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Karen Peterson Butterworth

My Fat Memoir


I am a member of a fat society. This is a contemporary statistical and linguistic fact.

I won my mum a Plunket healthy baby prize. The photo shows dimples and a double chin. My childhood build was described as stocky, and in my teens I had puppy fat (said with affection). Whenever I became less than stocky, say after an illness, my aunts, mother, and Nana strove to put more fat on my bones. ‘In case,’ they said, ‘you get pneumonia. You need reserves to live past the crisis.’ Penicillin was around then, but only available to soldiers, and later, returned soldiers. The civilian population was treated in oxygen tents until they died or recovered.

My mother grew fat by her mid-forties. She had been a skinny girl and young woman, and was practically force-fed gallons of cream to build her up. She didn’t worry when she became what was termed ‘comfortable’ after her second baby. All the local middle-aged women were comfortable, and some were even cuddly. When Mum reached the latter stage, Dad expressed warm approval.

The middle-aged men around me were mostly lean. They were all farmers or manual labourers except the storekeeper and sawmill owner, who were, sure enough, comfortable. Most men smoked heavily, which slimmed them further. Their wives cooked ever bigger and more tempting meals so they’d survive pneumonia and keep the money coming in. My dad’s dad had failed to do so, and Dad and his brother became breadwinners in their early teens. We made fun of the few fat people around.

Few women smoked then. They might have in their youth, to imitate the flappers in illustrated magazines, but when they became wives it was hard enough to stretch the housekeeping money to feed and clothe the family.

Most wives grew comfortable then cuddly, then lean again in old age when their teeth had gone. They had to keep their tins full of cakes and biscuits or face shame. Rich cooking aromas tempted them to peck as they laboured over mixing bowl and stove. They carted firewood, scrubbed benches and tables and floors, boiled nappies using home-made soap and hung them out. They worked hard and continuously, but childbearing and childcare limited their scope for aerobic exercise.

When Mum realised she had become more than cuddly, she was ashamed and tried to slim. She was never successful until illness overtook her in old age. Making appetising meals so we could all survive pneumonia simply made her mouth water too much. I was used to seeing her in the bath, then suddenly she wouldn’t let me. My youngest siblings never saw her in the bath.

I must have inherited her genes as well as her food attitudes, and was the only one of her five children to grow fat. The others all smoked. By then girls were smoking to keep their hands busy at dances and parties. I was teased because I scratched my nose instead. I’d had an unfortunate experience smoking fuchsia bark wrapped in brown paper behind the school playshed, and never got over it.

By the time I was thirty, penicillin was freely available, and the language had changed dramatically. Comfortable had changed to fat and there were no terms of praise for anyone heavier than Marilyn Monroe. Skinny, which had failed to shake off its pejorative undertones, became slim. I dieted hard, and often got my weight down to less than 100 pounds (45.4 kg). Then I would quickly yo-yo back up to frankly fat.

By my sixties the language changed again. Terms of praise for carrying fat reserves anywhere except on one’s breasts had totally vanished. The new pejorative term obese appeared, and I realised with a shock that it fitted me.

I again dieted and then attempted a weight maintenance diet, a recent invention. Before that there were only slimming diets and ‘normal’ kiwi food. Breakfast was chops, or bacon, eggs and toast, or porridge with cream and sugar. Well-filled sandwiches and a biscuit for lunch; and meat, veg, and spuds mashed with butter, plus dessert, for dinner. Oodles of cakes and biscuits in between. My weight maintenance diet prescribed skipping dessert, eating crackers, apples, or carrots between meals, and giving up sugar in tea and coffee. It was not enough. Gradually my weight crept up until by sixty-five I was again obese.

By then I had ample company. Food anxiety had overtaken the female population, and anorexia and bulimia entered the language. The minority who achieved a constant low weight level did so by smoking and/or starvation combined with maniacal exercise, until their hips and knees packed up, when they grew fat again.

To modern humans, food remains a symbol of love. Women are programmed to give food to others, from breastfeeding to receiving visitors, to celebrating festive occasions with food and drink. There are multiple situations where it is an affront to refuse proffered food. Non-nutritious fattening foods are cheaper and quicker to prepare than good food. Diseases of fatness are moving down the age groups and affecting children, the ironic outcome of their mothers’ love.

By my seventies I had finally devised ways to trick the demon hunger and still enjoy my food and drink. I’ll refrain from revealing these, as they won’t necessarily work for others. Too many people have grown fat on books about diet, while their readers’ weight yo-yoed as mine did.

I challenge you to find your own way off the weight carousel. First you must get to know your food demons intimately, then you can outwit them. Those who don’t will either be ill, or too busy eating, starving, vomiting and over-exercising, to have a life.

Trust me. Lateral thinkers who are neither fat nor thin will one day inherit the earth.


Karen Peterson Butterworth was born in the Catlins, gypsied around Aotearoa and put down roots in Ōtaki. She now lives nearby, in a Waikanae retirement village. She loves the human circus, giant liquorice allsorts, her life’s partner, family and (unconditionally) words. She has been published in seven countries and has won some writing prizes.


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