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?)
Impenitent social media enthusiast. Relational trend spotter. Enjoys both carpe diem and the fish of the day.
I am in my late forties, 100 pounds overweight and have struggled with my weight for 20 years. Over the years, I have come to some sort of acceptance of it and do not hate myself for my weight. I lived a happy life despite wishing I could change my size. However, in the last few years I have been diagnosed with several weight related health issues. So, while I agree that tying our self esteem to our weight is harmful, I now recognize that being obese creates many health risks. I have decided that I must love myself enough to lose weight, and not ignore the truth of the dangers of being overweight.
@Kristi – Yes, totally agree with what you’ve written. I mentioned this above in my post too, which is that this is a health issue for me rather than an appearance one. I no longer think in terms of fat or thin and haven’t since I was a skinny teenager who was constantly starving and living on scant calories. Today I focus on whether I’m eating nutritiously and a largely plant-based diet and how much physical activity I am getting daily. I think if we turn these conversations around to healthy ways of living rather than what we look like, we can start to change the conversation. It is so needed in our country.
Year ago, I read that when historians read Victorian diaries, the most common self-criticism and vows to improve have to do with character issues–not being Christian enough. Today, it’s–you guessed it–reducing.
There are always bad thoughts when I look in the mirror too. I think everyone feels like that at some point.
I’m not what one would consider “fat”, never have been but I do hate my stomach area. My dislike for myself actually happens because of self esteem issues and not as much as my physical self but these words by Harper did mean something to me:
“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.”
I always try to be invisible, not to let others know I’m there and when that can’t happen, I think just like Harper wrote. So, related to weight or not, we always feel there’s something we would want to change about ourselves.
The thing that keeps bothering me about this issue is that it’s mainly women who are pushing for fat acceptance – when it comes to women’s bodies. No one, least of all overweight women, want to think of overweight (obese) men as attractive. Hypocrisy, much?
There seems to be this underlying – rather destructive idea – that men are physically strong (hence, muscles) and women are bits of fluff (hence, curves, i.e. fat, i.e. a whole host of health issues). And I think passing on this mindset to the next generation will create as many – if not more issues – than anorexia did in the previous one.
My husband is overweight and struggles continually with his body image. I find him very attractive as he is but he has trouble believing me. I have to help him stop talking himself and his body down because we have sons, and I believe they will internalize what he says – the same things women say:
“You still love me even with my fat gut?”
“These jeans make me look enormous and horrible but they’re the only pair I have clean right now.”
“I know I should stop eating because I’m fat but I’m really hungry.”
BUT. I think calling for increased support of fat men is a bit of an “all fat matters.” Yes, men are fat, and that’s hard for them. They have depression about it and side eyes on airplanes and trouble getting doctors to prescribe anything but weight loss. But it’s not the same impact as for women, nor with the same historical baggage. Fat men star in movies. Fat men are elected to public office (have you ever seen a fat female politician?). Fat men are CEOs. Fat men sit in broadcast booths. They retain a lot of privileges of maleness that mitigate the penalties of fat.
I’m a thin woman (single digit size). Even my husband would agree he has it easier than I do.
Because women are judged on appearance first – on appearance alone, in some cases. But instead of challenging that mindset – a woman can be plain but clever, interesting, a good leader, etc. and should be valued for those things – people are trying to change the standard of beauty to “Real men want curves”.
The problem is, we’ve been there. Many other cultures still think that way (e.g. gavage). And often, the men who fetishize overweight women push them to very unhealthy, destructive choices, but somehow this is being viewed through very rose-tinted glasses.
@AnonWife – I agree completely with your post. Fat is a gendered issue and as a society we do not view fat men the same way we view fat women. Overweight men are viewed as much more attractive and competent than an overweight woman would ever be viewed. Lost in the discussion too are serious conversations about healthy eating and good nutrition and physical activity, which is where I put my focus when it comes to body weight.
And I know that in romance writing there are some books that feature “curvy” heroines, but they are few and far between still, and rarely do I see covers featuring anything but thin women and muscle-bound men. I so wish the industry could change its cover art.
Me too. It does such a disservice to the prose between the pages.
It’s worth asking, and I won’t be popular for pointing this out, WHO is doing the judging? I can only speak from my own personal experiences, and in my own life and line of work (your standard big corporate environment), women have been far more critical and hurtful about other women’s bodies than men have. Or maybe it’s a matter of having more exposure to the opinions of women? Sure, I’ve met men who’ve been very critical, too, with crude, petty and insensitive things to say, but women being critical about other women have far outnumbered them. Or maybe we place too much importance on what other women say about us? I work in a large office, pretty evenly split with men and women in terms of numbers, and women are more likely to point out who has gained weight, who doesn’t look so good these days, who looks sloppy in their clothes, smells, has poor hygience (by their own subjective standards), or they take a dislike to because of something that pertains to personal appearance. I’ve also seen many of them get territorial and label other women put in a position of authority as ‘difficult’ without ever bothering to get to know the person or understand that person’s responsibilities. It’s a competitive world out there, and I think people–men and women both–often project their own insecurities on others. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.
Males now get about 15% of all the plastic surgery done in the US and liposuction is the third most common procedure.
I so admire all of you who talk so honestly about one of the most difficult topics for modern women. As a “woman of size,” it amazed me, when I discovered it, that thinness can be just as difficult for women as being overweight. When I watch movies from the 40’s, women were not uniformly as thin as they are today, an impossible standard. In fact, if Marilyn Monroe or Sophia Loren were on the screen today, each would have to lose at least 40 pounds. Prejudice against people–especially women–who are overweight is about the only acceptable prejudice, often masquerading as “concern” for the person, but the dislike, contempt, dismissal and even often hatred show through.
I hope that you will do a column on great books about women who are too thin, too heavy, and not good looking enough. If you are overweight and you haven’t read Jennifer Crusie’s “Bet Me,” boy, are you in for a treat! Perfect and totally entertaining novel (and a great romance!).
Prejudice against people–especially women–who are overweight is about the only acceptable prejudice,
You know, I’d never thought of that before, but you’re right. We can’t be sexist, ageist, racist or able-ist, but … fattist? Weight-ist? Yes, that’s something there are no taboos about, it seems.
You’re so right about Monroe and Loren – and as I said at one point through our team discussion, I bet even Scarlett Johansson looks in the mirror and sees something she doesn’t like! Even those women we all think of as being pretty close to perfection will have something about themselves they dislike – it seems to be in all of our make-up!
This was so interesting to read and I applaud all of you for sharing your stories. I have struggled with self-esteem issues and self-image issues (mostly teens through early 20s, including a brief and relatively mild eating disorder). However, I know the way I was raised helped me get back on track once I started taking care of other aspects of my mental and emotional health. My parents never criticized or said anything about my weight– good or bad, and sometimes the “good” comments can be bad too, so I’m grateful for their absence. I was a dancer, but my studio was one that didn’t put pressure on girls to diet or lose weight. So I was a little bigger than a lot of the girls I danced with, and I wasn’t ever the one getting lifted up in routines, but no one ever made me feel bad. Now, I think I’m pretty well-adjusted. Do I want to tone up a few areas before my wedding in a few months, and are there a few pockets of my body that bother me? Sure, but I don’t feel the need to go on any drastic diets or exercise plans.
My fiance, meanwhile, struggles a lot with body image issues. His mother would simultaneously criticize her children for being fat, while also criticizing them for not eating all the food she put in front of them. Even as an adult, sometimes she will comment on his weight, and when she does, it’s really hard for him. And his grandmother jokingly calls me “skinny” and inevitably, the first thing she’ll say to me is, “You’ve lost weight!” I never know what to say. It makes me uncomfortable the way his family openly talks about diets and wanting to lose weight. when his sister was pregnant, she was so worried about being 170 pounds when she had the baby, and about how she’d lose that much weight. Meanwhile, at the time, I was 170 pounds in my normal, non-pregnant self. I know they had no intention of hurting me with that comment, but it did hurt.
Anyway, check out this poem: https://www.argotmagazine.com/poetry-and-fiction/36-pounds
Thanks for sharing that poem. And happy wedding!
Menopause, menopause, menopause. What else can I say about my vanished waist and 2 dress sizes up? But, I am happy, healthy, celebrating 39 years of marriage this year and deliriously happy to be retired with, at long, long last, the time to do what I want. I am a baby-boomer whose mom had lived through war-time rationing and poverty so I had to eat for all of those starving German and then Korean orphans. Waste not-want not was her constant reminder, think how lucky you are, clean up your plate, you won’t leave the table until you do. I enjoy my food, cooking, eating out and if it meant 3 more years of life by existing on lettuce leaves, no thanks. There are no banquets in Heaven.
Amen, sister, amen.
Thank you for your beautiful stories. I feel completely normal now, because we all have body and weight issues.
We do, don’t we. I wonder if there’s a woman I know who doesn’t think about her weight at least once a day, every day. And no matter how much we’re told we’re lovely and fine, we have a hard time believing it. That’s “normal” for most women I know.
Isabella’s story- I could have written this. This is my story except for the Canadian parts. Skinny shaming is a thing I’ve struggled with my entire forty years on this earth. The sad part is that it started with my family, the people who are supposed to love me unconditionally. This gave such a distorted and unhealthy view of my body. I remembsr eating tons of junk food in hopes I could gain weight. My friends telling me how lucky I was to wat whatever I wanted and not gain a a pound didn’t help. To this day I get comments about my skinny legs/arms and if I had a dollar for every time someone said something about my bony butt (this sometimes from perfect strangers) or worse telling me to eat a hamburger, I could buy a thousand more books. Fortunately, the older I get the more accepting of my body I’ve become mostly because I want to set a good example for my daughters, but also because IDGAF anymore what anyone else thinks.
You go. Really. Your daughters are lucky you’re so aware of what not to do.