I watched this TED Talk on a recent lunch break and it brought me face to face with some things I’ve been thinking about lately.
For most of my life, I had a unique disdain for girls and women who expressed doubt about their looks, especially their weight. “She only says that she’s fat because she wants everyone else to tell her she’s skinny,” was my typical put-down: I despised needy girls, insecure girls, who I assumed were only seeking others’ opinions to inflate their own egos.
I would never do that, of course. I was above caring. I was big into the body acceptance movement, although deep down I might have recognized this was mostly because I knew there was nothing about my body that might be considered unacceptable. If not convinced of my own beauty, I was at least very secure in my slenderness; I’d been told for years how thin I was, and I’d never had to do anything to earn what I recognized as praise. There were other things “wrong” with me, of course: I was too tall and gangly, my forehead was too big, my nose too sharp, my hair too unruly. But at least I had a flat stomach.
There were times, of course, when being thin was not particularly helpful—for instance, when I was desperate to develop double-D breasts (never happened), or when my parents briefly suspected me of having an eating disorder (I didn’t.) But the rest of the time, thin was great. I’d preen when mall saleswomen suggested a smaller size than I had pulled off the rack, or when friends’ mothers, watching me feast on chips and chocolate and pizza and ice cream without gaining a pound, sighed “I miss those days!” I’d been thin all my life, but even though I’d never experienced anything else, I was instinctively aware that being skinny was better than the alternative.
I like to think that I was never hateful toward other bodies, but I know that I was not entirely free of judgment. Given my own miraculous powers of eating anything I wanted without consequences, it took me longer than it should have, especially as a self-avowed feminist, to recognize that other bodies worked differently. And even after I came to this realization, I didn’t stop taking my own slender form for granted. While my college friends eschewed the ice cream machine in the dining hall or turned down Halloween candy, I indulged myself. I drank sodas, ordered rich desserts, ate second and third helpings. I never denied myself, or gave a thought to the calories (and chemicals, and junk) that were going into my body.
Part of this, of course, was because my metabolism was fast and I ran every day, which made me almost constantly hungry; but it was also because I could. I was thin, and in my mind I always would be, and I never needed to extend compassion to girls who desired outside validation of their own prettiness or skinniness. I figured those girls were just shallow, or too dumb to see what was in front of them. I knew better than they did. I didn’t buy into the popular opinion of what was “beautiful” (and of course I would have insisted that this had nothing to do with the fact that my own body fit within those standards, and it’s always easier to reject a privilege when you’re one of the privileged).
Then I fell in love, and it ruined everything.
I mean, that’s not all that happened. I was also getting older. As my early twenties teetered toward my mid-twenties, my body started going through the changes that many cis women’s do with age. My menstrual cramps got a little worse, my alcohol tolerance got a little lower, and—yes—my metabolism got a little slower. I was still running most days, but suddenly I weighed one hundred and forty pounds, instead of one hundred and thirty-three. And the numbers kept creeping up, pound by pound. It wasn’t enough to make me panic, but it was enough to throw me off.
Then came love, and with it, after some time and the appropriate conversations with my partner and my doctor, came hormonal birth control, which I’d never used before. I was nervous about taking the pills, but thankfully my body adjusted to the added hormones without too many side effects. With only one side effect, in fact: weight gain.
One hundred and forty turned into one hundred and forty five, which turned into one hundred and fifty, which is what my 6’3” boyfriend weighs. And then I weighed one hundred and fifty five. I started panicking. All of a sudden I had to fasten my belts on looser settings. My thighs brushed when I walked. I had a butt where I had never had a butt before. Clothes that I’d owned since college were too tight. My breasts were a little fuller, which was nice, but the rest of it was horrible.
I didn’t own a scale—I hadn’t used one in years—but now I surreptitiously weighed myself at my parents’ house, in hotels, at friends’ apartments every time I visited. I knew enough about crash diets to avoid them, but only just. I installed calorie-counting apps on my phone and tracked every bite that passed my lips. I beat myself up mentally for not working out, or not working out enough. I tried to eat less, but this was foreign to me and I lacked the discipline, which only made me angrier at myself. Instead, I sucked in my stomach while wearing tight clothes and during sex (because God forbid my partner see my actual, unedited body). In certain empire-waist shirts, once so flattering, I imagined what I’d say if strangers asked me “so when are you due?” (Nobody has.)
Worst of all, I became one of those girls at whom I had once scoffed so harshly. “Do you think I’m gaining weight?” I’d ask my boyfriend, layering breezy nonchalance over my creeping fear.
“I don’t know, maybe,” he’d reply, buried in Wittgenstein. “I haven’t noticed. I don’t think so.”
I’d hide in our bedroom, tears in my eyes. He thinks I’m fat.
But I’d still bring it up again a few days later, and then a day or two after that.
Of course I thought about going off the birth control, but after a pregnancy scare and my mother’s hilariously gross conversation with me about how the women in our family tend to be “fertile stock” (her words), the risk just didn’t seem worth it. And anyway, the birth control was working for me. I felt fine, my periods were shorter and lighter, and there weren’t any babies inside of me. I could handle a few extra pounds more easily than I could handle unexpected motherhood. Everything was going exactly as it should. It was just this one thing. This one terrible thing.
I tried laughing off my weight gain, referring to myself as a “chunky monkey” and joking about sharing diet tips with my (actually) overweight tabby cat. My friends and partner and doctor maintained that I didn’t need to lose weight. You’re beautiful, my partner told me. You’re at a perfectly healthy weight, my doctor assured me. You look fine, my best friend insisted. You really don’t look any different.
But I felt different. I felt vulnerable where I had once been unassailable, soft where I’d once been firm, insecure where I’d once been confident, even arrogant. Suddenly I understood that so many of those girls and women weren’t asking if they were pretty or skinny because they wanted someone to feed their egos. They were asking because they really weren’t sure. Now I wasn’t sure, and it was driving me a little crazy.
I realize that I’m not saying anything new here. Or if I am, it’s only because I existed in my skinny-girl stronghold for so long. I’m not of the countless women whose bodies have borne relentless self-scrutiny (not to mention external scrutiny) since they were little girls. I never compared my own stomach to the flat, airbrushed abdomens of magazine models or girls on TV. I never asked my childhood friends if I was thin enough. That was something that I didn’t have to worry about. But, like many (or most) other girls, I did worry about other things about me that might be too big or too small (hair eyes forehead nose feet hips shoulders breasts). I could look in the mirror and think I was pretty, but there would be a coda: not as pretty as my sister or not as pretty as my best friend or not as pretty as the girl in that movie or not as pretty as my boyfriend’s ex. And now, instead of pretty, the word in that sentence was skinny.
I’d like to end this post with some moment of truth and clarity, where I suddenly open my eyes and stop caring about my weight and realize how beautiful I really am. But I don’t really think that’s the kind of thing that can come in just one moment. I think that’s a realization that takes time, and probably a lot of time. I complained to my boyfriend the other night about how fat I’m getting, and he told me to stop using that word. It was the first time I felt like that conversation was getting old, and then I realized how he must feel. That, at least, was some clarity.
It occurrs to me that this, or something like it, would have happened sooner or later, even without the birth control. I might have eventually started a medication, or gone through a (planned) pregnancy; or I would simply have continued to get older, year building on each year, my body shifting along the way. It’s rare that the body you have at twenty is the body you have at twenty five or thirty or fifty. I’d taken my skinniness for granted because I’d assumed I’d have it forever, but that was never going to be true.
And while, with a lot of work, I might get close, I will never have that same body back again. It doesn’t work that way. What I can do now is recognize the body I do have, and the things that it does for me, and do what I can to feel good in it.
I can take walks. I can drink water. I can eat foods that are good for me. I can sleep well. I can do yoga. I can run. I can wear clothes that fit and flatter. I can take the energy that I’ve spent agonizing over my weight these past months and start spending it on things that matter—my career, my writing, my family, my friends, even my blog. I can tell myself I’m pretty, and mean it. I can look in the mirror and smile at myself.