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The Sugars revisit an episode in which they explored the fraught relationship between body image and romance.
In one letter, a married woman reconsiders her priorities after losing 100 pounds. In another, a young man wants his girlfriend to lose weight, but does not understand why she’s so upset when he broaches the subject.
They're joined by the writer Lindy West, who has much to say on what it means to be a fat woman in our society. Her memoir, "Shrill," came out earlier this year.
I am a 24-year old college graduate in my first serious romantic relationship. My experience with girls before this was extremely limited. I've been dating my girlfriend for over 6 months now, and she is wonderful.
However, her weight has always been a minor issue in the back of my mind: she is not fat but she has a few extra pounds and this can be seen more when she's wearing fewer clothes. I love her and would never ask or demand her to change just for me, but I've been thinking more and more about how her weight bothers me a little bit.
I'm a very thin guy and have naturally had a preference, gravitating physically towards thinner girls. Until now, I have avoided talking about the matter with my girlfriend except in general terms about others or the few times she has brought up and engaged with me directly on the matter, such as when her doctor told her she needs to lose some weight to be healthier and she was upset, although she did not disagree.
So I spoke to my therapist and my roommate, and although they're both men, they both thought that if it was something on my mind and was making me a little uneasy that I should bring it up with her. I did, and she did not respond with as much understanding as I hoped.
She felt hurt and a little violated, like the one guy who's supposed to love and accept her and find her beautiful just the way she is was attacking a part of her identity. She was shocked, confused and taken aback. She tried to explain how some issues are so sensitive, touchy and personal for women that they should never really be brought up for the sake of the satisfaction in the relationship. In all fairness, I did bring it up a little suddenly and not in the most tactful or direct way, but I didn't know how else to start a hard, uncomfortable conversation I was not looking forward to.
She has genes that makes it easier for her to gain weight and harder to lose and has recently started going to the gym, but I was trying to support and encourage her to go more consistently.
My question for you is: was I wrong for not being sensitive to how women think? Should I have let it go if I considered it a smaller issue in our relationship? Would it have made a difference if I spoke to another woman to ask her thoughts beforehand on if and how I should bring this up with my girlfriend? Did I need to?
I love her and she is very big on being honest and open and comfortable in trusting each other. Our relationship never hinged on her weight, but I just want to come out stronger.
The Question of Weight
Cheryl Strayed: The Question of Weight, you sound like such a sweet and innocent and naive young man, and I think you made a big mistake. Indeed, you are supposed to love and accept her and find her beautiful just the way she is. I think you stepped into something that has a deeper and more complicated social and cultural history. Women are under scrutiny in enormously harmful ways when it comes to their bodies and their appearance and their weight in relation to their value to men, especially in romantic relationships. And I think that, honestly, if you found her to be chubbier than you want her to be, you maybe should have not dated her to begin with, or you should have decided that it was worth ending this relationship with this person.
Steve Almond: I have a slightly different take on this. I think he’s coming to us in his first serious relationship with insecurities of his own about his body. There’s something in him that feels a little bit unmanned by her being larger. It’s not just about her body. His attitudes toward this woman, who isn’t thin, somehow is triggering within him a kind of self-doubt about his own body image that he hasn’t quite recognized.
Cheryl: The Question of Weight, I have strong feelings about what you did because I know how it feels to be that woman who is being told by a man, “You don’t meet this ideal that I’ve constructed and that society has helped me construct. And even though I love you and you’re wonderful and I don’t have any complaints about you, I’ve decided that I’m going to ask you to be physically perfect for me, too.” I don’t know what’s going to happen in this relationship. I do think that this was hurtful to your lover, and that she’s probably going to carry this into your sex life, as well. I do think that honesty is really important. I think kindness is too, and generosity. I think that, Question of Weight, your relationship might be permanently damaged because of this. But whether it is or not, I encourage you to examine those messages that you’ve received about what women should look like, and how you might open your mind a bit.
Lindy West: What comes through in this letter is that their relationship isn’t “real” until she can fix herself. That’s how I felt about myself; I needed to fix this problem that made me not a real woman and not a real human being and not worthy of the respect that every other human being deserves. Everything was on hold until I could make myself thin. There was just this really low-grade despair all the time, because the narrative that you’re fed is that as a woman, your job is to be pretty and small, small physically and small in your presence, and then you wait for someone to pick you. And I was always very aware that I didn’t look like the kind of girl who got picked, and so I was sort of resigned to the fact that I would be alone.
And what you learn when you grow up is, what you look like is so irrelevant compared to what you are like. If you’re confident and fun and engaged with people and you go out and are yourself, that’s extremely attractive, and that proved true for me.
My husband and I got married 4 years ago. I was 28 and he was 31. It was the happiest day of our lives. We celebrated ‘til 4 in the morning, surrounded by our friends and family. We were excited for the future, happy in our relationship and ready to give marriage a go. We were also both extremely overweight.
After marrying my husband, let's call him Dylan, I began feeling motivated to make positive changes in my life. I changed my eating habits, started moving more, found a love for yoga and decided to become a yoga teacher. I lost 100 pounds. Dylan was supportive and encouraging the whole way through. He would cook me healthy dinners, celebrate my weekly weight losses (whether 1 pound or 5) and was my #1 cheerleader throughout my year of yoga teacher training. He never left my side. He is the epitome of unconditional love.
What they don't tell you about weight loss is that after you lose a large amount of weight, an entire new world opens up for you. For the first time in 10 years, I am able to ride roller coasters. I can zip line, rock climb, kayak and paddle board without having to check weight restrictions first. I discovered hiking and found that nature makes me feel alive. I want to hike every National Forest! I feel like a teenager again, Sugars. There is nothing that I can't do! The world is mine for the taking, and I want to see it all.
Dylan is ready to settle down. He wants to start a family. He wants to buy a house. He wants a garden and a yard for our dog, and he wants to host Thanksgiving at our house with both of our families present. We will work at 9-5 jobs, come home to dinner every night and raise our children. Those things sound lovely to me, Sugars, but, while they are what I wanted before, they are not even close to what I want now. I want to travel. I want to try new things. He's willing to compromise with vacations and weekends of travel here and there, but I want more. I want a grand adventure. "The next chapter" for us couldn't look more different. I've changed so much while he's stayed the same. I'm not even sure that I want children anymore.
So what now? I love this man, but I worry that if I'd been this person 4 years ago, I wouldn't have gotten married. I feel like he is holding me back. I feel like I have a ball and chain. I feel selfish. I feel inspired. I feel like a jerk. I feel strong and confident and capable. I feel like I am ruining my marriage, like a terrible wife, but I feel amazing. I can't imagine my life without Dylan, but, at the same time, I don't want to live with regrets.
Lost in love
Steve: I'm not sure how much this has to do with weight. It seems to be to have to do with somebody who has gone through a radical shift in what she wants out of life. I’m not saying weight isn’t a relevant issue, but it seems much more fundamental that she wants to follow a different map.
Cheryl: It’s really a fascinating dichotomy that she’s set up. She sounds like somebody who allowed her body weight to make her world smaller than it should have been, and now she’s like, “Now I want to have this gigantic life.” She’s so clear about this feeling of being held back.
Steve: Lost in Love, if you want to consider the possibility of remaining married to Dylan, then you have to talk with him. It sounds like the issues and differences in your priorities, and even what you inwardly feel towards him, are conflicting enough that you should be in counseling or individual therapy. I don’t think you’ve said to him, “Sometimes I feel like you’re my ball and chain, and I just want to get away and have a big life, but you’re an anchor.” You’re not going to be successful in the marriage, or even moving out of the marriage, until you settle up and are honest with him.
Cheryl: The final paragraph of this letter is fascinating. She says, “I love this man, but I worry that if I’d been this person four years ago, I wouldn’t have gotten married.” This is interesting — the idea that you lose weight and then you’re a different person. I remember many years ago, I was a waitress at this place in Minneapolis, and I worked with a woman who, over the course of the year that we were employed together, lost about 100 pounds. And it seemed like she was a different person. She went from being this kind of shy, reserved, keep-to-herself kind of woman to suddenly showing up in these incredibly tight dresses and dancing on the tables. I remember watching this — not just physical transformation, but the way she presented herself to the world. I ran into her years later, and she hadn’t gained back all of the weight, but she’d gained back enough of it. She was back to sort of being that first person I met. Lost in Love, maybe this is this strange era where you feel like you’re out of the box that was both of your own making and that the culture defines for fat women. I think that you should be very careful as you make decisions based on this moment in your life.
Lindy: The way that our culture’s weight-loss narrative works is that weight loss is this magic ticket to a perfect life and to all of your problems going away. If you read literature about people who’ve undergone really drastic weight loss, what you hear over and over is people saying, “I discovered when I became thin that I had all the same emotional problems that I had when I was fat. I had all the same self-esteem problems, all the same confidence problems.” It’s not magic. You still have to do all this work on yourself, emotionally and psychologically. So it seems like she’s in this really electric moment, and it might be a good idea to take it slow and assess where she is and if she has realistic expectations about what being smaller is going to do for her life and for her problems more broadly.
New episodes of Dear Sugar Radio are released weekly. Do you a question for the Sugars? Email email@example.com.
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