Fear of fat

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, APR 12, 2004

I am going to marry a man I love, but he says if I gain a lot of weight he might leave me.


Dear Cary,

I am engaged to a fantastic person. For the first time I feel I am with someone who loves me for who I am, and not for who they want me to be. He loves it all, the good and the ugly, and that leaves me feeling very at ease in this relationship. I also feel I’ve come to a point in my maturity where I can reciprocate such a love.

In the course of planning our wedding, certain issues have come up that never seem to come up until the reality of spending the rest of your lives together is concrete and imminent. We’ve weathered all of these touchy areas (our mutually dysfunctional family histories, our finances) very well. But there is one thing that has come up a few times that I’ve been unable to resolve and I don’t know if I’m oversensitive about it or whether I have real cause for concern.

Once, when we were discussing various statistics I’ve read about the success rates of marriage, he asked me on what grounds would I ever divorce him. I had to wrack my brain to think of something that would make me want to lose this valuable person from my life. Almost anything seemed workable when I thought about it. So, I threw out something that seemed not even remotely possible: child molestation. When I returned the question, I expected to get back an equally morally reprehensible reason, something he knew I would never act upon. Instead, he said, “Well, if you gained a lot of weight, I would probably divorce you.”

I was more than surprised and I argued with him that he should love me as a person, not for my body, and that there were a myriad of reasons that I could gain weight, other than pure lack of concern for my health and/or laziness. To him, though, me gaining 50 or so pounds meant that I would become undesirable to him and that I had no concern for his desire for me and that I had changed as a person.

It hasn’t really come up since then, but last night we were watching a program about obese teens, and he made the comment that he was glad I didn’t weigh as much as one of the profiled teenage girls did. I made a joke about being glad as well, but his comments about my gaining weight have been buzzing annoyingly in my mind.

Growing up, I had issues with weight control. I starved myself for a few months as a teenager, but upon hearing from friends that I looked unwell, I began eating again. My stepmother would weigh and measure me every time I went to visit my father until I was finally old enough to tell her to shut up. I had a relationship in my early 20s with a vegan boy who asked me to become vegan in order to maintain the relationship. When he caught me eating (horrors!) something with dairy in it, he’d berate me, calling me weak and unfaithful. My current partner has never made me feel this way and part of me feels he thinks my gaining weight is as unlikely as him committing a sexual crime. I guess I just find his attitudes toward obesity judgmental and not compassionate.

It is unlikely that I would gain an unusual amount of weight, but I don’t like the worry of doing so hanging over my head. Am I being overly insecure because of my past experiences or do I have real reason to feel wary of moving forward with this person? In nearly every cell of my being, I feel positive and secure about marrying this person, but I can’t let this issue go.

Worried

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Dear Worried,

I think you have real cause for concern. If you have a history of susceptibility to body weight issues, and he has an unusually intense interest in your own weight, I think that’s a recipe for trouble. Neither you nor he seems to have a great problem in and of itself, but when you’re paired, you’re like catalysts for each other.

I think you should talk to him again about this theoretical question and find out if he was kidding. If not, it could be trouble. I’m no expert, and so the opinions of some experts would be helpful here. But as a connoisseur of madness, I believe we all carry the seeds of self-treachery, that we sometimes secretly seek out people who hold the keys to our own destruction. Anorexia seems to be a disease of body-hatred, or self-hatred. To put a finer point on it, perhaps we seek to become divine by freeing ourselves of the gross material and animal forces that circumscribe our reality, that burden us with birth, life, eating, shitting, disease and death. We try to displace those irksome terms of service with standards of eternal beauty through thinness and wasting. If so, if that’s what the disease is all about, then you may have found the perfect person to trigger that disease, and are thus in some danger of succumbing to it.

You may in fact have that disease in some latent form, and have sought out this man — or your disease has sought out this man — so it can fulfill itself. (As addicts sometimes do.) If he were to threaten to leave you if you did not stay thin, perhaps you think you need a man to threaten to leave you so that you can stay thin.

Part of the problem is the assumption that there is a real you that can be loved apart from your body. I’m not sure how much sense that makes. If there were a real you that could be loved apart from your body, what’s the sense in getting married? Why not just be loved at a distance? Love is not an abstract essence; it is a behavior. Love is an action performed on a body. I don’t necessarily mean sex itself, but I do mean that you have to be there for love — you bring your body with you. That’s a bit of a tangent, but I get the feeling that the mind-body split has much to do with the weight problem: That if the mind were truly sovereign over the body, it could keep the body thin, and thus the refusal to eat is a declaration of sovereignty over the animal. At the root of that is the false notion that the two are split. No better evidence could arise of its falsity than the fact that when the mind gains sovereignty over the body and stops it from eating, the body dies, and with it, presumably, the all-sovereign mind.

The mind is presumed to die unless, allied with the disease of anorexia, there is a belief in afterlife. I haven’t really looked into what dead anorexics believed. It’s a terrible and tragic thing, and I don’t mean to treat it cavalierly: What you hear in my voice, I think, is not a cavalier attitude, really, but an exasperated and tragic anger, such as that I feel when I see heroin addicts die, such as that I feel as I watch Courtney Love fall apart in front of our eyes, such as I’ve felt when I’ve seen my friends die from drugs and alcohol. It’s not pretty and it’s not funny.

So I’m begging you now, get some help from an expert on eating disorders.

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Help! I’m falling for a fat man!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 27, 2006

I like this guy a lot, but the poundage is a turnoff.


Dear Cary,

Currently I’m dating a man who just won’t leave my consciousness, not for a moment. I think of him all the time. He’s pretty special.

My problem is this: This wonderful man with whom I’ve shared some amazing moments and do share a phenomenal connection … he’s overweight. He’s not merely out of shape or a hike and a swim away from fit, he’s fat.

I’ve made a conscious effort to look past it (“it” being my own stupid, shallow, superficial, counterproductive reaction to the weight), but there it is, all of the time. In bed, he’s attentive, very strong, wonderful — we enjoy genuine chemistry — but even when the lights are out I find it difficult to navigate his flesh. I’m a smallish person stature-wise; it’s difficult for me to wind around a man with what little leg I’ve been given, never mind a man the size of one and a half men.

Worse yet is I fear being a selfish lover, because I don’t fantasize pleasing him the way I would ordinarily with a slimmer man. I’m intimidated, daunted and generally unprepared for certain activities.

I don’t know what to do. It’s a turnoff. And worst of all, part of the reason it’s a turnoff is that I see myself with a head-turner when the lights are on. I’ve always been with striking men — not pretty boys, but men who had that quality; after all, it’s that quality which turns my head in the first place. And this man just doesn’t light my fire in that way. I’m attracted to nearly everything about him but his size. So he doesn’t light my fire, and doesn’t feed my ego in the company of strangers. I hate myself even for admitting it; it’s just so superficial.

Am I trying to convince myself that we have a future together? Is there any way I can get past my bias and enjoy this person for who he is in total?

Weighing in, in Washington

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Weighing in,

You haven’t gotten this far by pretending. You’ve gotten this far by being straightforward and honest, and I suggest you continue being straightforward and honest.

This is harder, of course, because we are freaked out about fat. It is one of our crazy things. It goes deep. It has its paradoxes and corollaries as well — we are freaked out about skinny, and we are freaked out about food, and the planet, and the body and money and exercise and power. We are a freaked-out culture. We are all freaked out.

The fat man knows this.

If you are a fat man in America you cannot help noticing that people are freaked out about fat. People will suggest exercise bikes. They will feed you lean portions. They will say to each other, “It’s his fault, and it’s disgusting; he must have no willpower; he must eat the wrong things; he must be repressing something; he must not respect himself.” And what does the fat guy say? He says, Yes, thank you for that astute observation, I have indeed noticed that I am fat.

So I suggest what you do is go in your backyard and sit quietly and meditate on the fact that you are not turned on by this fat man. Meditate on the fact that you like him very much but he doesn’t turn you on. Wait for something to come to you. Accept the answer that comes. If you come to the feeling that you have to end it, then end it. If you come to the feeling that you want to stay with him for a while more, then stay with him for a while more. If you come to both, then put each on an apothecary’s scale, weigh them and choose the one that weighs a little more.

Don’t try to reason it out and don’t guilt-trip yourself. We don’t know why we are the way we are. It’s not our job to know. Just meditate on it and wait for an answer.

Maybe you meditate on it and the answer that comes is that it’s just not right for you. OK. Make a tearful goodbye. Or maybe you meditate on it and it continues to intrigue you and so you stay with him for a while. What’s the harm in that? Maybe you learn something new. Maybe you have sex and it turns out to be good. Maybe it’s just some learning you have to do — maybe you are not used to having sex in ways that are not automatic; maybe there would be some learning at first and then it would be automatic, just as it always was. What can it hurt to find out?

And by the way, why are you in such a hurry lately? Two or three dates is not all that much time. Human emotion goes slowly. Insight is a complex computation; it can take days on our little computers.

Besides, consider: The sex is great in the beginning lots of times. This you no doubt know. It doesn’t always stay great. It might dwindle down. It might be great at first with some guy you don’t like that much otherwise. It might dwindle down and then what have you got? A guy you don’t like all that much anyway whom you don’t like to fuck much either anymore.

Some things are painful and sad and wrong but nonetheless true.

We are the way we are for reasons unknown to us. You needn’t feel guilty if it isn’t working out. Quiet your mind and wait for the answer to come to you.

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