I’m a 20-year-old man with weight problems. I’ve always been a fat person. I’m obese but not morbidly so. I walk at least seven miles a day, I work out three times a week, and I try to control my eating. In spite of this, I can’t seem to lose weight. Though I understand that women bear the brunt of society’s fat shaming, I’ve been a victim of it too. From my mom who has always told me that I need to lose weight in order to attract a woman, to the movies where the fat guy has to work out and become fit and thin to get the girl, to normal weight men who say derogatory things about their heavier peers (like me). I’ve never had a romantic relationship. In fact, I haven’t even pursued one because I believe no one will want me because I’m heavy. I have depression and anxiety as well. What advice do you have for me and other men who are struggling with their weight?
Cheryl Strayed: Your weight isn’t the problem, Struggling. The problem is the culture that shames you because you have the body you do. Though progress has been made on this front thanks to the body positivity movement, the cultural values regarding which bodies are ideal and which are not are deeply embedded in our society. Given the stigma associated with having a larger body, it’s no surprise you feel the shame, despair and self-loathing that you do.
It’s a reasonable response to the universally negative messages you’ve received — as you note — at every turn. The good news is this: You have the power to reject those values and revise those messages. Indeed, by creating new values, you’ll reveal the old ones to be the lies that they are. You don’t have to be thin to attract a woman. You are worthy of love, no matter your body shape. You deserve to be treated with kindness and respect by your peers at any weight. I know this to be true. The work you have ahead of you is to find a way to know it too.
Steve Almond: The first thing I want to do is to apologize to my beloved twin brother, Mike, whose weight I mocked all throughout our childhood. I did this because I felt terrible about my own body, as most boys do, and I projected that contempt onto him. Most of the mockery dished out in this world arises from a bottomless pit of self-loathing. Keep that in mind, Struggling: Anyone who criticizes your weight is doing so because they don’t like themselves.
Alas, that includes your mother. I’m most troubled by the message she’s sent here, which is that you are unworthy of romantic love until such a time as you became skinny. I imagine her conscious motive for saying this was to help you become “more acceptable” in the eyes of potential girlfriends. But there are two problems with this mind-set. The first is that shaming people doesn’t empower them to change. Just the opposite. The second, as Cheryl notes, is that your ultimate goal should be self-acceptance. Anyone worth loving in this world is going to focus not on the shape of your body, but the size of your heart.
CS: Self-acceptance doesn’t usually come about by chance. You’re going to have to make a conscious effort to change the way you view your body and your worth, Struggling. I strongly suggest you don’t go it alone. A therapist with knowledge about and compassion for those who struggle with body image, an online course or community focused on body trust and self-acceptance, books that address the issue from a body positive perspective — these are all vital resources I hope you’ll use as you work to dismantle the body shame you’ve internalized.
Find people who can offer you their expertise on these issues, but also find those who share your struggle. I promise that when you do you’ll see that your mother and all those movies were wrong. People of all shapes and sizes have found love. They lead full, vibrant lives that are not constricted or defined by fear or self-loathing. Some have even come to love their bodies. You can do that, too.
SA: As you observe, fat shaming is a central feature of our culture. And it’s not just in movies. Our advertising culture is predicated on making people feel lousy about their bodies, so they’ll buy all manner of product, from diet pills to gym memberships. Even more insidious is the moral judgment projected onto body size. The difference between skinny Elvis and fat Elvis isn’t just age or belt size, after all. We’re indoctrinated to think of fat Elvis as lazy and pathetic and deluded.
So I understand why you focus so much on your size. You do so at the bidding of a sick culture. But my hunch is that your underlying struggles with depression and anxiety contribute to your romantic isolation as much, or more, than your weight. Those are the issues I’d seek to address first, Struggling. You clearly exercise (a lot) and try to eat healthy. But what if the real issue is that your inner life needs healing? I urge you to turn your attention — and your patience and your love — away from your body and toward the fragile soul that body houses.