The scale at the gym was a dark blue platform with an LED display that blinked its way to a resolution that I then recorded in my phone. Before I learned not to look so much — once a week instead of every day — the changes were unnerving. If I drank several whiskeys one night, the number would spike. During the week of my period, it would shoot down. I was fascinated but startled that a body’s shape could so easily shift.
Around the same time, I caught myself contemplating items at the grocery store with outsized interest. I inspected the labels on cans of beans I’d eaten for years. I wanted to know what the protein content was, I told myself. But everything in the canned goods aisle, and in the dairy case and bulk section and beyond, contained new interest. Each item prompted new questions, and their answers bestowed familiar products with new significance.
This attentiveness to what I put in my body — and to my body in general — was unprecedented. But I kept it to myself, for the same reason I always looked both ways before I hopped on the scale at the gym. I didn’t mind if anyone in the locker room saw me naked. What I did not want was for them to catch me caring about what I weighed.
For a long time, I really had not cared what I weighed. As a living woman, I am aware this makes me unusual. But I had the luck of being raised by a radical feminist mother in a home with neither full-length mirrors nor bodily compliments. And more importantly, over a decade ago, I made an existential bargain with my body image that I had no reason to revisit until this year.
Taking antidepressants that list weight gain as a possible side effect has been as natural and essential a part of my daily self-maintenance as brushing my teeth since I was 12. The exact reason for the side effect is not known, but SSRIs are believed to interfere with the neurotransmitters that tell you when you’re full, as well as affect your metabolism. Some people don’t experience this side effect at all, or only negligibly. But if weight gain is listed on the bottle, I am almost sure to experience it. I took it for granted that my weight was to some extent beyond my control. This was a small price to pay for being alive.
Just over a year ago, I decided to go off the SSRI that helped keep me alive and also made none of my clothes fit. As I emerged from the process of tapering off and finding a workable replacement — functional again, and also significantly thinner — I suddenly found myself confronting a series of conventional body hangups that I’d long considered myself intellectually immune to.
Prior to this year, I hadn’t known what I weighed since I was 15. The last time I’d been informed of the number was in a nutritionist’s pink-carpeted office, having lost a great deal of weight, also as a result of a prescription change. The change happened quickly, followed by a rush of compliments. “You look great!” a family friend cried out, seeing me across a store. I seethed, wanting to yell back that I could have cancer, or anorexia. It was wrong for him to assume I’d wanted this change. But what comments like his told me was that the desire to lose weight was one the world would loudly endorse.
His endorsement angered me, but once I had it, the desire to be smaller materialized. My weight loss had nothing to do with diet, but still I winnowed my appetite down until I was living off mostly berries. I lay on the kitchen floor reading my mom’s '70s-era macrobiotic cookbooks while my family ate meals steps away. Partly it was being dispatched to the nutritionist that snapped me out of it, and partly it was my defiance. Food hangups were time-consuming and, as a teenage girl, too boring a way of being weird.
I couldn’t remember my parents ever commenting on my body, or anyone else’s, in a qualitative way — positive or negative. They are opposed to objectification but what they seemed most opposed to is uninteresting conversation. That, in our family, was something worth disparaging.
And to a large extent, I still agree with them. Is there anything more tiresome than the public bemoaning of pounds gained or the celebration of those lost? When a friend declared, “I’ve gone down two sizes!” I managed a smile and “Congrats.” But something about the exchange rankled me, beyond that I found it boring. When women opened their own bodies to discussion and evaluation, I thought, they opened mine to it too.
I wasn’t better than the girls who tracked and announced the pounds they lost or gained. I’d simply learned very early that, for me, those pounds weren’t worth worrying about. For my many other problems — I could be messy, cold to people I loved, and prone to writing outraged complaint letters over insignificant things — I would never channel my self-hatred toward (or seek validation from) my physical form.
For me, counting calories and cutting out entire food groups (which I didn’t do), or eating a healthy vegetarian diet and walking everywhere (which I did), made no difference. Learning as a teenager that deprivation could not compete with my antidepressants was, in retrospect, a gift. I was spared college years assembling diet-friendly meals from the cafeteria’s meager offerings. I did not have any “goal” size determined by how easily I could zip a particular dress. That number was not something I could claim as either achievement or failure. It was out of my hands completely.
Six months after the summer of the berries, I became seriously depressed and went back on my previous antidepressant. I gained back every pound I lost and took that pill every night for the next 12 years.
Throughout college and my twenties, I gained and lost small amounts of weight whenever the ups and downs of brain chemistry necessitated a dosage change. I noted changes only vaguely, without confirmation, mostly by variation in jean size. I could shop at mainstream stores and I felt no more self-conscious than my friends. I eschewed bodily validation from romantic partners. Pat compliments and sitcom questions like “Do I look fat?” struck me as undignified and tedious, and I didn’t question their attraction to me. I went dancing and slept with new people and wore the same bad rompers as anyone else.
My body, so far as I could see, posed no limitations, whereas to be depressed — this I never forgot — did. And it was a decade before I became seriously depressed again. It did not help that I’d just moved to Iowa for graduate school, where I lived, for the first time, alone.
That first winter was not worse than the subsequent two I spent in the same city, but it remains in my mind the coldest and grayest. I hadn’t yet decorated my beige-walled apartment, where I lay in bed, dependent on a friend who lived next door to come beckon me for a run each morning. I didn’t want to try a new drug — depression often hampers any optimism that it might end — but nothing else I did, none of my good habits or best intentions, helped. I did jumping jacks to summon endorphins in dark hours, was determined to start each day with an earnest if quickly dashed belief that it might be better, and took a trip to California in the worst part of winter to sit in the sun with old friends. None of this made a difference.
The SSRI my doctor suggested was supposed to have one of the smallest chances of weight gain and work fast, unlike many, which can take weeks to become effective. The change to my mood was quick and striking. People remarked on it, my exuberant laughter, how present I seemed, my energy and activity in the months that followed. I spent the summer abroad and came back and hung pictures in my beige-walled apartment. And as I began to participate in the world again in a real way, my body became much bigger — bigger than any other medication had made it.
Because I never weighed myself, it took more than a year — a happy year — for me to acknowledge and then resent its single but visible side effect. There was a brief breakdown in a Goodwill dressing room during a confrontation with a velvet dress, but that alone didn’t convince me to change medications. Then a friend who was researching the fat acceptance movement asked me for my take on it, and I wondered, as I never would have in the past, if he thought my appearance meant I had some special perspective on it. Some kind of reverse body dysphoria, born more of disinterest than denial, made me imagine myself thinner than I was. I was surprised in pictures or that dressing room to learn I wasn’t.
It wasn’t until I went off hormonal birth control at the same time as several friends — spawning a new, shared enthusiasm for “listening to our bodies” — that I finally decided to change antidepressants. We’d begun analyzing food cravings with great seriousness and used apps to track our sleep. Skipping a party due to tiredness became a strident display of self-knowledge.
It was in pursuit of that greater, if abstract, closeness with my body — not some “goal weight” — that I went off the antidepressant that had made me happy and overweight. I still assumed that returning to my pre-SSRI weight, whatever that was, would require an untenable exchange, the forfeiture of a bearable existence for a different body. My apartment was decorated by then, but the walls remained beige, my running partner had moved away, and I did not want to lie sad in that bed again. Even as I cut my pills in half, then quarters, the bargain ultimately stood: It was most imperative that I be happy, even at the cost of my weight.
Treating depression is surprisingly improvisational, and mine is for some reason particularly hard to treat. It took months to taper off the culprit and find a workable replacement. During that time I vibrated with a kind of rage I’d later see was a variation on despair. I couldn’t sleep or focus, my vision at one point blurred, and everyone seemed much less likable, especially me.
But most people who’ve experienced it know that when depression begins to abate, the world literally looks different. One evening, four months after I stopped taking the drug that had made me gain weight and started on a provisional replacement, I noticed that the illuminated snowflakes hanging from the streetlights looked crisper, the people out walking their dogs after work especially content. I’d already lost a fairly significant amount of weight, but I had no sense of this. The effort required to maintain a normal life — going to work, packing lunches, posing as best I could as the friend I wanted to be — precluded any interest in the very thing that ostensibly I had undergone all this to achieve.
The change to my body became real the first time someone commented on it. I was wearing a black dress that admittedly felt different when I pulled it on. I went to a party that was identical to every party I’d been to in the last six months, except now the food tasted better and the wine flush felt good and everything suddenly seemed interesting, rather than infuriating. “Hey,” an acquaintance said to me, and I was excited to talk with her, to catch up on everything I’d missed.
“Have you lost a lot of weight?” she asked brightly.
Later I would feel questions were worse than compliments, because they required answers. I turned red and stumbled to formulate a response.
A friend with social graces intervened: “Well, you’re working out a lot?” she prompted me.
“I always have,” I snapped back.
“What are you doing?” people started asking. It was a confiding question, or a hopeful one. I did not have the answer they were looking for. Nobody cared what I was “doing” as a matter of health or they might have inquired when I was any size. Fitness isn’t limited to a particular weight range, and I’d always eaten a balanced diet, been active, and worked out most days. What I wanted these people to know, but resented having to tell them, was that in the matter of pounds, these habits made no difference for me.
I wanted to make my peers and the acquaintances I saw at parties feel ashamed for asking, and I often did. But causing them discomfort never eased mine. My jaw clenched, and when I blushed it was not from shy pride. I was angry that my desire for my body to be within my control had suddenly made it open to commentary. And the commentary was about how I looked in a dress, not that I could move through my life again as though I had any stake in it.
What was I doing? “I went off an antidepressant that was keeping me alive,” I wanted to say, but never did.
I was familiar with the concepts of body positivity, which my feminist friends embraced, and body negativity, which the rest of the world enforced. But it took losing a lot of weight very quickly to understand why body positivity had never resonated with me. Body positivity doesn’t reject our preoccupation with the body, it just broadens the range of acceptable bodies. What I really want is body neutrality: for none of it to matter. For our bodies to move through the world unremarked upon. Because if a body can be the object of support or approval or acceptance, even from within, it then can necessarily be the object of the opposite: distaste, disapproval, rejection.
But I found I didn’t know how to treat my own transforming body outside that framework of qualitative judgment. I didn’t know how to confront it in the mirror, narrower here, sharper there, without either that acceptance or rejection. The changes came rapidly and dramatically, until the neutrality I wanted to insist on seemed impossible.
One day, I woke up to different hipbones. I lay there, prodding them, startled at this new topography. I’d been recording my weight for maybe a month already, and the thrill of weight loss had not yet turned into neuroses. The changes were jarring but undeniably interesting. I marveled that my neck felt longer, but I wasn’t yet engrossed in nutritional information, or keeping mental tallies of my workouts.
As I turned on my side, to explore how my bones felt from this angle, I thought of my boyfriend. I was sleeping with a different body, and it now occurred to me that he was too.
“It is different,” he said, when I finally asked if he’d noticed the changes, “but I’m not sure I could say how.” I hadn’t been sure what answer I wanted, but his response was exactly the right one. It acknowledged a physical change that was just starting to preoccupy me. But the acknowledgment was neutral and, most importantly, solicited.
Elsewhere, from people who did not see me unclothed, I was not granted the same impartiality. One day, a guy I enjoyed bantering with pulled me aside. I was drinking a beer, vaguely wondering what the effect would be when I next weighed myself, if it would be comparable to the whiskey spike. It was strange to feel both lighter as I moved through my days and slightly slowed by the new awareness of that lightness, always conscious of what might affect it. An unusual expression of sincerity now appeared on the guy’s face.
“I’ve just been wanting to say that you’re looking very fit,” he said, peering at me. “I see you at the gym all the time, and I don’t say anything — you know, that’d be weird — but I know you’re doing a lot of work and that’s really hard. I just want to say it’s really impressive.”
He meant it kindly, but his earnestness suddenly struck me as worse than flirtation. Like the family friend at the grocery store years earlier, it presumed knowledge of my desires and motives.
“I hope you don’t mind me saying that,” he continued, clearly expecting that I wouldn’t.
“Actually,” I replied, somehow emboldened, “I think people should never comment on each other’s bodies.” Now it was him who blushed, defensive.
“I just felt that after two years I was entitled to say something.”
There’d been a time when I might be told I “looked great” if I dressed up or wore my hair differently. Now when people tell me I “look great,” I know it is not a general compliment but a euphemism. I know that nothing is different except this one thing. I know that by great, they mean I am less.
I’d long found it irritating when women said, “I don’t feel right in my body” as an excuse for wanting to lose weight. I interpreted it as a code for what really was driving them to Weight Watchers: They wanted to look different, conform to the standards of the world. I know that by the standards of the world — which have inevitably become my own — I look better now than I did before, but I wouldn’t say I feel more “right” in my body. It still feels tentative and foreign. But I do know that I feel slightly more right in the world.
What angered me most about the newfound attention was how little it really had to do with me. I’d rejected bodily weirdness as a teenager, but I realized few other people had. They looked at me and saw their own diets, regimens, or goal weights. Absorbed in this projection, they didn’t notice the change in my mood or how quick I was to laugh again, that I was really, finally alive.
Though I resent knowing that my body is seen, I am unavoidably relieved to know that it is seen with approval. And it is hard to ignore that what I must have been experiencing during the years when I was more blissfully unaware of observation was not a polite berth with which all people regarded bodies. What I mistook for body neutrality, it seems, was something unvoiced, a silent judgment, or invisibility at best.
I reacted with fury to anyone who complimented me, but I internalized their validation. Just as it had when I was 15, my rage mixed with the intoxicating confirmation that I was doing something “right.” Who can remain immune to that, even if they know it’s wrong? It took very few comments to reawaken the long dormant teenage critic who’d once vowed to never be weird. To be given approval means — despite all resistance, an upbringing that taught you otherwise, disavowal of physical compliments, and a pharmaceutical bargain — that you may start to think you need it.
I wish for my old protective illusion to become real: for my body to be no one’s business, just the engine of personal utility and pleasure I’d assumed. I realized belatedly that my body is not just what takes me on walks in new cities, inhabits a favorite shirt, delivers first kisses, sleeps too little or too much. In being made aware that I am an object of other people’s sight, I have now lost some part of my claim to myself. The “my” in “my body” is not as proprietary as I’d thought. The man who’d felt “entitled” to compliment me was not an exception, it turned out, but the norm.
I started weighing myself last January, shortly after I learned at a routine physical that I’d lost a bunch of weight. I stopped weighing myself at the end of July, when I moved away from the blue platform scale. Before I left, I had a final appointment with the same doctor, who weighed me again and said that she knew the medication situation, but was still obligated to ask me if I was starving myself. “Are you sure?” she asked, when I said, as I had to everybody else, that no, my habits were the same.
But she was right to pry, because something of course was different. In the months since I’d last seen her, a series of things changed besides my weight. Lazily discussing daily minutiae with my closest friend — what we’d been buying, cooking, thinking — I raved about my new breakfast, which was one half-cup of whole chocolate milk. “It has half of your daily calcium!” I announced. She notably did not express interest in more detail. Still, I volunteered, “One serving size really is filling. It gets me through a lot of the day.”
I somehow came to know the calorie counts for strange things, like one cup of cauliflower or a single artichoke. When my gym was closed for a week I wrote one of my irate letters of complaint that, I realized when I reread it later, was out of proportion even for me. It suggested something beyond mere inconvenience, something like actual alarm at a disruption to my regimen.
I still ate those artichokes with just as much butter, I still worked out for the endorphins I need more than most people, but in losing weight I’d clearly acquired a new set of neuroses. To the extent that I was conscious of this change, I tried to keep it quiet, out of both defiance and embarrassment, but at some point I began to fail.
The friend to whom I’d raved about chocolate milk raised the issue of my weirdness carefully but frankly, in an email. She’d not observed these preoccupations in any of the prior years she’d known me, she wrote, never heard me mention serving sizes at all or seem anxious about skipping a day of exercise. Her concern was not my habits so much as the mental space she could tell they were taking up. She knew it was fraught to mention this at all, that it might come perilously close to the commentary from others that infuriated me, that burden of input from the outside. But she was wrong to worry because her input was not on my body at all, but the part that had always mattered more to me — my mind.
I read her note sitting in the chair where I ate all my meals and I began to cry. My friend was not even in the same room, wasn’t even looking at me. But for the first time this year, I had the sense at last of actually being seen.
If you are dealing with thoughts of suicide, you can speak to someone immediately here or by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
For more information on eating disorders and resources that can help, visit the National Eating Disorders Association or the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.