**A note from Jen: A version of this essay was originally published on one of our favorite sites, “The Rumpus.” We are thrilled to share it here, with all of you.**
By Tabitha Blankenbiller
On the morning I’d had enough of my body, Twitter was quaking over Colleen McCullough’s obituary. It stated that the wildly accomplished writer was “plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless a woman of wit and warmth.” Who knew someone could be full-figured and brilliant? My friends were livid. I was disgusted. And I was panicked. What if I careened off the road, right now, in these revolting stretchy pants that aren’t fooling a goddamn soul? Let me die painfully, shamefully, without kindness or honor. Don’t let me die fat.
As I roller-coastered through the backroads, I tried to remember the last time I was in a house of God. Not since my last visit to the United Methodist Church of Wilsonville. Forgive me father, for I have sinned. It has been 1,011 days since my last confession.
Two years since my last visit and nothing about the church’s Tuesday night Weight Watchers meeting had changed. The same woman who had taken my information four years ago still stood behind the multi-purpose room’s kitchen counter. On these Tuesday nights, us Eaters Anonymous members shuffled in with our weekly food trackers. We made whatever sacrifices we could: unzipped boots and kicked off sneakers, running to the bathroom to purge ounces from our bladders. The truth flashed onto the scale, evidence of a “good” or “bad” week. The line corralled next to a table selling dinner plates with patterns depicting proper meat-to-starch-to-vegetable ratios and serving spoons to ensure you only scoop half a cup of brown rice (white rice is evil). Miniature scales to make sure you did not accidentally grab four ounces of almonds instead of three. Keep on track. One day at a time.
When it was my turn, I faced the woman who administered my last journey through this program. She was a brisk, efficient creature with a local morning news correspondent haircut. She knew how many points a bagel is with or without cream cheese, and what difference raisins make in the equation. I prayed that she did not have a way with faces as I tried to zero-out my expression like all those almond-checking scales. Dead eyes, I commanded myself.
“Welcome back, Tabitha!”
The welcome is as even as she is, bleached of judgment. It’s the same welcome she says to everyone, every week, whether it’s their thirtieth time in a row weighing in or they’ve been MIA since before Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes broke up. Even though she remembers, though it’s her job to remember, her recollection socks me in the jaw. I can’t start over fresh. I was the girl who Did It, who tracked every bite, shared new discoveries at meetings (Whole Foods deli will make you half a turkey sandwich!). What had happened to me? I was the star student, the sober cheerleader, the changed man, now stumbling in one afternoon reeking of schnapps and pussy, blood dried under my fingernails and vomit caked on my sleeves, begging for another chance.
At least he can take a bath. My sins were just as visible, but purged at the rate of rivers carving canyons. I wore the bottle of wine I drank with a friend the night I realized that I’d have to quit my job. I carried the five-course birthday dinner with my husband, the first meal we shared after four months of living apart. I slumped with the ice cream scarfed in room I rented waiting for my husband to transfer back to our home state, a corner of someone else’s house where I felt chronically awkward. My body stretched with my last year’s story.
The Weight Watchers woman beckoned me onto the scale. I had a number in my head, far beyond my last check-in, back in Tucson and tipping the edge of my “I can live with this” range. You’ve gained weight, I reminded myself. You know that. It gets better.
She wrote three digits on the card. Every last pound I spent a year exorcising from my body had found its way home. From Tucson to Portland, I gained forty pounds.
“Have a good week,” she wished me. Her benediction.
I sat in the back of the multi-purpose room. Women in the first rows chattered about Greek yogurt and Fiber One bars. I leaned back in my chair, arms and legs crossed, a jaded caricature missing its cigarette. I wrapped my winter peacoat around myself. I felt strange from every angle, whether sitting or standing or lying on my back or curled up in the fetal position—whatever the moment I was a beat behind, removed. Wondering how awful I looked from this viewpoint, what disastrous angle I might not know about that someone else could see.
And as much as I hated my body, I hated my perception almost as much. I was a body positive person. I checked the FEMINIST box with a big Sharpie stroke. It is overwhelming to think that only a decade ago, I couldn’t go to school dances because no one carried a dress in my size. When I see ModCloth launching stylish plus-size lines, it is not a small thing. I remember standing behind racks at Mariposa while my tiny best friend argued satin versus chiffon, wondering why they couldn’t make something beautiful just a tiny bit bigger. These girls all had a shot at becoming women; I was a big Thing, watching.
No one should feel this way about who they are. It’s sick to feel this way about who you are. I imagined a daughter looking up to my heartbreak, the crumpled “unacceptable” clothes balled into the back of my closet, catching me mutter for the hundredth time, you are the most disgusting fat fuck. I am every bit the misogynistic Neanderthal I label Enemy.
It’s so much easier to cheer self-love when you have it.
This was my third time embarking on a significant weight loss. The first was in 12th grade, when I hit the same weight just logged into my tracker. The pounds had crept on slowly through adolescence. I’d come home from school and sit down with chips and the phone. In the program I learned how quickly snacks added up, and how dramatically I changed when I cut them out. I lost forty pounds before my second semester and got a senior portrait re-do. The second photo isn’t just slimmer. It’s a girl who’s smiling without hesitation, whose eyes aren’t desperate to catch someone noticing her ugliness before she can fix it. She effuses a joy that the first girl did not know.
I kept that old self off for five years. I maintained through every temptation until, a month before my wedding, I lost my job. I was 23 and it was 2008. I was young and inexperienced in a time when even the most qualified people were gnashing it out, Hunger Games-style, for entry-level positions. In the nine months I spent unemployed, my reflection shifted. My hair splintered and faded. My smile dissolved into a frightened, half-toothed grimace, as if I was scared that the camera would punch me in the throat.
The kitchen was where I felt worthy, with my life bringing nothing to the house but the dole. Look, I can still help, I said with gouda, with scratch pie crust, with crispy chicken, with enchilada bakes. By the time I found another job, nothing in my closet fit.
I vowed, after that year of inching myself back to the version I’d lost, never again. I would not be forget how hard I worked to lose the same weight for the second time. I wasn’t small—I’m not a small girl, even at my lowest weight—but I had reached comfortable and proud and happy. I wore dresses and mugged for pictures and didn’t force people to delete them.
Several complicated years later, I want to think that I grew into a version of myself that knows that my size is not a binary, that the relationship between my body and my food and my heart and my stress and my heartbreak and my intelligence and my sanity cannot be divided into sin and prudence. I want to evolve and I want to be kind and I want to forgive. But wanting is not having, and wanting is not being.
A week from now, I will return. The woman in the kitchen will take my book and I will stand on the scale.
“You’re down 3.6!” She will say. “Good job.”
It is better than sex.
Already I will feel superior to the week-before self, that pathetic cow who made chicken pot pie like she was above this. Like she could keep sinning and no one would ever know, as if comfort was an excuse for transgression. My triumphs will not come over adversity to my surplus of self. I’ll be seen correctly; I’ll die right.
“Have a good week.”
“You too,” I say. And also with you.