As a fat woman myself, I’m still struggling with how I feel about it.
Ironically enough, I met my boyfriend during the thinnest month of my life.
I was at a friend’s birthday party at a bar when I saw my future boyfriend Brian from across the room, talking to the birthday boy. Brian was the type of guy I spent most of high school and college and my entire adult life pining after and never getting: slim, with dark hair and glasses, his jeans torn in all the best places. He had a beautiful mouth that was excitedly saying things I couldn’t hear, but was making everyone around him laugh.
If I had still been at my heaviest weight, I never would have approached Brian. As a fat woman, I have been taught that there is an order of operations for love: First, you get thin; then, you can date who you want. Until you do the first thing, the second thing is impossible. So for many women who struggle with their weight, it becomes a fight not just for their health or well-being, but a struggle to just be worthy of the love so many people take for granted.
Most of my life, my weight has felt like a search light from above that continually hounds me, putting the spotlight on my body even when I just want to hide. My third-grade class unofficially voted me “class pig” — a title I embraced with great gusto, because the alternative meant no friends. When I was 10, my dad ripped a box of Apple Jacks out of my hand while I was pouring myself a second bowl of cereal, and told me that I was “going to turn into a goddamn pumpkin.” The summer I turned 14, I was sweating my life out every day for an hour during swim team practice. Still, when I put on a bikini one day, my mother wouldn’t stop talking about my belly fat until I just wanted to throw the bikini away and never wear one again. I have always hated my body, and in retrospect, I’m not sure I was ever given the chance to love it.
But on the day I met Brian, I had just spent the previous year slowly winnowing off 50 pounds, almost entirely due to unemployment. I wasn’t buying a lot of food, and was spending much of my free time developing a nervous running habit that led me to spend hours every day trotting in circles around my neighborhood, trying to go somewhere even as my career was jogging in place.
So I was feeling brave, the stupid kind of courage that comes from unexpectedly having a body you never thought you’d inhabit, and wondering what kinds of things it might let you get away with. And I walked that crazy all the way over to the other side of the bar, and introduced myself to him.
There was a three-hour period — between the moment Brian first kissed me, and the moment when I learned that Brian was predominantly attracted to bigger women — when I felt like I could do anything. In my mind, I had done the impossible. Seducing a thin and attractive person was like taking bronze, silver, and gold in the Former Fat Girl Olympics.
At some point that night, I remember lying next to him, still feeling unbelievably cocky from my victory, when Brian mentioned that I wasn’t normally his type.
My inner Douchebag Alert went off. Oh god, I thought. Is this the part where he lets me know how nice he is for throwing my chubby ass a bone?
“What’s normally your type?” I asked him, bracing myself for the part where he not-so-subtly intimated that he can usually do better than me.
I did not get the response I expected.
“I like bigger ladies,” Brian replied. “Very big ladies, actually.” He sounded as calm and as normal as if he were telling me the weather. He was not ashamed. I suddenly realized that this was not an attempt to put me down, but rather just a thing (a completely normal thing, to him) that he was disclosing about himself. In other words: It was conversation.
But the little part of me inside that had been cheering for hours suddenly got very quiet. But I am your type, I thought sadly. In that moment, I know that Brian had been saying that he didn’t consider me to be big, but I know as well as anyone that people can’t fundamentally change who they are attracted to. Brian was still attracted to fat girls, and I was one of them.
This, of course, did not take away from how into Brian I was. We started dating almost immediately, and became inseparable. When I described him to people, I would tend to use celebrities who I was currently in love with as a frame of reference:
“He’s exactly like a dark-haired Ben Folds, but younger, and with better skin.”
“He looks just like an American version of John Oliver, but with better teeth, and a more attractive nose.”
“Brian looks like Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters,” I said once during a Halloween party, apropos of absolutely nothing. “But, like, even better looking.”
It was during this time that I started slowly putting the weight back on. Not because Brian was doing anything to sabotage me — he was and is supportive of my wanting to eat well and exercise. It was just a result of being in a happy relationship, suddenly having a full-time job, and life getting in the way. Normal things.
Six months into our relationship, I found myself in a very desperate laundry situation. I put on a sundress that I thought might be a little too backless for my current weight.
“I figure if worst comes to worst, I can just find a wall to stand against, or walk backward a lot,” I said to Brian as I put it on, trying to preemptively apologize for an outfit that I was pretty sure was riding the line between flattering and gross.
Brian, however, loved the dress. Maybe even a little too much — I spent a lot of time while wearing it swatting his hands away from the open back. I felt happy wearing it, beautiful. Soon, I was wearing it all the time.
Then, I wore it to a party. Late in the evening, Brian turned to a mutual friend of ours, and eagerly, drunkenly opined: “Doesn’t Kristin look amazing in that dress?”
The silence that followed felt like the moment before someone hits the button on a dunk tank, and you know that you are about to tumble, helpless, into a frosty tub of punishment. I realized, belatedly, obviously, that to Brian, I did look amazing in that dress. Because I looked fat.
When you are a fat person who is losing weight, people will come out of the woodwork to let you know how “amazing” you look — even my psychiatrist called me “the incredible shrinking woman” at nearly every appointment. Well-meaning people felt this constant need to make it plain that I was somehow better once I had lost weight, and it only made it that much more painful when people stop telling you how good you look, and stop saying anything at all.
For the first time since I had started dating Brian, I looked at myself and realized that my body, almost without my realizing it, was reverting to back to its former fat state. This is the real you, I thought. The other you was just a disguise. But you couldn’t fool everyone forever.
And the fewer compliments about my body that I got from other people, the more I would get from Brian. It got to the point where compliments from Brian were actually painful to hear — every time he said “You look beautiful,” all I could hear was “You look fat.”
I started trying on outfits in front of Brian in order to get his opinion. It was a good system. Anything he liked, I wouldn’t wear.
It was during this time that I started being mean to myself — really, truly unkind. I looked at myself for hours in the mirror the way a child might gawk at an ugly person on the street. I would push and pull the rolls of fat on my stomach with my hands as flat as I could, and try to imagine what my lower half would look like, unencumbered by what I had done to it. I’d meet every compliment Brian gave me with something equally cruel about myself. It was like my self-image was in a tennis match, and it was more important for me to be right than for me to feel good.
Brian’s expressions when I would rip myself to shreds eventually moved from sympathy to frustration.
“I love your body,” Brian would say, carefully. “Because Kristin lives in your body.”
Even though I was and am loved, I still didn’t feel that way — because in my mind, I had not earned it. You won, I would try to tell myself. You still earned love while gaining weight.
Then I went to an appointment with my psychiatrist, and for the first time in years, she said nothing about my body. Nothing at all.
No, I didn’t win, I would tell myself instead. I got what I wanted, but I didn’t do the work. That’s cheating. I cheated.
And though Brian is and has always been open and confident with his preferences, they started to embarrass me. Once at a party, he mentioned that Rebel Wilson was hot to a group of people we were talking to. A short silence followed, during which I actually moonwalked away from the conversation, as though trying to physically escape before a comparison between Rebel Wilson and myself could catch up to me.
Which is ridiculous. Rebel Wilson is fabulous. Why would I not want that for myself?
And what would happen if I lost all this weight? I would wonder to myself bitterly. Would Brian still feel the same way? Was I doomed to either be conventionally attractive or someone’s fetish object?
Brian gets tired of my self-hatred. He has limits, he’s human, and more important, he’s a human who loves me and finds me attractive, and is frustrated with having to defend those choices to me, of all people.
Once, we were at a bar, and I saw a very large woman sitting at the edge of the bar. “Do you think she’s cute?” I asked Brian, in a way that clearly indicated she was not. It was a petty, mean question, and one I already knew the answer to. But I found myself wanting to hear him say it, like I could trick Brian into openly admitting that his idea of beautiful — and that his ideas about me — were so obviously, incredibly wrong.
“Yes, I do.” Brian said, not taking the bait. “She’s very pretty. What is your problem? Do you want another beer?”
One of the things I’ve come to understand is that, when you’re single, hating your body is more or less a victimless crime, if you don’t count yourself. When you get into a relationship, however, it becomes a constant referendum on the tastes and judgment of the person who loves you.
The other problem was that, the more that I poke at myself, the more Brian pokes at himself as well. While he is objectively not a very big person, he’s succumed a little bit to the 10 to 15 pounds everyone gains when they are happy and in love. But one morning, I saw him looking at himself in the mirror, grabbing the small pudge from his stomach, and agonizing about how much he felt it made him into a terrible person.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. Because it so obviously was — he was trying to grab handfuls of his tummy for emphasis, but was struggling to even get one hand full.
“No, it isn’t,” he shot back, in that angry, desperate tone of voice I have so often used. “I am just a fat person, now.”
No, you’re not, I thought, and I wondered how many times Brian had felt like this: frustrated, annoyed, and helpless as he watched me tear down a thing he loved.
The thing that I have struggled the most with understanding is that, just like I am not just a fat girl, Brian is not just someone who likes fat girls. He is someone who has made it through this life, one that is inundated with social mores about what is OK and not OK in terms of physical attraction, and he is unmoved by any of it. How he handles this attraction is actually one of the most attractive things about him. He knows that his is not a popular opinion, and wastes no time caring about that fact.
I wish I could say that I am 100% OK with myself. I still do the thing where, when people compliment pictures of myself that I hate, I will wonder just how bad I look in all the other photos they aren’t complimenting.
But I do little things. When a couple of co-workers and I published this post about “one size fits all” clothing last December, I was terrified at the types of things people would say about my body. But when people were so overwhelmingly positive toward me, it reminded me of how important it is not to be your own biggest censor. I let myself believe the nice things people said.
Two years ago, I didn’t even realize they made bikinis in a size 18 — turns out that they do. Lots of cute ones. And this year, I intend to buy one, and wear it to the beach. And I will enjoy that no one will be able to complain to me about my belly fat (without looking like a crazy person). I will enjoy how excited that makes Brian, to see me happy in my own skin. I will let him enjoy the thing he loves without tearing it down. But more importantly, I will work to earn love from me, who is the person who will always play the hardest to get. I will flirt as hard as I can, and I will win myself back.