Men don’t know how to argue with me online. I’m smart and mean and fast, and little actually hurts my feelings, so when they see something I’ve said or written that they don’t like, they usually call me fat. It’s an easy but lousy jab, perfectly workable regardless of any clear context. I write frequently about online harassment and about the perils of being a woman generally speaking, but the way my self-esteem is wrapped up in my weight isn’t something I talk about. I don’t discuss it with my friends or my family. I almost never write about it. It’s all too close to my bones, and I never wanted my most aggressive critics to know that this one cruelty is the one that actually gets to me.
I don’t have to work hard at self-confidence with almost anything else. I don’t flinch when people call me a bad writer, because I know that’s not true. I don’t react if people call me stupid or navel-gazing in my work, because I know that’s not true either. I’ve been called an asshole, a liar, self-centered, lazy, rude, and difficult (my dating profile: complete), and none of it bothered me the way being called fat has.
I get why people say it. It stings, and then you feel humiliated that something so insignificant, something that isn’t an insult by itself, can bother you. Being hurt when someone calls you fat feels anti-feminist, like you’re not just failing yourself by being uncool about it, but failing a community. It feels like I’m falling for a trap that I already knew was there, one that I still wasn’t smart enough to sidestep. In the last five years, I’ve written a best-selling book, gotten engaged, gotten promoted, and worked on a television show. I’ve also gained 20 pounds. Guess which one I think about the most.
Today I received a nagging email notification that reminded me I have just 34 days until my wedding. That number isn’t alarming — what actually makes me anxious is the realization that I’ve been planning this wedding for 490 days. A year and four months of thinking about table settings and bindi applications and how long my hair should be and, improbably, arguing with my mother over whether or not the chairs should have bows. (They should not. I can’t believe I even have to say this.)
I truly don’t care about weddings; when I was young, I never dreamed about being a wife, let alone having my “dream” wedding. Most of the planning for my nuptials is being handled by my mother, her requirements for a traditional Hindu ceremony too complex for me to even begin to tangle with. I’m grateful — I love not having to care about things. I thought I was getting away with one more dalliance with apathy. But there’s one aspect of the wedding I can’t seem to be comfortably apathetic about, no matter how hard I try. That 490 days is also a marker for how long I’ve supposedly been trying, and failing, to be a physically smaller person for my wedding.
I’ve taken every milestone in my life so far as an opportunity to resent my body, so why stop now? I promised myself I’d be thinner for my high school graduation, then for my first day in university, then for a friend’s wedding, then for my university graduation, then for my book launch, then my bachelorette party, and now, for the wedding. I’ve always failed, and always tried again, because it seemed important that I at least put in the effort. So I made a silent promise to myself that for this day, for these photos, for once, I will be the right size and fit in the right dress and look the right way.
Trying to get slim for your wedding isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it a purely female problem — my partner seems to feel a similar burn, wanting to be a bit better, a bit fitter for the “big day.” There are wedding diets, bridal boot camps, wedding weight loss apps, wedding weight loss hypnosis, one-year diet plans, six-month diet plans, six-week diet plans, day-of diet plans. And never have I been able to get my immigrant, Indian mother, a feeder to her core, to back the fuck off with that second scoop of hot, starchy white rice more easily than by saying, “Mom, I have to fit into my dress.”
But for me, all of this has become foundationally heartbreaking. I’ve had more than a year to lose the weight I decided I should. But I haven’t. And my inability to lose it, or maybe my refusal to try — because I know it’s rooted in self-loathing, because I’m fed up with having to care — makes me feel like even more of a failure.
I could lose weight if I wanted to. Once, an insignificant man left a comment on an old photo of me on Instagram, saying simply, “You used to be thin.” I was, I thought in tears. The eating disorder really worked. I know I can lose weight because I’ve done it before, in a thousand different ways. I did Weight Watchers, keto, Paleo, low carb/high fat, calorie restriction, and tried not eating at all — and it all worked. When I was 16 and 130 pounds — a number that was then frighteningly large to me — I stopped eating my lunch and never ate breakfast and finished only half my dinner and lost a remarkable amount of weight. I showed my mom how big my pants were getting with a big grin, thinking she would be proud of me, since she was forever on her own weight-loss journey. She looked at me, horrified, and started forcing me to eat dinner. I know I can lose the weight, because I lost it when I made myself throw up after all of those dinners.
I always gained the weight back, because these rituals were unhealthy and dangerous and unsustainable. I stopped, because being cruel to myself was an incredible amount of work that I didn’t want to engage with anymore. I ate happily, I fell in love, and I worked hard to build a life that didn’t include people who talked about deprivation as recreational fun.
And in that span of time, body positivity has become a new cultural chorus line, the clearest response for a lot of women who have spent generations hating how they look. Famous women are flaunting their curves, being extremely chill about stretch marks, and Beyoncé is out here talking about her FUPA in the most important issue of the most prestigious fashion magazine. But, confusingly, weight loss is still seen as a kind of success to aspire to.
My personal conversation with my body hasn’t yet progressed far enough to the point that I love what I have. It’s a process, I know, but frankly, I want to spend as little time as possible thinking about my arms and legs and the way the fat on my back folds when I’m not paying attention at the beach. I just want apathy — to feel nothing about my body at all, to be merely grateful that it functions as I require, that I put clothes on it (when forced), and food in it when necessary (surprisingly often!). Love, like hate, requires too much active effort for something I don’t even want to deal with.
And so, my efforts toward weight loss this year have been half-hearted at best. I no longer want to abuse my body in order to shrink it, but I still feel guilty for being a bride who isn’t also trying to shave parts of myself off so I can slink down the aisle, waiflike and airy. My failure, then, is not only in my size, but in my refusal or inability to change it — to do the work of being an effortless, chill bride who is completely relaxed about this expensive, singular day in my tragically long life, while also being thinner than I am.
Throughout planning our wedding, I’ve worked hard at refusing to appease a lot of people. I refused to have my wedding in my hometown, 2,000 miles away. I refused to wear the clothes my mom wanted. I refused anything less than an open bar, I refused to ban my male friends from portions of my supposedly girls-only ceremony, and I refused the pandits’ suggestion that I openly promise to bear children for my future husband. (That last one is barely a victory if you scratch the surface; he’s still making me promise it, but has acquiesced to me not saying the promise out loud, making it a silent vow that I am, vocally, refusing.) I have become very good at not giving a shit about the other people coming to this wedding. (No vegan options! I don’t care!!!!) What I haven’t yet accomplished is telling the shaming voices in my own head to go fuck themselves. It’s my wedding. You’re not even invited.
My wedding dress is in two pieces, an Indian lehenga, deep red and heavily beaded. It’s beautiful, custom-made, and it doesn’t fit me. The top doesn’t zip up all the way. Instead, it crushes my breasts, making me feel like I’m suffocating. There’s room to tailor it so it fits, but it also reminds me that I didn’t get smaller like I was supposed to.
I don’t like thinking about the dress, because it’s a double-edged sword, a dual failure. The defeat, first, in carrying all this weight to begin with. Then the secondary defeat of not being able to let it go and just live with fitting into a bigger fucking size. And I know that all of this — feeling bad about my body, then feeling bad about not trying to do anything about it, and then feeling guilty for having these feelings at all — is an endless cycle designed to keep me sick. Eventually, I need to give myself permission to either feel these feelings or let them go. I’d prefer the latter.
Every married woman I know who isn’t already naturally thin has used their wedding as an opportunity to look their absolute “best” — meaning their thinnest. I once worked with a woman who jogged twice a day — to work and then back home — for weeks in preparation for her wedding, at which she was pure granite and lace. Bridal books show women in sample sizes, lithe girls whose frames have been photoshopped to look so slender that it seems impossible they could carry so much regal fabric.
It seems widely acceptable to want to lose weight for your wedding, so much so that it’s practically demanded. A friend jokingly texted me, “Can you help me lose 20 pounds before your wedding?” to which I replied, “Can you help ME lose 20 pounds before MY wedding?” We laughed. We shouldn’t have. My aunts, meanwhile, cautioned me from losing too much weight, as one of my cousins did, making her so thin that her dress slipped clean off her hips at her wedding and needed to be pinned to her underwear in order to keep her clothed.
In my family, wedding dieting has traditionally extended well beyond the people actually getting married. When my brother got married 11 years ago, my mom started a freakish crash diet in preparation. Her breakfast was limited to two breadsticks, her lunch a small portion of steamed vegetables and chicken, her dinner a scant slice of fish. She was underfed and miserable, snapping at 16-year-old me for months because she was so clearly starved. The diet restricted her food intake so much that it required her doctor’s approval, and eventually, supplement shots to keep her from getting, I assume, scurvy.
On the first of the four days of the wedding, dazed and exhausted, she left our landline telephone in the basement inside the deep freezer and blamed me for it, screaming a litany of expletives and insults so cutting that even now, knowing she didn’t mean it, I can’t quite bring myself to remember them. In the photos from the wedding, she looks skeletal and never seems to know where to place her arms, and so she cradles them as if hoping they don’t fall clean off of her.
Now in her mid-sixties, my mom has gained a lot of that weight back (not for a lack of trying not to), returning her to a healthy size. Her medications and genes work against whatever model of thinness she admires. She is now like me: average size, and tacitly sour about it. I prefer her like this. Her bones don’t look so sharp and she doesn’t bare her teeth as much. I can get her to eat ice cream. When you hug her, her whole body is there, warm and ambrosial, rather than just her spine and collarbone. Once, while cleaning out that same deep freezer, she found a long-forgotten weed brownie left by my older brother, and ate it on a whim in one bite, not realizing it was psychoactive. She was stoned for hours, but the real punchline to me was that she ate a brownie — no problems, no calorie counting, no tangible guilt. I loved her a lot more for that.
When I visited home a few weeks ago, I went to my parents’ bathroom to weigh myself, like I do every morning, like I have been doing every morning for years, watching the number creep up despite all my efforts. The scale, which lived in the same spot for 27 years, was gone. I went to the kitchen to ask my dad where it went. “I put it in the basement. Your mother was obsessed with it.”
It’s so lazy to draw such a clean line between my mom’s relationship with her body and my relationship with my own, but what else can I do? My mom has always talked about how unfortunate it is that we, the girls in the family, have always been thick in the hips and thighs and arms, how we have to work “even harder” to be an acceptable size. “Your bones are just wide,” she used to tell me, leaving me with so much more room for so much more body. I inherited this way of talking from my mom, who got it from her mom, supplemented by the legion of other voices every woman is surrounded by, reminding them that they’re not enough. I look just like my mom. I have her round face and short fingers, and when we watch commercials where disembodied hands split apart a grilled cheese sandwich, tendrils of cheddar hanging, we both go silent, drooling and immediately starving. I like that I look like her. I just wish I grew up with her liking how she looked too.
My only clear path now is trying not to pass on the psychological trauma I’ve inherited to anyone else. A few years ago, when my father made the idiotic choice of chastising me for taking seconds of my mom’s cooking — who wouldn’t ask for more? — I dropped my fork and sulked at the table, refusing to eat any more while he and my mom argued. I was so busy trying not to cry that I barely noticed my niece, then 6 years old, watching me not eat. She put her fork down too, waiting for direction. I took more food, and she cautiously picked her fork back up.
Eating has always been fraught for me, but now my body is on a deadline. Should I eat a bag of chocolate while traveling — an activity that makes me anxious and is only soothed by the routine of repetitive hand-to-mouth actions — or do I want to look good in my wedding photos? Better yet, how can I look unrecognizable? Can I have photos that make it look like someone else’s body has been superimposed over mine, my skin smoothed out, my neck and arms slenderized, my belly button moved up and abdomen pulled taut? When people look at my photos years from now, can they see someone in their prime, rather than someone who has always languished with a pretty boring, average, typical body that I’m still not satisfied with, but works just fine? Can I look thankful while harboring quiet psychological distress?
For my wedding, my mom has decided not to go on the crash diet she undertook for my brother’s. She’s more than a decade older, and like me, exhausted by the routine. “I don’t have the energy for it anymore,” she told me, sighing. She still wishes she was smaller — Will I ever escape this if she still hasn’t? — but has settled into a truce with her body. And here’s something else I never expected: Her decision to not crash diet again, to be the person and the body I like the best, has made me want to give her whatever she wants for this stupid wedding. A different outfit for the reception? You got it. Want me to wear all your wedding gold during the ceremony? No problem. Do you want to invite six new people a month away from the wedding without telling me and then force drastic changes to the seating arrangement? Anything you say, just love yourself as much I need you to.
After she told me about her newfound apathy, I told her I was meeting a friend after work for tacos. “Tacos?” she said, gently. “Are you allowed to have that?” So, of course, I ordered a salad instead.
A few months ago, I joined another weight loss app. I hit “purchase” while chastising myself, fully aware that I probably won’t lose any weight, largely because I don’t really want to. But I’m not comfortable enough yet to let myself stop trying. It was, however, the first time I didn’t feel glee or hopefulness or, conversely, total despair, as if this program is the one that’ll make me happy or change my life or keep me from far more dangerous routes of self-flagellation. It felt like it does when you read old letters or diaries right before throwing them out: Let me do this one last time so I can get rid of it for good.
The new app is no different than the others I’ve tried — don’t forget, they all thrive on your failure! — except this one groups you with other (mostly) women who are also trying to lose weight and share their personal stories as a way to support each other. They talk about how they feel better thanks to increased exercise but haven’t lost any significant weight, how disappointed they are in themselves when they eat too much bread, how they’re going to start eating from smaller plates, and how they’ve started to feel dizzy from undereating. They post pictures of themselves and repeat back to me the same things I’ve said about myself a thousand times over.
It’s the most depressing and toxic place on my phone (including Twitter! INCLUDING TWITTER!!!), and yet, I feel like I need to be there, to say goodbye. It feels like it could be a final dalliance with something I’ve been slowly shaking off for most of my life. I feel like I’m, finally, almost done with this particular type of effort.
The 490 days I’ve spent preparing for this wedding could be seen as time spent in failure, but there is another way to look at it. It’s also time I’ve spent eating carbs after two years of avoiding them, time spent with my friends at barbecues, time spent exercising because I wanted to and not because I felt like I had to. It’s been a year and four months with my stupid fiancé and our very rotund cat and about 15 feral raccoons that live in our backyard and are now my terrible children. And the 34 remaining days don’t need to be a countdown to an unattainable goal, but rather to a big party, and a big meal, and a day with every single person I love, and an open bar that I fought very hard to have. My wedding isn’t the most important day of my life, or at least, I don’t think it should be. But it could be the first day in a string of days of being done. ●