“Have you lost weight?” If I had a slice of cheesecake for every time someone asked me that–well, let’s just say they wouldn’t be asking it for long, because I’d have a lot of freaking cheesecake. I think when people say that they mean it as a compliment, but that’s not how I take it. You see, the question implies that before, I needed to change. That the last time you saw me, I looked fat.
Looking at it that way, how is it appropriate to ask me that? The question may seem innocent and flattering. It’s not. It’s a back-handed compliment at best and insulting at worst. For someone like me, as for many women, it pushes so many body-issue buttons it’s like an elevator stopping at every floor of my self-esteem.
And yet, when I’m asked this question, even today, just a little, my first feeling is joy and relief. It’s a visceral response. I don’t want to feel it, I don’t like that I feel it, but I do. Immediately after that tiny burst of happiness, I feel defeated. Did I look fat before? How bad was it? Maybe it was my outfit. I am completely lost and not in the moment. If you’d just said, “Hey, good to see you,” I’d be checked in and present with you. But if you comment on my weight, I’m not.
At this point in my life, I’ve weighed more and I’ve weighed less, but who I am has nothing to do with those numbers. Never has, never will. It took me years to learn that–years of shame, self-loathing and cottage cheese for dinner. Do I want to feel good about myself? Absolutely. Is that tied to my weight? In the past, it has been. And sometimes, it still is.
With my history, that feeling never goes away, but it is fading. I grew up thinking my body was wrong. As a kid, I was “chubby” and was put on diets. By chubby, I do not mean obese, I just mean I wasn’t lanky or gazelle-like. I went to school with lacrosse players, cross-country runners, and heaven help me, multi-generation athletes. These people were lifetime gymnasts and owned horses. I was a Jewish kid of hearty Ukrainian stock; we knew kugel. In my family, food was pushed on me, and then restricted. There was “good” food and “bad” food. The mixed messages were crazy-making, and like many girls of my generation, I developed an eating disorder.
But I’ll bet you all that cheesecake that, if left to my own devices, I’d have developed a normal, healthy body image. Instead, I was body-shamed. I became a binge eater and chronic exerciser. I tried every diet known to man. I did the Scarsdale diet, Weight Watchers, Atkins, Cabbage Soup, No White Food and run-of-the-mill restricting-until-you-feel-faint. Sure, I lost weight. Then when I stopped dieting, I’d indulge.
Finally, in college, I did what my body needed all along. I listened to my hunger cues. I ate what fueled me. I enjoyed indulgences in moderation. I love healthy food, so it’s easy to eat salads, whole grains, chicken and fish. I also love steak, potatoes and pasta. So I eat them too, in reasonable portions. And I love desserts, so I also eat them. I love a slice of cheesecake. If I let myself have one slice, I won’t need several.
I’ve learned to like and appreciate my body. It has made two babies. It has played in volleyball tournaments, pulled all-nighters, traveled internationally, done triathlons, and sadly, been nearly starved. But, it has stuck by me. In 2000, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness that makes intense exercise like running, triathlons, volleyball–all former passions–impossible for now. I have had to make peace with that. I am older. In my 20s and 30s, I weighed less, as most people do. Today I’m on a medication that causes weight gain. Without it, I’d never get out of bed, I’d be that depressed. I know this because I tested it. I decided I’d rather be happy than thin. So that extra weight, while not welcome, is my life raft.
It’s all pretty ironic, or maybe it’s just life’s plan. Or is that the same thing? I am someone who has had to work to stop equating my weight with my value. As someone who, hearing the question “Have you lost weight?” still feels a flood of validation wash over her, I’m also a woman who understands that’s not who I want to be anymore.
Slowly, I’m getting there. By responding with, “It’s great to see you,” when people ask the weight question, maybe I can change the narrative. My body, by aging, by getting sick, by doing what it has needed to do to keep me alive, has taught me an important life lesson. I am not what I weigh, and here’s ten extra pounds just to prove it. Get comfortable with them, because they’re not going anywhere. And that’s OK with me.