For years, I have struggled with my weight. Not just in the fact that I have it, but in the fact that it is inextricably tied to my self-worth. I have a deep sense of shame around the size of my body, but I also have very little control over that size. When other women joke about gaining and losing the same five pounds, year after year, I envy them. My weight fluctuates wildly, by 30 to 50 pounds, every six months or in a year or two. Every time, I tell myself that I know how to lose weight, that I will, and that then I will be happy. But then I do, and I am not happy, and inevitably my weight again begins to climb, always reaching new and more terrifying heights, always bringing more shame, more failure, more self-loathing.
The worst part, I think, is how shockingly mundane this all is. As a woman in America, hating your body is so common as to be unremarkable. I am sure you are reading this and thinking, “who cares, that’s normal.” This is dangerous. Hating yourself is not normal. Dissociating from your body is not normal. Telling yourself that your accomplishments, your celebrations, your life will all have to wait, that they cannot start until you are thin, is not normal or okay. I remember looking in the mirror, ready to walk down the aisle at my wedding, and thinking “well, I’m not any thinner than this.” I see photos of myself at the launch party for my own business, and think “good god I look huge.” When presenting my research to other scholars I admire, I worry more that they’ll think I’m fat than that they’ll think my work is amateurish. This is not how I want to experience the world anymore.
Last January, I wrote myself a letter. I told myself all of these things. It was time, I had decided, to stop pretending that I was okay, that I could manage on my own, and it was time to make real change and finally deal with my issues about my weight. And so I gathered my courage, set up some accountability buddies, and made an appointment to see a therapist. I was adamant – this wouldn’t be like the last time, where I started to see someone specifically to talk about my weight, and then continued to see her every week for an entire year without ever once bringing it up. So instead, the first time we spoke, when she asked why I was there, I told her I was done hating my body, done with the terrible cycle of loss and gain, and that I wanted to figure out how to love myself again. Unfortunately, what she said next, was “well, how much do you weigh?” I told her. “I can help you with that,” she said.
Folks, let me tell you right now, that if someone tries to get you to lose weight as a solution to the terrible ways our body-shaming culture will destroy your sense of self-worth, they are not going to help you. They are part of the fucking problem. The silver lining to the several regressive months that followed is this: I became seethingly, righteously angry.
I harnessed that anger and radiated it from my body, and I began to get better. I donated nine bags of clothes I had been trying desperately to fit back into, and found new things to love. For the first time in ten year, I bought a pair of shorts and wore them in public. They were so comfortable I bought two more. I stopped exercising as a way to lose weight, and focused on doing exercise that I actually enjoyed. Instead of counting every calorie, I fell in love with vegetables again, not as an alternative to fats and sweets but just because they’re delicious.
The cultural world around me seemed to follow suit. I read “Hunger” by Roxanne Gay and “Shrill” by Lindy West. I watched the Kavanaugh hearings and listened as so many other women got angry about the way the world treats our bodies. They ran for office and filled the House with white suits. They got their own shows on Netflix. Meanwhile, I won grants and wrote papers, I started to take ownership of the things that I am good at. I started to unfold after years of trying to stay small. Parts of myself that I had kept tucked away for a long time broke open. The ways I changed my body to try to change my mind, the ways I used my body shape how others see me. I forced myself to look at them, to hold onto them, and to tell people about them. It is hard to talk about. People do not always want to hear you talk about your weight. Sometimes it forces them to think about they divide their own value by their weight, the fraction getting smaller as their bodies get larger. How they see their smallness as an accomplishment, as something that makes them more feminine, more disciplined, more worthy. Better than me. I am changing, slowly, but I am not yet healed. I am learning to see my value as a constant, not as a function of my weight. It is a practice, a new skill I have yet to master.
I have been putting this off for a lifetime because loving yourself is hard work, and I am not very good at it. Some days I fall apart, and I find myself repeating mantras of shame and fear. I have also been putting off writing this essay because I don’t know how to talk about hating my body without giving you permission to hate it, too. It is not easy to move through the world as a fat person – everyone has an opinion and a judgement and everyone feels free to tell you that your body is wrong and that you are wrong, too. So right now, because it is hard enough for me to be kind to myself, living day to day among real people who want to tell me how to be, I’m not ready to take on the burden of defending myself against the internet, too.
This is the part where you expect me to defend myself, to explain to you how, while running a small business and writing a dissertation, I don’t have the time or energy to focus on losing weight. I have to justify that I am going to the gym and not eating ice cream every day. You want me to convince you that I am a “virtuous” fat person, that my circumstances are beyond my control, that I don’t actually want to be fat. But I’m not going to indulge you. It doesn’t matter whether these things are true or not, I am a virtuous fat person because I am a virtuous person. It doesn’t matter why I’m fat. It doesn’t matter that I am fat. You need to learn to see my fatness not as a referendum on my worthiness to exist, but simply as something as neutral as the color of my sweater.
You don’t get to hate my body. My body is not yours to care about, it is mine. My body is amazing. It can fight off disease and balance in crow pose and climb mountains and seduce people. I can laugh and sing and speak and cry and dance. I know how to tie knots and fold cootie catchers. I have amazing eyes and gorgeous breasts and I look damn good in sundresses. And whether I lose weight or gain weight, I am staying right here in this body. I am going to finally, joyfully, learn to love it. I am done being cruel to my body. I want it to just be, to just work. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life worried about how I look, while I should be worried about earning tenure, changing the world, and watching my nieces grow up.
I don’t have an ending or a way to tie this up other than to say that I am still a work in progress. I am not done figuring out how to exist in this world in this body, and I’m not sure that I ever will be. I hope that I don’t wake up on my 80th birthday and hate how my thighs look, but I don’t have any guarantees. Our hang-ups and our struggles never really go away, they just become more manageable. I am trying to manage. I am doing okay.