Image: “Childless Madonna,” by Fierce Sonia, mixed media painting, 18×24 in., 2017
By Lauren Mauldin
Last week, I dreamt I was eating a bagel. Not a New York bagel, the outside crisp and sprinkled with poppy seeds, toasted flakes of onion and tiny, square cubes of salt. No, the dense, bready pre-sliced kind you buy in plastic bags. It was the closest I got to bread in a week.
I cut carbs. No bread, no sugar, no potatoes. If we were having this conversation face to face, you’d probably imagine I have terrible eating habits. Crinkly bags of colorful candy, piles of glazed donuts, giant folded slices of pizza with sauce oozing out the edges and dark spots of grease growing underneath it on the cardboard box. You might raise an eyebrow at what I’m eating in lieu of carbs – high amounts of animal fat and protein. The Keto diet. Hardly a diet if it includes bacon. Don’t worry – I secretly think all of this too, because I’m a fat person.
It’s a little hard to quantify how fat I am. Roxane Gay would classify me as between “Fine as they are” and “Lane Bryant fat.” I refer to myself as “a large person,” but my friends like to tell me “I’m not that big” because they’ve been trained to think that fat is an insult. I don’t need a seatbelt extender on a plane, but when I fly Southwest, it’s just the “C” boarders that begrudgingly sit next to me. When I go to the doctor for strep throat, they instruct me to lose weight, leaving me curious about this apparent, under-reported link between shitty tonsils and back fat. At my heaviest weight, the BMI chart marks me as “Obese.” Despite many experts declaring this archaic tool obsolete, the classification still makes me uncomfortable.
Keto isn’t my first diet. I’ve counted calories. First with free apps, then with Weight Watchers in hopes that spending $25 a month would motivate me to put less food into my body. I studied The South Beach Diet, tried meal replacement shakes, bought (and subsequently lost) a FitBit. Through everything, I initially lost weight but crumbled when I began to trust myself. Instead of measuring and precisely counting the caloric intake for each crumb, I eyeballed things. Oh yeah, that grilled chicken sandwich that’s the size of my face, slathered with mayonnaise and covered in bacon… that looks like a 4 oz. grilled all-white-no-skin breast to me! Weight loss blogs recommend a serving of meat the size of your palm. When I calorie count, my palm starts to look a lot larger. It becomes clear that I can’t rely on my own appetite.
One time I went to a doctor to lose weight – a non-surgical, medically supervised program. At the beginning of each appointment, the nurse walked me to this giant, computerized scale that not only told me how obese I was, but also my body’s composition.
“You have a high percentage of bone and muscle,” she said. “You’ll always be heavier than some other people because of that.”
She smiled as she said it, trying to nudge me towards setting a realistic “goal weight.” My body doesn’t want to be truly small. I just want to erase the rolls of extra flesh around my stomach, and the shame I have from carrying them.
On the program, I ate 1,000 calories a day through protein shakes, energy bars and puffed brown rice chips that reminded me how good real potato chips tasted. For dessert? Appetite suppressants. When a friend saw the orange pill bottle in my purse, she looked at the label.
“You know these are essentially speed, right?”
“I guess, but I’m not hungry when I take them.” On the pills, I felt hyper focused, faster and a bit more powerful than normal. What I thought skinny people must feel like.
I am the only fat person in my family.
My dad, a thin and extremely active 60 year-old, has shared health and weight loss advice for as long as he’s weighed less than I have… most of my life. “It’s very simple,” he explained. “You have to restrict your calories to lose weight. For females, that’s 1,200 a day. For men, it’s about 1,600.” As I listened holding a pillow in my lap to hide my round stomach, I stopped myself from explaining why that information was wrong.
It wasn’t the first time he has tried to help me with my problem. From my dad, I learned that Weight Watchers isn’t as effective as The South Beach Diet; white cheese is healthier than yellow; and sweet potatoes keep you skinny under all circumstances. Once, he said, “I don’t understand how people don’t know they’re gaining weight. I mean, if your pants get tighter… you need to eat less!”
I could have explained:
Well, it’s like you wear the hell out of the few pairs of pants you have, because buying pants is the worst. Some of your pants are better than others, so you wear the nice pants more often. They get all soft and stretchy, to the point that the less-nice pants feel tight. When you manage to pull on the less-nice pants, you think, “Man these less-nice pants are REALLY less-nice. They must have shrunk!” So you only wear the nice pants until the fabric wears out from your thighs rubbing together enough to kindle a boy scout’s fire, which means you now have to go through the hell of buying new pants. The size might not be the same, but you think, “It’s a different brand” or “This must be vanity sizing!” Maybe the new pants are a size bigger, but they feel like they might end up being nice pants so you buy them anyway.
I have been through the pants routine more times than I can count.
The last time I was a “skinny” size was 2006 in the beginning of my first serious relationship. I left clothes over at my boyfriend’s house, including an incredibly stretchy, pair of pinstripe slacks. When one of his female friends was over visiting, she saw my pants hanging up to dry. “I would kill to be that size,” she said.
It felt like a lie. Most of my pants were larger, and I was already starting to creep up. I never thought my size was something to covet, even though I would donate one of my thighs to charity to be that thin now. In the United States fashion scale, I’m the smaller side of plus. I can still squeeze into most tops at street size stores like Banana Republic or Ann Taylor Loft. Pants are a nightmare, but I’ve avoided having to shop at exclusively plus size stores (something we’re trained to believe is fashion suicide) by buying pants and dresses at mish mash places like Nordstrom Rack or size inclusive retailers like Modcloth.
Online, I follow body positive, plus size fashion bloggers who bend their smooth curves in flattering poses, wearing flowy tops, dramatic black pencil skirts and delicate nude heels. They’re beautiful. I try to recreate their looks, and copy a figure-flattering outfit I’ve seen online: a hunter green long sleeve knit dress with a brown equestrian belt cinching my spanx-controlled waist, finished with extra wide saddle leather boots. I’m satisfied with my front in the mirror, but when I turn 90 degrees to the side profile I’m not okay with how much space I consume.
I don’t push back on my dad’s dieting advice, because I believe I deserve his lectures. I carry the burden of being the one who takes up too much room in the family photos. The truth is, my family does not know what to do with me.
They’ve always been beach people, the one place I can’t hide the flaws of my body with high waisted jeans and a good fitting bra. A few years ago, I sat on a beach chair next to some family friends. Keeping my chair propped upright, I kept a book over my thick belly to hide the flesh folding into itself under an unforgiving layer of spandex. Next to me, a couple I’d grown up with reclined further back in their chairs, stomachs flat and oily under the warm heat of the sun.
They looked down the beach, watching a group of young children playing in the sand.
“Why do you think that kid is fat?” my friend asked. A ways down the beach, a girl, around eight or nine-years-old, ran towards the ocean with a bucket of sand. Her tan belly, hanging over pink polka dotted bikini bottoms, wiggled with each step.
“I don’t know,” her husband responded.
“Are those her siblings?” she asked. My friend stretched her toes out into the sand in front of her. Her lean legs were concave under her bent knee. I looked down at my own, bent at a 45-degree angle with the back of my knee mashed up against the bottom of my thigh to create a triangle of flesh. No concave anything.
“Yeah it looks like it,” her husband said.
“None of the siblings are chunky.” She turned her head to look further up the beach at a couple sitting in chairs similar to ours. “Think those are the parents?”
He glanced backwards. “Yeah, they’re not big either though.”
“No, they’re not.” She flipped the latch on her chair, reclining it fully down. “I wonder why the kid is fat then,” she said before placing her hat over her eyes to block the sun while she napped. I stared at my knees, fleshy and dimpled, and hoped their child would look like her mom. Chasing a stubborn ten pounds, instead of resembling someone like me.
Figure skating taught me to believe I was a fat child. From ages five to thirteen, I competed up and down the East Coast. My favorite part was the beginning of each season when my coach would bring me a new cassette tape with a hand written label: Lauren – Juvenile Ladies Freestyle, 2:25. New program immediately pushed into the tape player in my mom’s car, I’d repeatedly listen to the chords of music plucked from soundtracks with The Sound of Music, Sunset Boulevard, An American Tale, Babe. I pictured elaborate strings of footwork, powerful axel jumps and dramatic layback spins and always during the slow, emotional build – a spiral.
The ice rink was a place to point my toes and raise my arms out into a world of music, artistry and power. At 6am practice before school when the rink was mostly empty, I would beg my mom to walk up to the DJ booth and put on a random tape, so I could interpret an original program and skate to the moves of my own heart.
I idolized my main coach, Calvin, a not quite Olympian but 1992 bronze medal “Gay Games” winner. The toughest coach at the rink, I lived for his praise and to be pulled into his full-length mink coat in a hug after a good competition. Calvin liked winners, and he liked to yell. “FASTER! GET YOUR ARMS UP!” he’d scream as I powered past doing backwards crossovers, digging my blades deeper into the ice.
I wanted to be Calvin’s star student, but always felt bigger than my fellow skaters. Most of this was height. In school I was one of the tallest girls in class since the first grade, but figure skating is a society of pixies. Nancy Kerrigan, a skater that towered over her competitors on TV, is only 5’4”. The best jumpers and fastest power skaters look like tiny nymphs fleeting across the ice on their skinny legs. Those were the girls who beat me in competitions, who progressed faster than me. I once practiced at Regionals next to Tara Lipinski, a few years older than me and many levels higher. While she sprang into a triple lutz, I strained to get my long leg up into a high spiral. Tara Lipinski is 5’1”, and went on to win an Olympic Gold Medal. I am 5’9”, and went on to write essays about missing carbs.
Walking towards the car with my mom one afternoon, my skate bag slung over my shoulder, Calvin stopped us before we left.
“I think she’s about to go through another growth sport,” he said to my mother.
“You think?” she replied. I stood there quietly, Converse sneakers feeling too large with my feet still in skating tights.
“She’s stocking up some,” he patted my hip as he spoke. I looked towards the glass doors leading out into the sunshine. I didn’t want to stock up. I didn’t want to grow. Every inch meant I lost all my jumps. The axel, double loop, double toe and especially the damned double salchow. My body felt like a stranger as my right toe pick struck the ice, ankle rolling over and collapsing before I fell back on my side.Over and over. After practice, my tights were cold and wet from my butt down to my knee.
The other skaters said I looked like Nicole Bobek. Nicole wasn’t my favorite skater, Kristi Yamaguchi was, but I paid closer attention to Nicole when we watched the big competitions on TV. She never did as well as the other girls. I liked her hair, bright and blonde like mine, but watching her signature move, an over-flexed spiral, I thought she looked heavier than the others. Full thighs, boobs. Fat. I figured that’s why people thought I looked like her.
Now when I look at pictures of the mid 90’s Nicole Bobek, I see an athletic girl with roughly B cup breasts and muscular thighs that propelled her off the ground for all her triple jumps. When I look at pictures of me from my skating days, I can’t find an ounce of fat on me. You were never in such good shape than when you were figure skating, my dad said once. He wasn’t wrong. Three hours of practice a day, chronically bad knees, stiff ankles and body dysmorphia – that was the price for my fitness.
Since I started the Keto diet, I weigh myself every morning. The only thing I do prior is go to the bathroom – especially exciting if I have to poop, meaning the weigh-in will be even less. After eight days, I am six pounds down. This is water weight. I don’t get excited. I plug the numbers into my “Happy Scale” app with its smiley face and non-threatening, sky blue scale. It congratulates me on reaching my first milestone.
My mother has always been petite. At 5’4”, she wears a 6 shoe and maintained a 4-dress size while I was growing up. As a kid, I watched her get ready for a big gala with my father. She leaned over the sink to curl her fine, blonde hair. In a red, satin dress, her knee poked through a daring, but still appropriately southern, slip.
Even as a card-carrying member in the society of beautiful people, my mother has always been my body image champion. She wasn’t given the same support growing up. My grandmother, a stately, full bodied woman who wanted nothing more in life than to be considered “Old South money” (despite not having money), raised my mother to believe that her value was in her looks. You’re going out like that? You look tired, my grandmother would snap at the sixteen-year-old version of my mother if she tried to leave the house without mascara.
When I was in my early twenties, I casually told my mother that I thought I got my body type from my grandmother, figuring obesity could skip generations. We shared the same face shape, ample breasts and delicate wrists. At the time, my mom quietly nodded. Later, I found out she squeaked to my father through tears, Lauren blames me for being overweight! I don’t. I blame a hatred of gyms and the fact that I love cheese more than most people as to why I’m overweight. But I understood my grandmother’s fascination with expensive pearl jewelry and elaborate makeup. Often, this is the way big women get to participate in the world of beauty. Polished faces, good hair and charming accessories – the only aesthetic currency we can offer.
My mother took me shopping for my first prom dress when I was sixteen, an important milestone, but the dresses weren’t right. I didn’t want anything poofy. Anything pink. Anything sparkly. Those were reserved for thin, pretty girls. So we pulled charcoal, navy, conservative dresses off the rack and headed towards the dressing room, still optimistic.
Nothing zipped over my chest, and there were no larger sizes. I stormed out of the store in silence. I didn’t belong at the prom, and I ruined what should have been a beautiful mother daughter moment. While she scrambled to catch up with me, I rested my elbows on the railing above the lower level of the mall. Below a group of teenage girls strut past, waving their Abercrombie & Fitch bags like a totem. I watched the tribe that wouldn’t have me.
“I know it must be hard for you sometimes,” my mom said once she caught up, draping her elegant thin arms over the banister. “Having a mother who’s smaller than you.”
I kept looking forward.
“But you are great just how you are, and I can sew a dress for you if that’s what you want.”
She made me a spaghetti strap, floor-length gown in shades of blue with hand sewn, floral beadwork across the bodice. I went to prom every bit of an early 2000’s butterfly clip princess, knowing my mother was on my side. Today, I can’t remember anything from my junior prom, but can still hear my mother speaking to me on the second floor of Crabtree Valley Mall.
While dieting, I pay closer attention to beauty regimens. Treat myself to manicures. Exfoliate and moisturize. Slather masks on my face to harden. I tell myself to do these things because I’m practicing self-care and am learning to enjoy healthy, non-food rewards. I worry that I do them, because I’m only worth taking care of if I’m trying to lose weight.
When I can’t sleep at night, I watch old episodes of My 600 lb. Life. If Hoarders makes me want to clean my house, My 600 lb. Life should make me want to diet.
During the therapy sessions that the episode’s star attends when their weight loss stalls, the therapist digs out a specific cause — excavates a reason for the over eating. Trauma. Grief. Usually, sexual abuse. Measuring grief in calories. Protection with pounds.
I don’t eat to protect myself. I haven’t ever been assaulted by anyone. I’d actually rather be skinny and deal with catcallers than feel invisible. I could blame grief for the weight, but I was fat before my loss. If I went for a therapy session on Over 200 lb. Life, I don’t think my fat’s origin story would be impressive.
“So your family allowed you to compete in an expensive sport, with world quality coaches and support. Later as an adult, they made you feel awkward at beach trips outside the vacation home or on your dad’s yacht?” the therapist would say, leaning back into a velvet wing chair.
“Well actually, it was a convertible fishing boat.”
“Right, well that must have been so hard for you.”
It wouldn’t exactly make for dramatic television.
If I am being honest, the real reason I watch My 600 lb. Life is that it makes me feel superior. Look at me! I can buy clothes in stores. I can walk fifteen miles. My thighs fit in jeans. My fat rolls are in socially acceptable areas for fat rolls to be. I can wipe my own ass. I’m doing great. So, so great. Admitting this makes me feel like a horrible person, and I’m not wrong.
But at night, I take off my clothes and look at my body in the bathroom mirror after my bra springs off. There are deep red indents in the top of my shoulders, and around my torso curving into my back. Underneath my arms protrude two large bumps, one on each side. Axillary breasts — excess breast tissue in my armpits that create two clementine sized lumps where the skin should be flat and smooth. An abnormality exacerbated by excess weight, and something I take great pains to hide with carefully chosen shirts and special bras. Something a plastic surgeon wouldn’t consider removing, because a successful candidate should have a BMI lower than 25. I was “way past that.”
I look at the lumps in the mirror, and remember the last man I slept with running his fingertips over my body. Lightly tracing the curves of my shoulder, he saw the bulge under my arm and paused. Confused, he didn’t know what he was looking at, this weird fatty mass. I rolled onto my stomach, and hid as much of myself as I could.
Standing in front of the mirror, I realize I’m similar to the people on My 600 lb. Life. My body has strange lumps too, only I’m not brave enough to show mine. The people on that show don’t gawk at each other. They’re not looking for someone to be better than. They’re looking for a way to live.
A little over two weeks on the Keto diet, and my Happy Scale app reports I am down ten pounds. This is not exciting. It’s not something to celebrate, but rather continue. Things will be better when I lose 20lbs. Surely then I can go buy a celebratory pair of smaller jeans, ones that will hopefully stay in the category of “nice” pants.
I know I’m not supposed to feel so disappointed in my extra flesh. I’ve read a lot about fat acceptance and body positivity. Jes Baker, Roxane Gay, Brittany Gibbons, Lindy West. All bodies are good bodies! And I believe this mantra… for other people. My friends are all sizes, but I’ve never looked at any of them and wished they took up less space. Curves, cellulite, rolls, whatever – they are my friends. I smile with their silhouette, no matter how large it is. I don’t know why I can’t do the same for my own.
In a 2016 episode of This American Life, Lindy West speaks about “coming out” to her family as fat. “The way that we are taught to think about fatness is that fatness is not a permanent state. You’re just a thin person who’s failing consistently for your whole life,” she says, going on to add that it made sense to her to tell everyone she wasn’t trying to be skinny anymore and was done working towards an idyllic fantasy as a thin person. I heard that episode as I drove home to see family for Christmas, suitcase filled with specially curated outfits that would hide my rolls and make it seem like I hadn’t given up. Gripping the steering wheel, my fingers swollen from all the salt I’d eaten on the trip, I tried to figure out why I couldn’t “come out” as fat myself.
I have never been slender, tiny, svelte, thin, tight, petite, sinewy, or small. Not in skating outfits or prom dresses or family photos at the beach. I have always been this curvy, tall, pale person with cellulite, thick thighs and moderate cankles. This body has balanced dramatic layback spins. It has strolled over cobblestone, moonlit streets in Prague. It has been held by a good man who loved me fiercely. This body smiles with its loving family in so many photographs. This body has a lot of friends. This body, love for cheese and all, is healthy.
So why can’t I love it?
After two months on the Keto diet, I am down twenty pounds. This is almost exciting. My pants fit a little looser now, but some days it’s hard to tell if my body is shrinking or if I really need to do laundry. My rings slide around my fingertips a bit, even if I’ve had a lot of salt.
That last time I visited home, my mother flitted around the kitchen, offering low carb snacks she bought especially for my visit. We went shopping, back to Crabtree Valley Mall, and nobody left in tears. I saw my dad a few days later, and didn’t even hide my stomach with a pillow as we chatted.
“I didn’t want to tell you that you look awesome,” my dad said as I picked a piece of lint off new, slightly smaller jeans. “Because you looked awesome before too.”
I was silent. Not from holding back, but from disbelief. Whose approval was I trying to earn?
This morning, the Happy Scale says I’m up .2 pounds from yesterday. The day before, I was .6 pounds down. I’ll drink a lot of water to flush everything out, so I can be down again in the morning. The app predicts I’ll drop two more pounds in a week. By the middle of May, I could be at my next milestone if I stay away from bagels and potatoes and sugar and fruit. That might be worth celebrating. My cousin is getting married, and I’ve got a currently-too-small-for-me-dress in my closet that’d be perfect to wear at the rehearsal dinner. My entire family will be there.
Maybe if I lose twenty more pounds, my thighs won’t wear out the inseam of my jeans. If I lose thirty, maybe I won’t have to “come out” as a fat person. If I lose even more, my auxiliary breasts might shrivel away, leaving little bags of skin a plastic surgeon will happily snip off since I’ll fall under their target BMI. Maybe if I keep losing, I’ll be less and feel more.
Or, maybe I’ll keep dreaming of bagels.