Straightloss: the impossible heterosexuality of losing weight.
“You’re such a skinny Minnie. I hate you.”
The woman opposite me took a long sip from her glass of wine, her eyes narrowing as she smiled, as if we were sharing a joke.
It was a kind of bonding I’d seen straight women do before, but I’d never been on the receiving end of it. Like an anthropologist, I had watched from a distance, observing the rituals of straight women that felt so foreign to me.While I had heard it said with flirtatious affection, I hate you had never been a compliment that applied to me. I had always been too fat — and too queer — to qualify for the intimacy of hate.
“Men must be just falling all over themselves around you,” she continued. “Imagine the guys you must be catching.”
I blinked, feeling a sting in my cheeks. “I don’t date men,” I stuttered, stunned.
“Well,” she said confidently, “I’m sure you will soon.”
The stinging intensified, smooth skin turning to pins and needles, my face flushing siren red. I understood that she meant this as a compliment. All the same, I could feel her good intentions excising the most important parts of me with surgical precision — both the biggest hurts and the most vibrant, lush and vital parts.
Fat and queer had created some of the most defining moments in my life, and while they’d led to hurt and heartbreak, embracing both pulled me into my technicolor future. I had spent so much time running from the stigma attached to my maligned identities, struggling to get out from underneath the toxic assumptions attached to them. When I sat quietly with these core parts of myself, cradled them close to me, I could feel their tender petals bloom. I treasured both as hard-fought victories.
Now, suddenly, I was such a skinny Minnie and men just fell all over themselves around me. Leaving a stressful job led to the gradual loss of one dress size, and treatment for a newly diagnosed medical condition dropped two more. In total, I had lost 75 pounds, dropping from 400 pounds to 325, but was still far from thin. I often remained the fattest person in the room. Nevertheless, my body registered differently to those around me, and I was still acclimating to the shifting ground beneath my feet.
I could feel my body drifting away from me, and the changes that came with it were staggering. I had re-entered the world of standard plus sizes. My clothing options doubled at a size 28, then quadrupled at a 24. The cost of my clothing was cut in half. While family and acquaintances still expressedconcern, they stopped foretelling my death, gruesome and unavoidable. I stopped hearing gleeful oracles foreshadow amputated feet and heavy hearts lurching to a stop.
Passersby still gushed about my bravery for wearing colorful clothing at my size, but stopped shouting at me at me on the street. Instead, strangers began to smile at me, meet my eye contact kindly, their previous frigidity illuminated only by their newfound warmth. While I appreciated it, the disconnect was alienating. Every comment deepened the realization of just how completely I’d been shut out before, as an only slightly fatter fat person.
I had become accustomed to hearing so many strangers opine on the cause of my inevitable death, their gruesome ghost stories a fumbling attempt at scaring me straight. Now, instead, they foretold a different kind of death.While my body abandoned me, so did my queerness. Suddenly, to so many around me, I was straight.
While the moment surprised me, its logic wasn’t new. For years, friends, family and media alike incentivized weight loss with excruciatingly heterosexual logic.
In middle school, I descended the stairs of a community center to reach my first Weight Watchers meeting with my mother, entering a basement full of desperate, despairing women, most three decades my senior.
Each meeting began with a series of rituals that I came to find comfort in over time. We lined up, making small talk as we approached the scale. We weighed in, and our group leader noted our weight in a log, offering words of congratulations or condolences. We would respond with explanations: I’ve been really good this week or I knew I shouldn’t have or I’ve been indulging.
After our confessional and prayers of penance, our group would talk, sometimes about our diet and exercise, but more frequently about theconsequences of having bodies like ours. The conversations didn’t focus on strength or happiness — they focused on men. One woman broke down, certain that if she didn’t lose twenty pounds, she would instead lose her husband.
This was where I learned the magical thinking of weight loss. Women in the group gushed with healing fantasies of what would happen when they lost weight. As thinner women, their future, better selves would be desired by their husbands. The cracks in their relationships would seal themselves into perfect, unblemished monoliths. Their children would be better behaved, higher achievers, giving their parents nothing to worry about in the glow of their rekindled romance. They stopped just short of imagining waking up each morning to songbirds tying bows in their hair.
As I progressed into adulthood, even as I came out, weight loss was always encouraged using the promise of some storybook straight life. Don’t you want to date? Think of the guys you could get! When I pushed off conversations about weight loss, acquaintances would look at me with distress. Don’t you want to be around for your kids? I didn’t plan on having any.
When I came out to straight men who made advances, I’d be met with a Molotov cocktail of fat hate and homophobia. Rebuffed men would spit that I was just a dyke because no man would want that, shortly after trying to get thatthemselves. As a femme and a fat person, my identity never quite made sense to the straight people around me, and couldn’t be taken at face value. Straight white women would insist that I could still find success as one of them. Some men go for that — there’s a lid for every pot. Some would confidentially add,have you tried dating Black or Latino men? They love a big girl. They grasped about as much about the lives and desires of people of color as they did about mine.
Acquaintances and coworkers painted me into pictures that were so distant from my life, their heavy brushstrokes drying around me, hemming me into the life they imagined for me. They exalted the men I’d date, even knowing me as a queer woman, out for nineteen years.
Even amongst straight people who’d been deeply supportive, my identity evaporated before their eyes, transfiguring itself into what they were certain I must have wanted all along. To them, I didn’t have to be queer anymore. I was thin enough to earn men’s affection. I no longer had to shoulder the burden of queerness, the weight of its failure. As a smaller woman, I was free now. I could be straight.
At every size, I learned, my body was a blank canvas, and whoever stood in its presence could paint their aspirations onto it. That magical thinking was reinforced everywhere. It was on TV, showcased on The Swan and Revenge Body, in which participants radically changed their bodies through plastic surgery or extreme dieting, largely for the affection and affirmation they felt they were missing. And it was reinforced by weight loss commercials that showed fat people as slack-faced greyscale “before” photos, while their thin counterparts danced as brightly colored “afters.” In testimonials about weight loss programs, success stories would gush about their reignited straight sex lives, or their new relationships with the straight, thin partners — as if their thinner bodies “earned” a kind of picture-perfect, straight life.
Nearly everywhere weight loss was mentioned, “catching a man” was sure to follow. So why wouldn’t those around me use one of the most prominent narratives available to them? As I shrank, I was told I could have the life I must have dreamed of — a normative life. The canvas of my body filled with new and different colors, the dutiful and detailed recreations of the life that was imagined for me.
And those around me hadn’t just started projecting their fantasies of my life.As my body reduced, I realized that they had always painted a picture of an imagined life for me — but in the past, that life had been unsexed, any sexuality disappearing under layers of fat. I was too fat to have a sexual orientation — so, in their eyes, I didn’t have one.
That magical thinking was a force bigger than me, yes, but it also wasn’t me.As time passed, I realized that those around me forgot my queerness becausethey weren’t thinking of me — they were imagining themselves. I was disappearing, just as they’d so long dreamed of doing. The stories they told about my life were wishes for their own.
But those wishes weren’t mine, and they bore no resemblance to my actual life. Every fantasy of weight loss pressed in on me on all sides: a charmed, heterosexual life, replete with a handsome, doting husband and the heavy paint of well-behaved children. I was happy, healthy, having it all. But I wasn’t me.
I struggled in fat circles, too. After spending the day fending off straightness, I’d come home to emails asking me to write about straight people’s experiences. Straight fat women would write, asking me to address the challenges of men who expected them to be forever sexually available, while publicly rejecting the idea of a relationship with a fat girl. Fat women defended themselves from vicious, widespread fat hate by defiantly reciting the types of men who had happily slept with them — statues of Adonis, musclebound Ken dolls, their conventional, straight masculinity a testament to these women’s objective desirability. (Is desire ever objective?)
Amongst fat people or thin people, my body consistently recast me as a straight person, a core part of who I am painted out of this reimagined self. I felt exhausted, pushing back against the rigid, drying paint. I just wanted to have a body as a matter of fact, a matter of course. My skin was the size it was, and my heart’s longings were what they were. Couldn’t it just be that?
But having a body — any body — is never simple. For the first time in decades, my body was reshaped by the stranglehold of men’s desire, its insistence pushing in on all sides. Everywhere I went, my worth was defined by the desire of those I rarely wanted myself. Either I was a glossy photograph of an imagined life, or I was its photo negative.
But neither were free. And neither were me.
As my body still shrinks, I can feel myself re-entering a city from my childhood that I thought I’d never see again. I am descending from the clouds, seeing its skyline faintly through the fog. The closer I get, the more I remember the eternal foreignness of heterosexuality. Even before I came out, I fumbled with its language and customs, my mouth not built for the shape of its words. It was where I was born, but it was never my home. As it stands, I don’t quite have one.
As my clothes first slackened on my body, leaving an outline of the space it once occupied, I knew I would have to learn to contend with unwanted attention. I knew that I would receive compliments, calling me back into a body that no longer felt safe. But I didn’t think it would stop feeling like my own. I didn’t expect that attention to erode my edges, eventually swallowing me up. I didn’t think it would take the whole of me.
I still know who I am. I still call queer communities home. But every day, I am reminded that my body is the most easily grasped symbol of my identity — and every day, I am reminded that neither are fully my own. Yes, I am still fat. Yes, I am still queer. But in an embattled body, nothing is as simple as an assertion of self.