In the picture at the left, I am around 80 lbs smaller. I am still close to 300 lbs, still unambiguously fat, but I am much closer to the thin ideal. I can shop in brick and mortar stores. I can fly on an airplane without a seatbelt extender. I can sit in the exit row if I want to. People are nicer to me in general. Nobody makes faces when they see me boarding a plane. People hold doors for me and smile without me smiling first. Doctors are still mostly terrible to me, but they listen a little more because I am performing weight loss to their satisfaction. People include me in group photos and post said pictures on their social media. I fit in every restaurant chair, amusement park ride, and medical exam equipment I encounter. I receive a steady stream of compliments about my appearance.
In the picture on the right, all of these things have stopped or changed significantly. I can only shop in one brick and mortar store – WalMart. I can either buy two seats on an airplane or risk being kicked off a flight. I can’t sit in the exit row. People are still generally civil to me, but mostly don’t smile unless I smile first, or as cover when I catch them staring at me. Doctors talk over me and write me off as non-compliant. I attend copiously-photographed events with hundreds of hash tagged photos and I am never in any of them. If I need an MRI I will have to call around and travel a considerable distance to find a machine that accommodates me at a facility my insurance will cover. People still say I have pretty eyes, but that’s about it.
In the photo on the left, I have been eating one small meal per day for over six months. I think about food every waking moment and cry almost daily about food anxieties. I’m afraid to look at pictures of food or be anywhere near carbs of any kind. My hair has started falling out and my gums are tender and bleed easily. I am always cold, always tired, and always in a bad mood. The smile in the picture is fake; I am not enjoying my life. I walk around six blocks every morning and the exhaustion and muscle cramps make me cry. I still get fatcalled* on occasion by dudes driving by, and my anger fuels my determination to push way past my physical limits, but every step is miserable. I hate exercise, I am terrified of food, and while I don’t exactly hate my body (I have always been at least a little fat positive, I thought I was doing this for my health mostly), I’m immensely ashamed of it and frustrated by it.
In the photo on the right, I am happy. I feel good physically. I go to the gym because I have energy to go to the gym, and I work out for the pleasure of moving my body and discovering its abilities. I think about food mainly when it’s time to eat or I’m planning a menu or a food-related event. I buy clothes I like instead of the ones that make me look the thinnest. I am not infatuated with my body – I don’t think it’s enchantingly beautiful or perfect and there are things I don’t like about how it looks – but I do love it. I respect it and try to listen to and nurture it. The smile on my face is genuine; I am not self-conscious in this picture, I’m thrilled to be with my friend who I rarely see, and happy to give her a picture to commemorate the visit. My gums are healthy, I’m not cold, and I’m (usually) reasonably cheerful. I have PCOS (a complex and progressive endocrine disorder), so my hair is sadly still thinning, but not falling out in patches anymore.
Society says the picture on the left is better. Without question they would say that body is healthier. Doctors who knew exactly what I was eating and how I was exercising, and even some of my concerning symptoms, encouraged it. My behavior and symptoms could clearly be diagnosed as “atypical” anorexia (what they call anorexia when it does not present in medically underweight bodies, despite the fact that it is more prevalent than underweight anorexia), but it did not occur to anyone (least of all me) that I could have an eating disorder. Regardless of the truth of the actual health and well-being of the body on the left, the world around us makes room for that body, and a great many things in daily life are easier or more pleasant in that body because of that fact.
The body on the right is healthier, happier, more embodied and more empowered than the smaller one. The world does not make room for that body, but she makes room for herself. She stands up for herself and insists on respect and dignity, she fights for evidence-based and compassionate medical care, she understands that mental health is also health, that weight is not a shorthand for understanding a person’s individual health, let alone worthiness. And she does not apologize for taking up however much space she needs.
My journey to recovery, intuitive eating, and genuine self-care illustrates the difference between self-esteem and structural oppression. The world prefers that smaller body and lets me know it at every turn. Me? The only thing I miss in that picture is those shoes.
*”fatcalling” is like catcalling, only instead of (or on top of) sexual innuendo, it’s anti-fat slurs