My decision to lose weight was sparked when I got COVID in December 2020. I was lucky — the illness wasn’t bad. But it came at a time when my professional life was nearing, for me, unbearable. I had switched jobs to be with my family. I was being hazed in my new gig; my kids were at home with me every waking moment. My postpartum depression and anxiety, which had rolled five years later into just regular old depression and anxiety, were at an all-time high.
And then: COVID. And I wanted something else for myself. I wanted not to eat my feelings, as I had been doing for years and which, after my second pregnancy, had resulted in 50 instead of 15 more pounds on my 5-foot frame. I wanted to feel like myself again, not a receptacle for everyone else’s needs and desires and protocols. I wanted my body to stop following everything and everyone and every feeling around me and figure out what I actually wanted to eat, to feel, to do.
My body takes up so much real estate in my day-to-day brain-time, the push and pull of trite self-hating ruminations and my shame about them as a person who teaches feminism for a living. I was sick; I was making myself sick at this nexus of growing up as a white woman in a culture that values thinness as a sign of self-regulation, a medical culture that associates obesity with every single health issue, and a feminist culture that told me to get over myself and love my body beyond measure, or else to not think of my body at all.
I was exhausted by my body. I was not eating or moving or living with pleasure or a sense of my own desires. I felt too tired to have a body, to think about my body. Except that, of course, I always did.
So when I felt my anxiety rise, I walked while I listened to mystery novels on audiobooks from the library (that Rita Mae Brown cats and murders series is hilarious). I walked while I played Pokémon Go with my kids. I ate a big bowl of oatmeal and raspberries. I did 10 minutes of yoga. I felt calmer, less anxious, less self-obsessed. I felt better. And since that December of 2020, I’ve lost 50 pounds.
As my kids started back at school, the parents I saw every day started in with, “Did you lose weight? You look amazing.” It was awkward, but also so human. While they were being honest with their curiosity, their words implied I did not “look great” before. I’ve also watched as others clock my difference and discipline themselves into not saying anything.
I appreciate the ideal that no one should ever mention your body. I also appreciate an embrace of the value of various aesthetic performances and acknowledging the labor, thought and creativity that go into them. It took me a long time to embrace that kind of feminine performance in myself, precisely because it didn’t ― no matter how much I wanted it to ― come from a place of resistance or radicality, though I admire those who feel that it does for them.
And now here I am, 50 pounds lighter and still thinking about my body. I feel more like “me,” but I also know that’s a fiction of the fatphobia I’ve internalized as much as it’s a sign of my improving mental health. I still don’t feel happy or comfortable in my body all or even most of the time, just like when I was 50 pounds heavier. I still feel great about my body in moments — the right lipstick, a new set of earrings I love, when I get up in forearm stand on my first try on my yoga mat — just like I did before.
I desperately want to not care, to not feel attached to any of the weight loss. That’s hard to do when you’ve experienced life in a body that has fundamentally shifted — as well as opinions about my body from those around me.
“Here I am, 50 pounds lighter and still thinking about my body. I feel more like 'me,' but I also know that’s a fiction of the fatphobia I’ve internalized as much as it’s a sign of my improving mental health.”
Because of the long pauses in in-person interaction during the ongoing pandemic, I often have to face my “new” body in conversation with colleagues, friends and my wider world of acquaintances.
I try out different responses, noting that for me, my eating was correlated with my depression and anxiety, and this loss is a mark of how I am coping better with those conditions. Other times, I highlight my terrible relationship with my job. And sometimes, I just say that we got COVID in December 2020 and after that, I felt lucky and wanted to focus on moving more and feeling better long term, and that this loss was the incidental result, if not the goal. These things are all true.
They are also all sometimes not true. Sometimes I marvel at what I have done at 43 and after two kids and with a tremendous amount of professional and personal responsibility. Sometimes I remember my 6-year-old telling me, pre-pandemic, that I was the fattest mommy he knew, and me choking out with a smile the mantra that “All bodies are good bodies” — which I believe and feel deeply — and then crying in the tiny closet pantry because I did not feel that for myself.
My body and my feminism feel haunted by discipline. I resent the discipline that both require. And yet I am committed to them both as I move in the world.
What if that were part of how we talked about feminism and our bodies — about what we honestly lose and gain in our quotidian, ethical, emotional and political lives as we live in our bodies, as they change and the world changes with them and against them? Caring for my body and caring for my feminist life is hard work. Being fat was as much work as being 50 pounds lighter. It’s difficult to be in a body; it’s all self-maintenance.
My weight loss is a part of the story of my body and the story of my feminism― but this is not a screed about balance, choice or even compassion. It’s about a desire to be honest about our feelings about our own bodies as feminists.
Feminism can give us more than prescriptions about how to feel about our bodies, something between self-love/acceptance and total detachment. We can ask for a feminism that can grapple with our complicated feelings about our bodies, that doesn’t ask us to constantly discipline ourselves into the right feelings, if we only work hard enough at our politics.
To do this, we might have to lose the stories of what a feminist body should feel like, from the inside out.
Samantha Pinto is the author of Infamous Bodies (Duke University Press, 2020) and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.