With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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My lover is fat.
It upsets some people to hear me state this so baldly. “Doesn’t it hurt her feelings?” they ask, as if the polite thing were to act as if I hadn’t noticed that my lover weighs nearly three hundred pounds. Perhaps they think she hasn’t noticed, either — that, upon reading what I have written, she will realize for the very first time that she is fat.
“You are the only person in my life who hasn’t discouraged me or made fun of me,” my lover tells me one morning over breakfast, crying. She’s listening to musica de trios, traditional Puerto Rican ballads, and it’s making her nostalgic. She remembers how her mother used to dance to this music, spinning with the broom through their little house. She remembers island breakfasts with cafe termino medio — half strong coffee, half warmed milk — French bread, and omelets filled with fried plantains. Then her face darkens as she also remembers how she was friendless throughout her childhood, ostracized all through her school years. “I weighed 180 pounds at age twelve,” she confesses, as if this were an explanation. She tried to kill herself at sixteen.
There are few things harder than growing up fat.
What about growing up with a disability? you might ask. What about growing up neglected, or on the streets?
True, these other conditions are enormously difficult and arouse people’s pity and discomfort. Yet they are not seen as the child’s fault. Fatness is always the fat person’s fault. As everyone knows, fat people eat like pigs. They smell bad. They don’t bathe. They lack that revered American attribute: willpower. They are, quite simply, disgusting.
My lover showers every day. She has a closet full of stylish clothes in a wide range of sizes, reflecting her lifelong battle with the scale. She dresses well. She is scrupulously clean. But she grew up fat, and she is fat still. Not in a wheelchair, not on the streets, but the pariah of an entire culture.
Every taboo spawns a group of people who manage to eroticize the reviled, the feared, the forbidden. A disabled friend tells me there are people who are attracted exclusively to amputees. Similarly, I know there are “chubby-chasers” — people, most of “normal” weight, who are erotically excited by fat. A minor segment of the pornography industry caters to them.
I am not a chubby-chaser. Nor was I always, to use the politicized term, “fat-positive.” I grew up in a family as red-bloodedly fat-phobic as most. My mother, who is five-foot-two and weighs just over a hundred pounds, was perpetually on a diet. My father’s and my grandmother’s standard greeting to all family members they hadn’t seen in a while was “You look good — you’ve lost weight.” At age sixteen, weighing barely a hundred pounds myself, I, too, dieted. Some days I’d eat nothing but a single doughnut. When I got to college, I made rules for myself in the dining hall: each night I could have a salad and an entree or a salad and dessert — but never all three.
Around the time our parents were splitting up, my younger sister, Jennifer, took to watching hours of TV each afternoon, her hand in a bag of snacks the whole time. By age nine, she’d grown chubby, a fact that did not go unnoticed in our house. “Baby fat,” the family called it, fretting. Perhaps, as they claimed, they did not want her to suffer what fat people suffer. Or perhaps they just didn’t want a fat — or even a pudgy — person in their midst. So, at age twelve, Jen began to diet, too. She ate maybe a Diet Coke with added Sweet-n-Low and a few green beans in an entire day. Many days, she ate nothing at all.
When Jen got down to eighty-five pounds, the family started noticing that this exercise of willpower had gone a little too far. Those were my mother’s exact words: “I admire her willpower; she just takes it a little too far.”
Jen was sent to a therapist, and she began eating again, but it was years before anyone realized what she did afterward. Her anorexia had become bulimia, a far more insidious illness. The incessant vomiting led to laxatives — eventually forty or fifty of them a day.
In the meantime, I had discovered feminist theory. My last year in college, I took women’s studies classes and read about the many kinds of oppression. I watched my sister; I made the connection. Furious, I resolved never to diet again.
“Jude, you’re amazing,” Jen told me afterward. “You’re the only woman I know who can eat ice cream. . . . I mean, without throwing up afterward.”
Fifteen years later, my sister still keeps no food in her refrigerator. Her dyed-blond hair is dull, like broken straw, and her skin has an uneven look to it, perhaps due to long-term vitamin deficiency. Yet, when I look at her, I see her as she was at fourteen. I remember the back rubs I used to give her on my visits home from college; the delicate, knobby feel of her spine beneath my hands.
It was around that age that Jen began going out with any boy or man who asked for her phone number. More than once, she was raped. Often, she told me later, she’d only gone out with the guy because she was afraid to go home, where there was a coffeecake in the refrigerator.
She felt safer alone with a strange man, a man who might rape her, than with a coffeecake.
It was one thing to have a political stance against fat oppression. It was quite another, I found, to have a fat lover.
The problem wasn’t with my first impression. I knew right away that I was attracted to her. Maybe it was pheromones. Maybe it was destiny. In any case, a feeling in my stomach told me I wanted to go home with her.
The problem didn’t arise in bed. I wanted her, there was no question about that. My hands and mouth did not pass judgment on her flesh; they simply adored it, which is what they do best.
No, the problem came when I looked at her naked body, not while, but after we had made love. The body I saw was not one I knew how to call beautiful. My lover’s belly was distended; her thighs were thick. Around her face, she had a double, perhaps a triple chin.
As I began to fall in love, as it became clear that my lover and I could not stop touching each other, I struggled with this contradiction.
In the past, I’d had lovers who, like most people, disliked their bodies. It had been one of my talents as a lover to change those feelings. I’d praised their bodies, loving them with words as well as touch. Even after those relationships had ended, my ex-lovers had been grateful to me for that.
Now I wanted to do the same thing for my fat lover. Yet I could not tell her she was beautiful; the words would not form in my mouth. “I love your body,” I told her instead as I kissed her, licking and stroking her flesh. “I love your body,” I repeated like a mantra, to ward away the other feeling, the persistent, ugly remnants of my disgust.
Sometime in our first year together, I accompanied my lover to her doctor’s office. When he asked her weight, she hesitated, then answered in a low voice, “Two hundred and fifty.” She knew there was no point in lying — he’d weigh her anyway.
Two hundred and fifty pounds. The phrase reverberated in my head. It sounded grotesque, like a supermarket-tabloid headline. Out of habit, I recoiled.
When my lover had answered my personal ad, she’d told me she weighed 180 pounds. Not true; she’d actually weighed about forty pounds more. But 180 had been enough to tell me that she wasn’t thin — that she wasn’t, in the euphemistic parlance of personal ads, “fit.” It had been a warning, in case I wanted to back out, sight unseen, as many people would have.
Later, as she gained more weight, my lover began to worry that there was a limit to how much fat I could love, or perhaps how much fat I could overlook.
“It’s your essence I’m attracted to,” I assured her when she finally confessed her fears. “It’s what comes through your body. No amount of weight you could gain or lose would change my feelings for you.” It was only as I said those words that I realized they were true.
“Oh,” said my lover, visibly more relaxed. She had misunderstood me when I’d said I loved her body; she’d thought I loved it as an object, a fetish.
“When I say I love your body,” I told her, “I mean I love you. Your body is just the part of you I can touch.”
And somewhere along the way, the judging portion of my brain grew thinner and thinner until, like a fingernail sliver of moon, it almost disappeared. “You’re beautiful,” I told my lover then, because it was true.
Later, as my lover’s kidneys failed, I came to love her body in still other ways. Now that it had become a battleground, a locus of pain and discomfort rather than pleasure, I loved it in defiance, as if my passion could banish its ills. I loved it when it could not respond to me. I loved it perhaps in the same way that some women love “unavailable” men; because I could not reach it, even as I lay naked beside it. I loved her body with all the force and impatience of a hurricane.
After my lover came close to death and began the slow return to health with a new kidney inside her, she dreamed that she was shirtless at a party. Her large belly, fatter than ever, was uncovered and gashed with jagged pink scars.
“You’re disgusting,” a man told her, his face contorted with revulsion.
“I had a kidney transplant,” she replied proudly.
“That’s disgusting. You’re so fat. I’d rather die.”
“I’m sorry if you don’t like it,” she said, defending herself, “but this is my body — mine — and I love my life!”
Partway through writing this essay, I realized the topic was absurd. So the woman I love is fat. So I’m short. So what? Then I remembered a writing student I’d once had — a thin, blond, attractive woman who chain-smoked. One day, lighting a cigarette, she’d told me why. “I’d rather die of cancer than be fat again,” she’d said.
After the kidney transplant that saved her life, my lover gained another fifty pounds. She’d gone months with no appetite, weeks with nausea that forced her to live on just bread and applesauce; so it was a joy when food tasted good to her again. Besides, the prednisone she was now taking made her hungry all the time and changed the way her body metabolized food.
It is also true that my lover is, in her own words, “addicted to food”; that she sometimes eats when she is not hungry; that she has ignored her hunger so often — because she was dieting, or eating to fill other needs — she no longer knows what it is to feel full. These things are true of many thin women, as well.
From time to time, my lover declares she wants to lose weight. “I’ll never be thin,” she says, “but I feel better when I’m around 240.” Then she fills our freezer with Weight Watchers breakfasts and dinners. I want to help her achieve her goal, I tell myself, so I start making her a salad each day for lunch, and cooking fat-free vegetable soups. And I catch myself beginning to watch what she eats. When she reaches for the avocado and chips — she’s always liked them in soup — I feel the judgment growing in me again.
So I pay heed when my lover tells me that I am the first person who hasn’t discouraged her or made fun of her. She’s forty-two years old and on her third lifetime, having already survived two probable deaths. She is a woman both brave and beautiful. She says I am the first person who has ever loved her at her weight, not in spite of it. She tells me this over the breakfast I’ve made: a crustless quiche with potatoes, apples, red onion, and smoked mozzarella. Cooking has always been a way I nurture myself and the people I love.
I remember watching my sister refuse to eat. I think of the months when my lover’s failing kidneys made eating impossible. So tonight, I think, I’ll cook us a meal to celebrate our appetites at their most joyous and untamable: maybe a garlicky Puerto Rican asopao, fresh-baked corn muffins, and a salad of greens, pecans, feta cheese, and pears.
Regarding Judith Joyce’s “My Fat Lover” [November 1997]: I can only say that there are many ways besides eating too much that we all indulge in excess. I ask you, does anyone ever feel truly full?