On food: Part 9- Taking up space, the male gaze, and flying while fat

I am noticing a weird thing. As my body shrinks, I find I am able to take up more space in the world. I got on the scale this week after not weighing for a while-- I am trying to not weigh more than once every week or two these days. The numbers I see still hold too much power over me. So far I have lost 120 lbs. That feels like a lot of weight. Like, it’s almost 20 pounds more than my 16 year old son weighs. I am also 9 pounds into the 100s. By that, I mean that when I step on a scale, the first number is a 1. Considering it used to be a 3, that’s bizarre.

I flew on an airplane three times last month. It was the first time I’ve flown since losing significant weight. And it was the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long where I didn’t experience massive stress about the flight. Have you ever considered what it would be like to be a large person in a tiny airplane seat? I mean, no one likes being in tiny airplane seats. But it’s worse when you’re fat. Because in addition to it not being comfortable, no one wants to sit next to the fat person. And so, for a long time, I didn’t travel by air by myself. I needed someone I knew sitting next to me, so I didn’t have to worry about feeling like I was encroaching on a stranger’s already-limited space. I didn’t want to have to feel guilty that I was so big. And the last few years before my surgery, I even bought an airline seatbelt extender so I didn’t have to ask for one. It happened once where I had to ask, and I was not okay after that. Nick was the only one who ever knew my absolute phobia of flying while fat-- I would literally make myself sick leading up to flying.

When I was on my first flight, I looked down, saw all the extra seatbelt, and took this picture to send to Nick.

But it’s not just airplanes. It’s everything. It’s how much space is in a booth in a restaurant. It’s concert venues and sports stadiums. (Not that we go to those anymore). It’s worrying that you will be too fat for an amusement park ride or over the weight limit for a waterslide. It’s wondering if a lifejacket is going to fit over your size H boobs or if wondering if that trendy-looking chair is up to supporting your heft. It’s constant. Our society lets all fat people know that they are not okay to exist as is-- that they are not welcome to take up space-- that their size will not be accommodated. Which, when you think about it, is PRETTY FUCKED UP.

Fat people don’t talk about these things. We can’t because it brings with it a feeling of shame because this world was not created with us in mind. And so we are quiet about it, hot-faced and ashamed, and we try to draw as little attention to our situation and make ourselves as small as possible as we squeeze our bodies into too-tight spaces.

And here’s something I want you to consider. I weighed 311 lbs. And yes, that was a lot. But that was a size 24. That isn’t the biggest size. I was still well within the range of what Roxane Gaye calls “Lane Bryant Fat.” (Lane Bryant is a store that sells women’s plus size clothing). On a podcast on NPR once, I heard her use that term as a measure of how fat someone was because, at that point, she was larger than “Lane Bryant fat” and had to special-order clothing. She talked about how much she longed to just be “Lane Bryant fat” so that life would be easier.

But since losing the weight I have so far, I am finding that there is so much more that is open and free to me. I don’t have to spend time planning ahead for what I will do or say if I don’t fit. While I am still medically overweight, I am now in straight-sizes and don’t have to shop in plus size stores. In fact, almost every day, Lane Bryant sends me some sort of ad in my email and I find myself going to the website over and over to see what’s on sale before I remember that their clothes are too big for me now. I bought a size 12 pair of jeans the other day at Old Navy, and on the rack, they looked tiny to me. How could this really be my size? It doesn’t fit with what’s going on in my head.

Here’s another thing to consider. Read this tweet:

People feel the need to congratulate me a lot on my ongoing weight loss. And intellectually, I KNOW that they have great intentions and really are trying to make me feel good. But guys, that’s hard for me because when someone says, “Wow, you look great, you’ve lost a lot of weight,” the message I hear is, “You used to look real bad.” And the reason I hear that is because over and over, cultural messages have taught and reinforced to me that fat = bad. Intellectually, I know this is not true and weight/size hold no moral value. But try telling that to the brain of someone who has a history of disordered eating. I don’t need any reminders that I had to physically alter my body surgically to be able to live a full life.

But here’s the hardest part for me-- I want to believe that I was as beautiful as a size 24 as I am at a size 12 because, intellectually, I know that beauty is not contingent upon size. Some of the women I consider to be super sexy are plus sized (I’m looking at you Ashley Graham). And while I want to be able to live a full life not limited by my size, I also want to stay as curvy as I can because I think curves are hot. But it’s been so ingrained in me by our society that thinner = better that I hate myself when I feel satisfied with a lower number on the scale, a smaller size clothing, or see myself in a picture looking smaller than I feel. It’s constantly reminding myself that whatever number shows up on the scale, or whatever size my clothing pronounces, whatever I look like in pictures, my body is good.

One outcome of the surgery I did not really think about or anticipate is the way men would come to look at me. When I lived in a larger body, I rarely felt uncomfortable around random men because, well, they weren’t checking me out. And it’s not like I think they are really checking me out now, it’s just that often I notice their eyes don’t stay locked on mine anymore, they roam up and down my body. It feels, well, real gross. I don’t want their gaze on me. I don’t like knowing that there is a judgement of my body happening in real time. Are they assigning me a number or trying to figure out whether I am fuckable? Which isn’t to say that there weren’t judgements before, but my size prevented these longer looks.

In her breathtaking memoir, Hunger, Roxane Gay talks about how after being raped as young girl, she ate and ate to put a cage of safety around her. This book impacted me in ways I can’t explain. I sobbed reading it-- it felt like my own story. I wonder how much of my weight was an attempt at self-protection. Noticing this change in the way I perceive that I am being perceived by men feels unsafe--even if I am not truly unsafe.

Whatever the reason, I continue to always feel safe with Nick. He rolls with whatever I look like-- always has. He has worshipped my body since day one in all her iterations. Lately, I notice that when he spoons me, he always places his hand on this bone that juts on my hip. That bone was never out there in the open before. And I said, “You like putting your hand there lately.” And he said, “I love that it’s a new part of you to touch.” He also doesn’t flinch at my loose-skinned midsection, my puckering surgery scars, or my super-deflated boobs, arms, or ass. He is there when the bra comes off and sees what a challenging job that garment really has.

Lately, my weight loss has slowed down pretty dramatically. Because I continue to work an intuitive eating plan and regularly (still!) meet with my nutritionist twice a month, in a lot of ways, where my weight “ends up” is not really up to me-- it’s up to my body and I know that if I am loving her, she won’t steer me wrong. I will keep following hunger and fullness cues, and my weight will be what it will be. And even though I am still considered obese by medical charts (my god, I hate that word), I would prefer to stay around where I am now, or at least not lose more than another 10-15 lbs max. I feel good at the size I am. I would be lying if I said that I love the way my body looks. I wish I could redistribute some of my barrel-chested, wide-shouldered girth to other places, I wish my face wasn't so round, and sweet Jesus, I would punch a baby for some tighter skin. But that’s not how it works.

And so, I will continue to do the work to accept my body as perfect because she is. And I will fly by myself on airplanes, and I will walk 19,000 steps during a shift at work, and I will dance with my kids, and wear ridiculously high heels to make dinner if I want to BECAUSE I CAN. But I will also grieve all the things I missed during the decades I was at war with my body. And I will work to make our society more inclusive for every size body so that people can just be people--so that we can all have access to fulfilling life experiences. But until size equality happens, just know that if you’re fat and you want to fly somewhere and feel nervous, let me know. I will happily squeeze into that middle seat and be your buffer-- and I will even bring along my seatbelt extender so you don't have to ask.

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