This is a Story of Moderate Weight Loss

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I come from a long line of people that value food.  Gatherings in my family always involved huge amounts of food, tables groaning under the weight of the effort of the matriarchs and their progeny.  Food was always offered when company came by, regardless of the hour of the day, how recent lunch may have been, or how close our guest was to consuming dinner. My mother likes to tell stories of her grandmother, who used to require that her grandchildren eat their fill, making eating motions and saying “Essen, essen,” hoping, I imagine, that her lovingly made food would bridge the linguistic gap between her mother tongue and her Anglo grandchildren. Food has always meant love in my family, and I have always desired huge amounts of both. Until very recently, my form has betrayed this desire.

Children in my family were encouraged to eat their fill, to be chubby; that weight will come off when they hit puberty, it is reasoned. Encouraged and abetted by the enormous amounts of food that were prepared to make sure that no one in our large family went hungry, women and men alike have shapes that approach spherical. Food is grounding, centering, what brings our family together. To break bread with someone is understood as an act of acceptance. And while the food itself varied, the closeness that comes when you take your time to turn off the TV and sit down to a meal with your best beloveds, to talk with them for an uninterrupted hour, is always the same. It feeds your soul while you’re feeding your body. If I feed you, what I am actually asking is for you to share yourself with me.

Food was not always viewed with uniform positivity. Along with my earliest memories of learning to cook at my grandmothers’ and my parent’s feet, I also have vivid memories of my mother’s youngest sister constantly being on some diet or other, attempting to lose another 5 lbs or so. And so it was very clear to me early on that I could enjoy food and be fat, or I could not enjoy food and be skinny, but that somewhere along the line, I would have to make a choice; well fed and loved but reviled for my softness, or hungry and admired for my self-control. I have always chosen hedonism.

My earliest, fondest, memories of my father’s mother are standing at her side on a step in the kitchen, watching her perform the arcane rituals that are essential to French cuisine, “helping” with everything from roasted lamb to pastry. I love the ritual that goes into food, the hours spent carefully peeling, chopping, smelling, tasting, carefully measuring leavening  and throwing fistfuls of salt into pots of lentils. I joke, sometimes, that I “caught” my partner with my culinary skills, which are formidable. I learned to cook for so many reasons, but mostly, I learned to cook because I like to eat.

Studies show that people who are fat are taken less seriously, and I embrace this persona whole-heartedly. Humour can be a weapon, but it can also be armour. It can be a secret code, I way of saying “this hurts” to the one other person in the room who shares your lexicon, without having to admit weakness to the rest of the room. You learn to decode people’s responses, and pick the ones who see the edge to your jokes. You learn to avoid the ones who stare at you in response, or dig a little deeper with a quip of their own.

Fat, too, is armour of a kind. Just the physical act of existing as a fat person erases one from people’s notice. The more space your body takes up, it seems, the less people see you. I mean. They see you. You still exist, corporeally. But you don’t register sometimes. Which is both awful and amazing; one thing that fat women don’t seem to have to do as much is make themselves small. As a fat woman, I could be loud, boisterous, drunk, sarcastic, flirtatious, even mean, and escape consequence. People accepted every outrageous action and phrase as part of my personality.  My large form grounded me, took up physical space to go along with the space that my personality requires. We matched, my body and me, for a really long time.

But then, suddenly, things were not okay anymore. Two of my most important connections had moved far away from me, and I suddenly no longer had anyone to feed. I had a huge house that felt like an albatross, a career that meant nothing to me, beloved pets that felt like a burden rather than a gift, and a dearth of humans to connect with. I remember thinking that it was so unfair that I had acquired all of the trappings of adult life and still felt so empty. I still don’t know if my feelings of isolation were a symptom or a trigger, but I knew for sure that something terrible was wrong with me when I looked in the fridge and started crying because I could not plan out the steps required to make a meal that I have been making for more than a decade.

It wasn’t the only sign. There were others. Like the fact that I was crying daily. I read the Onion piece about office workers having desks that allow them to work in the fetal position, and I thought it was a really good idea, as I had curled up under my desk and wept with the door closed the day before. I was throwing away half of my lunches, weeping with the guilt of having wasted food that I forced myself to cook because a human cannot live on air. And I was angry. So angry, all of the time. I wanted to not be angry, but I couldn’t let it go, either. Eventually, my boss heard me yelling to a colleague on the phone through the office walls, and sent me home. I stayed home for a week. It was a week dampened by curtains, shrouded in smoke, and drowned in tears. I emerged able to keep it together. Mostly.

I was surviving on caffeine (largely cappuccinos, for the milk fat, but not lattés, because I could never be sure that my body would accept that many calories at once), copious amounts of water to take the edge off, and cigarettes. I felt awful all of the time, and I knew it was because my stomach was eating itself, and I could do nothing about it. If the kind of highly restricted eating that I was suffering from is an expression of self-control, it is a cruel joke that my psyche tried to express control over anything by controlling what I could(not) swallow.  And I was suffering. I would tear up halfway through meals at restaurants because I could not finish them. I would choke on bites of risotto, my esophagus clenching and refusing to accept the food that I knew I needed in order to function. So in addition to being at sea because my support network had left, I was vanishing too; if you’ve decided that your form matches your self, it is extremely discomfiting to see it disappear before your eyes.

In what exact order my recovery happened is fuzzy now, a few years later. There were three pivotal moments. First, I got drugged at the bar. I later learned that this particular bar is famous locally for being a place where people presenting as women get drugged. It was terrifying, and I lost all taste for having that slightly out of control sensation at the bar, so I stopped drinking. The second was when it clicked that my adult job comes with adult benefits, which allowed me to seek out, and find, a psychologist. I was looking for coping skills, or maybe a diagnosis and some medication, because stress and anxiety was eating me up from the inside out. At the psychologist’s, I did not get coping skills or a diagnosis. I did get confirmation that there was nothing atypical about my brain chemistry, and the recommendation to seek out a new job. This is easier said than done, of course, and the idea of organizing a job hunt while dealing with anxiety still makes bile rise in my throat. But I did forget all career ambitions, and started focusing on other aspects of my life. Finally, I told my gentleman friend that I was done with life the way we were living it. I was too alone, and I wasn’t going to bear that burden anymore.

I joined a knitting circle, and had the amazing fortune of being welcomed by a group of smart, savvy, open humans. I joined a book club, and was warmly welcomed into that space as well. I found a yoga teacher who was perfect for me, and whose classes I could regularly attend. The affection I found in these communities was integral to my recovery. I may not have been eating much yet, but I was re-centering, grounding myself in community and in my head. And as the fog began to lift, as cheer returned to my face and my bestie managed to convince me to just buy some pants and shirts that fit, people started talking to me again. Mostly, people liked to tell me just how good I was looking. And mostly, I accepted the compliments with a mumbled “thanks” and dodged the inevitable follow-up question of “how did you do it?”, because who wants to go hear a long rambly answer about not being able to swallow? But my best friends, the ones who knew that I was losing all of this weight because I could not eat, the friends who listened while I tearfully tried to work out if my body was betraying me (it was), if I had a parasite (I still wonder), or if I was ever going to be able to walk around without thinking about just how much I had changed because people were inevitably talking about it. To me. And nothing makes you wonder about all of the terrible shit that they thought about you before than having people tell you really nice things after.

No one tells you when you are putting on weight. Well, okay, some people maybe do. The closest, or the people you suspect are most critical of you, like your mom. But when you lose it? Everyone assumes it is a happy narrative, and that you want to talk about it. So everyone asks. Colleagues. Baristas. Bartenders (I said I stopped drinking. I did not say I stopped living). That guy from IT that you see sometimes.

So suddenly I had a new challenge, one that was not mostly taking place in my own headspace: when you grow up a lady in patriarchy, you know that your body is the topic of discussion, sometimes. You know that you are being rated hot or not, that people are assigning numbers to your form, deciding how they are going to interact with you based on whether or not they want to fuck you. But when you grow up a fat girl in patriarchy, especially before any fat acceptance movement, you don’t really live in that space, because all of those judgements are already made for you. You know, on some level, that you are unfuckable. It is confirmed every now and then, like when you’re at the bar and some dude that you’re chatting with frankly lets you know that he’s performing interference so that his bro can talk to your much more attractive friend. Or when you hear people talking about “the ugly fat girl” who later turns out to be you. Or when you write, and you try to come up with some way to describe a sexy fat person and you just can’t. Try it. It doesn’t go well; all of the language that we have to describe people who aren’t thin is inherently unsexy. Carol Shields managed it once, in The Stone Diaries. I love that passage, the way she manages to make folds of flesh seem desirable; the way the husband has to delve into his wife in order to find her sweetest bits. But it is a passage that speaks of the oddity of a man who loves his wife’s flesh. It is not meant to be universal. The fat acceptance movement would like it to be, and I continue to champion the beauty of women in all of our forms, but it isn’t. I know it isn’t.

The fat acceptance movement was so important to me, personally. Fat acceptance made it so that I could go into clothing stores and leave without buying muumuus that made me look 80 and 30 lbs heavier than I was. Fat acceptance made it so that, even if my body was not “perfect”, I could spend some time with my hair or makeup and still feel fabulous. The fat acceptance movement made me able to go to a yoga studio and not look those skinny bendy bitches in the eye, because I did not care, I was there for me, to find my inside space, and to move a bit. Even fat people want to move; we like endorphins too. The fat acceptance movement made it possible for me to not be scared all of the time, which, in the end, is what being a fat lady person in society boiled down to for me for a really long time. I was constantly scared that I was being judged, mocked, deemed unfuckable, not included in social outings. Fat acceptance made it so that I could forget about all of those judgements, invite myself along, and have a great time anyway. Fat acceptance is what allowed me to love that my form matched my personality, and it is what makes it hard for me, now, to accept that Things Have Changed.

In my head, I am still a fat girl. I have always been, and by some definitions I certainly still am. I still see bright pink buttons that read “fat and fabulous” and I get a little twinkle in my eye and reach for them before thinking “no, you don’t need that anymore, leave that for someone who does”. I still use the term “fat girl store” because it was a store just for me and people like me, people who knew that fat and fabulous was a doable thing, people who gave no fucks about being an “acceptable” body shape. People wince, now, when I use the term. There is an unbridgeable gap between 2012 and 2016 me, one so wide that I literally have to change my vocabulary.

These are not the only unbridgeable gaps. Somewhere along the way, my body changed in ways that my brain could not keep up with, and that is a daily headfuck, since literally every experience I have has changed. When I bathe, I fixate on the fact that my hips used to touch the sides of the tub. Now there is a handspace in between on either side. My rings no longer fit. A bracelet that I purchased to commemorate a delightful holiday falls off my wrist. When I walk down the street, I fume because people won’t get out of my way. It is only in resolving to walk into the assholes if they won’t move that I realize that they don’t have to, that I do not take up that kind of space anymore.

Hugs are especially fraught, in different ways for different situations. Friends hug me, and… I am somehow more enveloped. It is not a case of “more touching” – hugs are hugs, the whole front of my body has always touched the person that I am hugging. It is more that… their arms go further around me than I am expecting, and I feel a little trapped. My partner hugs me and his hands fall where they should, but his elbows float out in space somewhere in a way that distresses me and leaves me floating, too, anchored though I am both in my body and his embrace. My friend Paul envelops me in a bear hug, and I no longer feel as though I have the presence to return it, though I am stronger now than I have ever been. Strangers can literally lift me off the dance floor, no consent asked or required. I used to be bigger, heavier than that.

I used to be bigger, heavier than that. This is something that I think about all of the time. I no longer get to interact with people the way I used to, because I used to be heavier than that. Part of this is on me – my therapist tells me that I need to build the armour and the harm assessment tools that most girls develop in their teens. In their teens. But I never had to, because until this, my 36th year if life, I never had a total stranger make kissy faces at me and then touch me in order to get my attention as I marched down the street. I never had someone seriously question whether they could steal me from my love before. I don’t know how to diffuse or normalize nasty situations, because I have literally never had to. And I know that being pretty or not has fuckall to do with your odds of being sexually assaulted, but never ever before have I been so privy to the terrorizing bullshit that women go through on a daily basis. Never before have I had to wonder if that guy maybe didn’t like my band shirt, if maybe he was just looking at my tits. And because I’ve never before had to wonder, I go with my normal response of “why yes this is a great band, let me tell you all about it!” and it is only after I walk away that I have that feeling of “o shit, maybe that was gross, no, definitely that was that dude being gross about my tits. hurray.”

I don’t necessarily want to go back. Part of the process of recovering from my uncontrollable rage is an active yoga practice, and I love the physical benefits of that practice, regardless of the size of my waistline. I still have flesh – my body is still capable of being explored, unfolded, the way Carole Shields describes. But now that work is less required, because I am less shrouded in the expectations that society has for fat people, and so I feel on display. I used to be a Pandora’s Box, someone who delighted people who bothered to get to know me. Now, I feel available in ways that I had never previously been. Not more desirable, just… more noticeable. I keep joking that I want a fat suit and a mumu, and people laugh, but I have seriously considered a martini and Dorito crash diet in order to regain what still feels like my proper shape.

I still don’t know how to reconcile these things. Because so much of what is terribly anxiety producing about what is happening to me now is the result of other people noticing me, I struggle to reconcile my inclination towards melodrama with my desire to fly below the radar of 90% of humanity. I struggle with the fact that for me, the process of losing weight really was more about failure than it was a success, and so I have a hard time when people excitedly ask me how I did it. Me being me, I tend to tell them the whole story, and watch as their look changes from admiration to pity.

I don’t regret a minute of it; the size I was, the sadness, the fog, the recuperation, the size I am now. This whole process has given me a gift, one that I would never ever have had access to without the fat acceptance movement. I have been given the gift of knowing that my body is an amazing space, one that I can stretch out to feel the edges of, one that I can curl into for protection, one that can be decorated to send coded messages, or stripped to the flesh to just exist. And each of these actions (and so many more) are mine to choose. We still match, my body and me. It just took a while to figure out how.

Renée has been writing since she could hold a pen and put a sentence together. Trained in the humanities, she lays claim to the title armchair sociologist, and is fascinated by human relationships. Her favourite pastimes include ruminating on the horrors of the material plane, making yarn art, reading just about everything she sees, dancing, and inventing wild stories about strangers based on their interactions with other humans. She lives in Ottawa, Canada, with a tiny furry army of cats, and feels firmly about the oxford comma’s place in this world.


8 Responses to “This is a Story of Moderate Weight Loss”

  1. Kazoogrrl says:

    Wow! I'm processing this, but I want to say that you for writing it.

  2. ru_ri says:

    This was absolutely wonderful and I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you for sharing your story.

    There's a lot to think about and some heavy revelations in there, wow. All I can articulate right now is that I am so glad for the fat acceptance movement and how it has changed life for fat and non-fat people alike.

  3. vladazhael says:

    This is beautiful on so many levels, but one aspect in particular really grabbed me: my therapist tells me that I need to build the armour and the harm assessment tools that most girls develop in their teens. The feeling of suddenly being on display and socially perceived as "available" in a way you're unprepared for, of having to rework your most basic interactions, of being vulnerable to things everyone else seems to have learned to navigate much earlier and easier – this is the closest parallel I've found to what it feels like (for me) to be suddenly un-partnered for the first time in my autonomous and otherwise confident, competent adult life. People tend to be empathetic about the breakup that led me here, but when it comes to existing as a single person beyond that, there tends to be an assumption that I'm being presented with a wealth of opportunities, when to me it's a series of terrifying and puzzling obstacles with no guarantee of ever getting what I want out of it. I feel like I've been placed on a buffet table. And while I know I need to be there to some degree in order to find the sort of partnership I want again, especially as that exact dynamic would be the most healing thing for me right now, I am an aggressively introverted and partner-oriented person who never intended to be there again and never really learned how to exist there to begin with, and it is awful. As of now I haven't even shared my relationship status with a lot of people – including most of my coworkers – because while it feels relevant to share what I went through and am still going through in terms of the intense mourning process of my lost relationship, it also feels like I'd be painting a big target on my back (not because I'm particularly desirable, but because of the social perception of single women as things to be pursued), and I don't feel well equipped to fend off what I don't want, or even confidently figure out what that is.

    …Sorry, that was a lot of rambling about myself in the face of someone else's personal thing, but I just wanted to express that even though the circumstances are different, I see something in this that means a whole lot to me, and I thank you for sharing it.

    • Xolandra says:

      Nonono, thank you for sharing; I am glad to hear that it resonates outside of my own head. I wish I had advice to share on how to get over the feeling of being a target, but tbh I don't think I have. I've just learned to ignore it more :S

  4. fiddlergirl says:

    This is a wonderful, personal piece. Thank you for sharing it.

  5. CheddarBiscuit says:

    This is really great. I love the self-acceptance that comes through at the end and the acceptance of the path that brought you there, even if all of the steps on it weren't positive at the time that they were happening. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  6. aqueousmedium says:

    What a perceptive and beautifully written piece. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  7. redheadfae says:

    Thank you for this share. I wasn't reading as often back when you wrote this and I'm sorry I missed it. If you don't mind me asking, you mentioned not being able to eat, was/is it gastroparesis?
    I'm the opposite, I was once a girl who always heard "eww, you're sooo skinny!" and it was no goal or willfulness on my part, I just had that metabolism for years. Then health issues, menopause and not being able to move as much hit me and I'm now so much heavier than I was in high school through my thirties. Thank dog for fat acceptance these days! You are so right that people don't mention it when one has gained so much, but I can see it in their eyes, and I no longer hear "wow! you look great!" when someone hasn't seen me in years.
    I can only imagine how hard it was to hold back when you heard that and endured the probing questions that came with the assumption that it's the result of some mystical "hard work" on your part.

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