This moment — a handsome man kissing my bare back, his lips and his hands moving with deft tenderness over the rolls of fat that have anguished me since I was a teenager — is the moment I’ve been dreaming of since I first started splashing and floundering in the dating pool. Finally, after years of being the girl who rarely gets a swipe right, the ghost in a low-cut black dress who will remain alone at the end of the bar unless she settles for some crude 2 a.m. assignation, I’m enjoying the kind of intimacy my thinner friends have long bragged about. I can stop sucking in my stomach and holding my breath: For once, I’ll have an answer to “what’s new and exciting?” that isn’t, “Oh, you know, work.” Finally, a partner who tells me, in honeyed word and sweet deed, that he digs my body as is — without, mercifully, using the phrase “big girls.” He’s the first hookup I’ve really liked in a long time — or, possibly, ever. He gives good email and he knows how to touch me.
Once we’ve finished, and I’m lying with my head on his chest, inhaling the gentle musk of his dried sweat, I feel bold. I ask if he’d like to go out on a proper date to a museum. Out of the gauzy dark of the bedroom and into the light of day. Suddenly, his face assumes an apologetic tension; I’ve seen this look on so many men’s faces over the years: “Cool, cool,” he says, in a tone that betrays that it is not cool, cool. Then he adds that he just wants me to know that he doesn’t hold hands. “But it’s not because of, I mean, you know.” I do know. I know exactly why he won’t hold my hand in public, why this night went from an electric hum of potential to a dull, familiar drone of humiliation.
I know that I am in my early thirties and I’m too tired to play the cool, cool girl. The girl who will still hook up with him, if only to say that she’s hooking up — because if she’s hooking up, well, then, somebody wants her, and if somebody wants her, then she’s not too weird or too ugly; she’s not alone. But I am lonely. I’m in this man’s arms and I’m lonelier than I’ve ever been. Once he’s gone — never to email or DM again, let alone take a walk outside — I decide that I’ll take a year away from dating, from thinking about sex. I delete all my apps. I stop drinking, going to bars. That year soon becomes two years. Two years slurs gently, almost imperceptibly, into five years. Five years yawns into nearly 10 years.
I become celibate the way that I always dreamt of falling in love — not intending to, at least, not at first, but soon, settling into a rhythm that felt so indelibly natural I would wonder how I’d ever lived without it. Only the “it” is not the tender ministrations of a lover. The “it” is the dignity and self-regard that our culture so rarely affords to fat women — even the parts of our culture that chatter mightily about empowering all women. I first heard the term “sex positivity” in the mid-2000s, when I was in grad school, living in a new city and trying to be as fascinating and sophisticated as Carrie Bradshaw and co. But even before I had the words, I sensed that the interesting women, whose lives were appealingly complex, were the ones having lots of sex: hot sex and lukewarm sex, kinky and inventive sex, sloppy sex and sweet sex.
“There is nothing lonelier than knowing I’m someone’s consolation prize even as they’re coming inside me.”
Sex to gab about at boozy brunches and cocktail hours well into middle age and beyond — because it’s a new era, baby, and with the right diet and dye job, we can be sexy forever. Sex that awakens the “divine feminine goddess” who conjures and channels the erotic energy that “can flow, color and heighten all areas of your life.” Sex that merited dissertations in outlets like Jezebel and Vice, as well as the old, albeit freshly explicit, chestnuts like Cosmo and Playboy. Sex that can be improved taking pole-dancing exercise classes and workshops on giving fellatio “like a porn star”; inserting jade eggs into our vaginas; or reading a plethora of “mommy porn” to help that aforementioned “inner goddess dance the merengue.” Everything felt like an echo of my first image of an empowered, dynamic woman: Madonna in her fitted suits, selling us, hard, on the promise of the sexual revolution. I wanted to believe in that promise. But even though the sex-positive woman (at least, as she’s defined by the lady content industrial complex) “knows that real bodies come with imperfections, including stretch marks, scars, spider veins, and cellulite,” the average dude still doesn’t.
A lot of my friends found the sex they were having powerfully illuminative — even if they never exactly learned to fuck like porn stars, they still mined their desires and had some lovely golden nuggets of nights to show off over brunch. But I always came to Sunday mimosas hauling chunks of tin. My sex life was a trickle of accumulated humiliations, and no amount of wit and wordsmithing an “about me” on a dating profile could change that — because lusting for a fat woman with openness and compassion is still brutally taboo. Whenever I turned on the TV, scrolled through my phone, or even overheard certain conversations, I received staggeringly contradictory messages: An empowered, sex-positive woman celebrates her own, imperfect body — but a fat body is ugly and unhealthy; a fat body doesn’t embrace the right kind of pleasure. Throughout my teens and twenties I was dieting and miserable, fearing that if I didn’t lose 50 pounds, I’d be consigned to terminal loneliness. Yet I could not starve or purge my body into desirability; I could not burn it thin with diet pills. Tachycardia offered a potent bodily metaphor — my poor little heart, banging for help like a victim in a horror movie who knows the killer is at the door.
I encountered Mr. Cool, Cool in my early thirties, when I was starting to joke that my extra 50 pounds stuck around far longer than any guy ever did. After the hiss went out of that hookup, I realized I wasn’t really joking, I was simply speaking fact: I’d have my body far longer than I’d ever have the affection of some feckless man. I thought I was trying to whittle my body down so I could let my inner goddess rise up, giving up carbs so I could get the chance to be good, giving, and game. But I was just punishing myself to appeal to men who were a distant second best to my own nimble, knowing hands as I submerged in a sudsy bathtub. What if I started learning more about what I wanted, instead of worrying about being wanted?
At first, the quiet of my lonesome nights was a stone in the center of my chest. I wondered whether I’d given up on myself, on the potential for pleasure that I was told all women were entitled to. I began the first year of my sex sabbatical in the early 2010s, long before Lizzo would arise through the foam of our pop cultural consciousness like a flute-playing Venus on a shell; before even Lena Dunham’s kaleidoscopic range of sexcapades on Girls — where her supposedly audacious and controversial physique reflected my goal weight, the body I could not achieve no matter how much I punished myself. As I lay alone with my book in bed, or sat at my laptop on a Saturday night, I realized that this aching heaviness was familiar; I’d felt it in crowded bars and bedrooms so many times before. There is nothing lonelier than knowing I’m someone’s consolation prize even as they’re coming inside me.
That newfound quiet became a cocoon, an insular chamber where I started to slowly, and deeply, consider who I could be if I didn’t have to be sexy — at least, not in the ways that Miley Cyrus or Nicki Minaj were sexy. All around me, I saw the same cover-babe bodies that tormented me in my adolescence, stretched me on the rack of disordered eating, now glossed up with the bravado of sexual empowerment. I started revisiting those lists of hobbies I’d compiled to make myself sound eclectic and cool on dating apps — a woman who wants to write books and adores classic cinema, meditates and trains dogs, speaks a little Italian and grows her own vegetables. And when my sense of vitality, of pride and purpose, was no longer wed to whether someone would swipe right on me, I began to romance myself: I went to the movies; I went to the museum. I downloaded Rosetta Stone and walked around my apartment, practicing the phrases. I met friends for dinner and coffee, and when they asked me what’s new, the question, for once, didn’t conjure View-Master slides of sexual rejection. I’d say that I was starting to write a novel. My nights alone were an incubator for the book that burned inside me, a book about an awkward, and yes, fat, young woman who finds herself in her art.
“I came to see my body as so much more than just a blunt vessel for continued denial and ache.”
Of course, I felt an initial strangeness in giving up the pursuit of sex — that animus behind eons of myths and pop songs, the force that has toppled empires and sustained life on Earth. But once I spent more time in the warm ecosphere of my celibate cocoon, I realized that the pressures to be perpetually hot and forever GGG and DTF were as vise-tight and oppressive as the social mandate of thinness. But if I wasn’t having righteous, goddess-awakening sex, sex worth bragging about, or at least sex where I wouldn’t want to fake an orgasm just to get it over with, finally, thank you, then wasn’t I better off savoring my own company? One could insinuate — like the friends who’ve asked me, with varying degrees of gentle concern and outright bewilderment, if I’m really okay (like, really) with a prolonged absence from dating and sex — that I’m just bruised and scared and hiding in a life of the mind.
But abandoning that chase and sliding into celibacy allowed me to fully inhabit — even enjoy — my body. When I shucked off the straitjacket of fuckability, I connected to other, self-contained sensualities. A dog tongue slathering my cheeks and palms with damp, ticklish kisses. The firmness of my feet spreading into four corners as I take in the first, deep, slow breath and let its warmth flood my chest. My hands strong and firm as they gently part soil made pliant with the rain and plant a fragrant seedling, basil or rosemary, an aspiring tomato plant or sprawling squash; the sultry richness of my herbs and vegetables, sautéed with salt and oil, and devoured with gusto — because I don’t have to be on display for some Mr. Cool, Cool who won’t hold my hand, who may make a show of asking me whether I came, but doesn’t do much to make it happen in the moment. The smell of roses, Venus’s most cherished flowers, planted in a barrel on my front porch; their fragrance amplified by a summer storm.
I came to see my body as so much more than just a blunt vessel for continued denial and ache. When I wasn’t so worried about whether I was desirable enough to be claimed, even for a night, whether I’d be like one of my “normal” thinner friends who had friends with benefits and stories for brunch, I began to discover the joys of my rotundity. As I walk, my hips roll forward with the force and fluidity of a cresting wave. I once rued my arms for being too blubbery for a spaghetti strap tank top; now I revel in their strength for dog-wrangling and weeding. The skin inside my thighs, though gently scarred from years of rubbing together, is still surprisingly soft. I appreciate my skin like a landscape, a dimpled and grooved terrain belonging wholly to me, a place I can explore with the tenderness and reverence I have always deserved.
There is no single, definite moment that finally cracked the heaviness in my chest and filled me with the realization that even if I was alone, I didn't have to be lonely. That realization has been a steady rain that wears the stone down, makes it more porous. My well-meaning friends are right, of course, when they tell me that I deserve all the pleasures they've enjoyed. In the minutes after Mr. Cool, Cool left my apartment, when I was stripping sheets that were damp with sweat and tears, I'd have snapped back that “deserve” has nothing to do with it. As time ebbs on, and I find myself stronger and happier, more productive and secure, I say that there are so many kinds of pleasures and so many ways to know them.
I'm heartened to see the broader culture start to interrogate size and sexuality. My early life would have been so very different if I'd seen Lizzo and Brittany Howard channel their own inner goddesses on stage. There are shows like Euphoria, which features a fat girl embracing her defiant, voracious sexuality without a hint of mockery or condescension. In Shrill, our plus-size protagonist demands that her own Mr. Cool, Cool — who makes her leave through the back door after their romps — treat her with her respect. And even after he meets those demands (in his own good-intentioned yet dim-witted way), she still decides that he is unworthy of her.
As I watched the scene where Annie (Aidy Bryant) breaks up with him, choosing the balm of productive solitude to the burn of an inadequate man, I was, ironically, wondering whether the strength and self-possession I've cultivated through nearly 10 years away from dating and sex has prepared me to slowly, with great care and caution, step out of my burrow. Not because I am lonely or desperate, precisely the opposite. A friend asked me if I thought I'd always be celibate, and the truth is, I don't know. As I near 40, and at a weight that my twentysomething self would have tried to fend off with crash diets and pills, I'm beginning to wonder what's out there — if only because I am so blessedly aware that if it’s not what I need, I can always walk away. ●
Laura Bogart is the author of Don't You Know I Love You (Dzanc Books). Her work has appeared in the Week, the Atlantic, Dame, Salon, and the A.V. Club.