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My girlfriend and I have been together for a few years. Recently, she has gained a lot of weight and it has been causing her significant distress. She doesn’t like how she looks, her clothes don’t fit anymore, and she hates getting dressed in the morning when she used to love fashion.
Throughout all of this, I have tried to be as supportive and loving as humanly possible. I tell her how beautiful she is, how much I love her, and I’ve encouraged her to buy new clothes that she feels good in. She admits to being a chronic overeater and not exercising enough, and so I’ve tried to support her adjusting her lifestyle to be healthier by eating healthier at home together and getting a gym membership. However, old habits die hard and those changes haven’t really stuck.
This has been going on for nine months, and she has continued to gain weight. And even though I am a self-proclaimed body positive person, I follow fat activists on social media, and I have worked hard to fight the fatphobia I’ve learned throughout my life, the truth is I sometimes miss the way she looked when we first met. And I feel completely ashamed of that fact. I feel like a horrible person, and a horrible activist.
I obviously have not told her this because I feel so ashamed and don’t want her to feel bad about herself. But we’ve been less intimate lately, and she’s so insecure about her weight gain and is constantly asking me for reassurance about it, which I’ve given. Recently, she asked me straight up if I am less attracted to her now than I was when we first met. I couldn’t lie to her face, and so I said yes.
Obviously, she was devastated. And now I feel even worse and even more ashamed. I feel like a hypocrite and a horrible person.
I guess my question is, how can I revive some of that physical attraction? How can I be less of a fatphobic asshole? And was it wrong for me to be honest about my feelings?
I think it’s really admirable that you wrote into this particular publication to ask for help navigating your situation. And I’m going to take you at your word that you want some real advice here, not a fluffy feel-good pep talk. In fact, what I’m going to write isn’t going to make you feel very good at all. The reason I know that is because your letter is mostly about how you feel. How your girlfriend’s weight makes you feel about yourself as an activist, how your girlfriend’s weight makes you feel about your struggles as an aspiring fat-positive ally, how you said this really terrible thing to your girlfriend and now you feel “ashamed,” “horrible,” and like an “asshole.” The only thing I really know about your girlfriend is that she’s gained “a lot of weight” (whatever that means to you) and has gone from distressed to devastated because of your response to it.
While I’m hearing that you’ve encouraged your girlfriend to eat healthier and go to the gym, I’m not hearing anything about the zillion other factors that go into determining a person’s weight. Like genetics, age, hormones, family history, metabolism, mental health, stress, social pressure, medications, her relationship to her past traumas or abuses or neglects, her history with food and exercise, the messages she internalized about those things growing up, whether or not she’s a perfectionist, what demands are on her life and time and body outside of “diet and exercise,” what her financial situation is, whether or not she has any food aversions or sensitivities, how the pandemic has affected her. I could go on and on. I could ask a billion more questions about your girlfriend. Because a person’s weight is almost never about their willpower to eat vegetables and sweat it out on a stationary bike; it’s a tangled, mangled knot of physical, mental, financial, emotional, and social factors that is almost impossible to unravel. Really trying to learn about how those things intersect, and figuring out how any of them might have affected your girlfriend, would be a much better use of your time than following fat activists on social media.
I’m going to be completely honest: If your girlfriend wrote into this column with this story, I would tell her she should break up with you. Not because you were “honest about your feelings,” but because gaining and losing weight, over and over and over, is part of nearly everyone’s life. It is so inconsequential in the vast tapestry of existence, and if getting fatter over the course of nine short months throws you into this kind of tailspin where you find yourself not only unattracted to her, but you feel honor-bound to tell her so, how are you going to handle it when the really hard stuff happens? When one of you gets sick or disabled? When one of you becomes consumed by seemingly endless grief after the death of a loved one? When one of you loses your job? When money trouble strikes? When you lose your home? When one of you unearths a trauma you hid away even from yourself? When you become responsible for a dying family member? When one of you is unable to free yourself from the dense fog of depression or anxiety? When one of you is in an accident? When your bodies simply get old, the way all bodies do?
Why would your girlfriend trust you with her future happiness, with the burdens and joys of buying a home or having children, with the gift of loving her so long you get to see her face age into her grandmother, if simply gaining weight is going to cause you to say something you know will devastate her? Something you know is going to affect her perception of herself for the rest of her life? Every time you initiate sex, every time you walk into the bathroom while she’s taking a shower, every time she changes clothes in front of you, every time you now try to tell her something nice about herself, or her makeup, or her outfit, she’s going to have to wrestle with the fact you told her she wasn’t attractive anymore.
It seems like the way you perceive yourself is at the center of your decision-making process right now, so may I ask: Why aren’t you as attracted to your girlfriend as you were when you met? Is it really because her body is shaped differently? Or is it because you’re worried about what a fatphobic society will project onto you for being with her? Have you compounded your girlfriend’s insecurities by projecting your own onto her?
And here’s something you need to be extra honest about, because it’s going to reveal something deeply important to you about yourself: You knew it would devastate her, you knew it was cruel, you knew what those fat activists would say about it. You’ve done enough work to know exactly what you were doing. Yet you went ahead and told your girlfriend she isn’t attractive to you anymore. Why? Really, why? Did you do the mental calculations in that moment and decide that the shame and hurt you knew you were inflicting on her were worth it, if it got your girlfriend back to the size you want her to be?
You’ve asked for some practical advice, and so here it is: Start with yourself. Work on yourself. I’m not talking about liking photos of fat yogis and body positive quotes on Twitter. I’m talking about trying to really understand what goes into determining a person’s weight, and really seeking knowledge about what it’s like to move through the world as a person who isn’t thin, and most of all unpacking why you’ve responded to your girlfriend the way you have. If your intimacy is going to be repaired, it’s going to have to start with you doing some really hard work on yourself, and learning to center your girlfriend’s feelings about her own body. It’s going to start with you worrying less about how people perceive your activism and more about what’s going on in your girlfriend’s mind and heart.
I have it on good authority that these are some great books to kick off your journey to being a better you, both learning texts and memoirs: Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness by Da’Shaun Harrison, Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across: Poems by Mary Lambert, Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon, anything/everything by Samantha Irby, Fat and Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives. And, for podcasts, a good beginner one is Maintenance Phase and a more radical one is Unsolicited: Fatties Talk Back.
I’ll close with a story about my own personal diet and exercise journey. I’ve actually gained a good bit of weight since the pandemic started, in large part because of Long Covid, and the medications I need to take to manage it, and the way I was mostly housebound for over two years. I’ve struggled with how it makes me feel about myself, but through the process of that struggle, my wife and I have grown even closer and our intimacy has deepened beyond my wildest imagination. Not because I gained weight, but because my weight gain did nothing to diminish my wife’s affection for me or attraction to me. When I asked, and asked, and asked, she reaffirmed over and over and over that she loved me, that I was a prince among women no matter what size clothes I wear, that she wanted to love on me and smooch on me regardless of what the scale says, that she understood my insecurities and they were valid, but that my body is simply the bone-shell that keeps me alive inside it and all she cares about is that I’m still me in here. The process of making myself so vulnerable about my insecurities, and being met with nothing but affirmation, it healed something inside me I didn’t even know was hurting.
This morning I came in from riding my bike, covered in sweat and road grit and rain. My wife grabbed me and kissed me silly. I said, “You like me in this bike jersey.” She said, “Nothing makes me happier than your happiness, and nothing makes you as happy as being on your bike.” I almost didn’t get back on my bike after I started healing from Long Covid, because I felt like a sausage stuffed into my spandex bike clothes, but my wife encouraged me to just buy better fitting bike clothes. So I did, and my reward has been regaining my favorite hobby and getting smooched all over about it.
Everyone deserves that. Me, your girlfriend, and all the zillion other people in the world whose weight is just one of the myriad things that will always be in flux in our one wild and precious lives.
You can submit your own questions any time.