I, like many women, have always fixated on my Lowest Adult Weight, carrying it around like an old, tarnished trophy: 132 pounds in the fall of 2011, a season when I was angry and miserable — but god, the clothes I could wear. Now I'm older and soft and 150-something pounds, and I hate that I feel envy toward that unhappy 25-year-old, the one who every day ate the exact same salad at her horrible job, sped directly to a workout after 6 p.m., made a halfhearted sandwich at home, and then fell into bed, exhausted from getting through the day. I’m not the type of person who gets skinny when she’s stressed; typically, I eat my feelings in big chocolate-y bites. But there was something very particular about that summer and fall, an almost manic adhesion to schedule, and then a growing fascination with my shrinking body, the way I used to be there and then wasn’t. I stood in front of the mirror and stared hard at the crack of light between my thighs. If I was wearing a skirt and sat down too suddenly, there was a small clapping sound as my thin legs met. I went home for the Fourth of July and spent an hour pulling old high school jeans from my closet, trying them on and then admiring the looseness, how they now gaped at the waist and sagged in the ass. I told my editor I wanted to write an essay about coming to terms with the fact that my “dream body” was a product of misery, but now the white screen blinks back at me. What if I’m not over it? It’s such a petty, embarrassing thing to fixate on, amidst my very full life. I love my job, I’m surrounded by a big cushy net of wonderful, supportive people, and I have borderline too-high confidence in my own intelligence and creativity. I have my shit more or less together in most other life realms. And yet, my stupid fucking weight. The doughy flesh around my hips and abdomen that once didn’t exist. It strikes me: I literally can’t stop navel-gazing. I’m a feminist and an advocate for self-acceptance, so why do these 20 pounds take up such an outsize amount of space in my mind? Part of what nags me is that I’m just not as healthful now as I was then; I can blame injuries, invisible, slow-to-heal wounds in my wrist and then knee and then foot that shut down my running routine and kept me out of the yoga studio, but I know it’s not just that. I was more disciplined in 2011, more determined to say no to the cupcake and to hit the gym no matter what. I don’t believe I was dealing with disordered eating or an exercise addiction, since it genuinely didn’t bother me to set the healthy routine aside for a week or two, but I can’t figure out where all that self-control came from. More importantly: Where did it go?
I have to be kinder to myself about the fact that I fucking care.
In the end, thinness left me as quickly as it came; I quit my horrible job and started freelancing from home right in the thickest part of winter, and I snacked as I wrote and beat against impending deadlines with bags of treats. In the ensuing years, my happiness has climbed steadily while my weight's bounced around a bit, but always on an incline. I'm not alone; for women, our 20s are often our prime weight-gaining years — with an eight-pound gain on average, according to CDC data. And these years are also a period when happiness tends to slightly rise, per research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. I’m a health journalist; I understand that exercise and a balanced diet are wise, key, vital. (I know, too, that those smart habits are important no matter what you weigh — and that the habits themselves are much more crucial than the number on the scale.) And yet I just can’t seem to balance physical and mental health in my palm at the same time. I know what I need to do: I need to erase the old goal weight from my mind, letting the 1, 3, and 2 fade like invisible ink. I need to set an achievable aim in its stead, ideally a non-scale one — a new target bike mileage, my dream of completing a pull-up. A goal that doesn’t need distress as a driving force. I should toss out the old clothes, the dresses and pants in the back of my closet, the dark, lurking evidence of my skinnier, sadder self. And I have to be kinder to myself about the fact that I fucking care. How could I not? We live in a society where slimness reigns, where the people we deem beautiful tend to have thin limbs and delicate physiques — even though that’s completely, obviously false. Beating myself up for internalizing that, for thinking I looked more attractive when I could shimmy into a sample size, is just strapping on another stupid chain, compliments of the patriarchy. It’s actually pretty cool that my self-worth stems from internal things these days. Back in 2011, amidst all that misery, I wasn’t writing novels and visiting foreign countries and decorating my very own apartment with the grown-up abandon I possess today. Maybe the discipline that used to lead me to sad salads and soulless gym appointments is leaking into other endeavors, ones that have nothing to do with my dress size but everything to do with the small but hopefully positive mark I’ll leave on the world. Maybe shame, embarrassment, and self-disgust over my current weight are just as terrible drivers of health as unhappiness was five years ago. I haven’t figured it all out, but I do know that five years from now, I don’t want to be clicking through old photos and squinting at the curve of my thighs. I want to remember how happy, productive, and accomplished I made myself feel nearly every day. That’s the goal.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.