Growing up, I was taught that I had to be both the smartest girl in class and the prettiest girl in class. I was never explicitly taught that girls should be valued for their appearance over their intellect. Instead, I was challenged and expected to have both, and I followed suit.
For most of my life, I was able to achieve the “prettiest” standard as long as I put in a little hard work. I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I felt I could get close enough with the right clothes, hairstyle, and makeup. The round stomach I always lamented was nothing a good pair of Spanx couldn’t hide. I became known for dressing well, for being “put together” at all times, and this became a core element of my identity. My high school guidance counselor affectionately referred to me as “Jackie O.” as he told me my GPA had earned me a mention in the local newspaper. I graduated tenth in my class and senior prom queen. This was my personal definition of success.
Then, sometime around my 25th birthday, I gained weight.
It wasn’t a lot of weight, I don’t think, although I suppose that depends on who you ask (I’m not asking). But I wasn’t particularly small before, so it was enough weight to push me from straight sizes to plus sizes. It was enough weight to rack up credit card debt buying an entirely new wardrobe. It was enough weight to go through the trouble of withdrawing from the antidepressant that contributed to the weight gain and switching to one that didn’t work. It was enough weight to try skipping meals and exercising more and still not get my old body back. And it was enough weight to cry over it. A lot.
And I didn’t gain weight in a sexy, curvy, perfectly proportioned, “Kim Kardashian isn’t a size two either” kind of way. I gained it in stretch marks on my stomach and hips, slashing through my tattoo and sneaking up from behind my pubic hair. I gained it in back rolls and a double chin in every photo.
For the first time in my life, no matter what I did, short of developing an eating disorder, I could not reach the expectation of being the prettiest girl in class. Thinness is the number one non-negotiable beauty standard. The fat girl can be pretty if or pretty except. She can have such a pretty face. But she can never be the prettiest one. My usual form of success became impossible, my failure all-encompassing.
This feeling of failure, and not just the weight itself, made me feel like a crucial switch had been turned off in my head: the switch that made me see someone attractive when I looked in the mirror. The switch had been on for 25 years, but suddenly, as if due to faulty wiring somewhere within the walls of my house, I couldn’t flip it back on. Every mirror and photo I saw myself in seemed to have an “ugly” filter overlaying it. It was more than just my weight: I thought my skin was too translucent, my hair too heavy, my torso too rectangular, the outline of my lips too jagged. I longingly scrolled through my camera roll from 2018, wanting back what I used to look like and how my life used to feel — back before the weight I gained paralleled the heaviness that comes with living through a global pandemic. I felt disoriented by and detached from my new body, convinced that it was someone else staring back at me, someone visibly aged, someone more damaged and less vibrant than I used to be. Someone who had failed.
To try to flip the switch back on, I placed dozens of orders for hundreds of dollars worth of new clothes. I tracked the arrival of each package closely, refreshing pages to see them inch their way toward me (why do they always get stuck in Secaucus?), to see myself inch toward a retired self-esteem. I spent my weekends packing and shipping returns, then refreshed my credit card apps more than my social media apps, waiting for the refunds to hit. I dragged my thumb down my phone screen with bated breath, worrying, worrying, worrying that I wouldn’t receive the refunds before my bill was due, always adding and subtracting numbers in my head, always budgeting for the inevitable next purchase.
This July, in anticipation of my sister’s wedding — an event that can bring immense pressure to look perfect even in the best of circumstances — I placed an order for seventeen bras from Target. I wasn’t planning to wear a bra with my maid of honor dress, but I had convinced myself that if I kept trying, kept shopping, eventually I would find the one perfect item of clothing to turn the switch back on. This particular week, I fixated on bras. The week before it was bike shorts. In June it was midi dresses.
As was my routine, I decided to return all of the bras. I went to Target in person, thinking this would bring more instant gratification than mailing them back. But I couldn’t return the order all at once — there was some sort of glitch in the cash register, forcing me to read aloud the UPC code for each and every bra individually. (God bless this poor cashier.) I was mortified, standing in the Atlantic Avenue Target gripping a plastic shopping bag, pulling out lacy bralette after lacy bralette after lacy bralette until I hit number seventeen. This is what they call rock bottom.
I started seeing a new therapist then, a therapist I actively sought out because of her anti-diet, Health At Every Size approach — something so difficult to find in a therapist that I started sessions despite her being out of my insurance network and asked my mom for money to cover the cost of my appointments until I met my deductible. I was already well-versed in the perils of diet culture, and I wanted a therapist who’d approach my body image issues with an equal (or greater) understanding of the cultural forces at play. I wanted a therapist who knew what I did: that conventional standards of beauty are racist, that up to 98% of diets fail, that we actually don’t understand the whole science behind what makes some bodies thin and some fat, that fatphobia actively contributes to negative health effects for fat people, that my self-loathing directly benefits the multi-billion-dollar diet, wellness, and cosmetics industries that have taught me to feel this way. I wanted to talk to someone who would call me out on my own fatphobia. I wanted someone who wouldn’t recommend keeping “guilt-free” snacks in the fridge, like my previous therapist had.
Despite my prior critical thinking, I still felt a deep desire — and requirement — to beat the system. I figured: if I can meet the beauty standard, if technically I am able to adhere, and I used to be just fine with that, why wouldn’t I continue to meet it? Certainly it has benefited me to meet these standards. Certainly I want to go back to feeling the success I felt before I gained weight. Certainly I want to win the challenge that’s been presented to me. It’s one thing to be the smartest, but if you can be the prettiest, too, why wouldn’t you? I would never hold anyone else to these standards, but I wanted to be the very best at being pretty. I wanted to look patriarchy in the eye and say: I see your standards and I am not intimidated. I can beat them all, I can beat you. I can win this war.
I expected the new therapist to flip the switch back on. I thought she was going to remove the ugly filter, fix the wiring, nix the part of my brain that hated the way I looked. It felt urgent and obvious to me that this is what she should do. She didn’t. Instead, she pushed me to interrogate my self-worth — as in, where am I getting it and do I really want it to come from how I look? I was resistant at first, insisting that of course it’s what’s on the inside that matters. Of course I believed women should be valued for more than just their looks (“the prettiest and the smartest”). I was a confident, capable, feminist woman. I didn’t need an afterschool special about not judging a book by its cover.
After a few weeks of resistance, I started to recognize that I’d always valued my appearance and my personality about equally (“the prettiest and the smartest”). One did not matter without the other, in either direction. This had always made sense to me before. I knew that only caring about your looks was wrong, but I’d never before realized how fucked up it is to value how you look just as much as you value who you actually are.
For two years I had been asking myself — and Target, and Madewell, and ASOS, and SHEIN, and Eloquii, and Old Navy — what would make me like the way I look again? Now, I’m asking myself different kinds of questions. Like, if it’s impossible for me to meet the package deal of being the smartest and the prettiest, what am I left with? How do I define myself otherwise? What standard more accurately reflects the things I value about myself? And how can I prove to myself that these things about who I am exist regardless of what I look like? Sometimes it feels like I’m finding my answers to these questions at a glacial pace, like it’s a lesson I should’ve learned long ago. But the unexpected gift of gaining this weight is being forced to find the answers to these questions if I ever want to feel good about myself again. Because these answers, whatever the hell they are, are building a foundation for self-worth that won’t slip away every time my body changes.
It would be so much easier to have my old body back than to figure this shit out. There are many days when I wish I could snap my fingers and be a size 6 (or even my old size 10; I still miss her). It’s wildly uncomfortable to rethink your core values, to challenge what you’ve been taught by an entire (girl power) culture is the most rewarding way to live your life. It is a mental paradigm shift of life-changing proportions. I am resentful of the people and forces who started teaching me these lessons when I was a little girl, and my anger is seeping into my everyday life, showing up in ordinary, unrelated moments. It is terrifying to become what you used to consider a failure. And I know, without a doubt, that my life would be easier if I were smaller.
But I keep coming back to something my oldest sister always tells me: “Nothing worth doing in life is easy.” So yes, it would absolutely, undeniably, irrefutably be easier to be smaller, and there is so much more to be said about how we make life difficult for fat people — how fat people’s lives are often difficult not because of health issues, but because we live in a world that discriminates against fat people (read Aubrey Gordon’s great book, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, for more on that). But would being smaller make my life better?
As a result of this paradigm shift, I don’t feel like the switch is flipped back on, but it has become easier to look in the mirror (photos are still hard). It’s gradually becoming easier to accept the things I don’t like about the way that I look, and to not always be on a rampage through Target trying to fix them. It is better to not feel like perfection is required of me. It is a relief to not be trying to win a battle all the time.
I’ve always loved fashion, and shopping, and aesthetics for the sake of aesthetics, and that hasn’t changed. I have no intention of giving up my signature red lipstick any time soon (Covergirl Outlast Ultimatte in 130 Wine O’Clock for winter; Urban Decay in Unbreakable for summer, a lot of you have been asking…). But I’m trying to make aesthetic choices that bring me comfort and joy regardless of what they look like. Of course, if I think something looks terrible on me, I’m not going to be comfortable in it. I’m only human. But at the same time, there are things that I know I look “good” in — last year’s skinny jeans, for example — that I feel wildly uncomfortable in, and I am now refusing to wear. So a new challenge arises: how can I dress in a way that makes me feel confident based on what it expresses about my personality, not what it expresses about my size and shape? How can I wear things that I feel good in even if they don’t help me meet conventional standards of beauty? How can I wear things I like even if they make me look fat?
Am I fat? It depends on who you ask, really. As I write this, I imagine people’s reactions in my head. I imagine there are people who are fatter than me who would scoff at my complaints, who know their lives would be much better if they had my size 16(ish) body, who believe I have no right to speak publicly about this topic at all. I would never deny that I am more privileged than people who are fatter than me, and that there are plenty of people who have expressed similar sentiments to mine long before I came to them. I have no interest in positioning myself as some sort of white savior of fat acceptance.
I also imagine there are people who will read this and then scroll through my Instagram looking for before and after photos of me, looking for evidence to prove whatever narrative they want to believe about a body my size. I’m sure some of them will think what a shame it is that I’m fat now, what a shame it is that I couldn’t get my shit together and lose the weight.
I’m writing this anyway, aware of both of these possibilities and the infinite number in between, because I’m trying to work on not listening to other people’s opinions on my appearance. I’m trying to only care about my own opinion of my body.
“Trying” is a key word there. We don’t make choices in a vacuum, so it takes active effort to even try to have a self-image that isn’t entirely determined by our patriarchal, white supremacist, ableist, fatphobic culture. It would be so much easier for me to cut out carbs and continue upholding hegemonic ideologies. But I am trying to focus on better, not easier. And I’m starting to get glimmers of what exists on the other side of all this trying. I’m hoping that one day I can feel not just indifferent about my body, but proud of it — proud to be a woman who takes up a lot of space, who rejects patriarchy in this way, who leads by example to let other women know they can do the same. I’m hopeful that I’ll find new ways to channel my anger, more productive ways to fight for fat justice for people in more marginalized bodies than mine. And I’m holding onto hope that the confidence I gain from this work will be so much more tenable than a confidence that is so brittle, so false that it disappears entirely with a modest change in my weight.