My problem is one that I imagine is very, very common, but I’ll start with a little background on my specific situation.
I recently started going to therapy for some pretty serious self esteem issues that had led to me isolating myself for a long time. Up until this year I hadn’t been to a non-family social event – including just one-on-one hangs – in over five years (and even before that it was pretty rare).I’ve made a lot of progress over the last few months; I have a few good friends that I can go out with and all in all, I have learned how to get better about relentlessly judging myself during and after every social interaction.
But even after all this (successful!) work, there’s one aspect that I just can’t seem to crack, even with my wonderful therapist, which is the possibility of a romantic relationship. It has been ten years since my last relationship (I’m in my early30s) and I haven’t been on so much as a date since then. While I was in my hermit state I vacillated between “I don’t really want a partner anyway” (a big fat lie) and “You’re not worth a relationship.” Basically the idea of being involved with someone in a romantic way seemed to be something that just wasn’t in the cards for me, ever. I always pictured myself alone.
Now, though, that I’ve started being around people socially, it’s starting to seem…not so insane. Like maybe it’s not out of the realm of possibility anymore, at least not when I think about it in an abstract way. But when it comes to a practical way – joining a dating site, talking to guys at social events, whatever – I can’t seem to break that bubble of “Why even bother? Who would want to be with you?” Even just writing this part of the letter made me feel embarrassed and silly.
There’s one important thing at play here that I haven’t mentioned yet: I’m fat. [details of weight redacted by Captain Awkward, per the site policies] I just can’t stop thinking of my weight (and looks in general, to a lesser extent) as my #1 defining characteristic.
It’s pretty easy to draw a straight line directly from media portrayals to my issues in this area. A fat girl talking about sex is almost always a punch line, a character for everyone else to make “ew, gross” faces about. Despite intellectually knowing better, I’ve internalized this message. For instance, occasionally I’ll use Tinder when I’m bored or feeling optimistic about the future (but mostly bored), and one time I ran across a co-worker. What should have been a “haha isn’t this awkward” moment sent me into a complete meltdown. I was *mortified* that this co-worker might think that…I don’t know, that I thought someone would be attracted to me? It was ages (like, literally a year and a half) before I could be around this extremely nice co-worker without wanting to crawl under the table and die. I couldn’t even talk to him.
So that’s basically where I am. This feeling that, no matter how funny or kind or interesting I am inside, it doesn’t even matter because my outside is so unappealing. I get so sad thinking about how no one will ever look at me and think, “Oh, she’s pretty, I’d like to get to know her”.
How can I start to escape the “overweight=unfuckable, unfuckable=unlovable” cycle?
-Want To Make The Rockin’ World Go ‘Round (She)
Dear Rockin’ World,
It sounds like your weight gain in recent years has become a “load-bearing repository” for the massive social anxiety you’ve been dealing with. In other words, it’s become the big “unsolvable” problem that you can displace anxiety onto and blame for current unhappiness. Maybe reframing it that way can help you tackle it with your therapist? (Thank you, Letter Writer #963, that is such an excellent concept).
Our culture brutally hates fat people, and that’s not going away any time soon. So, your struggle is real. You can’t control whether a particular person will find you attractive, whether a total stranger will decide to police your food in the lunch line today, whether your doctor will decide that your [actual illness or injury] can be magically solved if you lost a few pounds, or the death-by-a-thousand cuts of weaponized fatphobia and fat hatred in the world. But that doesn’t mean that you are necessarily doomed to an unhappy or lonely life, or to feeling this way about your body forever. The struggle is real, but you don’t have to struggle alone, and it doesn’t have to feel this hard forever.
Here are some resources that help me with body acceptance. They might help you?
Shapely Prose (not active as a commenting community or being updated by the site owner, but the archive is a treasure trove of writing). Start with The Fantasy Of Being Thin, which refutes the idea that a happy life is something you can have “someday, when you’re thin enough to deserve it.” Also check out the FAQ to help refute common tropes and concern-trolling arguments that fat-shamers throw out all the time. The site’s creator, Kate Harding, also wrote a book with the awesome Marianne Kirby. This blog probably wouldn’t exist without Kate, Sweet Machine, FillyJonk, Dear Aunt Fattie, and the other babes of Shapely Prose, so, thank you.
Hanne Blank’s Big Big Love and The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide To Exercise (And Other Incendiary Acts). Overall thesis: Love and sex and exercise are there for you, should work for you (to make you feel good) and you deserve the best of all of those things and should never have to accept less.
Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight by Linda Bacon, PhD and the HAES community. Want to see some peer-reviewed scientific research about approaches to nutrition and exercise that actually improve health outcomes for people? Overall thesis: Study participants who learned to eat in a way that felt right to them and move their bodies in a way that was fun and sustainable to them without the stated goal or pressure of weight loss had better health outcomes than similar groups who exercised and restricted calories with the goal of losing weight. You can also check out The Fat Nutritionist.
Wear Your Voice, especially Dear Virgie‘s advice column and their Style Crush archives. The Establishment also has some great work here. Save Ijeoma Oluo’s piece You Don’t Have To Love Your Body for a rainy day when you’re just not feeling it. Worth noting: The connection between fat acceptance, fat activism, and unapologetic intersectional feminism is not a coincidence, y’all.
Retrain Your Eye
You’re absolutely right that media and popular culture don’t show enough images of fat women, and that when they do we’re all holding our breath waiting for either the punchline or the moment when a fat woman “doesn’t know she’s sexy” until heterosexual love magically teaches her about her own self-worth. (barf emoji) Your anger at that is a good sign that your self-preservation and bullshit-detecting skills are working.
If you can’t yet see the beauty in your own body or in other fat bodies, that’s okay, but it doesn’t have to stay that way forever. We’re surrounded by stylish, aspirational images of thin women, but we can also look at beautiful, stylish, aspirational images that celebrate lots of different kinds of bodies. Three of my personal favorite fat-shion sites right now are: Gabifresh, Lu zhiet an (I bought this dress after seeing it there and even though we have very different bodies it looks AWESOME), and Garner Style. One reason I really like Marianne Kirby (in addition to her rad glasses and shoe collection and generally excellent writing and witty human kindness) is that we’re the same height and roughly the same dress size so if something looks good on her it will probably look good on me. As you scout out plus-size fashion blogs, if you find someone with a similar body shape and style vibe looking awesome, that can be a jolt to your self-esteem…even as it shocks your wallet.
Here are some other things you can try and control:
- Practice saying only nice things about your own body. If that’s too hard at first:
- Take note of how often you find yourself saying mean things about your body. Can you interrupt the behavior?
- What cool thing can your body do? Did it carry you all over the place today? Did it get some really good sleep last night?
- Think about who is watching & listening when you say mean things about your body. Your “uncomfortable and embarrassed” weight is someone else’s aspiration.
- Practice saying only nice things about other people’s bodies. When you see strangers out in public, try a little mental exercise where you wish only good things at them and look for things to compliment instead of criticize. Stop looking at people, yourself included, as a compendium of “problem areas” to be “minimized.”
- When people around you devolve into body-hate or body-snark, stop them. You can fight against the idea that women have to talk about food as “sinful” or engage in ritual self-shaming as a bonding exercise.
- Try out self-portraiture as self-care. Normalize your own face and your own body for yourself over time. Read about this here.
- When you’ve got more confidence, pay it forward. Share articles about fat acceptance or gorgeous images of fat folks. Tell the fat people in your life that they look great. Delete or shut down body-policing comments from family or Facebook friends. Be the person who shuts down diet-talk at lunch with co-workers.
Even with all the resources I’ve read and all the work I’ve done over the years, I will never lie to you and tell you that I feel 100% glowingly happy with my own fat body all the time, every day. I will never lie to you and tell you that being fat in a culture that hates fat people doesn’t affect my self-image, my interactions with people, my physical comfort (ugh, airplane seats), my economic situation, or my health ( new doctor anxiety, anyone? “Hello, new physician, I see that I will have to remind you that I am a human being, AGAIN.“). I will never tell you that I didn’t sometimes accept shitty sex and a shitty substitute for love because I didn’t think I deserved anything better. I will never lie and say that being happily coupled-up doesn’t make this all easier for me right now than it does for someone who is unhappily single, or that I don’t have an easier time of things being white, cis-gendered, and hourglass-shaped. I’m not going to pretend this blog or this post is the most radical or progressive or forward-thinking or political manifesto that needs to happen for fat acceptance; it’s a start, only a start.
Here’s what gets me through:
- This is the only body I’ve got. I can fight with it or I can make peace with it. I choose, mostly, to make peace.
- My life is happening now, not someday. I let go of the fantasy of being thin and stopped waiting for someday.
- I found community and great people who inspired me and who taught me how to love myself better (See all the many links above, and let’s pour one out for LiveJournal’s fatshionista community). When I can, I try to pay that forward.
- I did the work of retraining my eye and doing what I could not to make the world worse for other people (by body-snarking, picking apart celebrity images, talking about diets).
- I set and enforce a lot of boundaries with people who cannot be trusted to help me feel good about my body. There are some people who are not in my life anymore, or who are “small doses” people, because of this.
- When I get down on myself, I try to imagine what I would say to a friend who was feeling this way. I hear my former (great) therapist’s voice a lot: “Could you try to be a little bit gentle with yourself around this?“
- I give it time, and many fits and starts. When I fall off the body-acceptance wagon, I have a process for getting back on. Sometimes that has to be enough.
Bonus practices, since you’re thinking about dating, specifically:
When I had my best/most happy/least sucky run of online dating after many years of trial and error, here are some things that helped me weed out the jerks and prioritize the cool people:
- I used realistic photos that showed my body size in my dating profile and unapologetically self-identified as fat. Just say no to using only “flattering” face pics and then putting yourself through the dread of being “outed” as fat on the first date!
- I only responded to people whose photos I liked. I didn’t try to talk myself into being attracted to someone if I didn’t like how they looked. Some people don’t like to fuck fat women, that’s cool! I wasn’t looking to fuck smokers or dudes with ponytails, and that is my personal subjective choice that I get to make. We’re both allowed to scroll on by, or “swipe left” as the kids these days are saying.
- Any dude who made any weird comment about my size, either fetishizing it or “You’re not that fat” or “Um, exactly how fat are you?” or “You’re fatter than women I’m usually attracted to but you’re so cool I gotta make an exception” got a “Hey, thanks but no thanks.”
- “I like fat chicks, they try harder” = BLOCKED WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE.
- Anyone who said “So you are some kind of feminist, huh?” = BLIZZOCKED.
- Ditto for guys who listed 10,000 super-cool books and bands and movies and artists they liked that were all created by and for white men. You just don’t happen to like any art by women? That’s cool, you continue to like whatever books you currently like, and I, a woman artist and writer, will continue to prioritize dudes who like some art by women.
- Anyone who wanted me to do a lot of emotional labor up front – like, we’ve been on one date, why are you constantly g-chatting me about your family issues, or sending me texts that just say “Hey…” like I’m supposed to entertain you…just…no.
- People who started their message with picking a “playful” argument or correcting me.”Your Hulk-ku was hilarious, but actually to be a real haiku it would have to be…..” Don’t know about you, but I find mansplainers completely unfuckable.
- People who were pushy about wanting sex but not good at making plans or communicating = NOPE. (Casual sex has its place and I have had my glorious share of strictly physical encounters, but a guy who couldn’t text me back about whether we’re having drinks tonight after all in a timely fashion was not sending me encouraging messages about how fun sex would be).
- Boring dudes who didn’t seem like they were interested in anything. “I’m looking for a partner-in-crime.” “I like to live life to the fullest.” “On a typical Friday night I’d be…hanging out.” “My mom says I’m funny.” My dude, even my enemies concede that I’m funny sometimes. These gentlemen were no doubt very nice and plenty interesting and someone will really like them, but we were not for each other. I needed “Big Weirdo seeks Big Weirdo for talking about Weird Stuff.“
- If the prospect of spending an hour with someone wasn’t as fun as if I’d spent the time with friends or alone, I didn’t go on a second date with that person. And if dating started to bum me out or take too much energy or feel like a chore, I took a break from it to focus on hobbies/work/school/art/friends/family/all the many vectors of love and companionship in my life.
You, a woman who is fatter than she’d like to be, can be picky. You don’t have to respond to everyone who writes to you. You can prioritize “shallow” things like attraction when making decisions about who to write back to or meet. And you are never obligated to put up with shitty treatment from some dude who thinks he’s granting you some giant favor by “overcoming” your body size to be with you. Weed That Guy out of your dating pool as soon as you possibly can.
I bet you’re pretty darn nice to look at! I bet lots of people see you and think that they’d like to get to know you. That doesn’t mean you fit the dominant beauty standard or that any person or people in particular will like the way you look or that your feelings about yourself are automatically invalid, but there are lots and lots and lots of ways to be nice looking. Lots of ways.
I bet your coworker was also embarrassed about the Tinder thing, but not because of not being attracted to you or not thinking you had a right to be there, just, it’s awkward to get mutual visual confirmation that a coworker is on Tinder. Your coworker was also taking a “Hey, I think maybe someone would be attracted to me?” risk.
I bet that if you can retrain your eye, find some solidarity, go slow, be gentle with yourself, and be picky, you’re gonna have a great life. At any size. At every size.
Sending you all the love and baby donuts, my lovely.
- What I’m hoping will happen with this discussion: People who have made some peace with their bodies will recommend resources and practices that work for them in maintaining body acceptance in a hostile world.
- Do not, under any circumstances, give the Letter Writer weight loss advice if you wish to keep commenting here.
- Do not tell us your weight, your size, your diet, your personal exercise regime, “healthy” recipes you eat. If you simply must talk about that stuff, behold, the rest of the internet lies open, ready and waiting to absorb this information.
- Clothing sizes are tricky. “The dress in this photo is size ____/that site has clothes that go up to size ___” is useful information. “I am a size ____/I used be a size ___/I want to be a size ___” is not okay.
- “Well, you may be fat, but at least you’re not disabled.” NO. NOT OKAY.
- “Some people/I personally am attracted to fat folks!” Okay? That can be good and true information, like, there is a ton of data that suggests that fat people are not doomed to die alone. Exhibit A:
But that doesn’t negate either the cultural messages or the Letter Writer’s feelings, so, make sure your encouraging comment doesn’t sound like a Note From A Boner.
Thank you in advance.
Edited To Add: I started reading fat acceptance and fatshion blogs 10 years ago, so the resources that come to my mind as ones that helped me reflect that. There are beautiful and active communities on Tumblr and Instagram and Twitter and elsewhere online still doing this work. If you are one of these wonderful people, self-promotion and self-linking in comments is a-ok. All I ask is that if your blog *does* mention specific weights other stuff that is not allowed in our site policies, please tell us so people can make an informed choice, for example: “I put my actual weight in all my posts so people can get a realistic idea of what that means, visually.”