Love on Credit: Meditations on Fatness, Queerness, and Transformation
It is a strange thing, learning to love your body on credit.
I grew up in Southern California in the 1990s, in a multiracial, deeply loving, and profoundly Evangelical Christian family. This upbringing came with so many wonderful memories as well as a casual, if not ill-intentioned daily dose of homophobia. One of the more frustrating things about my family’s quotidian denial of queerness was that by my late teens I had a strange hope, a quiet desire, that my growing queer feelings could be resolved, straightened, acceptable. I imagined that with enough determination, focus, and the recognition of some profound inner truth I could keep some of the brokenness of the world from seeping within me (as I imagined it) and could instead move past what I wrongfully perceived as the problem of these stubborn feelings. I imagined, with alarming regularity, how my future self would joyfully look back at these moments of soul-wrenching existential fear, of the awkward juxtaposition of my body and its desires, as a temporary embarrassment or a rough patch.
I was twenty-three years old when I realized that no matter how many prayers or personal vows or praise songs, nobody really gets better. Indeed, I finally realized there was no better to get from. I remember the feeling in my hands, the weird tingling in my fingers, and the knotting and unknotting of the muscles in my neck as it finally occurred to me that nobody gets “fixed.” All those stories I’d heard, that I’d felt in the background of my mind for years, of people leaving queerness? They were fairy tales, pun intended. At best, they were temporary delusions pulling desperate people away from what they later accepted was not a problem at all. At worst, they were epistemological quicksands, sneaky pits into which people sacrificed decades or even entirely lifetimes to a brutal lie. When I realized this, my shoulders shook and my breath came out in a slow, terrified shudder that surprised me by turning up the corners of my mouth in a smile.
It was devastating on one small level to give up an illusion of progress. And it was also deeply freeing.
I began to realize to my deep regret and occasional rage that the churches I had attended were full of good kind people who ostensibly loved me, but were also full of absolutely willing participants in the most brutal types of deception and false hope. Worse still, these people were unable to recognize that the transformations, the changes they offered, were neither possible nor healthy.
I have begun to realize that this strange sensation of expected transformation is not limited to the realm of queerness; I feel a similar sense of pressure and tension as I reflect on my recent weight loss. I find that currently I am fifty pounds lighter than I was in the summer of 2021. After emerging from the cocoon of pre-vaccination isolation, rather than thanking my body for keeping me alive I looked at it as a project to be improved upon. And improve I did: I now weigh the same as I did in 2018, which was the last time I lost such a significant amount of weight. I lost weight through concerted exercise and mindful eating. Eating mindfully is, to be honest, super obnoxious; for me it involves separating the comforting sensations I receive from food and recognizing other ways to deal with my terror and anxiety in this terribly exhausting time. It was a mixed success in some ways, but one undeniably good choice was adding daily walks to my routine. Walking grounded me; it allowed me to feel my body moving confidently through space as well as add regular exercise to my already existing time in the gym. That’s when it happened.
As I was walking last week, I caught sight of my reflection in a storefront display window and saw a rather unflattering sight. At just the right angle, I could see my t-shirt had begun to lift, and the edge of my stomach hung slightly over my belt loop, despite the fact that the belt has gone in three notches and my pants have had to go down a size. I gasped, and I felt a weird, panicky coldness in my chest. My blood pounded in my ears as I stopped on the sidewalk for a second, suddenly winded.
In that moment I realized something I have been trying to not think about for years. I am not a thin and conventionally attractive person hiding within a briefly recalcitrant body. I’m not some sort of magical teen movie transformation away from having an acceptable physical figure in a world steeped in fatphobia. I will never be one of those amazing trim figures that are also rewarded with social cachet. I will never look like the queer men who have told me that I am not their type on the apps, or who shower others with attention and give me the casual smile or affirmation at my winning personality. I will never be the thing I was supposed to be. I am not a temporary problem.
There is something at turns disappointing, terrifying, enraging, and deeply freeing to realize, yet again, that I am not simply en route to value. I have, yet again, believed that I was a temporarily flawed version of myself, awaiting restoration.
So many of us believe this lie, that there is an acceptable version of us waiting to be revealed. So many of us are convinced that it is through our own lack of energy, effort, or determination that we are unable to find freedom from the problem of our bodies. We tell ourselves, if only we put in enough effort, we could finally be who/what we are supposed to be. This is an insidious lie.
It also keeps us loving ourselves on credit. By seeing ourselves as temporarily embarrassed fatties, as body problems we are in the midst of fixing, we lock ourselves into a devastating cage, one where we ration love like we do calories. In this mindset, we are only lovable if we are obedient enough to work towards transformation. That is the logic of missionaries extending grace and acceptance to potential neophytes only if their bodies mirror the transformations demanded of them. That is coercion in the name of a future acceptance. That is a hostage situation made palatable by our own complicity.
Is it any wonder that the fat queer kid raised an American Baptist church has deeply internalized these ideas? Every day I still seem to wake up with the idea that this stomach will melt away, that my body will completely transform, and I will be what so much of the world tells me is desirable. This narrative is deeply linked to the same idea I internalized for years: that if I found enough will or spiritual power I could be acceptable. I could look like my family or my society as a heterosexual person. I could be enough. I told myself I was a problem in need of solving. I allowed myself to be loved only if I could be working towards not being me.
I wish that I could end this piece with a fun catch phrase about loving myself or accepting my body on its own terms. There is no end to the genuinely powerful and meaningful ways that body positive activists are challenging fatphobia today. But instead, I want to emphasize how toxic our quotidian views about bodies can be, and how easily internalized. The linking of unattainable heterosexuality and unattainable body thinness are twin lies that are propagated in our society. They both teach us to hate ourselves, to only mete out love in tiny drips as long as we are on a path to change. They are as toxic and as twisted as the gaslighting love offered from both missionaries and evangelical society to those of us desperate to be loved. They are asking us to internalize ourselves as a problem, as an obstacle, and to withhold love until we are “better.” And like most systems of credit, it is deeply unsustainable and purposefully entrapping.
T.J. Tallie is an Assistant Professor of African History at the University of San Diego. He specializes in comparative settler colonial and imperial history, with a focus on South Africa. His interests include colonialism, gender and racial identity, indigeneity, sexuality, and religious expression. He is the recent author of Queering Colonial Natal: Indigeneity and the Violence of Belonging in Southern Africa (2019).