When I was eleven years old, my dad told me that I had inherited his thrifty genes and that I would need to be vigilant to avoid putting on too much weight. Ever since then, I’ve always felt overly large to varying degrees. In fact, other than the time my dad and I had a contest to see whose stomach stuck out the most (I was four years old–and he won), the only time in my life when my body felt perfect just the way it was was about seven years ago. Coincidentally–or maybe not–I stopped eating emotionally and compulsively. Within a period of six months, I lost about twenty pounds.
In the past, my parents made my weight their business, praising me when I dropped a few pounds and eyeing me (or worse, making snarky comments) when I gained them back. I always assumed that it was their right, that it was okay to monitor another person’s size and form judgments about her based upon her external appearance. As I matured, I learned that other people were the same way. The response to “You look thin” is more often than not met with a thank you, as though it were a compliment rather than an observation.
I’m not very tall, so losing twenty pounds was quite a change. People noticed. For the first time in my adult life, I was thin. I maintained my weight with ease, eating whatever I wanted. People I met for the first time thought I had always been thin. When a new friend saw a picture of me at 150 pounds she blurted out, “But that’s from when you were pregnant, right?” I had felt okay about my body prior to losing weight, cultivating a humorous acceptance of my lack of perfection. After feeling fat for most of my life, I had come to a place where, if I couldn’t love my body, I could at least accept it as flawed but still attractive. Being thin was different. I felt like an impostor. Hearing the comments was weird. At first, I didn’t believe them. Over time, I wished people would mind their own business instead of asking me what I did (I said “yoga”), whether I ate chocolate (“yes”), or whether I had an eating disorder (I laughed, since it was the first time in my life that I felt at all normal around food). I got pissed off when people would tell me not to lose any more weight. It wasn’t something I was trying to do, so why should I try NOT to do something?
I think, in retrospect, the attention and scrutiny was a little too familiar. Even though it was positive attention, I was uncomfortable with it. I didn’t want people to notice if I gained weight, so why should I want them to notice a loss? Why couldn’t they notice ME as opposed to my body? But it wasn’t a big deal, and I was able to ignore most of the comments or laugh them off.
And then, just when I thought I had settled into life as a thin person, I began binge eating. In spite of my affected nonchalence, I really did want to stay thin, so I purged after my binges. I was able to keep my weight down for a time, but eventually the Twinkies and Nutella began to work their magic, and over the past three or four years, I’ve settled in at about twenty pounds higher than my lowest weight. And it’s not awful, except that it is. I look okay. I’m far from obese; my body fat percentage is in the mid teens and I wear a size 6, or maybe a 4 if it’s the right day of the week (thank you, vanity sizing). I lift weights and practice a physically challenging style of yoga. I still have my teeth. And I’m getting better. Through hard work, perseverance, and countless fits and starts, I’ve reduced my bulimic episodes from five days a week to once or twice a fortnight, sometimes even less. While I’m still clinically bulimic, I do think that eventually I’ll fall outside of that definition and maybe, one day, recovery completely.
What is so awful is that I got used to being thin. When I first started dropping weight, it was hard to look in the mirror and reconcile my perception of myself with reality. And then it got easier. I began to think of myself as a thin person, a small person. So when I gained the weight back and became a not-thin person, I started to question my worthiness. Instead of reverting to my previous acceptance of my body prior to the weight loss, I started to hate my body, to treat it as my enemy, which only made matters worse.
And the comments stopped. No one said a word about my body, about how thin I was or how much weight I lost. Whether or not they were thinking anything, I could hear my parents’ words in my mind: “You’ve let yourself go. You’ve become sloppy. You can do so much better than you’re doing now.”
My rational mind knows I’m not fat, but that voice inside my head is drowning it out. It’s saying, “If you were thin then–and you know you were, because everyone was telling you and even you believed it–and then you’ve gained all this weight, that means you’re NOT thin. And if you’re NOT thin, that means you’re fat. And if you’re fat, you’re ugly and completely unworthy of love.” I know that voice is lying. I know that it’s possible–even likely–for me to find people who can find me attractive, worthwhile, interesting and compelling regardless of how much I weigh. I married one of them. I know that I am worthy of love now, and still would be worthy if I gained another twenty pounds or more. But it’s one thing to know it in my head, and another to believe it in my heart. I’m just not feeling it.
When I was thin and got the “you’ve lost weight!” comments, I resented them mildly when I chose to think about them. The shape of my body, whatever the size, is nobody else’s business. Now, I’m giving my power to other people, allowing them to make me feel good or bad. I squirm and feel uncomfortable and “less than” whenever I hear anyone else being told they’ve lost weight. No one is saying anything to me; all I’m hearing is silence. I’m finding myself caught up in this cycle of self-loathing, not wanting to see people that I haven’t seen in a while, not wanting to hear if they say anything if at all.
To make matters worse, my husband has lost a lot of weight since I’ve been eating more of a Paleo diet. For him, it happened effortlessly (sound familiar?), and he’s been getting a lot of attention from it. As far as I can tell, he never suffered from any body image issues other than hoping that I am attracted to him. For him, the comments are never anything more than they were to me in my thin days–somewhat amusing. But hearing them twists the knife deeper in my big old ED wound. I am so fucking jealous that I can’t stand it and I hate hearing the things people say. The other day, I got pissed off when he announced that he had to go to the tailor to have his pants taken in (why can’t I have my pants taken in???). And then later than night, we saw his family and his uncle couldn’t stop talking about the weight loss. I tried to avoid the conversation, but the uncle cornered me and asked me whether I was feeding my family.
I get it. It was a joke. The uncle doesn’t know about my eating disorder or my frustration. I’m sure he knows that my family is getting plenty to eat. But the joke went over like a lead balloon and I was angry for the rest of the night. When I tried to discuss things with my husband, he said the same thing that I knew in my head: that the uncle is an idiot with a stupid sense of humor and that I shouldn’t let it bother me. But it does. It bothers me on so many different levels. It bothers me that food is such an easy thing for my husband and an utter minefield for me. It bothers me that my husband is getting all this attention–attention that I didn’t want when I was getting it a few years ago, but still. And most of all, it bothers me that I get so upset over this. The focus of my life, at least some of the time, seems to become narrower and narrower, and the only good day is a thin day.
I don’t want to be the person who’s writing these words. I don’t want my self-worth to be defined by a number on the scale or a size of clothing. I’m comfortable with my age and my body is serving me well. I want that to be enough. I’m so much more healthy, physically, than I have any right to be, and I have a wonderful family and a life that many people would envy. I wish it were enough, and maybe someday it will be. I hope so. It would be a terrible thing to die a bitter, dissatisfied woman who sees the glass as half empty.
For better or for worse, it’s acceptable to comment on an acquaintence’s weight loss or healthy eating habits. The fact that I consider it intrusive is my own baggage. The world is not going to change, so I have a choice: rail against the status quo and become angry and bitter, or accept things the way they are. I need to ignore or refuse to listen to anything that’s unsaid, the words I hear in my mind: “Oh, she’s put on a few pounds. Too bad, she looked so much better when her face was more defined or her waist was smaller.” As much as I want to tell others to mind their own business, I need to mind my own business and practice letting things roll by like water off a duck’s back. Not so easy, but certainly worth trying.