“Would you still love me if I were fat?” I asked him. We were out to dinner at one of our favorite Italian restaurants, and I was avoiding the breadbasket like it was a pile of cocaine. I was 17 years old, 5’10,” 150 pounds, and consuming 1,800 calories a day, offset by a 60- to 90-minute workout. According to the National Institute of Health, a very active (40+ minutes of exercise per day) 17-year-old girl should consume closer to 2,400 calories per day. My weight at that time also fell within the “healthy” category as determined by the CDC’s Body Mass Index calculator. But none of this was on my radar then—I wanted to lose weight. On my diet plan, which was half blessed by a nutritionist and half amended by teenage logic, a day without exercise meant I could only consume 1,500 calories. And if one day I went rogue and ate more than 1,800 calories, the next day I’d do my best to stick within 1,200 calories. Everything was measured: the number on the scale, the portions of my food, the miles traveled on the treadmill. Living required constant calculation.
“No,” my dad said, matter-of-factly.
Part of me knew this wasn’t entirely true. One of my older brothers had been overweight and cycled up and down for most of his life. No one cared about how much bread he ate before dinner. Also, my dad had pretty much always been what I knew a loving father to be: somewhat emotionally and mostly financially supportive. After all, his baby girl didn’t have to work a summer job if she didn’t want to. (I didn’t want to, but all my friends were doing it, so like bulimia, I did too.)
“But you still love David,” I pointed out, reaching for affirmation.
“Yeah, but he’s a man.”
These words landed like a grenade blowing up my understanding of unconditional love. My father confirmed what I’d always sensed to be true, but no one ever said directly: To be loved, I would have to be hungry.
Over a decade later, I asked my dad about this conversation. He didn’t really remember it, those words that wiped out my sense of home. But he did admit that he never wanted to encourage me to “blow up.” His paternal instinct rooted in a long-held belief unceremoniously handed down through generations of Pettinellis and their peers that a woman’s appearance reigns supreme over her intelligence and abilities. This is the same man who sent me to private schools, bought me a new car for my 16th birthday because it was “safer” than something used, and practiced basketball with me on the weekends. If you’re beautiful and a girl, you are taken care of.
Before I was old enough to ask such pointed questions, before I was mature enough to know which questions to ask, I observed the way the world changed according to my body. It wasn’t lost on me during family vacations that my younger, skinny cousin was always helped out of the car first and carried when she was tired. We were three years apart, but I knew I was too big for such acts of affection, especially when my mother would ask my dad in front of everyone why he wasn’t helping me. Then there was the time in the bath when my cousin asked her mom why I was so fat.
My next-door neighbor Kim would write and sing songs about my fatness and perform them along the small slope that divided our driveways, sometimes with backup singers, her words crossing a boundary her body didn’t. “Dara, Dara she’s so fat. . .” You can imagine the rest.
When the school bus pulled up to Runnemede Way, my heart would sink with the dreaded anticipation of the Holloway brothers. The street on which they lived is inseparable from my memories of them. Mark was prone to taking my dolls and smashing their heads against the metal legs of my seat. David was prone to punching me in the stomach. No one ever intervened.
In class I often wondered: if I just looked more like my smaller, blond-haired, blue-eyed, freckled-faced friends, would the teachers call on me more and kick me out less. Big, loud, and opinionated fat kids are a nuisance.
At home one of my older brothers, like most big brothers (I know because I had three), took sadistic pleasure in upsetting me by any means necessary. My weight made this extremely easy. “Wow, a size 12, Dara?!” he said one Christmas morning as I held up a skirt from my mom, a gift I actually liked from her for once, turning it into a source of shame. He made no secret about preferring “his women anorexic looking.” His women. “Wow, you actually look like a woman,” he said on the Easter morning I wore a size-10 skirt. I wasn’t menstruating anymore. My mother and I made many doctor’s appointments to figure out where my period had gone. Sports, it was determined.
It’s hard to find the line between hyperbole and rotten truth when retracing moments of pain, especially at the hands of someone you love. Everyone holds a metaphorical loaded gun, but when and why we pull the trigger and in which direction is what separates us, the bullies from the bullied, the victims from the survivors.
I binged on the slights, swallowed the aggressions, and carried the weight of everyone’s actions until their perceptions of me became mine. There were moments set aside for bingeing and purging—rapturous gluttony followed by remorseful erasure. Laxatives helped with this, as did my fingers, and lots and lots of water. The sound of the water running in the sink so no one could hear what I was doing in the bathroom; the endless glasses of water that kept my belly full and aided in churning up what needed to come out. My fingers that held the power of the pills, the water that helped them go down. At 20, there were two emergency surgeries: one to remove my gallbladder, another to remove the stones that stayed behind, lodged in a miniscule duct like tenants refusing a buyout as the landscape around them changed. The path of self-destruction had to redirect.
In my mid-20s, I took the blade that should’ve been turned outward and carved my arms and legs. I never felt more potent than when hiding fresh cuts under my sleeve, one sudden move and the air would change. One therapist said absolutely no razors; another said, can I see? I held on to my tools, I bandaged my borderlines. Laxatives and vomit traded places with crushed Xanax and alcohol. All those pretty little peach-colored pills lined up on the bedspread like marching ants that could lift me above their heads and carry me away. There are many ways rage can travel, but only so far it can get.
The first diet was at nine, the second at 12, the third at 15, and then it just became a matter of course—my desire to be thin and my rebellion against the expectation constantly interchanging, the weapons of battle evolving with age.
“She lost it at the right time,” a family friend told my mom upon my pre-teen weight loss. I accepted this statement like any good girl accepts the standards set upon her. I knew this friend meant that I was approaching the age of boys—dances, parties, first kisses—and I was perfectly primed for the male gaze. This was the 1990s and the beauty ideal du jour was waif thin and heroin chic. The closer you looked to a sheet of paper with cigarette burns, the better. On Christmas Day in 1996, someone beat and strangled the life out of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey; there was some evidence of sexual assault, but nothing that could be proven in court. The news media had a field day incessantly showing viewers pictures from her time in pageants as if to say, look at this beautiful child, like a doll, preened for pageantry, look what they’ve done to her. But all girls are sexualized in grotesque ways. To this day, no one knows who to blame for her fate.
The history of diet culture has a timeline—the who, the what, the why, the when, and the where are tangible forces. But the objectification of girls is harder to pin down. Where to begin? Which direction to go? Every female exists on a spectrum of adjectives bookended by gorgeous and ugly. Wherever she falls on that scale is what seeps into the soil in which she grows. In the song “32 Flavors,” activist and musician Ani DiFranco writes, “God help you if you are an ugly girl/'Cause too pretty is also your doom/'Cause everyone harbors a secret hatred/For the prettiest girl in the room.” The song is from her sixth album, Not a Pretty Girl, which was released in 1995 when she was just 24. It’s a song I listened to a lot.
When I was thin, the world was so much more accommodating of me and I was supposed to be grateful for that. I was supposed to relish in the attention of being a beautiful girl. But I was a prude for running from catcalls, I was frigid for fearing intimacy, I was a bitch for calling bullshit on all of it. There was a boy in college whom I thought was adorable. I cried when my dormmates said he also had a crush on me—I thought they were playing a cruel prank. Hours after this awkward exchange, he knocked on my door and asked me on a date. There was no rouse. I had too much power and not enough.
The fury below the surface has many clinical diagnoses: depression, generalized anxiety disorder, cyclothymia, general mood disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, and a proclivity to self-harm without possession of borderline personality disorder. You can find them on my charts if you dig deep enough.
I’m jiggly and soft now, like a waterbed; my legs that were once worked and taut are wavy with cellulite. According to the Mayo Clinic, doctors aren’t quite sure of the root cause. Genetics certainly play a role, but doctors do know that its appearance, skin undulating in peaks and valleys, is due to a tension between two forces—as fat cells accumulate, they push up against the skin, while the connective cords that tether the skin to muscle simultaneously pull down.
“Are you still doing lunges?” my trainer texts. It’s been a couple of months since our last session. My schedule leaves little time in the day for anything other than deadlines; exercise is just another to-do that rarely gets crossed off. I’m 40 pounds heavier and three sizes bigger than when I was a teenager. My husband loves my body, he’s always reaching out and trying to claim it—a grab of the butt, a caress of the breast, a hug around the waist. It’s why I love him—and why I push him away. Navigating the world with extra weight is something that became his reality much later in life. He has an audacious disregard for the amount of space he requires, no outside judgement will lodge itself in his core and detonate. We order takeout for dinner once the kids are in bed, who were fed by their grandmother much earlier in the evening. I loathe cooking—the planning, the communion with ingredients, the inevitable cleanup—for what? When the food arrives, I see he’s ordered a double serving of fries with his meal. I feel a surge of rage, but all I can reach and bring up are the words, “are you seriously going to eat that?”
Dara P. Kapoor is the executive digital editor of Health magazine. She supports inclusivity, body acceptance, and a holistic approach to women’s health and wellness.