To those who want your fat family member to lose weight.
I had just walked in the door when you sidled up next to me.
“Can I show you something?”
You showed me your iPad, face lit up with eager excitement. You watched me closely, looking for a happy or grateful reaction — something to reinforce your discovery. Instead, you watched my face fall.
On the screen were before and after pictures from surgeon’s offices, advertisements for gastric bypass and lap band surgeries. On the left stood a woman my size, slouching and exposed, in fitted workout clothing. Next to her, that same woman, beaming and standing tall, was reduced to half her previous size.
I looked at the woman my size, her stony expression betrayed by the deep disappointment behind her eyes. I looked at the shape of her body: the soft slopes of her breasts, belly, hips. Her body looked so much like mine. I am before. I am always before.
“I saw these pictures and I thought of you,” you explained. When I didn’t respond, you went on. “Think of how much healthier you would be. The partners you could date. I know you love clothes — you could wear whatever you want!” You paint my body with stencils, my life made up of negative space. You aren’t describing me — you’re describing what you’re sure I can’t have.
You paged through the pictures, eyes fixed on my face for the happiness you were sure would come. You had, after all, found a miracle cure. You must have imagined I’d be so relieved to learn that there was a way out of the body I have — all it would take was $23,000 to cut that body open, truss its organs, and leave it to wither.
But in that moment, I had already been gutted. My ribcage had been hollowed out, heart and lungs set aside, cored like an apple. Breath scraped in my throat before evaporating into the crater my ribs had become. I was awash in the desolation you imagined my life to be, and the wonderland you envisioned for thinner women.
I searched the faces of the befores. They stared ahead, blank, stoic, knowing that the bodies they have — the ones they are not meant to have — will live on in this photograph. Their only redemption would come when they proved that they could will themselves into someone else’s skin. Until then, they will forever be captured on film this way, looking like me.
The afters were your size. Your lovely body has been the same size for the seventeen years I have known you. And in that time, you have never stopped your dogged quest to rid yourself of what you call “the last twenty pounds.”
The images stayed with me all night, pulling me out of conversation and into my own head. Did you think of me as a before? Was I so sad, so hopeless to you? Did you think of my life as something on hold, an understudy reading lines until my thinner self came along to star in the real show? How often had you imagined a thinner version of me? Had I misread your warmth as love? Had it been tinged with pity all these years?
After dinner, I gathered up all my breath and, with clumsy certainty, asked you not to show me those pictures again. I told you that I didn’t want to have surgery, and that my health didn’t require it. I told you about the people I knew who’d had it, all of whom had gained back most of their weight. I told you about the risks and complications that worried me. I told you that I already wear what I want and date who I want. I wasn’t angry, but I had found my voice, and there was so much to say.
My response came out in a tidal wave: huge, forceful, jumbled. Its momentum had been building in a stormy ocean you couldn’t see, driven by so much more than you. It was propelled by the woman at the bus stop who thought she was complimenting me when she said you’re so brave to wear that — a plain cotton knee-length dress. Its momentum was built by the date who told me that no one wants fat people, then asked me back to his place. It crested with the former boss who would carefully watch fat passersby and lean in, confidentially, to say she should not be wearing that, seemingly regardless of their clothing. Such persistent reminders of how little was expected of someone with a body like mine. And now you.
This wasn’t the first time you’d offered well-meaning advice. You were always there to remind me how to look thinner. Why don’t you wear more black? It looks so slimming on you. Your long hair elongates your face — it makes you look so much thinner! You tried every crash diet & supplement, always offering up something new. Dr. Oz says garcinia cambogia will take off the most stubborn weight — I put some in your handbag. Have you tried the Zone? Atkins? South Beach? Paleo? I heard about a cleanse — we could do it together. The diets were never-ending, and so was your advice.
In our conversations, my body was always at the center. You were a wellspring of solutions, persistently and dutifully reminding me of the endless string of problems you were sure my body presented. I didn’t think my body was broken, but you were certain you knew how to fix it.
I would bring up movies, books, the news, anything else, but nothing stuck.My body became such a constant source of conversation that it seemed like it was all you could see of me. Your advice always focused on how to change my body, or at least hide it until it was thin enough to be seen. I couldn’t figure out how to tell you how much it hurt, and how frustrated I’d become. You had reduced me to a body, insisted that body was a burden, then offered up a thousand ways to make it disappear.
It took days to realize how wrong I’d gotten my response. I was overtaken, inundated with all those moments that had gone unnoticed by anyone else. All those little slights I was meant to bear. That wave overtook both of us.
In that moment, I lost sight of what you were trying to do. You weren’t trying to hurt me. You didn’t think you were criticizing me. You were trying to raise up your hopes.
You were telling me about the beautiful life you wanted for me: one with vibrant love, beautiful clothing, and the confidence that both bring. You hope for a happy and long life for me. But all your life, all you’ve heard is that people who look like me can’t have any of those things. For years, you’ve been told about the isolated and lonely lives fat people are doomed to lead. You’ve been told that it is impossible to desire a fat person, and that fat people are destined for chronic illness or an early death. You’ve been told that if you’re not careful, that’s the life you’ll be forced to lead. You were trying to tell me that you want more for me.
What I should’ve told you is that I have fallen madly in love with someone who loved me back. I should’ve told you about the partners who have held my body like they never wanted anything else. I should’ve told you how proud I am of the career I’ve built. I should’ve told you about the vibrant and loving group of friends I’ve found. I should’ve told you how much love I feel from them, and how much I strive to give. I should’ve told you about the extraordinary life I am so grateful to live.
I should’ve told you that your solutions are searching for a problem I don’t have.
I should’ve told you that I know you’re hurting.
I should’ve told you that even after knowing you for all these years, I see the way your body remains such contested territory, so readily claimed by everyone but you. I remember the first time I saw your husband make fun of your thin lips, then make fun again when you bought plumping gloss. I should’ve commiserated with you more when he announced, after your second helping of green beans, that you’d had enough. I gave him hell, but I never spoke with you about it. I should’ve told you that even though our bodies are so different, we are bound together by so much friendly fire.
I should’ve told you that I no longer long to lose weight, because weight loss doesn’t lessen the pressure to be thin — the pressure just changes. You’re told that you’re twenty pounds from being desirable; I’m told that I’m twenty pounds from being dead. But both of us are haunted by the terrible fate of staying in the bodies we have. Every day, we will our bodies into ghosts. My body should not haunt anyone else — it is nothing to fear. I should’ve told you I have no intention of disappearing.
I should’ve told you that I have decided to live my life now, as I am, and as my body always has been. I should’ve told you that I have tried every diet, counted every calorie, every gram of carbs, fat, sugar, and none of it has changed the shape of me, which I’m told is the only path to living a full, vibrant, happy life.
I have forgone that sole path laid out for me, and have chosen to blaze my own trail. I have taken on the exhilaration of happiness, risk, heartbreak, tragedy and joy now, without waiting for a body that never comes.
I should’ve told you how difficult that is — that so many people remain skeptical of my health and happiness, and hold me at arm’s length until they feel properly persuaded. I should’ve told you that I have learned that there is nothing I can do to convince someone else of my health or my happiness. I should’ve told you that I am exhausted from performing, my arms weak from resisting on all fronts, just to live a life I love in the body I have. The sun and moon keep pulling against my own tides.
I should’ve told you that those before pictures are always a tool of shame, that they only serve to remind both of us of the trophy bodies we’re failing to win. I should’ve told you that it’s different to see yourself as a before than to be seen by everyone you meet as a before.
My body is before. On a billboard, before. Neck down stock footage on the news, before. The answer for every cruel comment and every moment of harsh treatment, it seems, is to become an after. Befores don’t try hard enough.Befores don’t want it badly enough. It’s up to the afters to remind them what their lives are missing. I should’ve told you what it’s like to be forever held back at some invisible turnstile, stuck there until I can will my body to change from what it has always been.
I should’ve told you that I know the stories that both of us have absorbed about our fat bodies — yours, imagined, and mine, grotesque in its realness. I know the photosynthesis of shame that keeps us perpetually trapped, perennially replicating itself. I should’ve told you that while both of us have shame coursing through our veins, mine is injected daily by strangers, doctors, friends and family, all of whom believe that I don’t have enough.
I should’ve told you that neither of us needs more shame, from within or without. I should’ve told you that I want both of us to stop being hurt, and to stop hurting ourselves. I should’ve told you that I don’t need your concern, I just need your love.
I should’ve told you that I love you.