On Being Smaller

The other day, as I was returning empty trash cans from the curb in front of our apartment building, the older man who owns the home across the street from my apartment waved to me. “Hi! I don’t think we’ve met.” In fact, we had met, over five years before, when my wife and I first moved in to our apartment, and we had regularly greeted each other since then, or, at least, we had until recently. In the past six months, my appearance has changed dramatically. I lost a lot of weight, almost 100 pounds. After I explained what had happened to my neighbor, he shouted, “Holy shit!” several times in a row.

In a way, my neighbor’s introduction was appropriate. This radical change in appearance has made me feel like a new person. My new body can do many things that the old one couldn’t, and my awareness of its expanded capacities imbues the future with possibility. I want to run a marathon, climb mountains, learn to dance—and, for the first time, my body is not an impediment to doing so.

But the change isn’t just physical. Losing so much weight means that the world treats me differently in fundamental ways. In addition to physical mass, I am also unburdened from the psychological weight of stigma. As my body changed, its meaning changed with it—for other people and for me.

The world wants my happiness about this transformation to be pure. People who comment on my new appearance tend to describe it with metaphors of evolution or conversion, endowing the adipose tissue I used to carry on my body with moral as well as physiological significance. It seems that my weight was, for many, the physical symptom of a lack of virtue as well as a clear and present danger to my health.

This was something that I always knew on an abstract level. Nobody ever accused me of a lack of virtue, the sense of failure, to my face. Now that I’m relatively thin, that’s changed. At my last annual physical, my doctor said, as he was examining my almost naked body, “Your wife must love the new you!” This was not the first time I had considered what effect, if any, the physical transformations wrought by weight loss and vigorous exercise had on my life partner’s perception of me, but it was certainly the first time someone else had baldly stated that she probably found me more attractive now. “She tells me she likes the new me, but she also insists that she liked the old me, too,” I replied, honestly. And added, also honestly, “Of course, one wonders.”

In remarks like the one that my doctor made to me as I was in a state of partial undress, it is difficult not to hear a hateful subtext. Buried not too far beneath the surface of “Your wife must love the new you!” is the suggestion that she must not have liked the old you very much. This is also true with the much more anodyne “You look great!” compliments that are showered on any person who sheds enough weight to look visibly changed. These often carry another, darker implication, along the lines of “Congratulations on no longer failing as a human being” or, indeed, “Welcome back to humanity!”

***

It’s true that, when I decided to lose weight, this was what I wanted, to remake my body and to reap social rewards for doing so. (Compliments make me feel good! Don’t stop giving them to me!) In addition to thinking that carrying less weight would improve my health and make me less vulnerable to physical injury (a serious hazard in my newly chosen profession, nursing), I was also motivated to lose weight because I decided, consciously, that there was a finite window of time during which I could conform to conventional norms for physical beauty so I might as well try to do that while it was still possible.

Acknowledging that my physical appearance mattered and accepting norms, instead of fighting them, had been part of the process all along. What is surprising, now, is the extent to which my very humanity feels at stake. It didn’t feel that way before I started dieting.

Shrinking my body has liberated me from the triple burden of shame, stigma, and anxiety. Feeling bad about my body was a rumbling bass note the background of my life for as long as I can remember. I expected others to judge my body, find it grotesque, or at the very least look upon it without desire or admiration. At the same time, there was this persistent fear that my body was itself a problem, or potential problem, that would, slowly but surely, bear fruit, in the form of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or some other chronic, life-shortening ailment. That fear is still there, to some extent, but it does not have the force it once did, when the size of my body made it what medicine calls a modifiable risk factor.

How different it feels to be in a world that celebrates your physical presence as healthy and desirable—and, indeed, is designed for bodies roughly your own size. Clothes fit me properly and flatter my figure. I can sit on the bus without squeezing against other commuters. Strangers open themselves to me with smiles and nods, inviting interaction and evidently enjoying it. The pleasure is mutual.

But there was also something attractive and deeply pleasurable about being—and living—large, about cultivating huge appetites and satisfying them with abandon. Eating piles of calorie rich food and guzzling it down with wine is tremendously fun, and I look back on occasions when I did that with fondness, a hint of jealousy, and with only the slightest regret. And my large body was so powerful! I trained until I could deadlift 420 pounds. The rush of excitement doing this gave me, the sense of accomplishment, the physical pleasure of muscles flush with blood, was a palpable sense of strength that I carried with me, in body and in mind.

Removing over thirty percent of my total body mass has entailed losses of pleasures that I once associated with being huge and that remain important for me. These are more than just the pleasures of regular excess in food and drink. I am physically smaller now and less strong than I once was. I may never gain back all of my old strength.

***

How do we mourn a version of ourselves that most people assume we never wanted to be, whose existence was unwanted? My grief for this and other losses that I’ve experienced in losing weight—including, to some extent, my grief for the sheer body mass I once carried—is small compared to my joy and excitement at other changes, but it is real. For those of us whose joy is mixed with grief, what can we do with this sense of loss? All I know is that the person I used to be persists, and acknowledging my grief for that body and its meanings is one way I can honor its continued presence in my life.

I refuse to disavow the body I used to have, with all its problems as well as all the freedoms it afforded, and I mourn that body, especially its presence and its power. Losing weight this past year has not shaken my conviction that different types of body can be healthy and beautiful and ought to be celebrated as such. What has changed, for me, is the form this commitment takes in my life.

Before last summer, when I began to monitor my food intake, my rejection of fat hatred was tied, in certain ways, to my rejection of dieting, a refusal to alter the way I lived my life to fit my body to expectations it does not meet. Loving my body the way it was, despite the stigma attached to its size, was one of the ways that I wanted to be revolutionary.

While I still want to be revolutionary, and I still think that loving one’s body can in many cases be both revolutionary and salubrious, this is no longer a struggle that I want to live. Here, as with so many other things in life, what at first looked like a narrowing of experience turned out to be its enrichment. Dieting and exercise are practices of ascesis, of discipline and denial, and it is perhaps as acts of refusal—of food, of rest—that they have become associated with virtue. After living with them for these past few months, I see them in a rather different light, as something akin to passports which I have been using to gain entry to lands that once were closed to me but now are open and through which I can safely travel. Exploring realms of experience rendered accessible by my new body has been a reward for weight loss greater than any I could have imagined. Yet I am still haunted by memories of my former self. Looking at old pictures, the body I once called home smiles at me across time and, alongside pride and curiosity, there is homesickness, too, and this homesickness is made worse by my knowledge that, if I ever go back there, my return will be seen as a failure, not welcomed as the homecoming for which, in spite of all my present happiness, I sometimes, secretly wish.

Colin Gillis is bathing in his own serotonin.