When I was 28, an amazing thing happened: Men started looking at me.
I had spent most of my 20s weighing 287 pounds and unhappily celibate. Men only looked at me when they were drunk and mean, elbowing their friends and saying, “wide load” or “that’s your girlfriend.”
But over the course of a year, I’d lost 151 pounds. I was suddenly thin.
Now men talked to me, held doors for me and watched me wherever I went. I watched myself, too. There was a wall of reflective glass on the way to the post office, and I couldn’t help but look as I walked by. I’d never seen myself thin before. At home, I stood naked in front of a long mirror on my bedroom door and ran my hands over the bones I’d never known were inside me.
I joined Match.com in 2002 while living in Shirlington, Va., long before online dating became the norm. I lived for the messages men sent. They told me I was beautiful, and asked me questions about my profession — at the time, I was a teacher — writing and my dog. My weekends and weeknights filled up with dates. Before each night out, I primped to Lucinda Williams’s “Happy Woman Blues” album, belting out, “Just another one night stand, just another man to forget.”
The men who picked me had monosyllabic names and were relatively short. All but one had noticeable reasons to explain why they had resorted to online dating back when it still held a stigma. I was aware of these “flaws” but saw in them the possibility of kindred spirits.
First came Doug. He was short and balding but had these funny tufts of hair sprouting from his head. His skin was pasty white and pink. He was older than me and looked every bit of it. At our dinner date, we talked for hours. Then, we went to my car and talked more. I told him everything about me, my life as an enormous person and my life as a small one, and he told me about his new hair plugs. I remember being in my little Volkswagen GTI, shivering in the January cold. I looked at him, truly amazed by how ugly he was. How ugly he was and how pretty he kept calling me.
He was my first date as a thin woman. I weighed 136 pounds. I exercised five days a week. I weighed every gram of food I ate. Sure, I knew if I bent over, the extra newly-empty skin of my belly would hang in long pleats between my breasts and pelvis, but at the time, I believed in new beginnings and mutual humility.
While in the car, Doug asked if I wanted to go back to his apartment. I balked. It was nearly 1 a.m., and I was afraid to go somewhere with someone I’d just met – a fear I would eventually get over. I was just as afraid not to go somewhere with him, though, to let the spell of his interest elapse. I put my mouth on him so he would stay a little longer.
The next time I saw him was at his apartment, where I spent the night. In the morning, he readied for work. I slipped out of bed, retrieved my undies and jeans, fastened my bra and went to the living room to find my shirt.
I walked topless through the winter sun, imagining myself a sultry vixen. Doug was in the living room, and I perched on his lap as he tied his shoes. His eyes cut away from me.
He moved me off of him and stood up, ready to go.
Next came Tom. We met for dinner, too. He was an art student in Maryland, passionate and intense. By the end of dinner, he revealed to me that he was mostly deaf. We went back to my place, fooled around, and by the time we were kissing goodbye in the parking lot, it was 2 a.m. He said he loved me. I felt foolish, incredulous that this could be possible, but I said it back and meant it. Soon he stopped coming to Virginia to see me.
Then was Bob, a tech startup millionaire who lived in Great Falls, Va. He was terrified of being recognized, so his Match profile had no photograph. I didn’t care; I was open to anyone, to everyone. Bob was not ugly. He was baby-faced and had a mischievous smile that was contagious. But Bob was staunchly conservative. Of all the women I became with all the men I dated while on Match, I am most ashamed of who I was with Bob.
When I spent the night, he made my undressing a sort of ritual. After my clothes were gone, he’d stand behind me at his dresser and remove each of my five earrings. One by one, he’d set them down on the dresser, reclasping the earrings before putting them down. He did the same with my necklace. It felt like ablution, which felt very near to love.
But something ate at him, a shame just as contagious as his smile. That I was so imperfect, maybe, and so I apologized for my body.
Days later, he told me a secret no one else knew: “Sometimes I wear women’s panties.”
He would buy dresses, heels and makeup to wear. He wanted to leave the house like this but never looked good enough, he said, so he’d purge everything from his closet and drive it to some anonymous dumpster in an area where no one knew him.
The night he confided in me, we only slept side by side. And in the morning, I couldn’t think of a single word to say. How could I reassure him that I didn’t mind his gender play when I had adopted his own perfectionism and disdain for anything less? I only saw him once more after that, when he broke it off. I wondered: When he had undressed me all those times, was it more of a quiet pleading to the objects he removed rather than any devotion to me?
I lost 30 more pounds. Weighing 106, I got a handful more and better Match dates but no one stuck. That summer, I headed to a full-time teaching position in Erie, Pa., where the rigor of my eating and exercise regimen would spin out of control. I had lost the weight for love, so what was the point of denying myself the pleasures of food if no one would ever love me?
I gained back 80 pounds in two months, wasted money buying and rebuying junk food after work, only to throw it all out after binging each night. I cocooned myself in sadness.
But the hunger for love never abated. I took another job a year later, this one in southwest Indiana.
The very night I moved to Evansville, I found the love of my life. Todd and I met at a party, and since we moved in the same circles — he taught at the same university — we kept seeing each other at social functions.
On our first date, which he would have said wasn’t a date at all, we ate Evansville’s strange cracker-crust pizza at Turoni’s. I still remember what I wore. I felt dumpy in a size 16 short denim skirt and black sweater with a deep-V down my back. I cannot recall a single word he said that night.
What I do recall is the first time he said I was pretty, I took a big breath and looked down. The same words so many men had said before were entirely different. I looked back up and Todd was still there, looking right at me. Seeing me.
We spent that first summer together almost always naked. Sitting on the good dining chairs for meals, plastic grocery bags rustled beneath us when we twirled our pasta or reached for the pepper.
Now when we travel, Todd gets Thai food, and I get doughnuts. He gets Ethiopian, and I get cupcakes. He gets beer, and I get milkshakes.
Once, in a parking lot, a man coming out of a liquor store smiled and bit his fist at me and called out to Todd, “Hey, can you handle all that?” My love said, “Oh yeah!” And he can.
With Todd, I did everything wrong all over again. We drank Irish car bombs, and I jumped right into bed with him. But it did not matter. Todd has seen me big, and he has seen me small. He has seen me enormous. Never has he shamed me, never has he thought of me as grotesque or less than. The way his love feels is electric and safe all in one. I don’t need to hide from him, hide my past or my present, fragment myself in order to fit him. He knows everything about me and loves me more for the knowing. And I know I am, and have always been, whole.