First, it was when I was five and felt like I couldn’t enjoy the Slip ‘n’ Slide with my cousins because I knew my dad thought I looked chubby in my swimsuit. Somehow I had learned that you weren’t supposed to have fun if you were fat. That you didn’t deserve it…instead of having fun, you were supposed to be concentrating on getting skinny: you were expected to do jumping jacks and eat carrots and run laps until you were thin, instead of running around and playing and laughing like there was nothing wrong with you. In my later years I grew to have compassion and empathy for my father, because I literally can’t remember a time during my childhood when he didn’t struggle with his own weight, and I know now that he just didn’t want the same for me. But sometimes I look at pictures of myself taken when I was younger and I get angry. Because no one would ever look at those pictures and say that I was fat, but somehow I always felt that way, and all the time. And the worst was that I was funny and brave and smart, but can distinctly remember thinking that none of that mattered unless I was thin like my cousins and friends.
Then it was the teasing in elementary and middle school, the most painful of which came from an elder sibling. Like with the above, when I got older I gained perspective and realized that siblings have an innate talent for picking out the thing you’re most sensitive about and using it to hurt you. But this was also during a particularly painful time when I had changed schools and was having a hard time making new friends, and it was becoming clear that the sibling I had always counted on to be my buddy didn’t think I was so cool anymore. My efforts to figure out what I could do to change all of this would lay the groundwork for a full-fledged eating disorder in my late teens and early twenties, the basic premise of which was this: I knew that I couldn’t control whether or not people liked me, but chances were that they would like me a lot more if I wasn’t fat.
Then it was my first serious boyfriend, whom I started dating in my early twenties. I know that he loved me in the way that only first loves love you, but he also once told me that I was getting fat and that he didn’t want to have sex with me anymore until I lost some weight. I was maybe a size 12 at the time. And one day we were in a clothing store at the mall and the girls behind the counter were making fun of me for trying on clothes that they obviously thought I shouldn’t be wearing. Instead of sticking up for me, he stood by and then later told me that he agreed with them. And that was when I realized that love could be conditional. And if I wanted to keep it, then it was important to remember that people obviously loved me more when I was slender, because then they didn’t withhold affection from me or let strangers make fun of me in front of them.
And then that boyfriend died and I ate a lot because I was sad. And then my dad started making comments about my size again, which was hard because I obviously had more important things to worry about at that time, and it taught me that people don’t care that you’re going through a tough time if you’re fat. So I went on Atkins and I started working out twice a day and got really skinny and then I met Lucas. And this is how I knew that Lucas really loved me: One morning, Lucas quietly asked me if I was eating. I lied and told him yes and he told me good, but that I looked a lot thinner than usual and he was worried about me. And that was the first time that I felt like I might know what unconditional love could feel like…that here was someone who cared more about whether I felt good on the inside than just if I looked good on the outside.
But then Lucas developed a pretty serious depression and he couldn’t deal and needed to take care of himself, so we broke up. Even though I was a healthy 135 pounds, I still told myself that he would probably want me more and change his mind if I was skinnier. So I lost a bunch more weight and he didn’t change his mind and I started fainting all the time. But I was getting compliments from my family and was getting asked out on dates, so I figured that I was probably doing the right thing.
Then I had this really nice period where I moved to Minneapolis and my weight sort of stabilized and I felt pretty good about myself. This was probably one of the high points of my life. If you would have asked me at the time, I probably would have told you that I wanted to get in better shape, but I also didn’t feel like I had to starve myself or work out twice a day to be who I wanted to be. It was the first time when I felt, consistently, like people liked me and were proud to be my friend or sibling or date because I was funny and brave and smart instead of just how I looked.
When I moved back up north a few years later I decided that I really wanted to get into better shape. It was hard going that summer, but that fall I seemed to magically drop a bunch of weight and then I met someone. I moved back down to Minneapolis to live with him, and because our favorite dates were watching movies while eating Chipotle and because I stopped running around all day as a barista and went back to writing full time, I went up a few sizes. And he stopped kissing me. And stopped wanting to do anything that even resembled kissing. We broke up and I moved back up north and I woke up one morning and got out of bed and started sobbing, because I felt so uncomfortable in my own body, which by that time had somehow turned into a balloon. And I realized that when I saw old friends or met new ones I actually felt like apologizing – “Sorry, I’m not usually this fat” or “I wish you could have met me a few years ago…I was a lot thinner then.” So I tried all my old stuff – I stopped eating and I worked out twice a day and I did Atkins and a really severe cleanse and I cut out sugar and nothing seemed to work. And I started getting more frustrated and more upset and more mean towards myself.
Which was the worst part. Because even though all the above are illustrations of how I taught myself to feel that the way people treat me is dependent on how fat or thin I am, that has never really been my biggest problem.
My biggest problem is the way I treat me.
Wrapping up some work one early evening before heading out to meet Jen and Lacy for our weekly night of wine and girl talk, I was scrolling through my Tumblr feed when I saw this.
I read it and then I headed over to Jen’s, my mind swimming. How much time and headspace would I clear up if I wasn’t constantly obsessing abut how my body looked? How much more could I enjoy my present life if I just accepted my body – not just tolerated it, or simply ignored it – but accepted it? Loved it, even? I recalled a conversation that I had with my friend Meg when we had first met…she does amazing bombshell and boudoir photography, and I told her once that I really wanted to do a session with her, “but not, obviously,” I said, as I ran a hand down in front of my body, “like this.” It occurred to me, as I pulled up in front of Jen’s house, that I hadn’t been scared to go to India and hadn’t been frightened by the possibility of living in Afghanistan for a year, but the mere thought of doing a boudoir session with Meg, just as my body was, right then, right that day?
It freaked me the fuck out.
Jen, Lacy, and I opened a couple bottles of wine, settled in, and, as it typically does on nights like those, our conversation wandered over to the topic of men. Jen and Lacy asked how long it had been since I had been on a date. I gave them my answer and they both forcefully told me that it was time…it was time, it was time to get back out there, it was time. I shook my head and told them that my head just wasn’t in that place yet…but what I really meant was that my body wasn’t there yet. What I thought but wouldn’t ever say was that, unless someone came along who forcefully showed me that they loved me and my body totally as is, no changes or modifications or improvements necessary, then love was just going to have to be put on hold until I could shrink myself again.
And as soon as I realized that I was thinking that, my mind shot back to the post I had read just hours before. And then a quiet voice whispered a stunning piece of truth.
I am the one I am waiting for.
After getting home later that night, I sat down and started writing the first part of this post. And cried, and wrote more, and then cried some more. Trying to detail for myself the timeline of how I had come to believe that my general worth was tied up in my weight brought up a whole lifetime of pain and hurt and insecurity. And I definitely was not going to share that stuff with you. And the worst – but also the best – was that I began to see that, while it would be easy to put that piece away and go, “Well, there it is, everybody! My poor body image is all the fault of those jerks!”, there was a resounding, repeating thunderclap to each part of it. First, it was the instinctual feeling that I’m not the only one out there who can write out a history like that. And then it was that, while some of that stuff is admittedly super shitty, the shittiest of all is that I somehow let myself feel and think and act in those ways because, for some reason, it was more important for me to win someone else’s love instead of keep my own.
So I decided that, maybe, for the first time in my life, instead of focusing on how to make myself more lovable to others, I could focus on falling in love with myself. All of myself, just as I am, right fucking now. Learn how to teach myself that even if I’m not as strong or as lithe as the ideal that I carry around in my head, I can still be nice to myself. That being mean to myself and to my body is just simply not allowed anymore (nor is it allowed from anyone else, either). That it’s more important to heal those warped perceptions and open wounds when it comes to my relationship with my body than it is to beat it up so I can attract someone else with it. Maybe, if my size never goes down or the number on the scale never changes, I can still feel good about myself and rock this shit out and start being the kind of woman who is funny and brave and smart because of how she loves her body and herself, instead of in spite of how much she doesn’t.
Maybe instead of trying to become the person I think I need to be in order to be lovable, I start becoming the kind of person that I love being.
And I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but I also know that I can figure it out as I go.
And if this stuff makes you feel the same way, then maybe you should do it with me.
Written and published October 21, 2013