There’s a campground that sits right in the center of the tri-state intersection between New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey that’s home to one of the most peaceful rivers I’ve ever experienced. It was there, lazily floating in a raft with Beth* — my friend with benefits verging on girlfriend — and her two friends, that I finally felt comfortable enough with my body to bare my skin, with just a little bit of encouragement.
“Take off your shirt, Kassie,” Beth said. “There’s no one around.” So I did, and spent the rest of afternoon stretched out on the raft, my belly exposed, drinking and laughing with my newfound friends.
The whole weekend was a departure from the rules of a typical friends with benefits relationship, which very clearly state that you shouldn’t meet each other’s friends or spend too much time together outside of the bedroom. But Beth and I weren’t your typical FWBs. She pushed me to do things I normally wouldn’t, like that camping trip — the first I had been on since middle school — and the day she dragged me around Williamsburg to bar hop with people we had only just met that morning. We had a really friendly thing going, so meeting her friends was no big deal — until it was.
As I lay naked between her silky purple sheets a few days after we got back from camping, Beth looked over at me, tucked a piece of hair behind my ear, and said, “You know, Tess* asked me if I wanted you to lose weight.”
Tess was one of the women who spent the day with with us on the river. She had her own insecurities with her weight, having repeatedly gained and lost the same 50 pounds, and at the time of the camping trip was looking into surgery to tighten her loose skin after her latest downswing.
Sometimes weight discrimination isn’t as obvious as someone spitting the word 'fat' at you from the sidewalk or behind the keys of a computer screen.
I remember thinking as I lay in that raft how wonderful it was to just relax and not worry about how other people might be thinking of my plus-size body. To not feel, for once, like I was taking up too much space. But as terrible as it was to learn that my body was still being scrutinised, even in that peaceful moment among people I’d bonded with over hard cider and campfire-roasted hot dogs, what Beth said next was worse.
“I told her that I didn’t need you to lose weight,” she said, “that I just need someone who can keep up with me, and you do.”
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it then, but something felt off about her response. It wasn’t clear to me if by “keep up” she meant sexually or physically — as in, yes, my size 14 body can walk just as fast as your size 6 body — but it didn’t really matter. The comment was problematic either way.
It wasn’t until recently, after writing an article breaking down the sneaky sizeism in a letter a thin man wrote to his “curvy” wife, that I finally understood why that night (and several other comments Beth made over our five months together) felt so wrong. Because sometimes weight discrimination isn’t as obvious as someone spitting the word “fat” at you from the sidewalk or behind the keys of a computer screen, and when you’re the larger person in a mixed-weight relationship it can be hard to see those sneaky comments for what they truly are.
Beth never called me fat. She never complained about my weight or told me that my body should change. But in that response — the one she thought was heroically sticking up for me — she said she “didn’t need me to lose weight,” as if she had ownership over my body. And before that, she would frequently bring up the fact that she had dated other plus-size women in the past. (“In fact,” she once said, “that one girl might actually have been bigger.”)
Those comments always bothered me, even though she said them as if they were supportive — and if I squinted, they looked nice from afar. But seeing clearly, after the lazy river letdown, it became obvious she had been overcompensating the whole time. If she really was comfortable with my body, then she wouldn't have had to say it so often.
Every time she brought up how cool she was with dating larger women — to me, the larger woman whom she was dating — she was essentially asking for an award, like I would scurry off and have a trophy emblazoned with her name. Congratulations, you are a hero among women for daring to find me attractive, it would say.
Her comments, and the implication that I should be grateful that she actually wanted to have sex with me, set up a power dynamic in our relationship that put her squarely on top. She was the one lowering herself to date me. She was the one who had nothing to lose.
All of this isn’t to say that mixed-weight relationships can’t work. They absolutely can — and do. But certain conversations have to take place, like discussing how thin privilege plays a role — because it will. It requires a baseline understanding of the systems of oppression that tell plus-size people we’re undesirable. Maybe if I’d been able to articulate why Beth's obsession with letting me know that she was fine with my bigger body bothered me so much, I could’ve explained this to her. Maybe she should’ve just known.
When you grow up hearing from the media, from family and peers, and from doctors that your body isn’t attractive and ought to be fixed, it’s difficult to see the micro-aggressions that keep you in your place — especially when they come from someone who'd pull you into a bar bathroom because she “just can’t keep her hands off of you.”
*Names have been changed.
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