Fat Is Something You Have — Not Something You Are

Photographed by Ashley Armitage
I married a personal trainer.
Generally, this would seem like a pretty awesome arrangement: a gym buddy for life, personalised gym routines at the ready, and all the motivation you could ask for. But for me it was just the next logical step in a lifetime of disordered eating and exercising. I don’t mean to diminish my marriage — I’m lucky to be married to a fantastic, multifaceted human being who is a great partner and father — but when I first met Roy, his career was a big part of my attraction to him. My therapist once told me, “You marry your issues” and I, with my inability to look at my body as anything other than a project, found a man who could join me in that activity. We could build a life around my body image issues. What more could I ask for?
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The first year of our relationship, we fell in love while trying to fix me. I starved better and harder than I had ever starved before. I existed for months on fewer than half the calories a healthy diet would have entailed, and religiously clocked two hours a day at the gym — and walked the three miles to and from the gym for the added calorie burn. I equated Roy’s growing feelings for me as a reward for the weight that I was losing. And because I loved him, I believed that I could starve forever to keep him.
But I couldn’t. A birthday, then the holidays, then a vacation, then a 6-month deadline to write an emotionally grueling memoir about my less than perfect childhood; all the eating, social eating, emotional eating, new couple eating, all the little temptations of life added up, and I lost my way. As long as I avoided food completely I was okay, but I didn’t know how to exist in the world outside the gym without going to the opposite extreme and binging my way through the day. I gained, hard and fast. By the time Roy proposed to me, two years into our relationship, I’d gained forty pounds. He didn’t seem to love me any less, but I loved me less. I was fat. Again.
As I prepared for my wedding — the start of my own family — I was faced with the fact that I needed to either come to terms with my body as-is, or just decide to be anorexic forever. The former seemed like a healthier decision, and so I went about healing my broken relationship with my body in the only way I knew how: research. I started to research the history of bodies, the fat bodies and the thin bodies, the short bodies and tall bodies, the strong bodies and the soft bodies, and all the ways we’ve tried to change them to be other bodies. I learned about the evolution of bodies and the destruction of bodies and how our bodies are remarkable machines.

He didn’t seem to love me any less, but I loved me less. I was fat. Again.

For much of our history, a person’s weight was considered a private matter and uncouth to talk about publicly. That changed during World War I, when government food rationing made reducing portions, and your waistline, an act of patriotism. Those who maintained a heftier build were thought to be taking food out of the mouths of soldiers, and so was born an American obsession with being thin — and judging others for not doing the same.
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Losing weight became a national form of entertainment in the early 20th century. Newspapers hosted “Biggest Loser”-style weight loss competitions with dueling “health experts” coaching teams. Fans would catch up with their favourite contestants’ results in the Sunday paper each week. Having a personal scale at home became a status symbol, as knowing how much you weighed at all times became of vital importance. Those who couldn’t afford a scale (at the hefty price of £10 in the 1920s, or £140 now) could use public Penny Scales. And they did — in full force. In 1927 the newly weight-obsessed public spent more than £3.8 million to weigh themselves, the equivalent of £52 million today.
The first standard reference chart of ideal weights for men and women was published by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in 1942. At the time, the ideal weight for a woman of 5’4” was between 116 and 142 pounds, depending on frame, with shoes and clothes. Seventeen years later, in 1959, the chart was revised. The ideal weight for a woman of 5’4” had decreased to 108 to 138 pounds with clothing and shoes. The American population hadn’t actually seen an increase in weight during those two decades, but they thought they did thanks to the new and “improved” guidelines— and the weight loss industry pounced on the American fear that they were becoming increasingly overweight. As the weight loss industry grew, so did our waistlines. America has consistently ranked among the fattest countries on the planet; for all of our fat bashing, we outweigh most of the world.
The more I studied the history of our bodies, the more I realised that I wasn’t unique at all in my dysfunction. I was bred for it. American discourse is littered with subtle reminders that a socially acceptable build is a prerequisite for kindness, respect, and acknowledgement.
But the real change in my relationship with my body happened when I started to think of fat as just a thing, a noun, just another part of my body like my liver or my ankle. Roy is Israeli, and every year we spend a couple of weeks in Israel visiting his family and friends. While we’re there, we partake in the absolute worst family tradition ever: We get our body fat measured at the The Yair Lahav clinic, a nutrition and training complex in Tel Aviv Roy worked at before coming to the States.
After analyzing my DEXA body composition results, Eytan, the clinic technician, showed me my numbers. “You have too much fat,” he said.
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So blunt. So true. There was no shaming in his tone. He wasn’t wagging an imaginary finger at me. I just had more fat tissue than I needed. It sounded even simpler in Hebrew: Ani Shmena.“I have fat” or “I’m in a state of fat.” The language doesn’t require you to be owned by the description. Fat doesn’t define the person, it’s just an attribute, like brown hair or blue eyes.
I’m not insinuating that all Israelis have stellar body image because their language is less accusatory.
Photo: Courtesy of Little A.
I’m just saying that a simple change in perspective was enough for me to forgive myself a little for existing in an imperfect body.
It’s been two years since my first chat with Eytan, and I still have moments when while standing in front of the mirror when his voice echos in my head, “you have too much fat.” Maybe I do; maybe he’s right. But I don’t mind. For the first time in my 34 years, I am at peace with this body of mine. I might even like this body now — it’s not the best body, but it’s stronger than it looks. It has done amazing things; climbed mountains, traveled the world, comforted loved ones, and made and nourished a beautiful little boy. It is perfectly imperfect. Even my personal trainer husband thinks so.
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