On October 22, 2019, I had a sleeve gastrectomy. I went into this process knowing that this would forever change my relationship to food and my body. This is part of a series of posts covering my history with food, weight loss, and my body. All opinions expressed in these posts are my own, and reflect my own lived experience. Nothing said here should be generalized, or taken as a suggestion for others. If you’re considering weight loss surgery, your first step is to reach out to your doctor.
What You Love is Beautiful
I’m currently reading a biography of Alma Mahler, a fascinating woman born at the end of the 19th century. Alma’s distinguishing feature (aside from her tragic anti-Semitism) is her passion. Her teen years were spent listening to and composing music, and all her thoughts as recorded in her journals were wild, passionate, and outsized. In her late teens, she met Alexander Zemlinsky, a composer who mentored her in a weird, emotionally manipulative kind of relationship. Alma fell deeply in love with him, and even though she had earlier admitted his glaring physical flaws (short, “practically chinless”), eventually she talked about him as the most beautiful man in the world.
If you ask a small child what they think of the people they love, they will tell you that their loved ones are beautiful. And how many truly ugly babies have you seen whose parents can’t stop cooing about how perfect their little goblins are? Love is a filter that smooths the rough spots in the loved one’s appearance or character. It’s why people who have been in a relationship for decades can put on dangerous amounts of weight, and their partners still see them as beautiful.
This notion that the person you love is automatically beautiful to you explains couples where one person may be much more conventionally attractive than the other (sure, money can also be a factor, but let’s face it, I don’t know anyone with that kind of money, and neither do you).
There’s Someone for Everyone
The flip side of this notion that what you love is beautiful is a truth that I didn’t find out until I was in my 20s: it doesn’t matter what shape you are, what color you are, what parts of your body/mind/heart are missing/broken/different, there is someone who finds you attractive. Media has shown us for years that the physical ideal is young, white, and a shape that is natural to only a tiny fraction of the population. That image of beauty isn’t some platonic ideal that has existed throughout time. That image of beauty is a way of controlling women by making them constantly feel inadequate. But in the real world, all kinds of people are looking at all kinds of other people and liking what they see.
I’m Doing You a Favor
Boys started noticing me in first grade (although I did have a 17-year-old boyfriend when I was 3, but I later found out he was just using me to hook up with high school girls). So it didn’t seem odd to me that they would keep noticing me as I got older. But when viewed through the filter of my family’s unrelenting negative messages, I soon came to feel that I was somehow unworthy of attention. In fact, I was sexually assaulted twice before I was 16, and both times when I tried to tell my family, I was labeled as “dramatic” because the men who assaulted me used the defense “why would I want that?”
A weird thing happened when I kept receiving something good I thought I didn’t deserve – complete dissociation. The person receiving all the attention couldn’t be me, because me was unloveable. People who claimed to be attracted to me weren’t seeing me clearly. For whatever reason – the way I dressed, the way I wore my hair, the way I spoke – they were somehow blind to the fact that I was fat, because if they knew that, if they could see it, they would laugh at me and walk away.
As an adult, the men I dated fell into two categories – the ones that were genuinely interested in me, and the ones who may have been interested in me, but who felt the need to let me know they were doing me some kind of favor by going out with me. When I was in college, I was at a party at a guy’s house, and my friends and I were all laughing and talking about my (even then) hilarious romantic history. Later, when the guy and I were alone, he said “I just don’t get how all that stuff they were saying could be true when-” and he made a vague gesture taking in my body. This question didn’t stop him from wanting a relationship with me, but his presumption that dating was a new world to me and that he was somehow going to improve my life by approving of my body was so off-putting that I dumped him within weeks.
Cinderella, But With Character
Throughout all of this, I had an idea in my mind of the kind of relationship I wanted – someone whom I found physically attractive who was also smart, capable, and fun to be around. As a kid, being convinced that no one would ever love me, I devoted myself to reading, to learning, to mastering things that interested me. As an introvert, making a good life for just myself came really naturally – I didn’t feel like I would die without a partner. On the other hand, who doesn’t want to be loved? Even the most hardcore introvert needs a core person or group of people to bond with.
So, while I was doing the things that interested me, I was still waiting for that perfect person. And I wasn’t shy about kicking the imperfect ones to the curb. When I was a freshman in high school, there was a boy I went out with maybe two or three times – long enough for me to consider him my boyfriend. But then he told me he was dumping me for the girl that he then went on to date for the rest of our time in high school. That was the last time anyone has broken up with me. Since then, it’s always been me who breaks up because the other person isn’t living up to my standards. Which are, admittedly high – but why shouldn’t they be?
Oh, yeah. Because I’m fat.
Building an Adult Life
In 2000, I met my current husband. I found him very attractive the minute I met him, and as we talked, I found out he was hilarious and smart. There were some obstacles to our getting together (notably, my 3rd husband), but even after we got together, we had some real struggles. I was operating on the assumption that I was always going to be hurt, disappointed, betrayed. For years, I continued to have a dream I’d had regularly since I was a teenager: that I would be in some very public place, surrounded by people who knew me (work, school) and my significant other would approach me with another woman by his side. He would say, in a very matter-of-fact way, that I was out and she was in. When I got upset, he would act disappointed, say “I really thought you’d be more adult about this,” and encourage the onlookers to agree with him that I was the one being unreasonable.
It literally took me a decade to relax into the idea that this person that I valued so highly actually did think of me as attractive. That he loved me – not some fantasized, idealistic version of me, but ME. He’s smelled my morning breath. He’s seen my pimples, my stretch marks, every part of my own body that I find embarrassing or repulsive, and he still tells me he thinks I’m beautiful every day.
Will It End?
I’ll be honest – now that I have a relationship where my husband thinks I’m beautiful, what will happen when I’m no longer that shape? What if he’s just one of those guys who only likes bigger women? This is one of those times where I have to force myself to stop letting my fears run away with me. When my husband met me, I was about 50 pounds lighter than I was before I had surgery, and he was really into that person. The person he’s into is smart, and silly, and curious, and adventurous, and that’s not going away.
Next time, I’ll talk about figuring out who I am, what I like, and how I could make peace with my past.