Fat and Happy—and Loved

For the second installment of a series on bodies and relationships, I'm pleased to be able to share the work of Emily Timbol, a blogger and author who writes faith, life, and humor essays. Her work can be found on the Huffington PostThe Burnside Writers Collective, xoJane, Red Letter Christians, Christianity Today’s Her.Meneutics, and RELEVANT magazine online. She’s also been a featured guest on Moody Radio’s Up for Debate, the Jesse Lee Peterson radio show, and the Something Beautiful podcast. Her first book, Two Words: Why Hearing “I’m Gay” Changed My Straight, Christian Life, is available now on Kindle, and paperback. You can find links to all her published works on her blog and on her Twitter, @EmilyTimbol. She can also be reached by email, at emily.timbol@gmail.com


One of the stupidest quotes I’ve ever heard is, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” If you’re someone who buys into the dichotomy of being thin or being well-fed, taste is the last thing you care about. When I was at my thinnest, nothing tasted or felt good. When your body is the enemy, “good” isn’t something you feel.

Now, I’m fat. To Kate Moss, the originator of that quote, I was probably fat at my thinnest too, at 160 pounds, and I’m currently inhuman, at well over 200. To me now, the word fat is simply a descriptor, like blonde or tall, but back at my thinnest it was the worst combination three letters could make. Fat was to blame for my poor self-esteem, my lack of dates, and my typical teenage melancholy that I mistook for depression. It was all fat’s fault.

From the ages of 10-25, a good portion of my brain was devoted, at all times, to thinking about food. It never occurred to me that it was not normal, or healthy, to spend 18 hours a day thinking about peanut M&M’s. Or Cheetos, or that cheeseburger on the menu I wanted to order instead of a salad. If I wasn’t obsessing over food I couldn’t eat, I was obsessively hating myself for having eaten it—usually in a frantic, euphoric nighttime binge that would leave me feeling sick.

If my brain then was a pie chart (pie being a food I couldn’t eat) it would look like this: 

The “Other” section represents the things that made me who I was, “on the inside.” Things like books, humor, politics, friends, and a passion for social justice. None of which mattered as much as food—or guys. It was them, really, who fueled so much of my youthful self-hatred. Always loving to hang out with me, always complaining about their girlfriends to me, sometimes even trying to sleep with me, but never, ever wanting to date me. This was never their fault, or my fault for liking them. It was fat’s fault. If I just could get the fat to go away, then these jackasses would magically like me back. That maybe guys didn’t like me because I didn’t like me, not because I wore a size 18, never crossed my mind.

“Emily, men are visual,” a close family member said to me. “That’s how they’re attracted, and I worry that if you never lose weight you won’t find a husband.” This was told to me more than once.

My best friend at the time once replied, after I revealed the name of the guy I had a crush on, “No, guys like that don’t go for girls as big as you.” She said it as matter-of-factly as if I had asked if there was food in my teeth.

It was settled. I had to lose weight in order for guys to like me. Not once did it occur to me that my body, as it was, any guy could like.

After my fourth week of The Master Cleanse, the last and craziest attempt I’d ever made to lose weight, I finally gave up. While gagging on the mere suggestion of drinking one more sip of maple syrup and cayenne, I thought, Why the hell am I doing this? Maybe it was the hunger (or cayenne poisoning), but all of a sudden it seemed like there was no reason to keep trying to force my body to be something it wasn’t. 

Being thin wasn’t worth it. Having all of my thoughts consumed with food, exercise, and what I looked like suddenly seemed pointless. I wasn’t the kind of woman whose looks were her most important feature. I didn’t value attractiveness more than intelligence or wit. I wasn’t unhealthy in the slightest, according to my doctor. And damnit, I loved food. 

The shift of priorities was surprisingly easy. It was as if I suddenly realized that the game I was trying so hard to compete in—the one where your social and romantic value is based on your looks—wasn’t mandatory; I could walk away from it at any time. I realized something else too: When you spend your entire youth and adolescence benched from the game because you're too fat to play, you see that the sidelines aren’t such a bad thing.

On the sidelines is where my personality flourished. Where my love of words grew, where I learned to make people laugh, and where I found some of the friends I hold dearest—friends who didn’t care that I was fat. The sidelines were where I learned to like who I was, something that wouldn’t have been possible if I’d stayed so focused on what I looked like.

I thought that leaving the game and giving up my near-lifelong quest to be thin meant making a choice between being attractive and hungry, or fat and happy. It wasn't so much that I chose to be fat; it was that I chose to be happy. I knew the work it took to be thin(ner). I spent years counting every calorie, writing down everything I ate, trying every new diet, and doing the math to make sure that nothing put between my lips was left unpunished. But choosing fat and happy wasn’t a choice made out of laziness; rather, it was a choice made because I was tired of hating my body—something I did no matter what the number on the scale said. What never once crossed my mind was that I could be fat, happy, and attractive. Like many people, I thought fat was always ugly, especially to men. I cared less about men, though, once I stopped hating myself. A great side-effect of learning to love myself was feeling less of a need for another person’s approval.

This didn’t make me any less shocked when a man I found attractive asked me out, a month after I gave up. I was skeptical of him at first. Tempted to write him off as a “chubby chaser” or some freak who found fat chicks amusing. An attractive man wanting to date me didn’t fit anywhere into my understanding of the rules.

It was after a couple dates with him—when my walls were still up, but I was feeling tempted to let them down—that I decided to go searching for his flaws. I started the place everyone does: Facebook. What I was most afraid of were the pictures of his exes. Not because I was threatened by them, but because I was afraid to be like them. A “them” I feared would look as hideous as I had previously felt. But as I clicked on their pictures, I was shocked to see that though they were all around my size, they were…pretty. The first woman I figured was an anomaly, or just took flattering pictures, but the second woman was equally attractive. Seeing them in succession made me realize that men exist whose type is “fat and pretty.” Those two things together was not something I’d believed in before. It’s not that I’d never seen a pretty, fat woman, it’s that I’d never thought one could be just pretty, not pretty*—the asterisk standing for, “if you weren't so fat.” 

I started to look around me, and for the first time, instead of hyper-focusing on body parts I thought were attractive—flat stomachs, thin thighs, solitary chins—I saw whole women. Women who, at a size 12, or 18, or 10, were happy, loved, and content with their lives. These were not women who had “let themselves go”—they were women who chose to embrace their bodies at whatever size they were, instead of fighting to make them smaller. I wanted to be one of these women. I was one, as it turned out. 

Allowing myself to accept that women could be attractive and fat allowed me to trust my (now-husband) when he complimented me. There’s nothing wrong with him either, and he’s not alone—there are men out there who find women of all sizes attractive and desirable. Attractiveness is subjective, not something you can point to on a chart. To claim that “all” men only find one type of body appealing is both myopic and offensive. Men, and women, are allowed to deviate from the standards of beauty society says is best. They’re allowed to be attracted to women who look like me.

Still, my fear was that if I allowed myself to eat what I wanted, I’d not just be fat, but gain hundreds of pounds. I was scared that if free to eat anything, I’d eat everything. Get so big that my husband would be equal parts turned off, and concerned about me. But this didn’t happen. My weight has been steadier in the five years since I stopped dieting than it was during the 15 years prior. That’s because when food stopped being “good” or “bad” and became simply food, it lost its power to control me. There’s no need to obsess over peanut M&M’s all day when you can eat them whenever you want. And being able to have them, made me want them less. 

I didn’t lose any weight when I stopped obsessing over food. That didn’t matter. What was worth so much more than being able to fit into a smaller size was being able to go an entire day without the constant soundtrack of calories reverberating through my head. I was free to enjoy myself while cooking dinner, or going out to eat with my husband. It was just the two of us—not dieting meant there was no third entity present in our relationship, encroaching on my attention and time, demanding to be acknowledged. Being able to exist as a person who cared more about who I was, than what I looked like, allowed me to find love. Both with my husband, and myself.

I might not ever have a body that most people find attractive, but I have something more important—happiness. Happiness with myself, and with the man who loves me. All of me.


This is the second of a series on bodies and relationships. For more entries, click here.

You're Right, I Didn't Eat That

"The second best thing about fifth grade," writes Alana Massey, "is that nearly without exception, everyone in it is a hybrid monster sitting precariously on the border between childhood and adolescence which results in them doing uncomfortable things like still playing with Barbie but making her have multiple abortions." You see why I'm eager to share her work here, oui? Funny as her blog, Oh It's Just Awful, may be, it's her keen, pensive eye on human behavior that draws readers in. A graduate of New York University and Yale Divinity School, Alana has seen her work published at The Baffler, Religion Dispatches, Nerve, Jezebel, xoJane, Forbes, and more. Follow her on Twitter here.


I’d only dropped a couple of sizes but I was in an entirely new country.

There are a number of euphemisms for female thinness that do not require a man to make the impolite admission of his exclusive attraction to women with very little body fat. Though “active” and “full of energy” make respectable showings, they are a distance second and third from “a woman who takes care of herself.” It seems a benign enough request, but one quickly learns that this man is not especially concerned that she has regularly scheduled self-care sessions like time with friends or spa days with a good book. He isn’t asking that her household finances be in order and that she be self-actualized. He is asking her to be thin. When he says “herself,” he means “her body.” 

I am not especially bothered by men who desire thin women. They are just as susceptible to messages that these are the women that they should find most attractive as women are to messages that they should look like them. The more troubling kind of man has a caveat about a woman’s thinness. She must not be “obsessed” or “overly concerned” with it. Or at least not visibly so. She mustn’t always order salads or freak out when she doesn’t make it to the gym. Watching her eat a cheeseburger—or better yet, a steak—even oddly enthralls him. (I’m sure there’s a Freudian explanation about the appeal of watching big things go into small ones for that but I haven’t found it yet.) An Instagram trend of thin women posing with calorie-dense foods that functions partly to appeal to this desire has even made headlines recently as the “You Did Not Eat That” account has gained popularity. But the impulse to pretend is understandable. For a thin woman to betray the reality of her diet and regimen for staying that way would spoil the fantasy of a woman who is preternaturally inclined to her size rather than personally preoccupied by it. 

Men seeking this woman are not seeking a carefree attitude as much as they are seeking a biological anomaly. For the majority of women, being thin is something with which she must be overly concerned in order to achieve and maintain it. Being effortlessly thin is no more achievable through a charmingly carefree attitude than becoming green-eyed or double-jointed. And while naturally thin women exist, of course, their numbers cannot keep pace with the number of men that desire them. And so we must be overly concerned as quietly as possible. 

At a size 0 and a low BMI, I am frequently told by men, “I can tell you take good care of yourself.” This was not something I heard much for most of my adult-sized life when I was a few sizes larger. I was average and proportional. I worked out regularly and ate reasonably well. But I was never thin. And then in my mid-20s I had the good fortune to react to a breakup not with overeating or bad rebound sex but with exercise. Lots of it. And homemade juice. Lots of that too. Mostly that, really. Bones and sinew emerged. I got a thigh gap, that bizarre and coveted beauty feature defined by absence. The number on the scale dropped, then dropped more.

And though I never had trouble getting a respectable amount of romantic attention, at a size 0 it rushed in at such a volume and with such enthusiasm that it was difficult not to be taken aback. I always thought it was a melodramatic cliché when thin women said that the more they disappeared, the more visible they became, but it was now undeniable. Male acquaintances suddenly wanted to spend more alone time together. Compliments during sexual encounters that were once full of the word “beautiful” became dominated by mesmerized declarations about me being so “little” and “tiny.” Men suddenly felt comfortable telling mean-spirited jokes about overweight women and lamenting how poorly other women took care of themselves. I’d only dropped a couple of sizes but I was in an entirely new country.

Covert concern about my body is easy to maintain in the dating phase of relationships. Men will touch a particularly small or toned part of me and remark, “Wow, you must work out.” Upon confirmation that I do, the most frequent reply is, “So what do you do, yoga?” It is generally safe to assume that such men have never practiced yoga. Yoga, in the minds of many straight men, is a placeholder for light but effective exercise done primarily by women. It is a sanitary practice, a form of exercise uncontaminated by sweat or gender-neutral footwear. Something that pretty girls do three times a week in flattering pants. But while the benefits of yoga are tremendous, it cannot turn overweight or average bodies into tiny ones. Real yoga—as opposed to cardio routines that borrow heavily from it—cannot create the calorie deficits required to be thin thin. Real thinness requires something much more brutal.

For naturally average or heavy women, maintaining a thin physique means making a constant and careful calibration of physical activity and consumption. Too much caloric intake that isn’t rigorously accounted for with exercise produces undesirable weight gain. Too large a calorie deficit backfires with a slowed metabolism. Strength training causes more calories to burn while at rest but too much produces a muscled look, literally hard evidence that this is not the thinness of a carefree woman. It is not just a matter of what you eat and burn but also of making sure you’ve planned sufficient time for both, carefully anticipating social engagements, unforeseen late nights at the office, and illness. It is deeply disordered but not quite diseased and because the aesthetic is desirable when it only borders on worrying, it is presumed the result of good care. 

“What do you do?” women will often ask, perhaps in the hope that initiation into the secret society is by invitation from existing members. I have found that three syllables followed by an exclamation point is the most optimal response to deflect attention from the reality of your regimen. Lean protein! Barre method! Kale salads! Neurosis! Even if I were to neutrally report what I must really do, the overt concern would be evident by the sheer number of precautions and actions that must be taken on a daily basis. “Diet and exercise” can be used as deceptive shorthand because it doesn’t actually mean anything at all.

“Can’t you just skip the gym this once?” a man asked as he tugged at my forearm from the bed on a Saturday morning and remarked on the merits of brunch. The night before, he had remarked on the merits of the prominent female clavicle. I smiled and pulled away, saying I signed up for a class that required 90 minutes advanced notice for cancellation. Maybe next weekend? I did not say that I could not because I skipped the gym Thursday to console a friend. I did not say that I had already splurged on grapefruit juice instead of my usual seltzer the night before. I did not say that I would double my cardio all week in anticipation of not being able to ask what my food was cooked in or to have egg whites in front of him at brunch the following week. I wouldn’t want to bore him with the details of scheduled spontaneity.

“Come on, you don’t need to get any skinnier!” another man declared after I declined food during a camping trip where everything seemed to come either on a potato bun or drenched in mayonnaise. I didn’t mention that four days away from the gym was already dangerously close to compromising my progress. I didn’t scream, “Vacation is where skinny goes to die!” or any other troubling quote I had read on the many Tumblr accounts blurring the line between motivation and beratement. He knew that I had not always been this thin yet treated my getting that way as a single event that could not be undone, like getting past the age of 25 or earning a Bachelor’s degree. I wanted to tell him that getting thin was not terribly difficult, but that staying that way is another thing entirely. I wanted to say that as a complex living organism, the human body is on for twenty-four hours a day, ready to betray you at an astonishing speed for minor transgressions if you do not respect its hypersensitivity to what goes in and out of it. But that would sound so obsessed.

As relationships advance, romantic partners become visibly disappointed and even annoyed that maintaining thinness is not a matter of a quick jog and 100 crunches. When he goes to find a refrigerator staple like butter, I can claim I simply ran out the first time but I must eventually admit that I don’t keep it in my home. My getting up to run eight miles the morning after sleeping together is admirable in the beginning but becomes frustrating when it means he almost always wakes up alone. I fool no one when I claim that really, this salad made of translucent iceberg lettuce is my favorite menu option at the diner. Meals are never skipped but they are rarely thoroughly enjoyed either. Despite taking care never to mention the cycle of calculating, scheduling, and calibrating, there is a mountain of damning physical evidence.

The revelations are slow but they come. A calorie tracking mobile app has better real estate on my smartphone than my calendar. The sudden realization that I’ve never been “that hungry” when we go out. The suspicious number of claims I make about simply not liking universally popular foods. I’ll let the cable bill wait but my gym membership is on time, every time. But these symptoms do not aggregate into the appearance of a disease but rather, into a certain temperament. It makes them exclaim, “Relax!” rather than, “Get help.” The level of control the symptoms reveal hovers close to illness but doesn’t cross far enough over the line so as to become sad, merely unattractive. And it is easier to walk away from someone who is unattractive than someone who is sad.

Once on a first date, a man remarked on the dishonesty of online dating profile pictures and said, “You know this girl showed up and I thought, ‘What did you do, eat the girl in the pictures?’” He was not the first to make such a remark but I was so ambivalent on the possibility of seeing him again and it wasn’t even a good fat joke that I said, “I don’t like that joke. I used to be fat.” “Fat” was an exaggeration but “fatter” wouldn’t have put me in evident solidarity with this duplicitous overweight woman. Eyes that had been looking at me affectionately all evening became fearful and he asked, “Do you think you’ll ever gain it back?” Flattering as it can be to know that a man has already considered our long future together all the way into “ever,” I was mostly appalled at the transparency of the question. I considered the life expectancy of healthy women and the statistical probability of me having children and nodded my head. “Yeah,” I said, refusing to add, “But not anytime soon, I’m totally and completely obsessed with staying thin now that I know that the world is handed to me on a silver platter.”

It is the moments when they realize that thinness is so impermanent, a constant struggle against a metabolism and genetic composition that you’ve breathed sinister life into that they are disappointed. Realizing that thinness could easily be sabotaged by illness, injury, or age seems a strange revelation to have for people who also occupy human bodies but it seems a revelation nonetheless. So what I’ve been more disturbed to realize is that it is not the habits themselves that are unattractive, but their clear necessity. Watching me order kale all the time isn’t the hard part, it is realizing every time I do that the alternative could be disastrous. And so they seek a more carefree woman who possesses either enviable genetics or professional expertise at disguising her weight-related diligence. Someone who does not force them to confront the reality that her body can and will change.

And so I have become increasingly up-front that for me, it takes an enormous effort to stay small. That it takes up my time and energy and by extension, might end up taking some of theirs as well if we are together. I assure them that I want to stay that way more than I want anything else so not to worry too much about me “letting myself go.” Romantic relationships are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rewards of thinness. But I let them know that when it comes to me being thin and carefree about it, they can’t have their cake and eat it too. But that they’re more than welcome to mine.


Edit: This is the first in a series on bodies and romantic relationships. For more entries, click here