When I was at my heaviest, Kate Winslet was my avatar. I’m not talking the Kate Winslet of today, that trim, taut, fortysomething actress who lends authority to teen blockbuster films. I’m talking the ’90s Kate Winslet, who wasn’t fat, but who wasn’t thin in the chic way we want our movie stars to be; the Kate Winslet who spoke candidly of once having been fat; the Kate Winslet whose refusal to be starved down to pointy clavicles made her a hero to women like me.
Of course, Kate Winslet was beautiful, and conventionally so. But because magazines always juxtaposed her beauty with the “ta-da!” of her not-thinness (James Cameron called her “Kate Weighs-a-Lot”! She used to weigh 185 pounds!), I came to believe that there was something special about me for having chosen her, above all the other actresses in the world, as being symbolic of the kind of lush, womanly look I thought might be within my reach as a round-faced twentysomething.
My boyfriend at the time also thought she was beautiful. Again, this wasn’t a struggle on his part; this is Kate Winslet we’re talking about. But he thought she was really, really beautiful — his dream girl, although I wouldn’t have said those words out loud, knowing that he’d catch the vulnerable tone of my voice, roll his eyes, and accuse me of picking a fight.
My logic went: He thought Kate Winslet was the best that was possible, and Kate Winslet wasn’t thin, so my best needn’t be thin. For this I was supposed to be grateful to him, and I was. For this, I believed he was special.
Why does she stay? When you’re in an abusive relationship, that question feels like the pulse beneath any thread of conversation about domestic violence. There are plenty of sympathetic reasons: children, finances, the knowledge that their chances of being killed increase 75% once they leave.
I didn’t have those reasons. We had no children, I was more financially secure than he was, and while arguably I should have been afraid of him killing me, I wasn’t. My reasons were what you might call “soft” reasons, which makes them less sympathetic — the intimacy of trauma, shaky self-esteem. Love, or what I thought was love.
The real bond, though, was that he was special. That was the word we used; the first time I tried to break up with him, his response was “But we’re special.” We were, too, in the sense that every time you think you’re falling in love it feels like finally, this is it, I’ve found the one who’s not like anyone else. On our first date we stayed up all night and held hands in his bed at 4 a.m. reciting the Lord’s Prayer, not because we were religious, but because we genuinely saw it as private performance art: infatuation as sacrament.
When you’re in an abusive relationship — rather, when you are me in an abusive relationship — specialness is a prerequisite. I was fortunate enough to not take violence as a given in my life; my father spanked me one time when I was 5 and my mother made him take parenting classes. Abuse was never my default. The route for abuse to take hold in my brain had to be different, then — an exception.
I felt special for seeing past what other people might see when they looked at him, to see the true, whole person underneath. Another woman might have left after the first time she woke up with bruises on her arm, but not me. I was special; we were special.
My unwavering belief in that was what kept our relationship alive far past its natural breaking point. Far past the first time he threatened to come over to my apartment with a baseball bat, far past the first time he threw our Valentine’s Day cake in my face, far past the first time he threw me to the ground, and far, far past the first time someone asked me if he’d ever hit me and the first thought I had was not yet.
I believed he was unusual for many reasons. One of those was his ability to find my body attractive, even though I was a larger size than what mainstream culture says is appealing. More than attractive — preferable. His approval largely came in the form of comparisons to women we had agreed were beautiful: Kate Winslet, of course, but also the waitress at our favorite restaurant, a co-worker of his, sometimes just a woman walking down the street. Your body sort of looks like hers, he’d say, and I’d peek, and see a lovely, plump woman, and I’d feel assured.
It was a shame, he reported, that “some guys” — he never specified who — would pass up a woman who looked like me in favor of someone thinner, or clearer-skinned, or with fewer split ends. I was just as pretty as the girls those “some guys” would chase, he assured me, but because of the things that kept me from being conventionally beautiful, “some guys” would never know that. He spoke of me as though I were a bargain-basement find, one that only he was persistent enough, patient enough, special enough to spot for the bargain it was.
Allow me to be clear about how my body did not play into our relationship: It wasn’t that because I was big I didn’t like myself, or thought I deserved to be mistreated. Nor did I think that I, or any other woman who has found herself in a violent relationship, was forced to “settle” because I was heavy and had to take what I could get. I’d been just as heavy before when I was involved with a kind, thoughtful man I loved, and it never crossed my mind that my weight would prevent me from attracting a man who’d treat me just as well as he did.
But the idea that weight would force a woman to settle for a lesser partner — an error in thought that you’d be forgiven for making, given how we frame thinness as the number-one prerequisite for classifying a woman as attractive — was a cousin to the truth. The truth is that I believed we were special, and my weight, in my mind, became a part of that specialness.
I knew that if we broke up, I could find someone else, if I wanted to. But would his desire for the body I had be as genuine as my current boyfriend’s? Would he appreciate the body I was told wasn’t the right kind of body for attracting men — the body that my boyfriend claimed to love, without hesitation, without caveat? Would Kate Weighs-a-Lot be his template of beauty, or would my body always be a padded version of his true ideal?
One of the red flags of domestic violence, the websites and brochures tell you, is that he criticizes your appearance. My ex never had to do that. His particular spell of abuse centered around the flip side of that idea: that he, and he alone, didn’t need to criticize my appearance. Despite his free-for-all attitude toward attacking everything else in my life — my friends, my family dynamic, the money I made, the music I listened to — he never said anything negative about my body. Not once.
He considered it and decided not to. I know this because on one of Those Nights — those post-midnight battles, dreaded but at least pulsing enough with life to be in clear focus, which is more than I can say for the rest of my world at that time — he started a new tirade that began with: “And your body—” But then he abruptly stopped, and never picked it up again. Then, his refusal to cross that line looked to me like love. Today, I see it as calculation. He knew what his trump card was.
Riding uncomfortably alongside the conventional beauty myth we’ve all read about is one of that myth’s fallouts: We have come to expect women to dislike their bodies. And that pillar of body-image feminism makes natural leverage for the particular strain of abuser who uses subtler, less direct forms of manipulation than the straight-up put-down.
My ex relied on our shared knowledge — that bodies like mine weren’t considered ideal — to remind me that I was lucky to have him. It would have been easier, lazier, to criticize my body directly, but he knew the risk of backfiring was too large; he was skilled in calibrating the precise push-pull rhythm that ensured I wouldn’t leave. Instead, he used the cultural power of women’s bodies against me. He never had to say an unkind word about my body in order to wield it as a tool against me. We, as a society, had done that particular work for him.
One day, half a year before I turned 30, I looked down at the forkful of macaroni and cheese I was holding and thought, I don’t want to eat this. The next day I started a macrobiotic diet, and began eating plums instead of ice cream on our Saturday dine-in date nights. I asked him how he liked my slimming body, and he stammered and blushed and tried to avoid answering.
Eventually he said I was beautiful at any size, but he liked that I was again wearing the cute little ironic T-shirts I’d worn at my thinnest. It was a genuine, elegant answer that attempted to honor my body and my feelings about my body, to honor the weight it had possessed without disparaging what I was attempting to do. Abusers don’t abuse all the time, you know.
I became smaller, tighter, my being concentrated into a fused core, one that was newly content with spinach and pre-grilled chicken strips for dinner, one that got up in the morning to run. I went to a wedding, without him, dashing out of work one afternoon to buy a dress because everything I owned was too big by then. Two men asked for my number that night, and it occurred to me that neither of them knew they were special for thinking I was attractive. And then it occurred to me that maybe they weren’t.
Three weeks later, I met my boyfriend outside his work, where I got out the words I needed to get out, and then I went home and waited for tears that didn’t come. Six weeks after that, I turned 30. One of my best friends gave me a birthday card that read, “The rest of your life begins now.”
It has been nearly 10 years since we’ve talked, and I don’t spend much time envisioning what it would be like to see my ex again. But when I do, our imaginary meeting goes something like this: I am walking down the street, and he sees me, and says my name. I am surprised but gracious, taking the high road, asking and answering the what-are-you-up-tos with genteel dignity.
In the Hollywood version of this scene, he would see that I am thinner, ergo prettier, ergo better, and as I walk away he would understand what he has lost due to the error of his ways. That is not my revenge fantasy, though. After all, neither of us ever believed that thinness actually makes a woman more valuable. Rather, he invoked other people’s beliefs about my body to fabricate the specialness that bonded me to him. And so my fantasy is not Hollywood-petty but merciless: As he watches me walk away, slimmer than I used to be, he thinks, I am no longer special.
In truth, I still don't know if he ever was.
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano is the author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women's Lives (Simon & Schuster, 2016).