Weight loss made me obsessed with my looks. Now what?
On manic preoccupations, beauty as self-worth, and raising children in an appearance-obsessed world.
Note: Contains discussion of disordered eating, weight loss/numbers, and instances of body shaming/harassment.
After we’d learned that beauty and male attention were ostensible commodities, sometime around seventh grade, my best friend-slash-neighbor and I would sometimes walk to “The Rock.” The Rock was a flat-topped boulder in the lawn of a market near our houses. It was just off a busy road, so if two girls sat on The Rock, everyone driving by could see them perched there like trade show models. We would put on Limited Too outfits and clumsy makeup, sit on The Rock, and count how many cars honked at us. We’d hope for more than 10.
By the time we’d commenced our trips to The Rock I was used to stares, comments, and attention; at 12, I was four or five inches taller than my friends and wore a 36-C bra. As a smaller girl I had a mane of thick black hair that reached past my waist and a mother who dressed me in frilly, showy little outfits. Older girls in school would stroke my hair and squeal. I lapped it up. When men started looking with interest at my body, it scared me until it thrilled me.
Now I’m 33. The thrill persists.
In a 2016 live storytelling show I said, “I’ve lost weight and gained vanity.” Now, I’m not sure that’s quite right. Actually I think I’ve lost weight and gained a craving for the attention to my appearance I missed out on when I was fat. It’s not that I take excessive pride in my looks; it’s that I want people to see me, to value me, after feeling invisible for years. There are so many more meaningful ways they could, so many more ways I am seen and heard and offer value, but I’ve long held fast to a repellant idea: The most surefire route to earning other people’s favor is by looking good to them.
“I was taught by others’ reactions to my weight loss that becoming smaller, and thus ‘hotter,’ is the most celebrated thing I’ll ever do.”
For a formative decade of my life—after the brief window between hitting puberty and starting eighth grade, and until my mid-twenties—I received almost nothing but negative attention about my appearance because I was a large woman. It was insinuated or outright said that I was ugly, undesirable, and unlovable because I was fat. Then I lost almost a third of my body weight. Now I’m treated as desirable, beautiful, sometimes aspirational for this loss. I am ashamed to say I lap this up, too. It feels like chugging from the spigot after years of crawling across the desert. I know the water’s tainted, but it’s water.
This craving for attention feels desperate because it’s time-bound: I’m making up for lost years, that wasteland decade, and simultaneously my window is closing—I didn’t feel accepted or desired in the prime of my youth and know that it’s only a matter of time before I celebrate my last fuckable day.
I am not a woman who’s evolved beyond caring if people think she’s beautiful. I don’t want my appearance (or anyone’s) to matter as much as it does, but few things in a woman’s life are celebrated with as much fervor as her body becoming more palatable to those around her; I was taught by others’ reactions to my weight loss that becoming smaller, and thus “hotter,” is the most celebrated thing I’ll ever do.
There are times I’ve felt like there’s nothing better that could happen to me in a day than someone telling me I’m beautiful. I’ve been excited not only about being out with friends, but also about being out to be looked at. I’ve excused myself in a bar under the guise of going to the bathroom, but really I wanted to see if anyone looked as I walked past in an outfit deliberately calibrated to showcase my body. I’ve posed at crosswalks and in line at the store. What the fuck am I doing?, I’ve thought. I’ve wanted glances on the sidewalk. I’ve wanted the gaze from passing cars. I’ve wanted more than 10 honks, all these years later.
These absurdities do not spring from my belief that I’m an astonishingly hot woman. Somewhere, a commenter is Googling my picture and cracking his knuckles in preparation to assure me that I’m not. That’s fine. I know. I’m cute, but I get it. These antics spring from a kind of anxious yearning—I’m so hoping that people will continue to react to my looks in a positive way, which they only started doing recently, that I’m urgently offering them the chance.
The circumstances of my life taught me that to be a bigger woman was to be a lonely, unloved woman. This is unequivocally not a universal truth nor should it be anyone’s destiny, but from circa 2001 to 2011—before “body positivity” or “fat acceptance” were anything close to mainstream terms—I was a young woman who weighed anywhere from 180 to 225 pounds in a culture defined by what Anne Helen Petersen calls “a vernacular of deprivation, control, and aspirational containment.” In other words, I was a size 10 to 14 at a time when Jessica Simpson was shamed into agoraphobia for being a size 4. I was smaller at the time than the average U.S. woman is now. I wasn’t that fat. But I wasn’t thin, so I wasn’t right.
Plus, I observed what happened in the windows when I wasn’t the largest girl in the room: After I gained weight in late middle school, my mom had me go on the wretched Atkins diet with her. I choked down a lot of pork rinds and sugar free Jell-O, lost 30 pounds, went to high school, and got a boyfriend who was a senior. We broke up my sophomore year and I gained the weight back and dozens more pounds. I didn’t have a romantic relationship again until after college, when I lost weight again. The association between my fatness and my unloveliness had calcified, hardened more still by the culture and my contemporaries. However flawed that association was, however it neglected the other likely reasons I wasn’t in a relationship—I built walls around my heart, I refused to participate in emotional vulnerability, I was entrenched in an eating disorder, in college I was a messy, sometimes self-loathing drunk—it took root in me.
“With all the abuses men have hurled at me for being too fat to fuck or love, I could pave a path to the moon.”
When I was heavier, the humiliations were cliché, practically cinematic. In middle school, a boy yelled in front of dozens of kids, “Kala’s fat!” and they all laughed and laughed. I was asked to dance by a boy in a dark church hall and watched as his friends nearby snickered; it was a joke, a dare. In high school, I found out that a boy I was in a play with—we had to share an on-stage kiss—was lamenting to others that he had to “kiss a fat girl.” On prom night (on prom night!) I learned that classmates had a nickname for me: “Required Ugly Fat Friend.” In college three girlfriends and I walked past a yard full of guys; one of them pointed at them and then me in succession: “Hot girl, hot girl, hot girl, fat girl,” he said, to his fellows’ delight. “At least she’s got big tits!” one hooted. A man in a bar once bellowed in my face, when I told him to back off from aggressively pursuing my friend: “Shut up! You’re fat! You’re fucking fat!”
With all the abuses men have hurled at me for being too fat to fuck or love, I could pave a path to the moon.
After I graduated from college and moved, I eventually lost around 70 pounds. Even after only the first 40, I’d go out with my roommate and couldn’t believe—truly thought it was a church-hall joke—that people would talk to me, ask me to dance, offer to buy me drinks. When I went back to my hometown, I’d run into former classmates (including the sorry bastard who had to kiss a fat girl in the play) and was inebriated by their accolades. It felt very “eat your heart out,” but also depressing, a deflating realization of what others must have thought of the bigger me.
If it’s only at 22 that you become a human deserving of respect in the eyes of most people around you, maybe it’s not so surprising if you’re a little maladjusted.
Insults and degradation stung me when I was fat, but I don’t remember the ill treatment eroding my self-worth as much as affirmation seems to bolster it. I was mostly confident in myself, my voice and humor, and my style when I was bigger (if you’re this kind of fat woman, you get to be called “brave”!) and feel I adopted a kind of “I’m fat, but fuck you” attitude. Maybe I just rejected the idea that my physicality and others’ opinion of it mattered at all. I mostly just felt invisible. I could more easily forget about looks and their value.
Now, with relatively newfound visibility, other people’s opinions seem to matter more. It’s the opposite of the negativity bias—I internalize the pleasure of praise more than I did the pain of insult. This could be a positive thing, but when I’m less present in the company of friends because I’m scanning the environment for interested gazes, when my attention-seeking behaviors only reinforce the false notion that looking “good” is the most important thing about me, I’ve passed the point of healthy self esteem and crossed over into the madness of “beauty as self-worth.”
In Susan Burton’s exquisite memoir, “Empty,” she describes how she told her therapist, “J,” a metaphor she’d devised about her eating disorders. Susan, an editor at This American Life, pulled from her experience editing sound:
“The eating stuff was a track that ran in my brain under all the other tracks. Sometimes it would get so loud it would drown the other tracks … I was never able to remove the track from the session.
Deleting the track was the wrong idea, J said; lowering the volume was good, but the main thing was to boost the other tracks.
Boost the other tracks. Develop other strengths and ways to cope; raise the signal on all I’d neglected.”
I can map this idea onto my own struggles with binge eating. Weight lifting, for example, was one of the other tracks I boosted as I started to pull myself out of the depths of my disordered eating. Writing has become another. I might struggle with food and eating in some ways for the rest of my life, but boosting other tracks for the past few years has helped.
I know that awareness of how other people see me will be a running track for years to come; I’m a human woman with a physical form, so I’ll probably always appreciate a gracious plaudit or a classy flirtation. I doubt I can delete this track and I don’t think I need to. I’m not pathologizing myself for liking a compliment now and then.
But I want to focus now on continuing to boost other tracks so that I simply care less about the “beauty as self-worth” one. To me, that track feels disordered in the manner of my issues with binge eating. A disorder is marked by dysfunction, distress, and deviance, and that’s how this preoccupation can feel—I can’t focus on other joys when I’m obsessed with my appearance; I am distressed and a bit disgusted that I feel this way; and I’m loathe to admit any of it because it seems so twisted and peculiar.
I’ve spent the last few years boosting the tracks that feel especially contained and self-involved: the weight lifting, the writing, things like doing live storytelling shows, studying a new language and traveling, creating for myself and excelling in a new role at work. These pursuits—along with others that give me personal satisfaction, like trying to be a better friend, partner, and daughter—have little by little lowered the volume of my craving for looks-based affirmation. It just doesn’t feel like enough, though. I still wish I cared less. Maybe it’ll just take getting older.
Maybe it’ll take becoming a parent.
At 33, if I want to have even just one child—and I do, I’m just terrified for reasons great and small, real and probably overblown, and am not sure I’ll ever feel “ready”—I’d like to get started soon. I don’t have the baby fever Olga Khazan has written about in The Atlantic, but I look at my fiancé and my heart warms imagining what kind of father he’d be (likely one who hopes his children will lift weights and play chess, which I co-sign); I imagine myself telling my parents I’m pregnant and it makes me smile; I think I might, like one of the women in Olga’s story, struggle mightily with motherhood for the first few years then love the next several decades. I’m not dying to have a baby, but I’m looking forward to the idea of raising a person.
I don’t know how I’d shield her from classmates who would publicly shame her for not being thin or from men who would shout “fat bitch” at her from across the street.
I don’t know how I’d keep her from internalizing the pernicious untruths social media will tell her about what a girl “should” look like.
I don’t want her to spend her 12-year-old afternoons sitting on a sunbaked rock, sucking in her stomach and hoping to feel beautiful enough to matter.
What if I somehow implant the same desperate preoccupation with looks into a child of mine, particularly if that child is a girl who could experience life in many of the ways I did?
The world’s influence will be beyond my reach in myriad ways, I know. I can’t construct barricades to block her classmates’ barbs or men’s rage. I can only moderate her social media exposure to a point, and who knows what vaguely woman-shaped holograms will appear in her virtual reality goggles in 15 years to make her hate her calves or whatever. I can raise a person but cannot fully protect a person.
When it comes to appearance, all I can do is establish a set of behaviors for her to model: de-emphasize the importance of and preoccupation with my own looks, keep from speaking negatively about my appearance or body, and demonstrate that I base my self-worth on various things, beauty least among them.
“When mothers and their young daughters are put together in front of a mirror, girls emulate how their mothers talk about their own bodies,” said a 2016 study cited in another Atlantic article by Hannah Seligson. “There was not a single child who did not change their response [about describing their body] after hearing their mother say something, either in the positive or negative direction,” a researcher claimed.
My mother is objectively beautiful—don’t even ask how my guy friends talked about her in middle and high school, the cursed pervs—and I don’t remember her saying much about what she looked like at any given time. I do remember the diets she was always trying even though she’s perpetually tiny, the diet books on the kitchen shelves, the envious remarks about skinnier bodies, the implicit fear of gaining weight. I am sure that even if it was not explicitly said, I internalized that being small was the thing to do to be beautiful. This was not the result of her sole influence. It’s how things were. Every movie, celebrity, and magazine cover in the supermarket checkout lane sang the same song. She suffered then, too.
I’m told the big idea with child-rearing, though, is to make things a little better for your kids than it was for you. I stumbled across a comment online that I feel is a roadmap to that end:
“It’s less about what you say directly to little girls and more about modeling a positive self-image … fact of the matter is, girls will get lots of messages about their looks that you have absolutely no control over. It’s about how they take those messages in. If they’ve learned from you that beauty is fun and good, but not the end all be all, they will take both compliments and criticism in stride.
There’s nothing wrong with telling a little girl she looks beautiful and having her feel flattered by that. The problem is if it’s the only thing she thinks matters.”
I’m not going to have diet books on the shelves—though I’ve written how if my kid wants to talk to me about cultivating their own idea of personal health, I’ll help them do that—or talk about other bodies as “bad” or “good.” I’m not going to trash my own body or moralize my eating; I’ve had years to reflect on why all versions of my body (and others’) deserve compassion and respect. Maybe examining my own relationship to body anxiety and image for so long has prepared me to make things a little better for my kid, or at least has prepared me to speak more openly.
But continuing to turn down the dial on my “beauty as self-worth” track is going to take ongoing work. I know the effort of making things better for my child than they were for me will be the main track in my life. I’m sure the work of helping her to love all aspects of herself will distract me from focusing on my least meaningful aspect. I hope she somehow simply won’t care like I did, that the stars of the culture and her experience and personality will align and she’ll be unencumbered by this mania. I don’t know how any of it will go for her, or for me. I am, though, more ready than ever to walk alongside her through it all.
This was so meaningful to read, as someone who has had very similar struggles. I get nervous raising a daughter in the world of her peers, too. But I think your reflections about how to just help her receive said feedback on her body and not equate it with her self worth, is spot on.
Thank you for articulating what I couldn't exactly put my finger on about beauty as self worth, and for identifying an alternative way of thinking about it - in dialing the other tracks up. I appreciated and enjoyed this essay. Thank you.