The slap of my mother's hand against my bare stomach rings out and fills the entire store. I watch as my belly jiggles in the mirror mounted on the large column in front of us. We're surrounded by racks of cheap clothes in terrible colors. In the mirror, my mother looks me right in the eyes, her other hand pinning my shirt up to expose my midriff. “If you weren't getting so fat, I wouldn't have to buy you new clothes,” she says. My skin stings as the red mark of her hand fades. I pull my shirt back down and refuse to cry.
We're at a Stuart’s in Athol, Massachusetts. Stuart’s was like Walmart for poor communities in New England back before Walmart realized it should be Walmart for poor communities in New England (and everywhere else). I am 8 years old. Growing. Getting bigger.
When we lived in Boston, my father would go for runs through the city as I rode my bike beside him, trying to keep up. But Dad stayed in Boston and Ma and I moved out to north central Massachusetts. “You'll have a yard,” Ma said, and I pretended to be happy. I tried to play in the yard, but it didn’t make up for the lack of bike rides. Or the Chef Boyardee for dinner most nights, or the pasta and butter with a side of bread on the others. Ma had been bigger too, when she was younger, and she wanted so badly to save me from the same fate. It didn’t help that now we were living next to her parents in rural Massachusetts, in a town she'd promised herself she would escape, a town she had successfully escaped up until she hadn’t.
Now we lived in the gray house next to her parents in the town where she had been a big girl. Now my mom lived with her son but without her husband, who had to stay in the city because “there aren't enough jobs out here,” which I found strange because there seemed to be plenty of jobs and “no jobs” didn't explain why Ma cried most nights and why her ma, my grandma, looked at me like I was the garbage someone forgot to take out. I’d sneak bowls of cereal when no one was home, pouring sugar and honey on the off-brand Cheerios pretending they were the Honey Nut kind, the kind my other grandma — who lived near the ocean and never looked at me like I was trash — always fed me. I would wash the bowl before Ma got home from work. Ma would cry and I would hug her and do the only thing I knew how to do, which was not cry.
The same way I don't cry under the fluorescent lights at Stuart’s, surrounded by clothes that don’t fit and we can’t afford.
It’s summer, I’m 16 years old, and I’m the skinniest I've ever been, thanks to a diet of running, cigarettes, and snorted Ritalin (usually) and Adderall (when I can get my hands on it). Most days I drive my mother's three-colored car (all different shades of blue) to Gardner, Massachusetts, the closest town with any downtown to speak of, where I have a job at a Friendly’s washing dishes.
At the beginning of the summer, the weight seemed to fall off me. But right up until that moment I'd been all the terrible euphemisms that were so much worse than simply being called fat: "husky," “chunky,” “portly,” "big-boned," “plump.” Words ingrained in my fabric. They were a part of me, which is probably why, when the weight disappeared, I didn't even notice that it was gone.
I kept to myself at Friendly’s. I listened to bad rap as I scraped ice cream out of sticky glass containers, the industrial washer making the air wet, my bleach-blonde hair sticking to my forehead. When I dragged giant garbage bags of half-eaten hamburgers to the large metal bins behind the building, I’d take breaks to smoke damp Newports alone.
Most of the waitresses were older than my mother, sneaking food home to their kids and husbands, but a few of them were my age, working for the summer. They'd smile at me in ways that no girls had before. I couldn't for the life of me understand why.
One day, a young waitress comes up to me and says, “I'm having a party.” Her name tag reads “Tracy” and she is the prettiest human to talk to me in months.
“What's that?” I say, removing my headphones, Eminem mixing with the clanging of the dishwasher.
“I said I'm having a party and you should come. You know, a house party.”
It's one of those moments so improbable that I must be imagining it — but also so wonderful, so hoped for and delicious and exactly like the kind of '90s teen movie I never thought I’d get to be in except maybe as a chubby extra, that I desperately want it to be real.
I’d never been invited to a party by a girl before. Though I'd been drinking and doing drugs since I was 12, to me parties meant slamming beers alone in the woods, or slamming beers with my male friends in the woods until we became brave or stupid enough to fight each other. We’d pair off, throwing fists into each other’s faces until blood burst from our noses, lips, and once, only once, this guy Mike's eye. My friends, all skinny, always with their shirts off even before the fighting started. Me always with my shirt firmly on, keeping covered, trying to wash the bloodstains out the next day.
Tracy scribbles on her order pad and hands me her address. “Bring something fun,” she says, and walks away.
That summer, I lose my virginity.
“Way to not be so fat, Fitzgerald!” Hunter yells as I pass him in the hallway. A varsity hockey player, Hunter was infamous for hooking up with all of the most attractive girls at school. He liked telling racist jokes and prided himself on his bluntness. His favorite phrase was “Lighten up, man.”
Despite the triumphs of the previous summer, plus everyone at school weirdly telling me how “nice” I looked when we returned in the fall, it isn’t until this moment — as an actual character in that '90s teen movie, albeit one getting yelled at by a jock — that I realize I’ve lost weight.
It's also when I realize that my weight and how I perceive myself aren’t at all related. I still feel fat. Ugly. Unattractive. Every time I look in the mirror I can still see my mother's red handprint fading to white as my belly shakes.
Hunter’s words ring in my ears, a confusing mix of pride and shame taking hold. “Not so fat” means I still am fat, that I used to be more so. It means fat is bad and getting skinnier is good, no matter how I actually feel about myself.
We learn so many lessons in high school, most of them terrible. I carry Hunter’s words in my head like a medal or a trophy. One that burns me as I hold it, even as I refuse to put it down.
The other lesson I quickly learn is that no matter how I feel about my body, I feel better about it while having sex. Or at least I can forget about it — its weight, its size, its bulk — for a little while, the same way I can temporarily forget about gravity every time I ride a skateboard. If I don’t like the way my body looks, I can at least trick other people into liking it.
And that's how it felt: like a trick. A sleight of hand. A way to fool someone into desiring me, if only for a short time, even if I was undesirable to myself. And I became quite good at it. After losing my virginity the summer I was 16, I quickly found someone else who would sleep with me, and then another. It was harder when I was back in school, at least initially, surrounded by lacrosse players and basketball stars, boys quick to pop their tops off at the drop of a hat, while I kept my T-shirt on even at the beach.
But then I started running even more and adding dip to my all-cigarette diet while upping my nose's intake of my friends' prescription amphetamines. As the weight kept coming off, I didn't see myself as any less ugly. I still hated my body, but by high school societal standards (you know, basically like regular societal standards but with a scoop of youthful cruelty to give it that zing) I was moving in the right direction. I got more popular, and by the time senior year rolled around I found myself getting laid during the school year — almost as much as during the summer.
The habit of letting attention from other people stand in for liking myself continued into college and after, when I moved to San Francisco. Sex not because the person and I liked each other a whole lot (although sometimes we did) or even sex just for sex's sake, but sex because I wanted the person to like me, or at least tolerate me, ever so briefly.
Woe is me, right? I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun as hell to be young and free and jumping into bed with people. It was! But through the high of seeing myself reflected in someone else’s eyes as an attractive person, a guy worth having sex with, I was ignoring how much I needed other people to like me. The good times were spackle over my body image issues — sexy, fun spackle, but spackle nonetheless.
And after sex, no matter if we were at their place or mine, no matter if it was an attempt to start a relationship or (much more likely) a one-night stand, I would always put my shirt on first. Immediately. I would slip from the covers and grab my shirt from the floor and slip it over my head. The post-sex rush of anxiety and self-loathing only quieting after I had covered my torso.
As my number of partners climbed, my confidence in myself stayed the same. Flat. Empty. Not that I wasn't good at faking it.
“I'm an FFK,” I'd say.
“A former fat kid.” And I'd wait for laughter.
Recently, my friend Mikael Kennedy — formerly a vagabond, now a successful photographer — emailed me a picture he took of me when I was 23, from those early San Francisco days. Mikael had been eating Dexedrine and driving around the U.S. for weeks with another buddy whose name escapes me. I remember I stole them some food from the restaurant I was working at and then we went to spend what little money we had on beer. We drank in the street. I don't know how Mikael got me to take my shirt off but I do remember that I was bleeding. “Isaac,” he said, and I looked up.
I look at this picture and cringe, because I can see now — now I can see — what I looked like. I keenly see the difference between what the picture shows and what my own memories hold. Mikael’s photo displays a jawline, a rib cage (too much of one). A negative space where the body that’s been haunting me my whole life should be. I keep looking for it, and find nothing.
When it comes to body-image issues, we are all in our own personal hells. And my hell is but a flickering Bic lighter when compared with others. But that's the thing about hells: Comparing them does not lead you to the exit door of your own. Even as I grew older, matured, found somewhat more stable relationships, even as my weight fluctuated, my sense of self never did. Not once did I like what I saw in the mirror whenever I saw myself in it.
When I moved to New York City at the age of 30, a little over two years ago, the harsh East Coast winters crashed into my slowing metabolism. I gained 40 pounds. It didn’t help that I stopped smoking cigarettes (recently), doing dip (long ago), and putting study drugs up my nose (thank god). I also started riding my bike to work and running half marathons, so it wasn’t all just cutting out the bad, but also trying to up the good.
At this point, I know there will be no moment of revelation. There will be no ideal weight where I'll look at myself and say, “Yes. This,” nor will I ever be fully comfortable with myself. Instead of looking for a perfect body, which I have done my entire life, I understand I will never be perfect. I’m learning to be OK with that. That's my own personal exit. An exit I haven’t yet walked through but one I try to approach more than I back away from, every day.
Which is to say, of course, sometimes I am still dissatisfied with my body — there are days the pants don’t zip up without a fight, and it doesn’t help that every one of my co-workers looks like a model or CW star. But I don’t spend nearly as much time hating myself as I did when I was younger. I don’t fall headlong into that pit; I just can’t, or won’t. I’ve wasted way too much youth on self-hatred as it is.
It's been 25 years since I was 8 years old in a Stuart's in Massachusetts, and 17 years since I realized I don’t truly see myself when I look into a mirror. But now I no longer grab a T-shirt directly after sex, and when I do see my own reflection, I work hard to not be hard on what I see. To just see a person, rather than an assemblage of shit that needs to be fixed. I try to be OK with that person, even when — just sometimes — I glimpse the imprint of a hand, fading from red to white.
Isaac Fitzgerald has been a firefighter, worked on a boat, and been given a sword by a king, thereby accomplishing three out of five of his childhood goals. He is the editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-author of Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them. More at isaacfitzgerald.net.