The knowledge that nearly everyone around me is more afraid of looking like me than they are of a virus that has rapidly killed thousands of people clings to my skin like a wet rag. It’s uncomfortable, but it seems to be an unavoidable, inescapable reality. In a world where my body is viewed as a pre-existing condition, it's sometimes hard to fall in love with yourself.
Gazing at the body before me as I critically assess myself in the full-length mirror I finally bought, I have a sense of gratitude that I’ve come to love myself. The rolls and bulges, scars from Hidradenitis Suppurativa, a condition causing cysts to develop in high friction areas like under the breasts and belly, and the ample “excess” body hair all remind me that my body has been with me throughout what has been a complex rollercoaster of a lifetime. I can’t remember the very first time my body was deemed bad or disgusting: I was a chubby kid, a fat teenager, and now an obese adult. I’ve been bigger than most people around me for what feels like an eternity.
My first memory of fatness as related to health was somewhere around 10 or 11 years old. My mother, a plus-size woman in her own right, desperately tried to find a medical reason for my weight. After years of blood test after blood test with no bad results, she finally found a straw to grasp at when I was found to have hyperinsulinism. She finally had what she needed to get me into the childhood weight loss program at the local Children’s Hospital.
I was a pretty active preteen. I was rollerblading, biking, swimming, and walking all the time. Back then, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with my body. After all, both of my parents were larger people so I always just assumed I was made that way. When people — often my grandmother — would comment on my body or talk about losing weight, I’d just refer back to my parents. Can’t fight a monster that was written into my genetic code, right?
My size always seemed to walk into a room first, before my fashion choices, before my personality, before my grit. As I got older and fatter, it quickly became apparent that my size had a lot more to do with how people viewed me than I thought it did.
At about sixteen, my father started looking for a husband for me. Growing up in a Chassidic family, this felt like a natural next step. I was a homemaker, I could cook for a crowd, and I understood what was needed of me to be a good Chassidic wife. Although outspoken and with a bit of attitude, it turned out that I was just too heavy to be a bride. Too fat to be a wife. My father demanded that I lose weight immediately and weigh myself every single day. I didn’t have a scale, but he had a solution for me. The local shipping supplies store had a scale for packages. He wanted me to be weighed on that package scale.
I felt no better than a piece of meat being readied for display. The idea of being publicly weighed —at the package store no less —brought me to my knees, overwhelmed with a sense of panic. This wasn’t how I wanted to see my body.
In what can be viewed as a lucky turn of events, I went into foster care soon after and my life grew quite complicated. I wouldn’t truly have the time or emotional strength to think about my fatness again until I was about 19 years old. I moved to New York and began to explore who I was and what I stood for. I flaunted my body in ways I was never allowed to while growing up, challenging myself by confidently wearing tank tops or shorter skirts, even skinny jeans. I was developing a sense of personhood and style.
Around that time I met my first (consensual) male lover on OKCupid. As a fat woman, I did all the things I could to make sure perspective matches knew my actual size, sharing full-length photos praying that they wouldn’t be surprised. He, however, was unperturbed. He loved my fatness, the roundness my body held, and the power of a strong personality in a body to match. It stunned me. I wasn’t the only one who thought my body was okay just the way it was.
Six months later, a woman I dated introduced me to a group of fat femmes. I became part of a community of fat people who had the radical notion that there was nothing wrong with our bodies. These femmes taught me about true acceptance, how to hold my head up high and take the space I needed to move around the world. Four years ago, I went to the circus and a woman noticed me. When she reached out to me online, I gave her a chance, allowing her love and desire for me to make me feel whole. Now, I am planning to marry her.
And I got fatter. Hair started growing on my face. The symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome becoming more pronounced. My belly got rounder and hung lower. My ankles got wider and the fold on my back deepened.
Falling in love with my body is not like marking off a completed task on a to-do list. It requires constant action. Much like a long term relationship with a human, the love for my body needs to be tended to and the flames stoked. I've learned the hard way that as much progress as I've made internally, there are still people and things out in the world determined to tear me down. There will be strangers looking out for my “health.” Or people out there bitter and angry at their own bodies and taking it out on mine.
When I moved back to my hometown two years ago, I had already spent years working on my self-image and loving myself exactly the way I was. Skinny jeans were just the first stop on my exploration. I had now moved on to crop tops and bodycon dresses. I embraced bright, fabulous colors, and anything that made me stand out in a crowd. A week after moving into our new apartment, my fiancée and I went to a local store to pick up some much-needed essentials we hadn’t thought to bring with us. It was an unusually warm April day, so I dug out my favorite suede crop top and paired it with a high-waisted, wide-legged pair of pants.
People stared as I powered my way through the aisles, gathering the necessary items. That didn’t faze me. Stares I expected at a fat woman that took fashion risks. When I got outside and started walking back to my car, though, things took a turn. A person drove by me, yelling obscenities from behind the wheel as several plus-size people in the car made fun of my body. They didn’t stop there. They drove around me in the parking lot, this time taking photos and calling me a cow.
In this moment, my years of work on my relationship with my body paid off. I laughed and continued putting my items in my car. My fiancée, however, was mortified. Crushed. Destroyed by these people who thought making fun of a fat person was great entertainment. I never wore that crop top again, not because I was ashamed of it, but because I didn’t want to see that hurt pooling in the eyes of the woman I love. These comments were about more than just me. They hurt other people in my proximity.
Today, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it seems nearly impossible to avoid the constant posts on social media graphically describing the horror of this social isolation period. You’d think these posts would show people being terrified of the virus that might kill them or take their jobs, but instead, it’s people hysterical about the very idea of looking like me, however impossible that is. The very real fears of the coronavirus were tampered by the fears of fatness and it’s perceived side effects. Whenever I see these posts and memes, as painful as they are, I can’t help but laugh at the hysterical fears and ludicrous priorities.
Well, here I am. The fat woman, the person you are afraid of becoming has the confidence of a world leader. How else could I possibly face all of my so-called friends as they demonize my very existence?
My body is strong and powerful. My will to be who I am and change the world in exactly the body I was given is unshaken. I stand here like a brick statue on a windy day, unmoved by the daggers of your words. Unaffected by the pitiful eyes I can feel staring up at me from the depths of the computer screen as you fear becoming me.
I want to tell you that the world on this side of the screen is not so bad after all. The confidence I have in myself is achievable for you too. The work I have done to fall in love with my hairy double, no, triple chin, and my flabby arms is work you can do too. I promise you it’s possible to not look in the mirror and despise what you see back — at any size.
As your body changes, you have the ability to hug yourself tighter, show compassion for your complicated feelings, and then kick them as far away as possible, because you are beautiful. Your body is exactly as it was meant to be. And it was meant to change.
In strange and trying times like these, instead of worrying about how you're going to keep the shape of your body from changing, which it's adapted to do, focus on how to avoid infection and having a plan for if you get sick. Focus on how to keep eating food and maintain joyful movement in ways that make you feel energized and strong. Focus on how you're going to stay in touch with the people in your life who help keep you happy and balanced! That scoop of ice cream you desire to help allay the fear and strain you are feeling from the pandemic, enjoy it. Now more than ever, you're a lot more important than the weight on a scale.
Chaya Milchtein (one of The Advocate's 2020 Women of the Year) is a Midwestern queer automotive educator, writer, and empowerment blogger, who uses her platform to prove that people (especially femmes) can do whatever they want in the body they have. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
A version of this article originally appeared on MechanicShopFemme.com.