is going to notice and admire those traits. They'll see you as a whole person rather than the butt of a joke.

The situation with your family is a little different, especially if they're presenting their comments as loving concern about your health. In their minds, they see your belly as proof you're unhealthy, and they want that to change because they want you to be healthier. If that's the case, it helps to remind yourself of something you're already noticing: that certain habits don't automatically lead to a certain body type. You can eat healthy and exercise and still have a belly, and you can eat nothing but slim jims and stay skinny. Bodies are funny that way. That's not to say you can't or shouldn't try to eat a balanced diet or find fun ways to exercise, but try to think of those things as activities you do because of how they make you feel, rather than one-way tickets to a narrower waist.

If the comments about your weight are bothering you, and you feel comfortable speaking up, you could try setting a boundary with your family members. The next time someone makes a comment about your size, tell them that those comments make you feel uncomfortable, and ask that they not say them around you. The best case scenario is that they accept and respect that boundary without much fuss, but there are some ways the might push back. One is the just teasing/it's just a joke defense. If they say that, a good response is, "I get that, but it doesn't feel funny on my end, so I'd appreciate it if you stopped." The other common response is that they're just trying to help. You can respond to that with, "I understand, but I feel pretty good about diet/exercise/whatever thing they're commenting on right now." Asserting yourself that way might feel really weird the first few times, but the more you try it the easier it gets. If it helps, you can borrow some tips from our guide on how to be your own superhero.

The truth is, there will always be people who divide the world into ducks and swans. When they do that, they erase the diversity of appearances that exist. We aren't all ducks or swans. We're toucans, sparrows, and goldfinches. Some of us are even potoos. We won't win any beauty pageants but we're lovable all the same. That variation in us, all our squishy bits and pointy bits and bits that never quite look how we wish they would, is what makes the world interesting. That's not to say it will always be easy to love, or even tolerate, your belly (or any other body part). There will still be days where you'll wish you could snap your fingers and look entirely different. But the more ways you learn to love yourself, the easier it will be to shake those days off and concentrate on the magnificent creature you're becoming.