Kerry Cohen is not fat. But like many women, she struggles almost daily with what she sees in the mirror. She shares her lifelong battle with feeling “kind of fat,” knowing she’s not, and trying to accept herself for who she is.
The one time anyone called me fat was when I was in the eighth grade. I was the new girl, and I made fast friends with Christy, an on-my-way-to-my-real-friends girl, a girl I would soon dump because I’d meet people I liked more. Christy was not pretty, not even a little bit. But she was thin, and she knew it. She dressed to show off her body. She had a boyfriend, she told me, who lived one town over from ours. She and he talked every night on the phone, and sometimes she visited him. One day after school we took a bus to his town and walked seven blocks until we reached his house. She rang the doorbell, but there was no answer. Then she called up to his bedroom, but still no one came. We hung around in the yard for a bit, and then we walked the seven blocks, got back on the bus, and we went home. The next day, Christy told me she spoke with her boyfriend on the phone. He had been there, but he was napping and didn’t feel like getting up to unlock the door. He saw us out the window, and, she told me, he thought you were cute but kind of fat.
Kind of fat.
I had never thought of myself as fat. At 13, I had already managed to garner male attention with my body. I assumed, without thinking much about it, that this meant my body was just fine. But now, that day when Christy told me I was kind of fat, I began to question whether I might be. Kind of fat. Not fat, like obese, just kind of fat, as in, it couldn’t hurt to lose a few. As in, you are only fat when compared to thin. As in, you could be better.
My mother thought she was kind of fat. Other times she admired herself. Her weight went up and down by maybe 10 pounds, and to her this was the difference between OK and not OK, between kind of fat and not fat.
When I was 18, I took an aerobics class for the first time and a thinner-than-me friend laughed cruelly and said, “You have to do it more than once a week for it to make a difference.”
Later that year, visiting from college, I sat at my mother’s dining room table. I squeezed my stomach fat and grimaced. “Then, do something about it,” my mother barked.
At a party in some guy’s apartment, I sat next to a girl who would sleep with just about every boy I slept with. She was my “friend,” nice enough, but clearly we were in some sort of competition I hadn’t known I’d signed up for. The host passed around a plate of brownies he’d baked. I practically drooled on them I wanted one so badly, but I passed it to my friend.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I can’t,” and I referred to my thighs.
“I can,” she said. “I run every day.” She popped a brownie in her mouth and smiled with her mouth closed.
So, I took up running. I did not take up running for health or achievement. I also became a vegan—again, not because I had any moral beliefs around eating animals. I became vegan because I believed it would make me thin. I ran because I wanted to be thin.
Both before and after I became a runner, men liked my body. They liked it a lot actually. They ran their palms along my hips and said things like, “I love this right here.” My female friends told me I was thin. I look now at photos of myself back then, both before and after, and I see no difference. I was thin. I was always thin.
I do not have an eating disorder. I’ve never intentionally vomited food for weight loss. I’ve never starved myself. I’ve never been at an unhealthy weight. My BMI has always been normal. Still, I am irrationally obsessed with my weight and whether I am fat. Some might say I have self-hatred, and to some extent this is true. But it’s more that I like myself—my accomplishments, my success, my intelligence, and my ability for compassion and love—I just don’t like the vehicle that carries me around. And even that’s not true because sometimes I like my body just fine. There have been times I’ve even loved it.
When I was in graduate school in my early 20s, I went to therapy with the intention of dealing with my body image issues once and for all. I was tired of it. No one had to explain to me that thinking about being fat was a waste of brain space. No one had to tell me—as they did again and again—that I wasn’t actually fat. I was too smart for this. I was too feminist for this. I’d had plenty of therapy working on my self-esteem. I just wanted it to end. My therapist was a student of the Master’s program in Psychology at the school. She was tall and broad—not fat, just big. Surely she could understand. Using her studies, we tried visualization. We tried cognitive reframing. All of it seemed ridiculous and besides the point.
Finally, after a frustrating effort to get me to visualize myself as thin, I said, “It’s not that I need to think I’m thin when I look in the mirror.”
She stared at me a moment, stumped. “It’s not?”
I knew for sure, then, that she struggled with this issue too. She too wanted to see herself as thin.
“No,” I said. “I need to realize that I can’t see myself at all, that whatever I think I see, it isn’t real.”
She nodded slowly. “You’re right,” she said.
“Maybe I can imagine that every time I look in the mirror I have imaginary goggles on that I can’t take off. I have to know that what I see doesn’t matter. It’s just a reflection of something else in my psyche.”
“And, I mean, I can get angry about all the ads with impossibly thin women. I can yell at all the commercials that play on the tyranny of being thin.”
“Yes,” she said. She was just as jazzed as I was.
And for a little while, this worked. I got off my case. I stopped telling myself I was disgusting. I stopped squeezing my thighs and belly. I let myself be. I took my anger out at the magazines, at the fashion industry, at the bullshit weight loss industry that bases half its research on lies. I got furious.
Over time, though, the feelings crept back. Over time, the fury died down, as it tends to as you get older. I forgot about those goggles, and once again I believed I was fat. Once again I looked in the mirror and saw ugliness.
I am not. I am not ugly. I am not fat. I am not disgusting. Does it matter how many times I say that? Can it ever counteract the cultural message that whatever you are, it is too much, not enough, never right?
Affirmations don’t work. Self-acceptance—however one gets that—doesn’t work. The understanding that who I am inside, not what I look like, doesn’t work. And I think I know why. Because if I really were fat I would be reminded daily that I was not pleasing to others, that I deserved less, that I couldn’t have what I wanted. Because that’s how our culture works.
Listen, I’m not fat. I’m a size 8, sometimes a 6. I’m 5’5” and I weigh 140 pounds. My target weight is 130, which would put me below my BMI. I’m not fat. I’m not fat. I’m not fat. But, goddamn it, so what if I were?
I don’t exercise right now. I can’t. Because every time I exercise I’m doing it only to be thin, and if I miss a day or I don’t exercise hard enough, I treat myself like shit. I berate myself. I call myself fat, not good enough. I can be so terribly mean.
Meanwhile, it didn’t occur to me until I was well into my 30s that Christy’s boyfriend never said those things. He didn’t say I was cute but kind of fat, and if he had, why would she tell me, except to establish the one thing she had over me: that she was thinner than I was? All these years later I’d assumed I was the only one being mean. I’ve simply been a willing participant.
Kerry Cohen is the author of six books, including the acclaimed Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity. She’s been featured on Dr. Phil, Good Morning America, and the BBC, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, and many others. Learn more at www.kerry-cohen.com.