Chapter Nineteen: “Would You Want to Look Like Her?!?”
Content warning: body shaming.
Five years ago this week, my first essay was published on the lifestyle website xoJane. It was a fashion piece, which in hindsight, is hilarious. I’ve never cared much about fashion, but it was a good angle. I was writing about what it was like to buy new clothes after gaining weight in eating disorder recovery.
At that point, I’d gone from thin to just barely plus size. I could still fit into an extra large in just about every brand. Sometimes I could even fit into a large. I wasn’t even really fat yet. I was probably what fashion bloggers have dubbed “mid size.” Maybe plus sized. Definitely not fat.
But I thought I was fat. I weighed more than I ever had in my life; even more than I did when I was “fat” in high school. I was struggling to accept my new, larger body. Every day when I got dressed, I pulled on clothes that barely fit, ripped them off, and held back tears.
I figured I couldn’t be the only one who’d had these experiences. So, I decided to pitch a piece about it. I’d take pictures while I was shopping, model the clothes I ended up purchasing, and write about how the experience made me feel. I also wanted to help people my size figure out where they could get cool clothes.
I’d been pitching for a while at that point. I desperately wanted to break into freelance writing, but none of my pitches had been accepted. Most of them didn’t even get responses. Though I thought this fashion piece was a good concept, I still didn’t think I’d get a response.
I teared up when I got an email from an editor at xoJane. My words were finally going to be published on a real site, not just my blog.
I enlisted my sister as my photographer and fashion adviser. She’s always been better at clothes and looks than me. And we set up a shopping trip.
When the pictures were taken and the piece was written, I was nervous about having it published. I was scared of the reactions the essay would get. xoJane was one of those sites that had an open comments section on every article. So, anybody could say literally anything about my essay.
Part of me was worried that people would think I was a bad writer. But a much larger part of me was terrified that people would think I was fat. I thought I was fat (this was long before I learned about fatphobia and anti-fatness), so clearly other people would think I was fat too. I started to picture how awful it would feel to be called fat by strangers on the internet.
I almost didn’t submit the essay. But I didn’t want to mess up my first paid job as a writer. So, I hit send and prayed that everything would be okay.
A few days later, the piece was published. Seeing my writing up on a major lifestyle website was euphoric. I posted about it on every single social media platform I used. I texted the link to all my friends and family. I basked in the delight of being a real, published writer…
For about 10 minutes. Then I decided to check out the comments section. All my favorite writers and influencers warned against jumping into the comments section. They all said that it was akin to diving into a wastewater treatment facility. But I couldn’t help it. I wanted to know what people thought of my writing.
It wasn’t all horrendous. Plenty of people left comments about how they found the essay really helpful. People wrote that my words made them feel less alone, that they’d had similar experiences and they were glad I was sharing mine.
But plenty more people used the comments section to spout vitriol. One person told me that I should relapse into my eating disorder because it was obviously healthier for me. Another wrote that I had clearly developed binge eating disorder because otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten so fat in recovery. Another told me that it was totally possible to diet without it becoming an eating disorder and that I should definitely diet because I’d gained way too much weight. And one person wrote, “let’s be honest, would you actually want to look like her?!?”
I read hate filled comment after hate filled comment with tears pouring down my face. My fears had come true. People were calling me fat on the internet.
In retrospect, the situation seems both normal and absurd. I wasn’t even fat then. I was acceptably plus sized. The fact that so many people ruthlessly body shamed me, even when I wasn’t that fat, is so sad and so ridiculous. However, it’s also a completely normal experience for anyone who doesn’t fall into the very narrow, literally, range of acceptable body sizes.
Eventually I exited the comments section and reached out to some friends. They said all the things that friends are supposed to say — that the commenters were unhappy, unfulfilled, insecure people, that there was nothing wrong with my body, that a diet wasn’t the answer, that being in recovery was so much better than being thin and sick.
Reassured by their words, I calmed down a bit. After the initial shock of being publicly body shamed on a massive scale wore off, I realized that I had survived. People on the internet had called me fat and other awful things, and I didn’t curl up and die. After a while, I didn’t even feel that bad.
I’ve always been obsessed with what other people think of me. I’ve always been obsessed with getting validation from others. It was the only thing that let me know I was okay. I contorted myself in all sorts of ways to get the validation I thought I needed. I never let myself be the true me because I was too busy trying to be the me that would get the most praise from others.
Letting go of the comments on that article, letting go of the judgement of strangers was the very first time I truly accepted that my opinion of myself was more important than other people’s opinions of me. It was the first time that I truly understand that what other people thought of me really didn’t matter.
Of course, that lesson hasn’t stayed with me consistently. I still struggle all the time with seeking validation from others. Sometimes I still feel the sting when strangers body shame me on the internet, which happens on a pretty regular basis.
When that essay was first published, I never imagined that five years later I would be writing about body liberation on a daily basis. I never imagined that I’d be even fatter, so fat that I couldn’t shop in regular stores, and that I’d be okay with being that fat. I never imagined that I’d be posting nudes on Instagram and showing off my fat body. I never imagined that the hateful body shaming would become so normal that sometimes I don’t even care anymore. I never imagined being so secure in my own body that it didn’t matter what others thought.
But here I am, writing about my body’s journey every day, being okay with my fat body, almost six years in ED recovery, several years between me and dieting, happy and healthy.
I’ll always be grateful for that first essay. In so many ways, it started me on the path that I’m still walking. It launched my career as a freelance writer. It showed me that sharing my personal experiences through my writing could help others. It proved that I’m resilient enough to survive the comments section. It showed me that my words are worth putting out into the world.
I can only imagine how different my life would be if I hadn’t hit send.