The discussion about Kristan Higgins’ Good Luck with That got AAR staffers talking about their own experiences with weight and body image. We, all women, range in age from our 20s to our 60s, live all over the world, and live very different lives. We’d like to share our stories with you—somehow, hearing all these voices, made all of us feel better about ourselves and we hope they’ll do the same for you. Many of preferred to write anonymously and, after thinking about it, we decided to all do so—each name here is a pseudonym.
Emma: I’m what many people consider “overweight.” Maybe even “obese.” Possibly “morbidly obese.” I’m the person you inwardly groan about when you realize my seat is next to yours on an airplane. I’m the one you roll your eyes at when you see me eating anything other than a salad. I’m the one you offer well-meaning suggestions to like, “Have you tried xyz diet, yoga, keto, pills…?” And I smile and say, “I’ll look into it,” when the truth is that I, and likely your other plus-sized friends, have tried it all.
And often when we see ourselves in media it’s as the butt of a joke. Or as inspiration porn. Or the funny sidekick who’s never the love interest because for some reason people who write for TV and movies believe fat people can only ever love and be loved by other fat people. It’s a tiresome cycle that we’ve been unable to break.
Ava: I’m obese and I’ve been “big” all my life, although never as big as I am now, which has happened in the last 15-20 years (I’m 54). I’d sort of settled into being a UK size16 in my late teens when I suddenly dropped to a size 12 – my mum naturally worried I had an eating disorder – I didn’t, I was just stressed out! For the first time in my life, I was the one my school friends envied for being slim. As is obvious I didn’t stay that way, and by the time I left University I was a 16 again, but I was okay with that. My main problem was – and still is – that I have no boobs so I always look bottom heavy, as it were.
I suppose I can say that I would fall into the category of “people who have done this to themselves”… but about ten years ago I decided to say “sod it – I have too many other stressful things going on (being a full-time teacher being one of them) to worry about my weight”. I don’t like being so overweight, and I know it’s not good for my health. But at least now, I can buy clothes that fit (back when I was younger getting anything bigger than a size 18 was practically impossible) and as I said before, I’m tired of worrying about it and being miserable, because it really can take over your life.
But one thing I’m thankful for – my girls don’t seem to have inherited the “fat gene” or whatever it is. The youngest is built like a model and the oldest is slim but curvy. And the fact I’m so grateful for that for them probably speaks volumes.
Sophia: Every woman I know frets about her weight. I’ve never had a day in my adult life, I didn’t think I was too fat. And that’s been true whether I’ve weighed 160 lbs. or 130 lbs. (my adult range). I’ve weighed in between 140 and 150 for the past 20 years and, when I’m in the top 5 pounds of that range, it really bums me out. Which is absurd. And I know it’s absurd. But I can’t seem–even at 56 and with a spouse who loves all of me at any weight–to not care.
My sister, the most athletic woman I know, is tall and weighs more than she’d like to. Recently she tried on a form fitting dress which looked fabulous on her and she refused to buy it. She said she wasn’t comfortable in it. We all have the scripts about how we should look/be/act and when we don’t live them out, we shame/blame ourselves.
That seems so pointless and sad to me.
Isabella: When I was a kid, I was underweight. Skinny. And I grew up in Sri Lanka and the Middle East, so people had no qualms about criticizing me to my face. From family members to total strangers, all I heard about my appearance was how thin I was (in a bad way), and how I should eat more, and how scrawny I looked. Thin-shaming, basically. It never stopped.
But thankfully I went to university in the States when I was 18. Suddenly I was exposed to a culture where people thought I looked good. People wished they could look like me. No one criticized my weight. It was amazing. Plus, being on my own and being encouraged to do things like speak up in class made me grow a backbone. I told my family that I would not listen to any further comments about my weight, and if anyone felt they had the right to keep harping on that issue, I would no longer write to them, email them or call them.
Sadly, being skinny turned out to bring different problems when I applied for Canadian migration. I’ve always been physically healthy, but because I weighed about 75 pounds at the time, my BMI was 12. That’s considered “incompatible with life”. To prove to the Canadian High Commission that I wasn’t dead, I had to take a number of additional health tests – for HIV, hyperthyroidism and fecal fat absorption disorder (“There’s a disease where you don’t absorb fat from your food?” my best friend said. “How can I get it?”). I also had to be evaluated by a clinical psychologist to rule out anorexia and bulimia. And I had to pay for all of these, which was the really painful part. But the Canadian High Commission were concerned I’d be a drain on the health care system, which is kind of ironic considering I now work at the Hospital for Sick Children.
But anyway. To tie this tale to romance novels in some way, I tend to avoid stories where the heroine is described as plump or big-boned or whatever, because I’m concerned that at some point, the hero is going to reassure her by saying, “Real men want curves, not skinny anorexic little girls.” I’ve had enough of that for one lifetime.
Mia: I’ve battled anorexia for the past twenty-four years, and have heard all kinds of unhelpful things about my weight or lack thereof. Some people said they wished they could be as sick as I was so they wouldn’t have to worry about gaining weight. A total stranger stopped me in the grocery store to ask if I had an eating disorder and if I was going to die. My family tells me over and over that I just need to force myself to eat. My father once offered me $500 if I could gain twenty pounds. None of it was supportive or helpful, and made me feel like a horrible failure of a person.
I’m doing better now. I actually weigh over 100 pounds for the first time in my life. It’s been a hard road, and I don’t kid myself that my anorexic days are completely behind me.
Charlotte: I often wonder if I have a place in these kinds of conversations. I’ve read some interesting stuff about “pretty privilege” and I know I have it, but if there’s a way to talk about it without sounding stuck up I haven’t figured out how. No one’s perfect and I certainly have things about my appearance I would fix. My eyes are crossed and I was continually made fun of for it throughout elementary school until people stopped being mean. I’ve had people think I was making faces at them, when I just can’t always control how my right eye goes. In my cruise pictures I kept thinking my teeth were too yellow and I need to fix that in my copious free time with all the extra money I have lying around. And, my thin face really shows off my wrinkles. That said, my body is literally the size of a mannequin, at least in stores where the mannequins are the size of an actual person. Down to the shoe size. This comes in handy in stores when the item in question isn’t on the sales floor in my size – the mannequin usually has it on. I love to exercise and never find it a chore; it is stressful to me if I CAN’T do it. I will be forty-eight next month and have never in my life had a weight problem. For years people would look at me and say “You’ve had FOUR KIDS?!?” I get dumb weight comments that annoy me (REAL women have curves, blah blah blah and people who see you eat a cinnamon roll and say, “Lucky you! You can eat whatever you want.”) I think any comment on what someone is eating is terribly rude. But by and large, nearly everything people say about my appearance is overwhelmingly complimentary.
When I was ready to start dating after my marriage was ending, I found it ridiculously easy. It took me a little while but I figured out that for most people this is not the case. I dated for two and a half months. That’s it. Now, some of this is timing, because I think you just never know when the right person will come along, but I also had abundant choices. It’s also been my experience that my appearance helps me get jobs.
Abigail: My parents were delighted that in my infanthood I was hugely fat. They felt that was healthy, but all throughout my childhood, I was called “jumbo” like the plane and laughed at. Kids didn’t want me to play with them, because I wasn’t fast enough. And that stigmatic image has stayed with me: lumbering. Even when I was the thinnest I have ever been, size 8, there were people calling me fat. Over the years, I have tried various diets and exercise plans, and my weight has yo-yoed. The stigma has meant that I was happiest when I was thinnest and most dejected when I gained weight. I hate buying clothes, because nothing ever looks right on me, at least, nothing that is within my budget. I know women bigger than me find clothes that look fabulous on them, but I always think that it’s not only the weight but also the distribution of the weight that makes everything I wear look bad on me. Currently, I am the heaviest I have been and am working out and using MyFitnessPal to once again: lose weight. Every drop in poundage brings a smile and every gain in poundage brings a frown. The doctors were insistent: For good health, I must lose weight. And so, I am trying, but it’s quite stressful.
Emily: I always feel out of step in these conversations because I don’t hate my body at all. Sure, I’d change a few things if I had a magic wand (flatter tummy, more cheekbones) but only when I stop to think about it, and that’s maybe a couple of times a day. I don’t love the way my face photographs, and my stomach worries me when I’m in a bikini at the pool. But I imagine it’s kind of like having a million dollars. When you think about the cost of college and retirement, you probably wish you had a lot more, but most of the time you don’t worry about money.
Objectively, I have a “good body” – my BMI is 18 or 19, and I wear a size 4, so I’m not pretending I have some magical ability to reject norms. I just, for the most part, am norms, mostly through good luck. It’s certainly not exercise, which I avoid like the plague, and while I eat moderately, it’s just because it’s the amount that feels good.
The only time when I feel different is that I have large boobs – I buy a 32G, which retail stores don’t even carry. “I’m thin and have big boobs so it’s hard to find a button-up shirt that fits” is not exactly a trauma-inducing problem. I know other people who had this build who had issues with teasing and bullying at school, especially from boys. I never experienced this, probably because I went to a girls school and hit puberty very late.
Sometimes, I wonder if the fact that I rarely think about my appearance is also due to the girls school, but that can’t be a magic bullet because I had multiple schoolmates with eating disorders, including a classmate who died of complications from bulimia before the age of 21.
As the mom of a daughter, I wish I did know better what got me here, because I’d like to be able to give that to her. Yes, a lot of it is being lucky to start out in a good place, so other people don’t knock me down. I have an enormously supportive husband who tells me constantly that he finds me incredibly attractive. But there are much better-looking women than me who seem to be much more constantly conscious of their looks, usually in a bad way.
Everyone but me, heavy or skinny, seems to have a story about being criticized, and they bond over that, and the things they wish they could change. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only woman who feels just fine about her appearance. Often, I feel good!
Harper: I was on a diet from 9-29. Twenty years of my life being told – constantly – that my body was my enemy. I tried every trend, every company, everything, only to never feel good enough. I never felt like I could be loved because everything around me told me that only happened to beautiful people. And beautiful, by the way, always meant thin.
I developed a wicked sense of humor and cutting sarcasm and learned quickly that if I made fun of myself first, I usually silenced the harshest stuff that came out of the mouths of others. I poured into serving other people as my life ambition – thinking that if I was deeply useful to them, they could overlook how disgusting I was.
That was my word for myself: disgusting.
Years of therapy and I chipped away at some of it. By the time I hit my mid-20s, I could recognize that I was a valuable human being, but I would tell you that was despite of how I looked and how much I weighed. I judged my entire contribution to this planet based on that number on that damn scale.
You would, I promise, not know this unless I told you. I put on a damn good front. A damn good one.
Shopping, by the way, is a particular hell. I have no other fat friends and the very first time a friend joyfully went shopping with me in a store that was “mine” and not “hers” – i.e., she couldn’t fit in them just like I can’t fit into American Eagle – I was 29.
A lot happened when I was 29. I met a man who told me every day that I was beautiful and reminded me he had no reason to lie to me. I found a community that celebrated me but didn’t need me. I moved overseas and saw culture from a different standpoint. Slowly, sloooooowwwwwly, I realized that my body was a gift. I have chronic pain for a reason entirely unrelated to my weight, but my body still was my body. I had breath and therefore I can choose to berate what I hate or celebrate what I love and I made the choice to celebrate. I started viewing things like yoga as partnering with my body instead of beating into submission. I stopped using the phrase “guilty pleasure” because I shouldn’t feel guilt over things that bring me joy.
It’s a choice every day to choose to celebrate over berate and I chose wrong a lot of days. A lot of them. But at least I know now that there’s another way.
How about you? Has your weight made you happy? Crazy? Sad? (You know you’re wonderful, right?)