This week, the Cut explores women’s complicated relationship to beauty standards and the effort required to meet them.
I’d been broken up with my on-and-off boyfriend of five years for about three months when I agreed to meet him for dinner. When I got there, I texted him to say I was waiting outside, and when I saw him I started waving like a doofus. He looked right past me. It took me a minute to realize that he didn’t recognize me.
Later he confessed that the bathing-suit cover-up that I was wearing as a dress — which I had bought with him the year before for a beach trip — was the only way he knew it was actually me.
He wasn’t the only one of my close friends who did a double take when they saw me. In the months since we’d broken up, I’d started an intense course of Prednisone — and had gained around 45 pounds.
I’d been battling Crohn’s disease for four years, but it wasn’t until February of last year that it really got bad. It was a stressful time in my life: I was going through a bad breakup, work was tough, and a bedbug infestation pretty much depleted all of my savings. I got really sick, and my doctor put me on Prednisone.
It happened fast. Seemingly overnight, I went from a size 4 to a size 12. The fat concentrated on my stomach and the back of my neck, and my cheeks and chin swelled with water weight. At first people would ask if I had had dental work done. I looked like a totally different person.
As a hot girl in your 20s, New York is a great place to be: People give you their seat on the subway, they pick up your beer tab, they smile at you. I didn’t realize how many men were checking me out until all of a sudden they weren’t. Now that I’m heavier, strangers physically bump into me more — it’s like they just don’t see me at all. On the sidewalk, people always try to pass me. It doesn’t matter how fast I’m walking; no one wants to walk slower than a fat girl.
Before I gained weight, I had always been naturally thin. Though my mother and brother have struggled with their weight, I took after my father, who’s very fit. I never looked down on people for being overweight, but I did take pride in being thin — especially being thinner than my brother. When I got heavier, I felt like I had to constantly explain to people, You don’t understand — I’m actually skinny. I still thought of myself as a skinny person, and I felt this compulsion to explain the whole story to everyone I met so that they wouldn’t just assume that I was lazy or indulgent or irresponsible.
It wasn’t until I gained 45 pounds that it really sank in that everyone — other women included — feels entitled to comment on women’s bodies. People commented on my body all the time when I was skinny, but it was always a compliment; it didn’t really dawn on me that it was also a judgment. Now complete strangers chide me. My laundromat attendant told me that I look like I need exercise. My gynecologist pointed out the stretch marks on my thighs and lectured me about how “easy” it is to keep off weight while on corticosteroids with diet and exercise.
Gaining weight also made me more self-conscious about the way my personality is perceived. All of a sudden I started to worry that I was too loud or too aggressive. Now that I’m heavier, I feel like I have to look more professional — wear nicer clothes and more makeup — and maintain a more even temperament. It’s charming when a skinny girl has messy hair and an oversize T-shirt, but when a fat girl does, it’s perceived as sloppy. It’s cute when a skinny girl is feisty, but on a fat girl, it reads as hostility.
The weight gain also made me so self-conscious about eating at work. If someone is having a birthday and I eat a slice of cake, I feel like everyone is thinking, That’s why you’re fat. I don’t want anyone to assume that I’m lazy or slothful or a glutton. I feel pressure to present an over-the-top healthful lifestyle to prove that, yes, fat girls are healthy, too.
I never realized how many of my friends resented that I was skinny until I gained weight. Everyone reflects the way that you talk about your body back onto themselves. So if I say, “I feel fat,” and they’re fatter, they feel like I’m insulting them directly, which drives me crazy. I’ve had real arguments with my friends about it. One told me, “Yeah, you didn’t realize it, but you were a skinny bitch, and we all hated you.” I think some people took joy in seeing me gain weight, like, Oh, you’re going to understand it now.
I knew that I was going to gain weight on Prednisone, so I felt like that was out of my control — I knew it was a healthy choice for me to go on the medication. It was more frustrating after I stopped taking it and I couldn’t lose the weight. I hired a personal trainer, went to the gym every day, and started eating very light, vegetable-driven meals, but the weight would not come off. I lost maybe five pounds. It made me much more empathetic toward people who struggle to lose weight, like my mom. It was a real bonding experience for us.
When I first gained the weight, it was hard for me to buy clothes for my body. Most New York stores don’t carry larger sizes — they stop around 8 or 10, and plus-size stores start around size 16. I also just didn’t know how to dress my new shape. My breasts went up a full cup size and were suddenly popping out of button-down shirts. In the beginning I didn’t know how big I was going to get, so I just bought a bunch of elastic-waist pants and muumuus. After a while my mom took me aside and said, “You need to find some clothes that you actually feel comfortable in that are flattering.” Once I fully embraced the fact that I had gone from a small to a large, I felt a lot more confident.
It wasn’t until about a year after I started the Prednisone that I started dating again. By that point I was 28, and I was worried that maybe I’d missed my chance. I couldn’t stop thinking, Maybe my ship has sailed: Maybe I’m not beautiful anymore, and I’ve missed my opportunity to date or get married. I knew that a good man would stay with you if you lost your looks, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to attract someone from the start if I was ugly. I spent an embarrassing amount of time mourning the family I was convinced I would never build.
But eventually I was like, Screw it, I’m just going to go out there. I got a haircut and joined OKCupid. In a way, I think being overweight helped weed out a lot of shallow men. I received fewer responses, but they were of a higher caliber. I started going on four dates a week, and I met a great guy — a healthy, fit guy who might even weigh less than I do and who loves me and finds me sexy and didn’t bat an eye at the before-and-after diptych I made him look at.
There are still times when I look at myself and it doesn’t feel like my body, but maybe that’s just me having my head in the sand and not accepting that I’m a heavy person now. I didn’t get rid of my skinny clothes until about three weeks ago. I was still holding on to them, like, I’m going to fit into these really soon. I finally accepted that it’s going to be a really long time until I can fit into those again and that this might just be my body type now.
Before I gained weight, I used to say things to my heavier friends like, “You’re so beautiful! That judgment you feel is all in your head!” I was an asshole. Sorry, guys.