“Overweight” and Loving Myself

love yourself resized

I have been overweight my whole life. For as long as I remember, I’ve been “the fat girl.” It’s so firmly a part of my identity that I can’t even imagine life as “a skinny person.”

My first memories of being aware of my body are from early childhood, age 6 or 7. I still remember looking at the legs of the other girls at summer camp. They had these skinny legs that didn’t pucker in their inside knees like mine did. When they sat down, their thighs didn’t expand. I wasn’t aware of what that meant at the time; I just noticed that I was different.  

Before I started going to a Jewish high school, I didn’t think I’d ever wear skirts exclusively, but it was by far the easiest thing I could adopt. For me was the best thing that could happen – I didn’t have to worry about wearing tight jeans, shorts or tank tops. Even better that it was a cherished zechut to cover up!

It wasn’t until the age of 23 when I first felt that I was attractive. At that time, I met my first boyfriend. I will never forget how special and loved he made me feel. It was a deep, complicated relationship, but he was the first person that ever made me feel valued, pretty, desired. By that age, all of my close friends were married. Some already had children. But me? I was “the fat one,” and I wondered, “Who would want to marry me?” I really owe my first love a debt of gratitude for changing the way I thought about myself.

Of course the shadchanim fixated on the weight issue, too. There is so much pressure in our society to be thin, and even more so in the religious world. Maybe it’s because as observant Jews, we’re supposed to focus on our inner beauty, our spiritual sides, and our character traits that so it’s jarring (and hypocritical) that there is such a focus on how single women look. Why can’t we embrace who we are and learn to accept ourselves and our bodies at all sizes? Why don’t our rebbetzins, teachers, and kallah teachers speak up about that more? Don’t they realize that having that self-respect will help us attract our future spouses?

Needless to say, the pressure to fit expectations only exacerbated my negative self-image. Instead of focusing on the positive parts of myself, the pressure in the religious world and the messages I heard paralyzed me with anxiety. It wasn’t until I was thirty six that I got married. My (now ex) husband never made me feel badly about my weight. I am grateful to him for that.

Over the years, I must have gained and lost hundreds of pounds. Through episodes of major emotional challenges, trauma, and stress, I’d gain, then lose, then gain again, each time beating myself up and celebrating when I lost weight. When I hit my highest weight, I was miserable. It happened gradually, so it was hard to get a grasp on how severe my weight gain was. At a certain point, I decided to have bariatric sleeve surgery. I succeeded in losing close to 100 lbs and reached my lowest weight since the 6th grade. I didn’t care that I was still considered overweight – I was thinner than ever and felt on top of the world – but I still never reached “thin.” I don’t think I ever will.

Now, after removing half of a major internal organ and still not skinny, it’s time to recalibrate my thinking. To accept myself, respect myself, and move forward with grace, dignity, and some sexiness too. But how? These are foreign concepts to “the fat girl.”

It wasn’t until I saw the character Kate on “This is Us” that I started to rethink my body image. She is so talented and beautiful, yet feels self-pity for herself and her body. She beats herself up and eats away her sadness. How I relate! How many times have I heard “Oh, but you have such a pretty face, you’re smart, talented…. If only you were thin.” (Can I smack those people?!)  Yet Kate found love. She found Toby, a wonderful, funny, warm, caring man who loves her for everything she is. How inspiring for so many of us who also struggle with our body image, or who tell ourselves that we are not valuable or worthy of finding love until we’re thin. We all deserve our version of Toby!

This is why I think it’s so vital to show images of women in media. If all we see are thin women, or, worse off, NO women, we have no visual representation of the diversity in the world. We have no idea that there are others who may look like us (or who may struggle with similar issues) if we don’t see any women beyond those in our immediate environments. It is absolutely crucial to encounter role models of a variety of sizes, professions, and talents. They are living proof that we’re not alone with our inner deliberations; that we can belong and be successful. That love (and self-love) is possible, even if we’re curvy and or have a bit more to us (nowadays I tell myself there’s more of me to love!)

I am now in a place where I am reconditioning my thoughts, reversing the poison of being ashamed about my weight. I am learning that being confident and having a plus-size body doesn’t have to be a contradiction. They can live in harmony if we change our perspectives, challenge the voices in our heads (and shut out the negative voices around us). It’s how we think of ourselves that affects the energy we radiate. The very fact that I’m able to even write this and share it is testament to being a different space and being able to accept myself.

And to the matchmakers out there? I have news for you: there are plenty of men who are attracted to plus-size women, so just stop. Stop putting us down and making us feel like garbage because we aren’t a size two. There are men who will in fact love us the way we are. I know it because I’ve experienced it. I promise you this is true.

I now have a beautiful daughter. I want her to see a mother who is genuinely happy. I am raising her to be confident, joyful and to respect her mind and body. I refuse to feed her the poison I was told growing up. It is crucial to me that she is surrounded by positivity, love, and respect. As a new mother, I have worked hard at creating a warm, loving environment at home, our core of safety. And as a single mom, I am learning to once again be open to love.

Gradually, I am becoming keenly aware of the importance of loving and respecting myself, as these are the foundations to being able to accept and give love to others and live a happy, fulfilled life.

Yehudit Jessica Singer made Aliyah in 2004 after escaping the land of shopping malls and manicures otherwise known as Long Island. Now based in Jerusalem, Yehudit works in book marketing, loves to write, and has a slight obsession with People magazine. Contrary to the contents of this essay, her childhood as a zaftig flute player in band camp are some of her happiest memories. She is the proud mama to a little girl.