“Absolutely not. You look fantastic and happy which is the best thing! But secondly, your body has no effect on how I see you at all. I love you so much and just want you to be the best version of you.” —A close friend who is more like a brother.
I’m 16 at a Tex-Mex restaurant with a group of my friends, trying to get the attention of a boy I like as he talks to a big group of girls. “You’re so small, I didn’t see you there,” he tells me, even though I tower over everyone at nearly six feet tall, even though “small” is the last word I would ever use to describe myself. “You turn sideways and it’s like you disappear.”
I’m 24 and going to a house party with my girlfriend. It is summer in New York City and it is sweltering outside. She bought us matching crop tops recently, a sweet silly gift, and I haven’t worn mine out of the house yet. I put it on and am amazed by the flatness of my belly visible from under the thin material, how I have been eating normally for a year but my body hasn’t adjusted yet. I end up changing out of it and wearing something else.
I’m 18 and having sex for the first time and I stay fully clothed, as much as one can while having sex, because I can’t bear for someone to see me naked, any part of me, no naked parts allowed. I cannot remember when I first let him see any part of me unclothed. It takes a while.
I’m 22 and picking out button-down shirts at American Eagle for my first day of my first real job. I try on an extra-small, and it is too big. I am thrilled, a feeling I’ll question for years.
I’m 23 and I eat 800 calories a day and exercise for two hours a night.
I’m 9 and I ask my mom if I can go on a diet. She starts packing me salads instead of sandwiches in my lunchbox — with plenty of other food in there too, don’t worry — but I pick at the lettuce and throw the rest away. Don’t get me wrong: I feel bad about it. I hate wasting food.
I’m 13 and sitting on a thin layer of paper on a cold metal table at the doctor’s office, my mom in the chair across from me, a kind physician looking inside my ears. My science class has just learned about the BMI for the first time, and I am completely obsessed with the idea of using math to decide whether my body is good. “How much weight would I have to gain before I was considered overweight?” I ask the doctor. She and my mom laugh and laugh.
I’m 13 and a boy I’ve never seen before walks up to me after P.E. and says, “Damn. You are fucking UGLY.”
I’m 13 and a different boy taps me on the shoulder and says, “You look like Shrek with a perm.” He and his friends block my path when I try to walk around them. They do not let me go.
I’m 13 and I tweeze off all my eyebrows until they are pencil-thin and I start shaving my arms, too, anything to make me less of a monster.
I’m 16 and I write a note but ultimately I wake up.
I’m 28 and I decide I want to get better.
I’m 29 and I still have that crop top, but it doesn’t really fit.
I’m 30 and there’s a pandemic happening and I work from home now and my favorite pants don’t fit anymore.
I’m 31 and I don’t recognize who I am and nothing, nothing at all, fits.
What I am trying to say is this: Being skinny was important to me until it wasn’t. Being skinny was who I was until it wasn’t. Being skinny was a part of me until it wasn’t. But being sad? Oh, honey. I have always been sad.
“I do not think less of you at all. The immediate why is because your weight has nothing to do with my opinion of you. But also because I know how much this has been a struggle for you, so the fact that you’ve allowed yourself to gain some weight is a sign of your resilience and strength and your progress in taking care of yourself, for which I am extremely proud and supportive of you.” —A dear friend from college. A bridesmaid in my wedding. Tells me she loves me constantly.
I have a thing about control. If you know me in real life, or even vaguely from the internet, you know that I like to keep a tight grip on my schedule, my responsibilities, the way I am perceived. I have anxiety. I am a Capricorn. It’s important to me to look like I have my shit together, especially when I feel like I absolutely do not have my shit together.
So when my therapist asks me what feels so overwhelming about recently gaining weight—not just a few pounds but several sizes of it, the fastest I’ve gained weight since I was an infant, probably—I realize it’s about what other people will think of me. What if I look like I don’t have it together anymore? What if someone is talking behind my back, making sly comments, wondering what happened to me? I don’t think I could take it. I believe, eventually, I could untangle my own internalized fatphobia and love my body as it is. But if someone were to confront me about it, I don’t know what I would do. Shrek with a perm.
When my thoughts spiral like this, I blame myself and the system in equal measure. Systemic fatphobia is a killer, for sure. For centuries—centuries!—we have been bombarded with racist and sexist messages telling us that to be fat is not only a bad thing, but the worst thing a person could be, that fatness is a marker of poor decisions, poor self-control, poor health. I have worked hard not to believe that, though I have been conditioned to be a cog in this malicious system.
The truth is that nobody makes perfect decisions or has perfect self-control or is perfectly healthy, whether you’re fat or thin or in between, and that correlation doesn’t imply causation, and that using health as an indicator of value is ableist garbage, but even more compelling is that it’s nobody’s fucking business, you know? I saw someone on TikTok ask recently why we nod when someone claims to be naturally thin, but we don’t accept with the same ease someone who’s naturally fat. Why does any of it matter?
Furthermore, there are many ways I will continue to benefit from thin privilege even though I’m not skinny anymore. I’m squarely average-sized now, meaning stores will usually carry my size, seats in public venues like airplanes and movie theaters will accommodate my body, and I am unlikely to be discriminated against for my size. The mental gymnastics I am doing—as an average-sized person—to accept myself in my new body feel completely overwhelming, which means they are even more taxing on people who know they are being labeled by the world as fat, and therefore less than.
Still — still — after spending so many years in a more socially celebrated body, I feel like I have failed. My conditioning tells me I have failed. Why couldn’t I have just eaten less? Why couldn’t I have just worked out more? Is this the size my body is meant to be, or am I just not working hard enough to get it back to where it belongs?
“I do not! I quite honestly haven’t noticed or at least haven’t thought about it. And even if I did notice, I wouldn’t equate how much I love you with your weight.” —A dear friend from college. A bridesmaid in my wedding. Tells me she loves me when I most need to hear it.
By now you have figured out the shtick. I needed to hear from the people closest to me that they didn’t think less of me after I gained weight, so I asked them. About a dozen of them, in total, mostly via text messages and with the caveat that my therapist was in on the assignment.
When I first brought her the idea of asking people outright whether their opinion of me had changed, my therapist was open to it. She’s always open to the slightly off-color ideas I bring to therapy, which is a gift. She thought it might be an eye-opening exercise for me. I think we both knew that nobody in my life would say, “Of course I think less of you! You’ve let yourself go, you miserable twat.” (To be clear, I do not believe there exists such a thing as “letting oneself go.”) I realize it is problematic even to ask the question, but I feel a primal urge to know, just to be sure. There’s that control again.
I am lucky, terribly lucky, that my friends and family are largely kind and thoughtful people. But I also know that there are a handful of people in my life I have chosen not to ask, and these are the people whose opinions I am most afraid of. Someone’s mother, an acquaintance from high school, the people for whom internalized fatphobia runs deep and clear, perhaps because of their own relationships to their body, or just some ugly mean streak deep within them, or a combination of the two.
A few people in my life have recently asked about my health or my fitness regimen or the like, in ways that they did not before I gained weight. I chose not to ask them to participate in the experiment. What’s most unfortunate is that their words are the ones staying with me the longest, louder than all the people who said very kind, loving things about me and my body and my recovery. (Have I mentioned my eating disorder yet in this essay?)
No, what’s staying with me is the people who assume that because this is what I look like now, that I am attempting to lose weight, or that I am interested in their efforts to lose weight, or that I want to talk about weight at all.
“Honestly I hadn’t even noticed that you had gained weight until I saw your Instagram posts saying you had gained weight. I thought you constantly looked great!” —A friend who became a lover who became a friend who became a lover who is now a close friend.
There are days when I desperately miss my old body, even though I know, really and truly, that there is nothing wrong with my new body. I miss fitting into my old clothes. I miss knowing, with confidence, what size to buy. I miss eating without guilt — although those closest to me would argue I’ve never eaten without guilt, even at my smallest.
Diet culture and fatphobia run deep, deep, deep. They poisoned the water in the village that raised me. They are embedded in the ways I talk to and about myself, to and about others. The work of undoing my learned fatphobia will be lifelong, and yet I am clinging to it desperately, as if I can hate my way into a body that I find more acceptable.
That’s why I needed to hear this, I think. I needed to hear directly from the people I love the most that it’s okay to take up space, to stop propelling myself toward a different body and just settle into the one I have. If I can’t speak to myself kindly, at least I am surrounded by people who will do it for me.
Tonight I asked my wife through tears if I will ever feel joy in this body again, and she reminded me that I feel joy all the time in this body, that I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again, that a hard day today doesn’t negate a recent good one. I am very lucky to have her, and to have so many kind and loving people on my side, cheering me on, ready to go for walks or go for ice cream with me, depending on what I need that day. Lucky lucky lucky.
But I don’t always feel lucky. Often I feel sad. So I am relying on my friends’ sweet words to bridge the gap.
“The bigger the ass, the better.” —My wife, who also had an emotional response to my recovery journey, but I prefer this functional answer.
Here is the truth. If you are reading this, I am afraid of what you think of my body.
I am afraid that when we met, maybe you thought I was beautiful, or if I’m not your type maybe you at least noticed that I was thin, and lately you’ve noticed that I am not anymore, not the way I was. I am terrified of your noticing. You.
Do you think less of me since I’ve gained weight? Do you think I’m different now, less worthy, less beautiful?
If your best friend or your spouse or your mother gained weight, would you think less of them? Would you worry, ask prying questions? Would you watch what they ate more closely? Would you ask if they had considered working out?
Or maybe, just maybe, would any part of you think perhaps it was a good thing they had gained weight, that maybe it signaled that they were doing better than before, that maybe they had conquered some demon you didn’t know held them close and they’d finally managed to break free from it, kicking and screaming?
What do you think?
“Absolutely no I do not think less of you for having gained weight! I only know about your experience of disordered eating through what you’ve shared publicly, but I know it’s something that’s been extremely difficult for a long time, and this past little while, seeing you happy and healthy in your pics, and wearing the hell out of your clothes, and feeling yourself, it’s honestly been extremely enriching to see from the outside. I won’t presume to think this has all been a breeze for you — I know what this struggle is like all too well! — but you seem as comfortable in yourself as I think you have for as long as I’ve known you, and that’s been a really wonderful thing to watch!” —A sweet friend from college with whom I have somewhat lost touch, but who I can still count on when I need him.
The answer is a resounding “No.” Of course it is. Some people have not noticed I have gained weight. Some people have noticed and simply do not give a fuck—the correct answer, praise be! So it is time for me to rewrite my own internal monologue, to tell myself a new story, to do away with the voice that tells me my size and my value are correlated. They are not. They never have been. I promise you I am working very hard to learn this.
If I rewrite the story, then, it looks like this:
I’m 31 and I work hard not to know how many calories I’ve eaten in a day. I exercise when I feel like it. I stop when my body tells me to.
I’m 31 and I get my tenth tattoo, dye a big section of my hair blonde, work from home by choice, spend the whole day snacking. I am leaning into being who I am, even if I don’t like the look of it. I need constant validation from a lot of people, and maybe that’s okay.
I’m 31 and I start wearing crop tops. Tight ones that make my belly stick out and accentuate my bust and my shoulders. I buy one online and I like it so much I buy another. I take a lot of cleavage-forward selfies. My wife thinks I am extremely hot. I rarely wear clothes when we’re alone at home.
I’m 31 and my relationship with food is fraught. There are days when I eat so much I feel sick, days when I cannot be satisfied no matter how much I consume, days when I feel empty unless I’m full. And then there are days when I barely eat at all, cut everything in half, try to eat so little it doesn’t count. I am in therapy. I am on a dietitian’s waiting list. I am writing a lot.
I’m 31. I have gained weight. I still have an eating disorder. I’m not skinny anymore. I’m almost okay with it.