My lover is fat.
It upsets some people to hear me state this so baldly. 'Doesn't it hurt her feelings?' they ask, as if the polite thing were to act as if I hadn't noticed that she weighs nearly 300 pounds. Perhaps they think she hasn't noticed, either.
'You are the only person in my life who hasn't discouraged me or made fun of me,' she tells me one morning over breakfast, crying. She's listening to musica de trios, traditional Puerto Rican ballads, and it's making her nostalgic. She remembers how her mother used to dance to this music, spinning with the broom through their little house. She remembers island breakfasts with cafe termino medio—half strong coffee, half warmed milk—French bread, and omelets filled with fried plantains. Then her face darkens as she also remembers how she was friendless throughout her childhood. 'I weighed 180 pounds at age 12,' she confesses, as if this were an explanation. She tried to kill herself at 16.
There are few things harder than growing up fat.
What about growing up with a disability? you might ask. What about growing up neglected, or on the streets? True, these conditions are enormously difficult, but they are not seen as the child's fault. Fatness is always the fat person's fault. As everyone knows, fat people eat like pigs. They smell bad. They don't bathe. They lack that revered American attribute: willpower. They are, quite simply, disgusting.
My lover showers every day. She has a closet full of stylish clothes in a wide range of sizes, reflecting her lifelong battle with the scale. But she grew up fat, and she is fat still. Not in a wheelchair, not on the streets, but the pariah of an entire culture.
I am not a 'chubby-chaser'—someone erotically excited by fat—nor was I always, to use the politicized term, 'fat-positive.' I grew up in a family as red-bloodedly fat-phobic as most. My mother, who is five-foot-two and weighs just over 100 pounds, was perpetually on a diet. My father's and my grandmother's standard greeting to all family members they hadn't seen in a while was, 'You look good—you've lost weight.' At age 16, weighing barely 100 pounds myself, I, too, dieted. Some days I'd eat nothing but a single doughnut. When I got to college I made rules for myself: Each night I could have a salad and an entr*e or a salad and dessert—but never all three.
Around the time our parents were splitting up, my younger sister, Jennifer, took to watching hours of TV each afternoon, her hand in a bag of snacks the whole time. By age 9 she'd grown chubby, a fact that did not go unnoticed in our house, and by 12 she too had begun to diet. When she got down to 85 pounds, the family started noticing that this exercise of willpower had gone a little too far. Those were my mother's exact words: 'I admire her willpower; she just takes it a little too far.'
Jen went to a therapist and began eating again, but it was years before anyone realized what she did after she ate. Her anorexia had become bulimia, a far more insidious illness with its incessant vomiting and abuse of laxatives. In the meantime, I had discovered feminist theory. I took women's studies classes during my last year of college and read about the many kinds of oppression. I watched my sister; I made the connection. Furious, I resolved never to diet again. Jude, you're amazing, Jen would later tell me. 'You're the only woman I know who can eat ice cream. I mean, without throwing up afterward.'
It was one thing to have a political stance against fat oppression. It is quite another, I found, to have a fat lover.
The problem didn't arise in bed. I wanted her; there was no question about that. The problem came when I looked at her naked body after we had made love. The body I saw was not one I knew how to call beautiful. My lover's belly was distended; her thighs were thick. Around her face, she had a double, perhaps a triple, chin. In the past, I'd had lovers who, like most people, disliked their bodies. It had been one of my talents as a lover to change those feelings. I'd praised their bodies, loving them with words as well as touch. Now I wanted to do the same thing for my fat lover. Yet I could not tell her she was beautiful. 'I love your body,' I told her instead as I kissed her, licking and stroking her flesh. 'I love your body,' I repeated like a mantra, to ward away the persistent, ugly remnants of my disgust.
Later, as she gained more weight, my lover began to worry that there was a limit to how much fat I could love, or perhaps how much fat I could overlook.
'It's your essence I'm attracted to,' I assured her. 'No amount of weight you could gain or lose would change my feelings for you.'
And somewhere along the way, the judging portion of my brain grew thinner and thinner until, like a fingernail sliver of moon, it almost disappeared. 'You're beautiful,' I told my lover then, because it was true.
Later, as my lover's kidneys failed, I came to love her body in still other ways. Now that it had become a battleground, a locus of pain and discomfort rather than pleasure, I loved it in defiance, as if my passion could banish its ills. I loved it perhaps in the same way that some women love 'unavailable' men, because I could not reach it, even as I lay naked beside it.
After the kidney transplant that saved her life, my lover gained another 50 pounds. She'd gone months with no appetite, weeks with nausea that forced her to live on just bread and applesauce, so it was a joy when food tasted good to her again. Besides, she was now taking prednisone, a steroid drug that made her constantly hungry and changed the way her body metabolized food.
It is also true that my lover is, in her own words, 'addicted to food.' She sometimes eats when she is not hungry. She has ignored her hunger so often—because she was dieting, or eating to fill other needs—she no longer knows what it is to feel full. These things are true of many thin women as well.
From time to time, my lover declares she wants to lose weight. I want to help her, I tell myself, so I start making her salads for lunch and cooking fat-free vegetable soups. And I catch myself beginning to watch what she eats. I feel the judgment growing in me again.
So I pay heed when my lover tells me that I am the first person who has ever loved her at her weight, not in spite of it. She tells me this over the breakfast I've made: a crustless quiche with potatoes, apples, red onion, and smoked mozzarella. Cooking has always been a way I nurture myself and the people I love.
I remember watching my sister refuse to eat. I think of the months when my brave and beautiful lover's failing kidneys made eating impossible. So tonight, I think, I'll cook us a meal to celebrate our appetites at their most joyous and untamable: maybe a garlicky Puerto Rican asopao, fresh-baked corn muffins, and a salad of greens, pecans, feta cheese, and pears.
From The Sun (Nov. 1997). Subscriptions: $32/yr. (12 issues) from Box 6706, Syracuse, NY 13217.