We’re sitting on the sofa in my studio apartment, mere inches from the bed where, moments earlier, his mouth and hands teased the rolls and folds of my body, where he’d turned my back-fat into an altar. The sheets haven’t cooled yet, and he’s telling me about the things he won’t do in public, just to keep things between us from getting “confusing.” He won’t hold my hand.
For most of my dating life, my amplitude was something to be overlooked, overcome. Tolerated. I remember one man, an alcoholic who’d begun taking red wine before his morning coffee, sitting across from me as I held a vegetable roll between my chopsticks, and asking, with an earnest obliviousness, if I might consider “eating healthier food.” My suitors were always taken enough with everything beneath my skin — heart and wit and good old-fashioned moxie — but only taken so far. Even if our breakups were rooted in banality of mismatched ambitions, uneven libidos, or just plain stupid youth, there was always a thin tendril muscling up from that root, one that choked our relationships: the stigma of dating a fat girl.
Not this guy. He’d been unabashedly open, enthusiastic even, about his preference for those of us on the Melissa McCarthy end of the size spectrum. He’d reached out to thank me for an essay I wrote about my choice to duck-and-roll off the hamster wheel of constant dieting and accept, even embrace, my size 24 figure. We talked, and wrote, with increasing length and flirtatiousness, about body acceptance and the vanquishing of secret shame, our upbringings (or lack thereof) and aspirations; ours was a courtship knit by the camaraderie of misfits, an affection that felt as easy and natural as spring grass, and as vital as rain.
That affection ends with a confession like a record skipping just before the bridge in my favorite song. He would touch me everywhere; he just wouldn’t hold my hand. And he’s telling me now, because he doesn’t want me to get the wrong idea, to think that his unwillingness is “a matter of optics.” A matter of how a thin man — any man, really — looks when he shows up with his hand in mine.
For weeks afterward, “a matter of optics” became shorthand among my friends and me for any act of casual, oblivious cruelty. (“That asshole didn’t look while changing lanes — it’s a matter of optics”; or, “I got this assignment piled on me at five p.m. on a Friday. Optics!”) Humor staved my nearest and dearest from embracing their inner Sonny Corleones, and it did help me slowly get over my belief that this could have been something different, that he could have been someone better. I healed the way a bruise heals, reabsorbing the tender, ticking parts of myself — the hope I’d had, the disappointment that replaced it — under my skin; just another stiff spot that ached in the cold.
* * *
Many of my female friends recall their youths in requited crushes and the sweet fumbling tenderness of first kisses; moments when they became aware of the power wielded in a smile or a flash of thigh, when they knew what it meant to be cherished. I was a 12 year old in a tent dress, and my forays into cat’s eyeliner and pastel lip gloss couldn’t save me from the viciousness of schoolboys who’d ask me out for sport. Guileless and desperate for affection, I’d believed them, believed that I’d have all the pleasures and privileges of being “a real girl.” Then, the boy would break character and start snickering. And the peanut gallery of his pals, or the kids-he-was-trying-to-impress would high-five, congratulating him on the big game of the low-hanging fruit.
From what I’ve gleaned from Facebook, many of those boys have their parents’ hand-me-down lives, middle-class and middle-of-the-road: the slim wives and chubby babies, a sports team to follow and an entry-level job that’s held steady for the past five years. Good for them. But they rutted me to the core, planted deep seeds of resentment and mistrust that still makes it hard, almost impossible, for me to accept that men would want me for me, not me-minus-50 (or 75) (or 100) pounds — not me in spite of myself.
When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I wanted so desperately to feel a part of something — I wanted love; more than this, I wanted to feel normal. I wanted someone to call me “just to say goodnight” whenever I stayed out of town; to become acquainted with every freckle and scar, to soften and sadden over those scars because of how I got them, but to still respect them because how I got them has made me, me; to take me out for cocktails and brunches and beam at me over the rims of martini glasses and coffee mugs with the tender, solicitous bewitchment of a man in love. I starved myself for that affection. I purged and popped pills that turned my pulse into a pendulum and made me fear I’d lost my mind. And all for a few zipless fucks who’d button up their shirts, kiss my forehead, and promise calls that never came.
Even when I could press the heels of my hands to my ribcage, even when my skirts slid down my ass, I was still the fat girl. Even when Mr. Last Night turned into Mr. Okay for a While, I knew that, eventually, that red wine at dinner would turn into an inch on my hips, and that inch would turn into 10 inches. Experience taught me what to expect, then. I distrusted these men before I could ever give them a chance.
My mother would tell me I’d need “a special sort of man,” one who would be “accepting” of me, just as I am. Older men. “Working men.” Men from “different cultures.” She’d speak in a slow, sugared tone reserved to comfort a dying animal. The implication — made overt by a therapist who insisted that a husband and two children were the only balms to soothe the full-body thermal burns of growing up inside a volcano — was that any man who could appreciate, let alone delight in, all 200-plus pounds of me was fundamentally askew. Broken. I’d never be more than a momentary indent on a mattress, a ghost in the sheets.
I think of my earliest correspondences with Mr. A Matter of Optics; he’d talk about how he’d been made to feel so desperately ashamed of a desire that felt as natural to him as another man’s yen for blond hair or long legs; his voice strained with the fresh ache of remembrance. And I wonder why desire should ever be the hole anyone has to dig his way out of.
I refuse to be caressed in the dark and denied in broad daylight. I am not a body rolled in flour. I refuse to starve or purge or take pills; I refuse to have my stomach carved away and pinched smaller for the sake of almighty aesthetics. Yes, there are websites and conventions in Vegas and online forums (oh my!) for aficionados of the Big Beautiful Woman (a term that drips with “you go girl!” condescension), places where heavy bellies and swaybacked backsides launch a thousand ships. As I’ve scrolled through these sites, I’ve felt vindicated at seeing women my size as luscious pinups. But, after a while, I feel reduced to something less than a person: just a gartered thigh and the breast-flesh offered up in a corset. I want to be lusted after. I want to be wanted. But, more than this, I want to love, and be loved. I want everything that love confers: being touched, being valued and being seen.
I am my visible belly outline (commonly referred to as “VBO,” which has all of the poetry of “prime flank” or, more bluntly, “meat”), but I am also my caffeine addiction and coffee snobbery; I am my love of a doting German shepherd; I am my zest for all things zombie (and my feminist critique of "The Walking Dead"). I want to live in the world of meet cutes and missed connections, not cloistered in a convention hall in a city celebrated for its seediness. I want to be a partner, not a fetish. Still, I don’t begrudge any of my sisters-in-amplitude any desires to be worshiped as purely sexual beings; there is great power in being Jessica Rabbit.
* * *
I’d been hoping that “And So Did the Fat Lady,” the much-ballyhooed episode of “Louie” that ran earlier this year, might show a fat woman’s desire as real and valid, not played as a half-measure or a joke. This kind of visibility can be lifesaving, soul-sustaining when women like me are most commonly casualities of the 6 o’clock news, our heads and faces lopped off the screen to render us a freak show promoting some new obesity drug or study — never as people whose hands and thighs and rolling bellies can give, and receive, great pleasure.
Louie has a great time with Vanessa, his date and the titular fat lady, until he “compliments” her by saying she’s not fat. Vanessa tells him that she’s going to make him “represent all the guys” when she unloads about a lifetime on the sidelines: “Why do you hate us so much? What is it about the basics of human happiness, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us, that's just not in the cards for us? Nope. Not for us.”
When she says this, I’m with her. I’m sitting at lunch with friends who express their puzzlement at my chronic singledom, but who don’t offer to set me up with anyone they know. Which may very well be just as well, since I’m watching the face of the one friend who’d been excited to set me up with a horror-loving aspiring writer in her department cycle through a calculated array of micro-expressions as she wonders how to tactfully tell me that — after seeing my full-body picture — he’s not interested; and, from the suppressed anger that makes her features as taut as a bow string, that he didn’t express this lack of interest kindly. And I’m wondering how to tell my wonderful friend — who doesn’t see me the way that any guy who has been socialized to believe that there’s a supermodel for every schlub sees me — that I was expecting this all along.
I was with Vanessa until her cry-to-arms goes limp-wrist: She tells Louie that she doesn’t even want a boyfriend or a husband. She just wants someone to hold her hand. This plaintive plea is (perhaps) meant to move the civilian viewer, the person who doesn’t have to move through the world in a body that can provoke such hatred. But it struck me as an insult, telling me to settle for crumbs when I deserve cake: someone to hold my hand, and so much more.
But that so much more seems impossible to come by when I can’t even get a man to slip his fingers inside mine when we’re off our backs and in daylight. Still, touch has a power like a ringing bell’s — it reverberates under skin, becomes a song playing through our cells. I haven’t found what I’m looking for yet, but in those moments with Mr. Optics, I got what I needed. Not from him, but for me.
A few weeks ago, I saw my mother; I wore a cotton dress with short sleeves that rode up my arms. “I hate that,” my mother said as she jerked my sleeves down. Her nails raked my skin; I pulled away sharply — and with a pointed remark about the “that” she was referring to: “Oh, you mean my body?”
And I remember one of the few times that man and I came together in my apartment. I wear that same short-sleeved dress. He sweeps his knuckles over my soft, dimpled flesh; he whispers into my ear and thanks me for wearing something that shows off my beautiful arms. He isn’t worthy of me. It’s only a moment, a moment that I hope to live out, again and again, with someone who deserves it. But in that moment, I am in my body and I am beyond it.