Years ago, when The Morphine Man* was breaking up with me for the final time (such an unpretty story), he cycled back around to his most significant issue with me, one he’d hauled out in each of our crash-and-burn moments when he wanted to end a conversation and send me packing in one fell swoop: my body. In his last goodbye letter, he told me about a woman he’d met who had confronted him about his smoking, asking him: “But don’t you want to live?” He said he’d never thought of smoking in such stark terms, and her question drove him to quit because yes, he definitely wanted to live.
And so, his question to me as he signed himself out of my life was the same: didn’t I want to live? Seeing me after so many years had broken his heart, apparently, because not only was I still fat, I was fatter. He’d once told me that he couldn’t be attracted to a fat woman—despite the evidence to the contrary in the form of his unflaggingly ardent pursuit of me. But more than how much he couldn’t possibly be attracted to me because of my body, reconnecting with me had made him understand the true, shattering problem: that I have a death wish.
A death wish. Really.
When he wrote that letter, I had pissed him off well and truly, and he needed me to go away. And the version of me that he’d dated in our first go-rounds would have collapsed in shame and pain at the merest mention of her body, would have slunk away to weep and moan in private, would have stopped speaking. That’s what he wanted and had come to expect from me, so the turn to blaming my fat wasn’t a surprise. If we were going down in flames, there was no question but that my oversized self would be heaved up on the pyre.
Sometimes, I live to disappoint. And in this case, I surprised him by not crumbling and slinking away. In the years between our first failed relationship and final, equally-doomed one, I had changed. I had changed enough that – when I chose to – I was able to talk openly and reasonably-comfortably about my body, about being fat. I had changed so much that I no longer accepted as an “of course” the idea that my body was to blame for any and every ill that befell me.
I clearly hadn’t changed enough to know better than to get involved with that man again, but I knew enough to know that I—and by “I” I mean all of me, all of my body, every bit of my big, fat self—was perfectly fine, entirely loveable, entirely life-embracing. A death wish? Not this girl.
The Morphine Man isn’t alone in thinking fat people are eating themselves to death. Of course not. That’s basically the popular conception of fatness. Fat equals death. Punto.
Except … not.
Here’s a thing we should establish up front: food isn’t the same as cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol. Not in any way the same. The woman who turned The Morphine Man’s head was puzzled by his insistence on inhaling poison. On purpose. Over and over again. The choice to smoke is that, a choice. While there is choice involved in eating, eating itself isn’t a choice. I have to eat. I have no choice but to eat if I want to keep living. I get to choose what I eat, of course. And, if my idea of dinner is a vat of Cool Whip, three pints of ice cream and a shopping cart’s-worth of pork rinds, then maybe I need to consider adding some fruits and vegetables to my grocery list, some legumes, a handful of cashews.
Another ex, the one I call “Z,” wondered how I could be fat when I ate the way I did. “I cannot understand how this comes true, how you have developed this size,” he said after we’d been together for a while (Z’s first language isn’t English, so we grant him his funky constructions). It was very simple, I explained to him. “I didn’t always eat the way I do now.”
And that was true. And isn’t it always true for everyone? What we want changes. And so the things I choose to eat change over time all the time. I used to eat meat and lots of it. Then I became a vegetarian. Now I’m an occasional carnivore who’ll probably go back to being a vegetarian. I used to enjoy crappy candy. Now I choose higher-end treats made with better ingredients and fewer chemicals. I used to eat only a narrow range of vegetables, now I eat just about any vegetable that comes my way. The only thing that hasn’t changed in my eating habits is my love and probably-excessive consumption of fruit. I like to think this is evidence of my having been a butterfly in a previous incarnation.
Unlike smoking, drinking, or taking drugs, eating is a thing humans must do … unless they actually do have a death wish. Are there fat people who harbor death wishes? I’m sure there must be. Just as there must be slender and skinny people who hold those same wishes. Where do we lay the blame in the case of a thin person, I wonder. Not on their hideously-outsized bodies, so where?
So, what The Morphine Man called “a zen-clear question”—Don’t you want to live?—works for smoking, works for meth addiction, works for alcoholism. It doesn’t at all work for eating. People who want to live, eat.
Of course, that’s not really what The Morphine Man was asking me, I know. My fat meant something was wrong with me, meant I was unhealthy. The fact that I was fatter than I’d been when he and I had last been together meant things were out of control, meant I was eating myself to death. That, too, is a pretty common perception of fat. If everything were fine with me, why on earth would I be fat? If I were the picture of health, I would—obviously—be as svelte and fit as an Olympic athlete. Like everyone else in the world. Like The Morphine Man himself, right? Except The Morphine Man, though thinner than I am, had never been “svelte” in all the time I’d known him.
If The Morphine Man hadn’t been throwing my body at me in an effort to drive me away, I would have talked to him about some of the things that are true about why I am fat and what being fat has meant and means for me. I don’t know that he could ever have processed the idea that, rather than eating myself to death, I had eaten myself to a sense of relative safety. He wouldn’t have understood that, but he might have had a better understanding of me, of the things I’ve dealt with.
As for his insistence that he couldn’t be attracted to a fat woman, that was surely true … for all that it was also quite obviously completely false. While I never had any doubt that he was physically attracted to me, I was certain I was the first fat woman he’d ever dated, maybe the first fat woman he’d ever wanted sexually. It had to be both puzzling and troubling for him to find that he could be attracted to me, could want to have sex with me. Men aren’t supposed to want to be with me. With the exception of my hourglass shape, I most emphatically don’t fit conventional beauty standards for female bodies. For him to pursue me while at the same time knowing that he could never be attracted to a fat woman must have created some painful cognitive dissonance for him.
I keep thinking of that question: Don’t I want to live? Well, yes, I absolutely want to live. But—of course there is a “but”—I want to live on my terms. I want to live in a way that will let me live fully, comfortably, and confidently. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Isn’t that what we should all want? It shouldn’t be surprising, and it also shouldn’t have to have anything to do with the size of my body or the food I eat.
Because I have for so many years had a disordered relationship with my body and with food, living fully and comfortably does have to do with my body, does have to do with what I eat. Living comfortably means I need to change that relationship, need to continue the self-love journey I started years ago. And that means I need to care deeply for this body I have—care for myself. And that’s something I know how to do and something I continue to learn and relearn how to do. This self-care is pretty basic: I need to feed myself what I’m hungry for when I’m hungry for it, keep myself hydrated and well-rested, move for strength and flexibility, take myself out into nature so I can feel sunshine and summer breezes on my skin and sand between my toes, surround myself with people who love and respect me, laugh loud and long, and take lovers who want me—not some idea they have of the person they should be with but me in all my me-ness.
It’s possible that, should I ever do all of those things all at the same time and consistently, the size and shape of my body will change. But it may not. If I ever do all of those things all at the same time and consistently, what is sure is that I will be healthier and happier, stronger and more deft in my movements. And that will be fabulous. I’m looking forward to that.
I eat, therefore I am. And I have every intention of keeping it that way.
* I don’t generally use folks’ real names, and I haven’t come up with a good fake name for him, so I use this nickname because it pleases me, and he is the person who introduced me to the amazing band, Morphine.
Part of a series about my body, originally inspired by Roxane Gay’s Hunger.
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I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to do my best to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.