(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight)
I am a fat woman. Most days, that’s merely a description, not a value judgment. It wasn’t always that way. At a young age, I learned that food was a double-edged sword. Wielded by my mother, food was a gesture of love that meant she was taking care of her family. In my hands, it was a way to soothe feelings of sadness, loneliness, hurt and anger. Growing up as fat girl with a heaping helping of nerd thrown in, I was bullied at school, ignored by boys and told through every possible medium that when measured against the Western Beauty Standard, I would never win.
I’ve done all the usual things every self-hating fat woman has done: crazy diets, becoming best friends with bad self-esteem and creating the world’s best arsenal of self-deprecating jokes. It wasn’t until my mid-20s, after I was brave enough to cancel my subscription to Cosmo (which taunted me every month with pages full of clothes I could never wear, guys I could never date and skinny, beautiful models I could never be) that I initiated peaceful negotiations with my body. I had discovered the Fatosphere, a world of bloggers and vloggers and LiveJournal communities where people were not only fat, but they also didn’t apologize for it and even demanded that the world make room for them. They called out discrimination and bullshit media portrayals of fat people. They shared fashion tips (so vital at a time when it wasn’t easy to find fashionable clothes for fat bodies). They showed fat people (and especially fat women) as complex, smart, sexy, fun people. I learned it wasn’t a crime to be big, and hating myself was way less productive than learning to actually enjoy my life. It wasn’t all happily ever after; I had (and still sometimes do have) really bad days. But with age, a loving boyfriend (who eventually became a loving husband), a great therapist and better fashion choices now than I made as a teen and twenty-something, I forged a tenuous friendship with my body. I tried to eat healthfully and exercised a bit and figured that my fat body and me would Odd Couple it to old age together.
Until three months ago.
Losing weight felt like a betrayal. Was I admitting that being fat was bad when I had spent so much time trying to believe it wasn’t?
At my annual physical, my doctor looked over my blood work and told me that while my cholesterol was a bit elevated, she wasn’t worried about it; I should just keep an eye on it. By the time we faced each other again over a year later, I was now in the danger zone. I’ll be honest, it was a tough year and I wasn’t taking care of myself. Less than year into our marriage, my husband started a new job that necessitated a daily four-hour commute until our lease was up and we could move. I battled panic attacks, which conveniently started while my husband was away for a month on a work assignment. My father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and passed away about six months later, right after we moved. And just for fun, I was hospitalized with a bout of salmonella.
So I was mentally and emotionally exhausted and at my heaviest weight when my doctor told me I had three months to lower my cholesterol or she’d put me on medication. I was angry but determined. I’m too young to be on the same kind of pills my septuagenarian father takes. I immediately upped my twice-weekly exercise routine to six days a week and went 99% vegan (cheese and meat are my soul mates — we just see less of each other now). I read food labels and consulted a dietician. I was doing everything right.
Except mentally I was a mess. The fragile cease-fire between my body and me started to crumble. I had spent a long time telling myself I was okay as I was, except now medical science was proving that wrong. Losing weight felt like a betrayal. Was I admitting that being fat was bad when I had spent so much time trying to believe it wasn’t? Who was I if I wasn’t the fat girl? What would I use as a coping mechanism instead of food? I actively shunned the motivational behaviors that most people engage in: I didn’t post sweaty pics of me in workout gear, I didn’t check in at the gym on Facebook and I avoided the social media accounts of people who posted things like pictures of a mother of three with rock-hard abs and the tagline, “What’s your excuse?” I didn’t tell many people about my health issues. And I was tortured with the thought that if people saw me working out, they would immediately think that I was buying into that old stereotype about how every fat person is an unhealthy loser who just wants to be thin (despite the fact that that you can be healthy or unhealthy at any size). No matter what I did, I mentally beat myself up. As I lost weight, my body started to change and I felt guilty for noticing it and feeling even the least bit of pride at making progress toward my goal. And eating tater tots at the end of a drunken night out with friends made me berate myself for two days.
Last week, I returned to the doctor. My cholesterol was over 40 points lower and now in the healthy range. I was 15 pounds lighter. My doctor was pleased, and I was relieved. I plan to continue being mostly vegan and exercising; it has become something my husband and I enjoy together. I actually like Zumba and the friends I’ve made in the class. I like feeling stronger and experiencing a body that can do things more easily now. I will probably always be fat, but as my body continues to change and sprints ahead, my mind is still lagging behind. it’s going to take more time to reconcile my feelings. If I could learn to like myself as I was once, can I do it again?