By Karie Fugett
In my small Alabama high school, before I’d ever considered the calories I put into my body, a boy told me I needed to eat more cornbread to get some meat on my bones. He told me I had a flat ass, then said “But at least you got DSL.” I was fourteen. I was fourteen and I’d never heard of DSL, so I had to ask around to find out what that meant. This was before the high speed internet DSL. Back then, according to another boy who laughed at me when I asked, it meant dick sucking lips. I’d never considered that before, either.
. . .
When I quit high school, I gained weight rapidly. In a single year, a whole 20 pounds. I was no longer on Adderall, was no longer playing sports. When my boyfriend at the time broke up with me, I stood at a payphone, cars buzzing by on a highway, all of them oblivious to the tragedy that was unfolding on the sidewalk. He told me he’d gone to New Orleans and cheated. “I got my dick sucked. I never wanna see you again.” He actually fucking said that. I figured it was the weight I’d gained, and I craved punishment for letting it happen. That night, I stood looking in the mirror, crying, and cut a large chunk of my hair off, dyed my hair black, buried myself in my closet under a pile of garbage-bagged clothes mom kept forgetting to bring to Goodwill. I wished I could cut the fat off, too, leave chunks of my body hidden in the closet, pretend it never happened. Instead, I cried and I cried and I cried some more, the wet plastic from the trash bags sticking to my arms, my hair crooked and dark, my body unlovable.
. . .
I lost the weight again. It didn’t take much. I was still young. Eat a little less. Work out a little more. Men approved, and it felt good to be approved of. I started sleeping with anyone who wanted me, soaked up the counterfeit affection as long as I could until it inevitably faded and I needed to start over again. I was ashamed. I didn’t want to be this but was afraid of saying no. I was afraid if I didn’t give people what they wanted, the approval would disappear. I would be rejected and that I couldn’t bear.
With time, my body became a thing I hated, an object like a toothpick or a rail or a stick with tits as another boy once said. I was nothing more than something to behold, to be judged, a thing for others to use. What I really wanted — what I needed — was love. I craved it. I had become a junky — desperate and willing to do anything — and, instead of looking within, I sought it in others. Unfortunately, they were the kinds of others who got me there in the first place.
. . .
When I married and my husband deployed to war, I gained all the weight back plus some. 150, 160, 170 and then my husband was wounded by a bomb and I spent days and nights and weeks and months and years in hospital rooms eating vending machine food, eating takeout, watching him sleep after surgeries, dressing wounds, eating away my sadness and fear and anger. I looked at myself naked in the mirror one night — I was 200 pounds for the first time ever. I moved my hands over my hips, my gut, my breasts, and thought, “This is what it’s like to be fat. This is what a fat body feels like.” I remembered being desired. The rubbernecking. The hollers. The compliments. Any fucking comments at all. Those things didn’t happen anymore. Nice people don’t tell you when you’re fat. Nice people don’t stare at fat bodies. They just don’t say anything at all. In my fatness, I felt invisible. I didn’t cut my hair that time. Instead, I cut apples, made a pie, ate as much of it as I could with a side of vanilla ice cream.
. . .
Weight Watchers was a bitch, but I found ways to cheat. If I starved myself until dinner, I could eat an entire medium thin crust ham and pineapple Domino’s pizza. And I was told by a friend who’d been fat before but wasn’t anymore, “Don’t drink your calories,” so I only ever drank water or vodka seltzers with lime. After losing 25 pounds, my husband asked if he could take pictures of me. “What if you wore nothing but those boots?” he asked. The wanting felt good. No, great. Like sucking in a chest full of air after having been underwater for so long. I sprawled out on the bed, and he liked it so much he tossed the camera aside and we fucked.
I never got high school skinny like I’d hoped, but people were quick with their Wow-you-look-greats and their How-did-you-do-its. When I couldn’t maintain the diet, I gained much of the weight back and everyone went silent again.
. . .
When my husband died, it was the ultimate rejection. I’d never felt so desperate, never craved something so badly before. At first, I hardly left my house. I drank wine in my bed every night, straight from the bottle, cried myself to sleep watching back-to-back episodes of Lost, woke next to those bottles, empty, head spinning, nausea and guilt consuming. Then, I tried to fill the lack with the company of other men, even convincing myself I’d fallen in love with one of them, until he rejected me, too. Weeks went by. Wine bottles piled up. My house foreclosed. My car was repossessed. This, I thought, was what I’d always feared. This is what it feels like to be alone.
When the initial fog of grief dissipated, the world looked different to me than it ever had. Though, as we all do, I had known people died, suddenly, I really knew. People died, I thought. I would die. I meditated on this. On death. On my death. Where once it might have made me feel desperate, now it gave me clarity, or so it seemed. This was my chance to live, and I wanted to live it in a way that would make my husband proud.
. . .
I would live my life for myself, I thought. I would never let someone convince me I needed to be or do anything, I thought. I began to purge. Anything that had been negative in my life had to go. That included the fat. It was a symbol of my past pain, of my grief. I wanted my body to reflect the new me. The happy me. I ate leaves and boiled eggs, drank warm water to suppress the hunger, took pills to suppress the hunger, ran for miles and miles until men’s heads began to swivel, until my friends said, “Girl, you are fucking hot!” Until I fainted.
Without the fat, I noticed wrinkles. I paid thousands of dollars to pump botulin, pump collagen, into my face, hiding proof of the sadness I once had, hiding proof of my age. And then, I noticed sagging breasts. When I asked my well-meaning boyfriend if he noticed, he said, “They were perkier before, but you’re beautiful either way.” What I heard was You are never going to be good enough.
I thought I’d figured something out, but I was only on a pendulum, swung to the opposite side of toxicity. I was disappointed in myself for feeling this way again. I wanted to be happy. I was tired of fighting. This was not how I wanted to spend my life, I realized, me constantly in battle with the only body I would ever have for the entirety of the only life I would ever have. But how do you shed a lifetime of shame? How do you learn to live for yourself? How do you learn to love your body?
. . .
Today, I am 33, and I would be lying if I said I’ve figured it all out. I admit I still fear rejection. I still want to be good enough. I don’t want to die alone. I don’t know what I’m doing. I never have. But, luckily, with age, I have found some peace. I’ve stopped the injections. Stopped the pills. Stopped the hair dye. Stopped using sex and food and alcohol to numb my pain. I am aware, now, of how privileged I am in this body, no matter its shape. I have two legs that have always taken me wherever I wanted to go. I have two eyes that have seen beauty so great it brought me to tears. I have two hands that feed me, that have reached out and touched the faces of people I love. The color of my skin, alone, has gotten me things in life that I’m positive I’m not even aware of and has certainly made my experience in life easier. My breathe flows without effort. My heart has never failed me. When I meditate on these things, I can’t help but feel love. This is what it is to exist in a body. This is what a body feels like.
Karie Fugett is a teacher, writer, editor, and aspiring flower farmer. She holds an MFA from Oregon State University. Her work can be found in The Rumpus, Cosmonauts Avenue, Deep South Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives and writes off-grid in the foothills of the Oregon coast range.