To plus size women who can not yet name their bodies.
I remember the first time we spent the night talking. You told me you thought you loved your fiancé, but that you couldn’t be sure. You said yes to the first man who asked you out, because you were so certain that no one else would want you, a size 24 who sometimes gets so deeply sad.
You worried that he might not be the right person for you, but felt bound to him, unable to disentangle gratitude from love. There was an urgency in your voice, as if he was your only shot at a partner. You, weakened and withered from thirst, felt driven to drink salt water, just to bring your stubborn appetite to an end.
I cried when you told me because I love you, and because it sounded so familiar. We sat together, 24 and 28, communicating in cyphers. In our quiet language, we said love and relationship and happiness and health. But all our lofty words just meant bodies. We spoke without translation about our bodies. Not the bogeyman bodies so often discussed by friends and doctors and news anchors, fear in their hearts and superstition in their mouths, but our bodies. The ones believed to be plagued. The ones that kept us quarantined.
We spoke about them intimately: the round faces that heated with shame, the soft sloping bellies made rocky by pink fissures, the ruptures where our bodies could no longer contain themselves. The bodies that only we would accept, because only we had to.
We spoke of the water torture of insistence that our bodies are only temporary, and you could change if you really wanted to. The way thin loved ones would speak with irritation or look on with pity. The steady drip of comments, sidelong glances, advice that’s been taken so many times before. Why don’t you just go to the gym? Drip. It’s not that complicated — just burn more calories than you take in. Drip. It doesn’t even seem like you try anymore. Drip. The way those droplets make a home for themselves, steadily wearing away at our senses of self, our agency, our belief that the life that comes with this body is one worth living.
I just wish you had better self-esteem. The only thing that’s stopping you is your lack of confidence.
I know where you are. The shame that melts through you when you see the jeans you bought, because they only had them a size too small, and your friend said that would just motivate you. Longing to take a long walk, just to clear your head, but knowing that the local park will be full of runners, drinking in the sight of your soft body, holding back their sneers. The nightmare scenario of the gym — its gauntlet of stares, snickers and side comments.
Watching late night infomercials about diet pills. Allī. Garcinia cambogia. Green coffee extract. Raspberry ketones. Hydroxycut. The lingering look at spam subject lines. Drop 20 pounds in two weeks! You know they don’t work, at least not safely, but what other choice do you have?
Dressing impeccably for your own security, just to spare yourself another car full of strangers mooing at you. Laughing too loudly at jokes about fat people so no one mistakes you for one. Feeling anxious when you order food in public, because if you order pasta, everyone around you will think, how sad, of course, and if you order vegetables, they will think, but what a shame she let herself get that way. Forcing a smile when someone tells you that you “wear it well.” Reminding yourself that statements like these are compliments. Wondering why you feel so deflated when you hear them.
The bathroom scale that stares you down, offering only the tenuous success of loss, the abject failure of gain, or the hopelessness of a plateau. The jolt of seeing yourself in a photograph, so much wider than you remembered. The wave of shame that follows, first for the body in that photograph, then for the embarrassment you felt at seeing it. The way all that shame takes hold of your lungs. The way your heart beats fast; the shallow gulps of air that seem to reach your throat, but never your lungs. The anxiety and shame that seems to follow you everywhere, its toxic gas forever rolling onto your little shore.
Convincing yourself that you’re fine, you don’t have to go to the doctor. You just need to lose weight; prove yourself a responsible owner of this body that gets repossessed every day. Remembering how the nurse grimaces apologetically when she announces she’s going to have to weigh you, as if that didn’t happen every time.
The familiar disappointment in the doctor who bypasses an examination and tells you to just lose weight, as if it were ever that simple. Your body makes even diagnosis a foregone conclusion. Seeing a doctor becomes an exercise in scripted humiliation. Whatever the symptoms, his hands never touch you. Whatever the condition, the diagnosis never changes. Whether migraines or ear infections, back pain or dizziness, the problem is always you. Every time, the cold room & repeated lecture. No new treatments & no relief. A long line of untreated symptoms follow. You convince yourself not to worry.
The racing heart when you board an airplane. Making yourself as small as possible in the seat, breathing shallow and keeping your arms and legs crossed for all five hours. Spending your vacation praying that someone won’t complain about having to sit next to you on the flight back.
Crying in the car after a family gathering, when one family member brings up lap band surgery, and another asks if you shouldn’t just pass on the potatoes. The way the whole room gets silent after those comments. You’ve learned to make jokes, change the subject, break the tension. The moment passes. Later, you think about dying.
Consoling your thin friend, insisting, “you’re not fat!” while she cries about being a size 10 now, and she can’t go up to a 12. She can’t. Letting your partner talk shit about your body, because he’s got a point, right? And his reminders are going to help you finally get thin. The shame when he finally poses an ultimatum, insisting that you lose weight. Your face flushes red. Your body is an albatross that shouldn’t be his to bear. If you’d done your job, it would be gone by now.
Convincing yourself that the body you’ve always had is just temporary — that all of this will melt away when you can shrink the expanse of your skin. The dreams that come at night. A thin body, one that tapers and flares where it should. Skin smooth and taut over a tastefully muscular abdomen. The life that flows from that body: a loving relationship, phenomenal sex, exquisite vacations, a clean and cozy home, uninterrupted happiness. The flood of hope that comes when you wake from that dream. The crushing disappointment when you remember the body you’ve failed to tame.
The certainty that everything you’ve been waiting for comes with the body that refuses to reveal itself. The life you are waiting to lead.
Quietly planning your days, weeks, life around avoiding these everyday situations that throw you into a tail spin. All those droplets have built a rising tide of shame, and now that’s all that surrounds you. The steady, puttering engine of anxiety. Breathing that tightens every day, because you’ll need to hold your breath as long as you can. Soon, you’ll be underwater.
My greatest hope for you, my darling, is that you wake up and think the unthinkable: you might just be fat. After all the money, time, worry, distraction, and shame of trying every program, pill, regimen and trainer under the sun, it might just not happen. You might not lose 10, 20, 50 pounds. This might just be the body you have.
The thought will be terrifying. Because you have to let go of the dream of that body that just isn’t yours, and might never be. Because your relationships, your money, and so much of your time are tied up in trying desperately to lose weight, all of it, as quickly as you can. And if you’re not constantly chasing after a smaller body, who are you? And who would take you seriously?
It will be terrifying because all you’ve heard all your life is how awful it is to be fat. Fat is the moral to the story. Your body, you have been told, is the worst case scenario. Fat means being isolated, alone, lazy, weak-willed. It means being ugly and unloved. Fat means giving up. Fat means that the side comments and overt aggression from strangers, family, friends, doctors — all of that continues.
But you don’t deserve that. No one does.
You have not earned the well-intentioned bullying of family members who insist that they’re only acting out of concern for you. Your body doesn’t entitle partners to belittle and abuse you. Your weight doesn’t mean you deserve to be condescended to, shamed or ignored at the doctor’s office. Having a fat body doesn’t mean that anyone can treat you however they want.
And now, my darling, you can grieve. Get sad. Mourn the body you don’t have — not because it’s better, but because you’ve held onto the idea of it for so long. Ache for the realization that your body has been a stalwart friend that has only tried its best to care for you, and you have repaid it too often only with your frustration, anger, and blame. Cry for the cruel, insensitive things people have said to you. Get angry that the doctor wouldn’t run any tests because he said you just needed to lose weight — all the while letting your symptoms get so much worse. Laugh at the absurdity of thin people eating nachos while they lecture you about going to the gym.
Purge yourself of the terrible things people have said and done, the deep sadness that has weighed on you for so long, the anxiety and frustration and isolation. It doesn’t deserve any more of your time.
Then feel the extraordinary lightness in your body. Feel the weight lift from your shoulders. Let your brow unfurrow. Drink in a real, deep breath.
You are fat. And you can move on.
It can be hard to know who you are if you’re not always thinking and talking about losing weight. You might feel adrift. But that feeling is a precursor to the most divine liberation. It is the glimmer of fiery sky before the sunrise. It is a new day, and now the world is yours.
You can buy clothing that fits who you are. You can buy clothing that fits! Buy things that you want to wear: bright colors and cap sleeves and drop waists and short skirts. Break fashion rules. Experiment. Get bright. Get weird! Wear the sweatshirt you always thought would make you look too slovenly, but you loved how soft it was. Wear the clothing that you like, beyond the endless rules set forth for you by people who hate their bodies as you have hated yours. Your body is worthy of being seen.
You can find other fat people, or transgender people, or people with disabilities, new friends who are also thinking dangerous thoughts. Compatriots who are realizing that shame doesn’t help them get happy, healthy or grounded. They, too, are nurturing the voice in the back of their head that tells them their critics might not have a point — they might have just learned a cruel script. They might just be mean. Your body is worth defending.
My grandmother used to say “just because someone throws you the ball doesn’t mean you have to catch it.” You can learn to drop the ball.
You can claim your fatness. You can come out as fat. Tell your friends, your family, strangers at the grocery store, whoever you want. Practice saying it before anyone else can. Over time, it will come more naturally. Over time, their comments will hurt less, because you know your worth, and you know that it isn’t determined by simply having a fat body. Your body is worth naming.
You can travel, learn to ice skate, buy a bikini! You can start swimming laps at the Y, because you’re a great swimmer, and it makes you so happy. You can do what you want, because what other people say is on them. You know who you are, and part of who you are is fat. What else can they say?
You can advocate for yourself. Respond to the doctor who says that you wouldn’t have so many ear infections if you weren’t fat. Ask your aunt to stop talking about Jenny Craig. Tell that asshole at the bar that you wouldn’t sleep with him, either. You can get what you need.
You can ask someone out. Tell someone that you like them, that you want to date them or sleep with them. Maybe that person will be your fiancé. Maybe it won’t. But for the first time, you’ll feel the exhilaration & fear of taking the reins of your own desire. You can leave the partner who has put so much pressure on you, your size, your skin. You can leave him behind, because you do not need his voice echoing in your head every night, reminding you of his many judgments and disappointments in your body. Your body is worthy of love and desire.
You can let go of the constant running. Let go of performing, internalizing, beating yourself up. You don’t have to love your body. But you don’t have to hate it, either. Declare a ceasefire with your body. Somewhere down the line, you may learn to love it. You may even begin to believe the compliments on your beauty, your body, your strength, your self. You may let their soft waves lap at your skin. You are worth every compliment. You can relax, and you can believe them.
You can live your life. Do what makes you happy — truly happy. Focus on your job or your family or yourself. Volunteer or get a new job or travel abroad. You can realize just how resilient and strong you’ve become, and you can flex that muscle. You have handled so much hurt and the hands of people you rely on, trust and love. And now all of that heartache has left you stronger than you ever thought possible. You, my darling, can move mountains.
It’s not easy. It will take time. Friends will still say hurtful things. So will strangers. The world will still come at you. But you won’t come at you. You’ll be too busy building a life you love.
Welcome. Feel the sun on your skin. I’ve been waiting for you.
Like this piece? There are more like it, including A call to action: your fat friend is going it alone.