When self love isn’t enough.
What happens — and what doesn’t — when you tell your fat friend to “just love yourself.”
The wave of hot shame is always the same when you found out you’ve hurt a friend.
Suddenly, you’re stuck with that sour feeling in the pit of your stomach. Something has turned rancid within you, and you’ve only learned it when you served it to a guest. You have curdled, and didn’t even know until it was too late.
You harmed a friend. You did it unwittingly, with good intentions, but it hurt her nonetheless. You didn’t mean to, but you did. And you feel confused about her objection.
She has asked you to stop talking about your new diet, stop charting your weight loss goals with her, stop making inventories of the good and bad foods you’ve been eating in her presence, stop editorializing on what strangers eat at restaurants. She explains that she has an eating disorder, which is confusing, because she’s, you know, bigger. Wouldn’t she be skinny if she had an eating disorder? What good is an eating disorder if it doesn’t deliver terrifying, exquisite thinness?
And her objections are confusing, too. Who doesn’t want to lose weight? Who isn’t happy for people who do? This, after all, is how the world works. Please is met with thank you. How are you is met with fine. Fatness is met with fight, and weight loss is met with compliments.
She explains that moralizing about food hurts her recovery. Yes, even when you call it a detox or a cleanse. Yes, even when you’re doing it for your health. “You don’t have to stop doing it,” she offers. “Just don’t talk about it around me.”
The whole thing is overwhelming, exhausting, frustrating, obtuse. You wonder if this isn’t just an issue of depression or low self-esteem. Who cares how other people talk about their food? Who cares what someone else eats? Maybe it’s her self-esteem. People with high self-esteem don’t care what other people think. Screw the haters, right?
Tired of talking, frustrated with your own lack of understanding, and underwhelmed by your desire to continue the conversation, you decide to tell her the real thing. You tell her she just needs to love herself more. Then she wouldn’t care what you did.
Something changes in her face. She gets quiet. This, you realize, is somehow a deeper hurt.
For you, this moment is confusing. For her, it’s exhausting. With startling regularity, when she makes a simple request related to her fat body, she’s met with you just need to love yourself more.
This moment repeats on an endless loop, and every time is as disappointing and tiresome as the last. She has become accustomed to this routine isolation, this rote rejection in the guise of affirmation.
And god, is she tired of being told to love herself.
Self love is important. It’s what propels us into growth, what makes us resilient. It allows us to advocate for ourselves, to fight in the face of adversity. Sometimes it even keeps us alive. But self love has never been as simple as advice, nor as convenient as an escape hatch from an uncomfortable conversation.
Self love is not a static state of being. Few of us simply arrive at self love, and fewer still maintain it, uninterrupted by the little earthquakes that shake our confidence. Self love is too slippery for that. It is a moving target. Some days we hit it. Some days we miss. But whoever you are, self love is rarely achieved by a simple mandate.
Self love is never as simple as just loving ourselves. And since when is loving ourselves simple?
As a fat person, when I make a request of you, self love is not what I’m asking for. I’m asking for your help. I’m asking for your action. And in that, my self love is necessary, but never sufficient. I need you.
The problem isn’t that I don’t love myself, but that I am asking you to more fully love me. As with any relationship, we’ve got to show up for each other, make room for each other, truly listen in order to honestly respond. We’ve got to stick around for the moments of levity and closeness, and we’ve also got to be present for the tougher moments: the accountability when we’ve stumbled. That sour, sinking feeling when we’ve hurt each other.
And as with any relationship, meeting a direct request to change your own behavior with a critique of the person making that request won’t get you far. Telling others to love themselves out of their own needs doesn’t meet those needs. Like telling someone with depression to snap out of it, love yourself oversimplifies a thornier, foggier problem — one that calls on both of us to participate.
Sharing my needs as a fat person is an act of self love. I love myself enough to trust my experiences, to respect my needs, and I’m asking you to do the same. And making requests to honor fat bodies is only possible with more self-regard and self-respect than fat people are meant to have. We are routinely expected to hate our own bodies away, wishing them into oblivion. Our bodies, we are told, are temporary, a scarlet letter for an original sin that can be changed with proper penance.
Stating my needs and asking for your help in meeting them— those are signs of my love for myself and for you. I love myself enough to meet my needs. And I love you enough to ask you to do right by the both of us.
When I share my experiences as a fat person, that is direct feedback for you, and information you wouldn’t otherwise have. But when you respond by telling me to love myself or have higher self esteem, you lay the blame back at my feet. It isn’t my fault that I hurt you, it’s your fault that you didn’t love yourself enough. If you had higher self esteem, you wouldn’t care. If you just lost weight, this wouldn’t happen. I wouldn’t do this if you didn’t make me. But that, my darling, isn’t the logic of self love. It’s the logic of abuse.
Self love is internal, borne of rich soil coaxing forth tender technicolor blooms. I am deprived of sunlight, asking for water. You give me neither, tell me to ignore the darkness, then insist that I grow.
Self love is a far cry from liberation, from connection, from the intimacy of a friendship like ours. I don’t need self love. I need you. I need the steady warmth of our friendship to burn hot enough to thaw the frozen parts. And I long for a world built around the regard, respect and vulnerability that we otherwise share.
So let’s show up. Let’s take the action of love.
Loving ourselves is difficult, yes, and so is the hard work of loving each other. Let’s provide the raw materials necessary for both of us to thrive — the relationships, the basic needs, the trust and attentiveness. Let’s do the daily work to plant our seeds, nurture our own tender vines, pull the weeds that threaten our roots. Let’s do the work of growth. Let’s water each other, so that we all might bloom.
Like this post? There are more like it, including What it’s like to be that fat person next to you on the plane and How “just lose weight” sounds to your fat friend. You can also find Your Fat Friend on Twitter and Facebook.