Dating Jason was such a relief. At 43, I had been in love only once before with a man who sat in the passenger seat of my car (when I was much thinner than I am today) and poked his finger into my splayed thigh, as if to say, “You’re going to take care of that, right?”
Jason would never do that, mostly because he was kind and empathetic and not a garbage person. But also because he was fat like me.
I had worked with him years before, during which there was just a skosh of mild flirting that later led to spicy flirting. Fun Jason fact: He hated bananas. If I ever wanted to see fear in his eyes, I could peel a banana and give chase, brandishing it like a dull, sweet sword.
Even so, as he wooed me, he baked me the most luscious banana cream pie of my life, with a layer of chocolate ganache between the graham cracker crust and the gooey banana filling. This man touched a banana for me — repeatedly — and it meant a lot.
Jason was also the first man I dated whose presence didn’t trigger my body shame. We both had internalized fat shame, but when we were alone together, it was as if we canceled each other’s out. We would order wings and chili cheese fries and watch two movies in one night. I would sit beside him and not obsess about what my double (or triple) chins looked like. When we spooned in bed, he could rest his hand soundly on my ample belly without me having to subtly nudge it to a less problematic area. Because between the two of us, I was the one closer to a “straight-size body.”
And I do mean closer, not close.
Since college, I have had an “obese” to “morbidly obese” body mass index — a measure that is at best inaccurate and at worst racist. Created by a Belgian mathematician, its average is based on the height and weight of white European men.
I was what some in the body positivity movement would call a “mid fat.” For a woman, that’s a size 20 to 24. There are differing opinions on how many “fategories” there are, but they go up to “infinifat” or “Death Fat,” which is writer Lesley Kinzel’s term, mocking the also-very-suspect concept of “morbid obesity.”
Over the months Jason and I dated, I could tell I was gaining weight, and with that awareness came a deep sense of dread about what others thought of us. When we walked into a restaurant, I imagined the other customers thinking, “Jesus, I hope they leave something for us.” When we went to the grocery store, I could feel eyes on our cart, people craning their necks to spy all the things they shouldn’t buy.
But the scene I kept imagining, the one I could not get out of my head, was the two of us walking into a party with all our friends. It didn’t matter how beautiful I looked or how dapper Jason looked (he’s a handsome guy); I couldn’t bear the idea that we were the “fat couple” among our friends.
Had our friends ever indicated that our weight was an issue for them? No. Had they mocked either of us for our weight? Absolutely not. Had they “expressed concern” for our health after watching a local news show about the “obesity epidemic,” rife with shots of headless fat torsos of people who were oblivious to the fact that they’d be a walking cautionary tale on the evening news? Nope. This scenario was solely in my head, all the shame I have felt for years projected onto others, including those who love me.
One afternoon after Jason and I had been dating about five months, I tried on a pair of jeans that no longer fit, so I weighed myself, which I did periodically to ensure I didn’t get “out of control” after losing 30 pounds the year before.
I had gained back 15 of them.
I stared at the scale and felt my chest tighten, adrenaline washing over my face and shoulders. This was it. I was out of control. I was already “morbidly obese,” so now I was clearly on my way to the morgue. I had to stop this. I had to change something.
Just then, Jason texted me, as he did every day to check in. I told him to come over because we had to talk. He arrived in minutes.
I let him in and sat on the couch, expecting him to sit down with me, but he remained standing, coat on, keys in hand. “What’s going on?”
I explained what I had been feeling, and that I had gained 15 pounds. He oddly didn’t seem to grasp the gravity of the situation.
“I’ve gained way more than that!” he said. “Who cares?”
“It’s not just that, Jason,” I said. “I just can’t — ”
I couldn’t let my thoughts escape the confines of my brain and enter the ether. I knew how terrible they were.
“You can’t what?” he asked.
“I can’t be ‘that fat couple’ among our friends. I can’t always be the biggest couple in the room. I have so much shame around my body, and sometimes being with you feels like I’m doubling it.”
He stared at me for a long time, allowing me to steep in my own ugliness long enough to feel the heat rise in my cheeks.
“I would never feel anything but proud to walk into a room with you,” he said.
And then he left me there, alone with my cat and my shame.
I have no idea how he ever forgave me for what I said. He should never have spoken to me again. But he did. And without my prompting. He simply sent me a text a few days later that said, “Fine. I suppose we’re friends, then. You and me.”
His forgiveness, to me, was miraculous. I would say he was a saint, especially since children and dogs adored him, but all his swearing and premarital sex was probably disqualifying.
Over the decade-plus since, we have worked together often, and he befriended my family. We spent Thanksgivings and Christmases together, first with just him and then with his new girlfriend, Jessica — the two of them beautifully in love.
Four years ago, I officiated their wedding in front of hundreds of our friends. Jason’s vows were heartfelt and hilarious, bringing an entire theater full of people to laughter and tears.
“Wow,” I said as he finished. “That was so beautiful, Jason. And this might be a weird time to bring this up, but — why did we stop dating again?”
Thankfully, Jessica laughed. Also thankfully, Jason didn’t reply, “Because you’re an irredeemable jerk?”
Last year, I went to see Jason perform at a storytelling show, where he spoke about a heart attack he had some years ago, one he said at the time was just a small “heart event.” It wasn’t.
He was alone in his apartment, but he didn’t call 911. Instead, he called a friend to take him to the emergency room. And then he crawled, in excruciating pain, down the narrow staircase to wait in the parking lot because he didn’t want his neighbors to see the paramedics struggling to get his body down the stairs.
When he got to the hospital, he died for 77 seconds before they revived him. My friend, the guy with the biggest heart of anyone I know, had literally died of shame.
As Jason told the story, I sat in a flood of tears, utterly inconsolable. When I told it to friends later, the tears came again. It’s a devastating story, yes, but where was this outpouring coming from?
I realized it wasn’t just sadness I was feeling — but near-crippling regret. Just like me, Jason carried around a mountain of shame, and what I said and did that day years before helped his mountain grow until eventually it was high enough for him to risk his life in service to it.
I still haven’t escaped my own fat shame, though I have become more aware of the damage it’s done and more accepting, of others and myself. Nearly everyone, except maybe sociopaths and Peloton instructors, goes through this world with some self-loathing. And most of us think the only person we hurt when we indulge it is ourselves. But that kind of shame is insidious. It seeps into our relationships and wounds everyone around us, sometimes mortally.
If we’re lucky, though, they’re resurrected, and they help us heal our own lives by loving us even through the worst of our sins.