B and I texted a lot before our first date. It was good text. Smart, funny, full of pop culture and literature references and self-effacing jokes. By the time I arrived at the divey bar and found him waiting outside in the February chill, it wasn’t that I didn’t care what he looked like — but I knew that he had a quick wit and a brain full of Harry Potter references and politics quite like my own. Handsome would have been a bonus, but it certainly wasn’t necessary.
B more than cleared the bar. From his OkCupid pictures, I had a decent sense of what he looked like, but those photos didn’t capture his lovely blue eyes, or his rugby-broad shoulders, or the way his face lit up when he told stories.
I took him home at the end of our first date and we made out on my bed for hours. He was slightly overweight, and it didn’t bother me. We had great physical chemistry and even better mental chemistry, and that first night I sent him home from my apartment with some reluctance.
I quickly stopped seeing anyone else.
I told him early in our relationship that I was recovering from an eating disorder. I had only stopped compulsively overexercising and subsisting on lettuce and baby carrots a few months before we met. Having struggled with his weight for most of his life, he sympathized. In the year before we met, he told me, he’d lost a dramatic amount of weight, and was only now starting to like the skin he was in.
As a feminist writer, I had felt like my eating disorder made me a hypocrite. For two years, while I wrote about body image and loving yourself and being healthy at every size, I had been starving myself. On one day in 2011, I moderated a panel at a body image conference — but I was starving; I hadn't eaten anything all day. I had spent those years feeling tremendously guilty, not just because I was a feminist who ought to have “known better” than to have an eating disorder, but because I felt immense pressure to set an example for others.
I felt like such a fraud. The double whammy of perfectionism — you must have a perfect body and you must be a perfect feminist — tied me up in a painful knot. The guilt, the extra layer of self-disgust, lay thick on top of the kind of self-loathing that makes a person starve herself, and only deepened the pain I felt. The knot was so tightly tangled that I spent a year and a half in therapy before I turned a corner and stopped actively hurting myself.
Then I met B, and we fell in love. And then B started putting on weight.
Loving B was the easiest thing in the world.
He was a surprising, hilarious tangle of contradictions: a Jew who loved to go to the blessing of the animals service at St. John’s Cathedral, a philosophy major who adored the Fast and Furious franchise, a guy’s guy who regularly told his best friend how much he loved him. He was intensely lovable. And he was supportive of my recovery; on the days when I wanted to retreat into my organized and (dis)ordered world of undereating and overexercising, he never failed to tell me that he thought I was strong, and beautiful, and doing the right thing by staying in the chaotic real world with him. He wanted me, and my weight didn’t matter to him. For a while, I thought I felt the same about him.
The first time I tried to talk to him about his weight gain, my courage failed me. For a few months, I had been noticing that he was putting on weight, watching as his gut grew and his slacks tightened. Before I left for a month at home in Sydney, I made sure that he had a key to the gym in my building and told him that he was free to use it whenever he liked. I was being cowardly, dropping the hint, hoping I could find a way out of saying what I truly meant but really didn’t want to say. When I came back from Sydney, though, I was disappointed to notice no change in his girth — and disappointed in myself for being disappointed.
Me, Miss All Bodies Are Beautiful and Fat Can Be Sexy. Who knew all too well the kind of havoc that bad body image could wreak on one’s heart and health. Who wanted to be loved unconditionally, would have flown into a righteous feminist rage if he had said to me the things I was about to say to him.
When I first broached the topic, he was gracious. He’d noticed the weight gain himself, but had been hesitant to talk with me about it for fear of starting me starving myself again. Now that it was out on the table, he said, he wanted to spend more time in the gym. Then, he asked me if I found him less attractive at this weight than I had before. I reassured him that I didn’t. I was lying.
The next time, I decided to be honest; I answered the obvious question with the obvious answer I’d refused to give the last time. I made him cry. Ashamed of myself, horrified at how efficiently I’d managed to hurt him, I tried to end the conversation, but he wasn’t having it. I’d started this, he said, so we might as well finish it.
So I asked him why he thought he was putting on weight. Was he was sad or depressed or feeling a loss of control? No, he said. Quite the opposite. He was happy. He was in love. He felt loved, and for the first time in a long time, he wasn’t worrying about how he looked. Because he knew that I loved him and wanted him no matter what. That was what I’d believed I could do, and what I’d told him I would do.
The next morning he woke up early and went to the gym, where he spent an hour on the elliptical machine in his socks because he didn’t have his sneakers with him. When he came home, he had a large blister on each foot.
I didn’t bring the topic up again until months later. Thanksgiving passed, and a romantic trip to Paris over Christmas and New Year's. By late January, he had grown larger still; he’d gained about 40 pounds in the year we’d been together, and was now approaching the weight he’d been before we met, as his body returned to the size it wanted to be. The body is designed for our survival, and when we stop starving it, it clings to every available ounce of fat, fearing that the famine will come again.
Part of me me envied how little he seemed to worry about it. Part of me was frustrated. Couldn’t he just be more disciplined, like me, the woman who had starved and sweated her body into compliance? I knew, of course, that what was happening was utterly predictable and natural. And I didn’t wish the darkness of excessive discipline on him. I knew what I was supposed to want for him: for him to love his body unconditionally. I knew I was supposed to love it in that way, too. But I didn’t, and I hated myself for it. In early February, I brought up the topic yet again, unable — no, unwilling — to keep my mouth shut.
This time, he wasn’t as understanding as he’d been before.
“I’m not the only one in this relationship who’s put on weight,” he spat.
It stung, but he was right. Since I’d started eating real meals and stopped using the treadmill to punish myself for consuming food, I’d gained about 10 pounds. On good days, I was proud of the flesh blanketing my once too-visible ribs. On bad days, I wanted to starve it all away again. But my recovery was over a year old now, and I had slightly more good days than bad ones. I had indeed put on weight, and I had to remind myself daily — sometimes hourly — that that was a good thing.
B loved me, wanted me, at this weight. I would have been devastated if he didn’t. Why couldn’t I do the same for him? Had I just transferred the disdain for fat, the demand for control, from my body onto someone else’s? I took a deep breath as his barb sank into me, and agreed with him; yes, I had also put on weight. I told him that I understood that I was being something of a hypocrite. I also didn’t know how to not feel what I felt.
After that conversation, he put himself on a strict diet: low fat, low carb, high protein. He started counting calories and weighing meals. He went to the gym every day, and came home tired and cranky. I suggested that perhaps this wasn’t the best course of action, that diets like that are hard to stick to, and if he wanted to lose weight and keep it off, he should consult a nutritionist, and perhaps a therapist.
He told me that he knew how to handle it, and that he would simply do what he had done last time. I pointed out, gently as I could, that if that strategy had worked, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. He assured me that he knew what he was doing.
Back on his restrictive regimen, B started losing weight. He was happy, and proud, and he wanted to tell me all about it. The thing was, I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t talk to him about how his restrictive diet was yielding results, because listening to him talk about it made me want to put myself on a restrictive diet, too. It made me want to run an extra mile, and go to the gym even when I was sick.
Despite wanting to live my feminist, healthy-at-every-size values, I had found that I didn’t want him at every size. Despite knowing how heartbroken I would have been if he’d asked the same of me, I’d all but asked him to lose weight. And now that he was, I couldn’t hold his hand, couldn’t have his back, while he did it — because my own recovery was too new, too fragile, to withstand it.
I believe the technical psychological term for a situation like this is A Total Fucking Mess.
As it became clear that the relationship couldn’t be salvaged, I started to tally up all the ways in which I had failed. I had failed to live up to my own ideals about uncoupling size from sexiness. I had failed to be honest with the man I loved, for fear of facing that hypocrisy. I had failed to recover fast enough to be with him while he lost weight. I had failed to love him the way he loved me.
There was one thing I hadn’t failed at. I had held on to my recovery. I had managed to keep being kind to my body, even when the relationship was falling apart and the loss of control made me want to sprint into the familiar but futile embrace of cruelty. It was a bittersweet victory, though; I had managed to be kind to myself, but I couldn’t do the same for him.
My friends, especially the ones who were less invested than I was in the idea that physical appearance shouldn’t determine a person’s sexiness, made excuses for me. They told me, uneasily and in hushed tones, that they’d consider breaking up with their significant others in the case of a weight gain that significant. They assured me that he bore some responsibility here too.
When you enter into a romantic and sexual relationship, one guy friend said, you make the implicit commitment to keep your weight more or less the same, assuming that’s within your control. I wasn’t so sure. Perhaps that was how most people saw it, but I had wanted to be better than that. I still did. I still do. But my friend was adamant. “You were sold a bill of goods,” he told me, bluntly.
Perhaps, I thought. But then, so was B.
It ended in tears, and with both of us unhappy with what we saw when we looked in the mirror. In the aftermath, on good days, I believed it when I told people I broke up with him for the sake of my recovery. On bad days, I hated myself for being shallow, hypocritical, and selfish. On all days, both were true.
In choosing my recovery, I did the right thing for me, and I was also revealed to be less than the person I hoped — and hope — to be. And I hurt B deeply, in a way I'd never be able to forgive if someone did it to me. A year later, I still choose my recovery every day; sometimes, I have to choose it every hour. And I kept it, but at a loss.