“I liked you better skinnier.”
It was a bright spring morning, and my boyfriend and I were relaxing at home before I had to go to a work event. I jumped off the couch and stared slack-jawed at him.
“You’ve changed so much since we started dating. You’ve gained weight,” he whined as he stretched out like a sleepy lion. Then he tilted his head, widened his dark brown eyes with a look of betrayal and said in what I had come to secretly call his Snob Voice:
“I feel deceived. Did you…sell me a bill of goods?”
Let’s see if this makes sense. Apparently in his mind I had purposefully lost a lot of weight while I was on the dating market in order to snag a man. Then once I was in a relationship I gained it back (again, on purpose). Yeah, that was my evil plan all along; it was all about tricking him. Logical, no?
I was too stunned to think straight and immediately went into defending myself. I should have said something funny like, “Well, I liked you better when you had more hair and a job!” or “I liked you better when you got the hell out of my house five minutes ago!” but by that time in the relationship I was so desperate for his approval and terrified of his criticism that I felt stuck. Every other week or so he would threaten to pick up and move out of state for a job, or he would point out ominously how “incompatible” we were. Loving him made me a nervous wreck. I couldn’t take another criticism, especially about something as sensitive as my body.
“I was sick when you met me!” I pleaded. “I wasn’t eating, and I was drinking too much! I was so unhappy! I looked terrible! People kept asking me what was wrong! I needed to gain weight and get healthy again. I’ve told you about this before. Why can’t you understand? ” Sadly I felt like I had to apologize for myself rather than the other way around. Panicked, my thoughts went to debating over whether I should start starving myself again.
He turned up his perfect little nose and looked away from me. With angry tears in my eyes I drove to my work event and pouted silently the entire time. I was burning with hatred for him. By the way, I was 116 pounds and a size four petite at the time of this incident.
Later that day we tentatively made our peace with each other, but the issue never really resolved itself. By the time we broke up, which just happened to be a week after my bo dan test, it had been buried under a pile of other irreconcilable differences. It was just as well that I made the last six months of my journey to black belt alone.
Here’s the real deal: When I had met him at my “skinnier” size I was several pounds lighter and in the throes of food restriction, alcohol abuse, and a severe bout of depression. I was thin and haggard to the point that my family and coworkers began to notice. I looked brittle and sunken. My skin was sallow, there were dark circles under my eyes, and my clothes hung from my bones. Of course I lied to everyone that I was fine. Tricking a man into dating me in all my skeletal, miserable glory was not really top of mind.
Once I began taekwondo training my priorities dramatically shifted. I had something wholesome and positive to focus on, something to look forward to every other day, and people who cared about me without judgment. I was doing something just for me, not to make myself seem better in some other person’s eyes. I was no longer punishing myself by punishing my body. I began to see myself as a strong athlete and food as necessary fuel. In all I probably only gained around 7-8 pounds, and much of it was muscle…okay, some of it. A few weeks after I began training I met the boyfriend, and we started dating. We were off to a good start, but my body image and eating issues didn’t go away.
He told me every day of our relationship that I was beautiful and that he loved me, but the pressure to stay thin was on me from the beginning. Early into our relationship he’d admitted he preferred the waif body type—flat chests and slim hips, thin spaghetti-like arms and soft shoulders. He bragged that most of his previous girlfriends were from Europe and would starve themselves other than eating one indulgent meal per day. He was originally from South America, so the stereotype that Latin men appreciate a woman with curves fell…well…flat, for lack of a better word.
I remember feeling stressed during the first week or two of seeing him. I had just started to get my health back thanks to taekwondo, and then I found myself wondering if I would need to continue my unhealthy starvation habits to remain attractive to him. He once casually mentioned that during the summer he usually skipped dinner to cut weight and get lean, hearkening back to his weight-dropping habits as a high school and collegiate wrestler. He would often remind me (in the midst of telling me how beautiful I was) that he was dating against type since I was (1) American and (2) a little rounder than his typical pencil-thin paramours. He noticed the bulky muscle I put on from taekwondo before I did.
While I was ultimately the one who chose to let his comments get under my skin (well at least THAT part of me is thin), no woman, regardless of size or looks, deserves a cruel dismissal and strange accusation from someone who supposedly loves her. I’ve had disordered eating and body image problems since my teens, so my anxiety around weight existed long before this guy entered the picture. I’m not sure if I will ever totally overcome them, so if someone makes a comment about my looks it really messes with my head.
Disordered eating and body image problems aside, I just couldn’t understand why he would say something so hateful when I thought I was quite healthy. I’m small, proportional, and look both feminine and strong. My waist is the same size it was in high school. These days my “walking around weight” hovers between 118 and 120 pounds, which is probably WAY too fat for the ex’s standards, but it’s a much leaner version of the 120-pound version of myself that I was in my mid-twenties. The last time I checked I was at 18% body fat, which is healthy for a woman in her late thirties. In short, I look pretty damn good. So why the criticism?
And come on, who doesn’t put on a little bit of “happy weight” into a new relationship? Sunday night pizza and a movie was our THING! Our big treat was going to the SAM’s snack bar to get Nathan’s hot dogs! I didn’t become Munchkin-sized Jabba the Hutt on my own!
A reader who knows me personally recently asked me why I stayed in that situation while at the same time my blog posts were pointing to all the epiphanies and confidence breakthroughs I was having thanks to taekwondo. How could I be such a badass in the dojang while at home I was submissive and sensitive? My immediate defensive response was: don’t judge me the way he did (he LOVED to look for loopholes between my blog versus how I was in “real life”). We can have insights and ideas that take longer to implement due to our hard-wired habits and history….meaning stuff that makes sense in our heads may have a 10 second (or 10 year) delay to show up in our actions.
My second response was: you don’t know how it feels to be in that situation unless you are in it. As dysfunctional as our relationship was, we really did love each other. While it’s true I let myself be bullied for too long, I did start to gain more confidence and self-assurance, even if it was in small increments. Taekwondo was my lighthouse during all of this. Slowly I was growing stronger and more able to be fully independent without looking to a relationship as a crutch. If I didn’t have taekwondo I’m sure I would have stayed in my self-destructive patterns for much longer.
Even though that was a terrible thing for the ex to say, I don’t want to play the victim and blame him for everything. Mr. Fat Shamer wasn’t all bad, and neither was I all good. Complicated feelings make it very difficult to leave a complicated situation. There were some very nice qualities about him and our relationship. …well, other than the whole “bill of goods” thing. Really? Who talks like that? “Bill of goods?” Is it the nineteenth century? “You, sir, have sold me a bill of goods! I slap you with my glove and challenge you to a gentlemen’s duel!”
Should I have handled things differently? Yes, but by now any regrets I have around that relationship have faded to a fuzzy washed-out hue, and indifference feels better than anger.
The ex used to say that one can only grow in relationships. I disagree since much of my growth has happened during periods of solitude, and I continue to grow and change in my chosen state of singlehood, but there’s some truth to it. Whether they’re a blessing or a lesson, the people in our lives can stretch us beyond our comfort zones.
I’m okay now. I look good and more importantly, I feel good.
While I have absolutely no interest in dating any time soon or perhaps ever (read why in this post), I know that I’m strong and confident enough to value myself over the approval of whatever man crosses my path in the future. I finally love myself, so I don’t need to look for love elsewhere. I know now that I can stand up for myself the way I do in in the dojang and in the boardroom. So if a man ever tells me my ass is too big, I’ll reply like the Big Bad Wolf:
“The better to kick yours with, my dear.”