book excerpt

Big Feels

I have begun to see people who obsess about their weight as part of their lifestyle as a class of their own.

Author Marisa Meltzer. Photo: Molly Matalon
Author Marisa Meltzer. Photo: Molly Matalon

I live in a world of thin people. I interview the famously thin — actors, models, musicians, influencers — but mostly I observe them. I know their habits, but I’m also aware that I am not one of them.

Once, I went to a photo shoot to meet the actress Emily Blunt for a magazine profile I was writing. She was getting her hair and makeup done, so I was killing time before we were introduced. I set my bag on a green velvet sofa and eventually made my way to a table strewn with the remnants of a catered lunch: quinoa salad, grilled chicken, iced tea, and a plate of dairy-free, flourless brownies. I sat down and ate one brownie after another, the way I always eat things, without savoring them, as if the act of eating needed to be gotten over with as quickly as possible. With no dairy or flour, the brownies were almost healthy, I figured. A bearded photography assistant wandered inside to get a cable while I was stuffing my face. I turned my back to him, as if that would hide my crime of appetite.

The shoot was just a few weeks after Blunt had given birth to her second daughter — “My Bean,” she called her in her lilting accent — and I’m so nosy that I’d snuck first thing into the wardrobe area of the shoot to see what size jeans she currently wore: 26. Which is about a size 2. I realize that is a little bit compulsive. I could try to say I was checking to be a good journalist, but really I was doing what all women learn to do: indulge in a morbid kind of curiosity about each other through our bodies and how we each measure up.

When I heard Blunt coming down the stairs, there was just enough time to rearrange the remaining brownies so it didn’t look like a troop of ravenous Girl Scouts had been at them. Blunt smiled graciously and gestured toward the brownies. “You really must try one,” she said to me, adding that the brownies were just so good, so rich, that she was satisfied with just one small bite.

Was this how normal people’s brains reacted to food — one nibble and you were satisfied? I had eaten perhaps four brownies in less than five minutes and stuffed another half a dozen in my bag to devour at home, alone.

I am nearly constantly aware of the feeling of my stomach hanging down toward my pelvis, of my thighs rubbing together, of the fat under my chin touching my neck when I look down. And I have tried my best to change my body — dieting, working out, spas, personal trainers, radical body acceptance, Botox, fillers, fat-melting shots of Kybella in an attempt to get rid of a double chin. I’d even gone under general anesthesia for liposuction.
And that list is not complete.

I am fat, at least by the standards of coastal America, where I have spent my whole life. At my heaviest of the 50 or so pounds that I yo-yo diet on and off, I wear a size 16. My body feels tragic to me, but by the standards of non–SoulCycle America, it is in fact quite ordinary: For women over the age of 20, a size 16 is dead average.

The role I take on as a writer is that of an Everywoman. I can ask famous women how much they currently weigh, or if they have been mistaken for being pregnant, because that has happened to me. It would be much harder for a thin woman to ask those kinds of questions. I know that I am so far from competing with them on a beauty scale that insecurity doesn’t even factor into these environments. Instead, I find talking to beautiful women sort of soothing. It’s time away from my normal feelings of not measuring up, but I’m also in control, being the one there to ask questions, to be smart. Knowing I am not one of them and not trying to compete is its own kind of power trip.

I have sat for meals with the numerous models I have profiled — Karlie Kloss, Helena Christensen, Joan Smalls, Stella Maxwell, Imaan Hammam — and they almost always explain to me that they are keto, or paleo, or gluten free, or quit sugar for their health. (I don’t believe most models when they tell me it’s all about balance, with the exception of Christie Brinkley, whom I interviewed while she ate an entire pizza. It was a personal size, but I was still impressed.) I’m always wondering what these women think of my body — if they are jealous because they think I’ve given myself license to eat with abandon, or if they’d rather be dead than be my size. Sometimes I think that it’s easier for the most beautiful and famous women to relax and open up to someone they don’t perceive as a threat. Instead, they pick at their quinoa salads as they bare their insecurities to me. This is probably my competitive advantage as a journalist, that the very presence of my large body can be comforting to them. As someone who is bigger and softer and sometimes a few years older than they are, I can be their mom or favorite teacher or sidekick. That has turned me into a kind of anthropologist of ectomorphs. I know firsthand that food and weight are things that take over a significant portion of their lives, too. The actress Zosia Mamet once told me over a breakfast interview (I had a bagel and lox; she had a soy cappuccino), “It’s an endless roller coaster of that tiny voice, and it’s always present.”

The beautiful people I so often encounter in my job go to extreme lengths to maintain their bodies. But I do, too. I have begun to see people who obsess about their weight as part of their lifestyle as a class of their own. There’s the class we are born into and the class we strive to belong to. To what lengths will we go to earn our position? How much do we fear falling from it?

But the problem with this professional advantage — the best friend in movies is often not as cute as the star, so it’s a trope I know I’m filling — is that you can’t turn it off. Every time I turn over my phone, it’s there. Instagram allows me to follow attractive women who are larger than me in some token effort to reset my eye to a different standard of beauty. But this doesn’t shield me from the rest of the app. In unflattering photos of myself I’m tagged in, instead of seeing how much I was enjoying a party, I see jowls and a short neck. Or the beautiful girls (who knew there were so many beautiful girls?) posing in bikinis or high-waisted denim jeans with no stretch encouraging all of us, no matter our weight, to embrace our curves, to shun diets, to just love our bodies — and, by extension, ourselves — already.

Even the fat women have enviable bone structure and proportionate bodies and boyfriends with cute haircuts who worship them. And everywhere, women are talking about how important it is to love yourself and the body you’re in. There is a well-known plus-size body activist I follow on social media. She’d lost a lot of weight in recent months but hadn’t commented on it publicly. In an interview, she told me she was doing boot-camp classes twice daily because she just loved it so much. It’s possible that was the truth, but it’s also highly unlikely. I wonder what it would look like if she could be totally honest with her hundreds of thousands of boosters about whether she wanted to lose 20 pounds and what her real struggles were.

How do you live online as a person unhappy with your weight? In our cultural moment, fatness can be a surface that denies interiority, and fat acceptance a further denial of this interiority — a way of brushing off the painful truth of living in a bigger body, and also a way of compelling a happy performance of virtuousness. You’ve seen her: a woman who wears a size 14 with an Instagram grid full of photos showing off her small waist and vaguely artistic, silver-fox husband. Instead of making me feel seen, she sends me — with my apple-shaped body and poor romantic history — into fits of rage and sorrow about not quite measuring up. I can’t stop comparing myself to these kinds of polished yet attainable women who are so similar to me that they’re supposed to inspire, even influence me. Instead, they manage to bring out my insecurities more than any model or actor ever has in real life.

Or maybe it’s a warped kind of narcissism. I can resent my body all I want, but I still want to be the only Everywoman in the room.

Adapted from This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World—and Me, by Marisa Meltzer. Copyright © 2020 by Marisa Meltzer. Published by Little, Brown and Company.

*This article appears in the March 2, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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