I live a life of humiliation, but the most embarrassing, most shameful thing I ever did was get thin for a couple years.
You might imagine that being obese, as I am now, would be more embarrassing than having once been thin—and sure, daring to be a fat person in the world is a never-ending saga of degradation. Like earlier this year when I was at an afterhours work event and a woman in her seventies, a complete stranger, made a beeline through the crowd toward me. Her eyes narrowed on my body, twinkling with savage purpose. Prepared always for public humiliation, I half suspected what was coming even before she laid a hand on my shoulder, bowed her head toward my ear, and said, “Now, I’m gonna offend you.”
“Okay,” I said.
“There’s this program on Netflix, it’s called Walk for Life,” she said. (Not a real show, by the way—I checked.) “Now, I want you to watch this program and really watch it. Because if you don’t change, you’re gonna die.”
As far as I’m concerned, that’s a death threat.
And yet I’d rather sit beside that woman on a long-haul flight, smashing my arms down over my stomach and sides so as not to encroach on her precious space as she quizzes me about what I ate for breakfast that morning, than run into an acquaintance I haven’t seen since I gained the weight back. Sometimes I can’t avoid it, and I imagine they look at me like one of those unemployed redneck families who win the lottery and blow it all on diamond-encrusted teeth and nickel slots. They look at me and think, You stupid son of a bitch, you had it all and you threw it away. You had the world in the palm of your hand and you ate it! I think of all the friends I made when I was thin and how disgusted they must be by the “new” me. In my head, every person I’ve ever dated spends hours every day trawling through my recent Facebook photos saying, “Wow, really dodged a bullet there!”
But I’m not a bullet.
I’m more of a cannonball if anything.
The truth is, other than those couple mortifying years, I’ve been fat my entire life and believed I always would be. Then at eighteen I moved to Chicago for college, and while my classmates were all packing on the Freshman Fifteen, I was actually losing weight. Partly because I had to walk everywhere like an Eastern European peasant woman. Partly because I was eating all of my meals in a dining hall, which made it really hard to scarf down leftover lo mein standing in the harsh light of the open refrigerator at two o’clock in the morning. And partly because my college’s core curriculum required everyone to take at least two P.E. classes, which was horseshit but also, I guess, kind of worked. By the time summer came, I’d lost thirty or forty pounds. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, normal weight wasn’t actually that far out of reach. The thing that had always been my go-to shooting-star, blow-out-the-birthday-candles kind of wish felt, now, like a real possibility.
I went back to my then-home of Tucson, Arizona, determined to be normal weight. Every night that summer, I would finish my punishing gig as a camp counselor in charge of 25 six-year-old boys, then head to the gym for an hour or two of high-intensity cardio to a soundtrack of “Bad Romance” and “Womanizer.” I did this five or six, sometimes seven nights a week. And holy shit did the fat come off. The first week I lost eight pounds; the second week, nearly as much. Each successful weigh-in spurring me on to keep going, push harder, embrace the hunger. I rolled up to college that fall at my all-time lowest weight of 155 pounds and people were like, “Who the fuck is that?” I got compliments I’d never received in my life. Or maybe I had but they felt different now. “You look great!” people would say, and suddenly my first thought wasn’t, No, actually I’m an enormous fat pig.
Who knows? Maybe someone would even date me.
Of course, I was 19 and had zero confidence, so walking into a Boystown gay bar and trying to pick up some random daddy was not going to work for me. Inevitably—and by that I mean, as my first and only step—I turned to the heady pages of Gay.com. I cobbled together a profile of lies and flattering photos, and spent hours searching for my First Great Love. Of course I was too insecure to actually contact anyone on the site, even though there were plenty I liked the look of. But it didn’t matter, because within a couple of days I had received my first message.
Hi there, it read. You’re really cute. Want to grab coffee sometime?
It was the first time anyone had even acknowledged me in a more-than-platonic way. I couldn’t believe it. My first date, sure to be my first boyfriend—probably even the love of my life.
Then I looked at his profile.
The message was from a guy named Daniel, a Columbian grad student at the Business School. At 31 he was older, but I didn’t mind that so much. It was the photo that was the bigger concern. Let’s just say, there wasn’t an immediate attraction. Imagine a pug with a large, mushroom-shaped nose and bushy black eyebrows like Martin Scorsese and you may be in the vicinity.
Look, “ugly” is a strong word—a mean, hateful word, like the way some people use “fat,” and as soon as it entered my mind I felt awful. After all, if his profile was anything to go by, Daniel seemed perfectly nice. He liked pizza and traveling and going to the movies, which were all great things to like. And out of the thousand Chicago-area men on Gay.com, he chose me to send a message to—me! I imagined being on his side of the computer screen: putting myself out there to someone and not even getting a response back. Hearing, in their silence, that cruel, hateful word echoing back at me again and again and again.
Hey Daniel, I wrote. Thanks for your message. I’d love to get coffee sometime. When are you free?
We agreed to meet at the Business School food court. The place was vast, thronging, and unfamiliar to me. He wasn’t there when I arrived, so I grabbed a drink and waited at a table. Finally he appeared in the crowd, and my secret hope that it had just been a really bad picture was obliterated.
“Luke?” He held out a hand, business-like. I matched his firm grip. He wore rectangular glasses and a chunky sweater over a button-down shirt. He looked like the kind, understanding father figure in a Disney movie about children who fall into an ancient, leather-bound book and go on an adventure with a goblin who looks mean but is just misunderstood. “Sorry I’m late,” he said, in his perfect English. “Oh—you already got a drink.” So he went to grab a coffee as I held the table, kicking myself and thinking, Why am I here? He was old and kind of stuffy and I didn’t find him attractive at all. The thought of kissing him made my head instinctively rock backwards on my neck. Of course I wasn’t going to just get up and leave, but I decided before he’d even returned to the table that this would be the last time I saw him.
That night, Daniel sent me a message letting me know how much he had enjoyed our date, that there was a movie playing on the northside he wanted to take me to and a good tapas place nearby. I was aware, even then, that simply ignoring the invitation was an option—but it just didn’t feel right.
Hi Daniel, I wrote. It was really nice meeting you today. I think you’re a great guy but I’d like to just be friends. I thought the age difference wouldn’t matter to me, but unfortunately it does. I’m so sorry.
He responded almost immediately.
No problem. Let’s be friends. Are you free for dinner and a movie on Friday night?
Jesus, Daniel, I thought, can’t you take a fucking hint? And yet having told him I wanted to be friends, I couldn’t then refuse to hang out with him—could I?
I agreed to the movie—one final concession to politeness. I hoped.
It was probably about twenty degrees that night, the wind searing and powerful. So strong I could actually feel it knock me back as I stood waiting for Daniel on the platform of the 59th Street Metra station. So strong it threatened to blow me off my feet.
Wind could do that now. I couldn’t help but smile at the thought.
Daniel arrived and immediately went in for the hug. His spicy cologne hit me like a palmful of black pepper and tobacco being smashed into my face.
“You look great,” he said, looking me up and down, and that’s when I realized that I had been had. It was a second date all right, and given my track record of not being able to say no, it probably wouldn’t even be the last. I had a vision of myself trapped in an endless loop of dates and charming follow-up messages, month after month, year after year, until finally he was kneeling before me in a crowded restaurant sliding a ring on my finger and I was thinking, Fine—but just for a year or two, I mean it!
Then, as we stood waiting for the northbound train, Daniel said something that changed everything.
“So,” he said, “I was looking at your old Facebook photos.... You were really big, weren’t you?”
I shot him a look out of the corner of my eye, daring him to go on. “Mm hmmmm.”
He said, “You must have eaten a lot.”
A wild flurry of emotion surged through me, attended by a couple of pressing questions. First, how does a person who looks like the floating eyeball monster in Big Trouble in Little China have the balls to comment on my appearance, past or present? Second, who exactly—and I mean this literally—who exactly did he think he was talking to?
You must have eaten a lot. As if he didn’t realize the “you” in that scenario was the same “me” that was standing on the platform, glaring at him with bitter contempt. As if he had gone onto Facebook and happened upon a picture of some sort of alternate-dimension me, an abstract idea of what I could have been rather than the person I actually (still) was. Sure, maybe the guy was just making small talk. Maybe in some messed-up way he actually thought he was flattering me. But did he really think that because I’d lost some weight, I would be cool with his open disgust for my body and the mindless gluttony he was so quick to project onto it?
That’s what the weight-loss commercials and diet gurus don’t tell you about getting thin: your entire life up until that point becomes nothing more than a “before.” You’re reminded daily that, no matter how smart or accomplished or kind you were when you were fat, you only really started to count as a human being once you got thin.
Even now that I’m fat again, people still want to treat my body as if it were somehow apart from me—like a flu or something. A problem that, once solved, disappears forever and without a trace. They don’t understand that my fatness isn’t just the weight I carry on body; way more than that, it’s the weight I carry in my mind. They don’t get that even at my thinnest I would look in the mirror and see the same unattractive, overweight body staring back at me, every ounce of remaining flab magnified in my mind’s eye to match my enduring self-loathing. They don’t get that I don’t need some creep to tell me how worthless I was and am—there’s already one in my head, who never lets me forget.
At the end of the night we rode the number-six bus back to the southside. As we were nearing his stop Daniel said, “Want to come back to my place for a drink?”
This time I didn’t pad the rejection with a gentle lie about having to get some reading done or wake up early the next morning.
I looked over at him, cast my gaze appraisingly over his snubbed nosed and eyebrow forest, and said, “No thanks.”