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Photo: Getty Images. Posed by model.

My friend Rachel was telling me that every time she’s lost weight, other women have complimented her, and every time she’s gained weight, men haven’t noticed.

It’s sort of a cliché by now, the idea that men don’t really care about the handful of extra pounds you’ve been agonizing over. Except when they do, of course, like my gorgeous friend’s boyfriend in college, who suggested that she lose weight and sent her careening headfirst into a wall of depression. It’s hard to tell what men want, as a group. It’s easier to get to know people one at a time.

My college boyfriend was really excited when I gained weight. I had boobs, finally. Small ones, but they stuck out a little. I felt womanly, because somewhere along the line we learn that real women have curves even though beautiful women on billboards are usually very skinny.

So eventually I decided that being womanly wasn’t as good as being skinny, and I began to quietly, persistently hate the smooth weight of my resting stomach when I lay on my side. My thighs seemed to fill the whole toilet seat when I peed. I remembered when they hadn’t, and when I’d wondered whose did. Mine now. My thighs were big and demanding now. They looked foreign when I looked down.  And other girls weren’t complimenting me as much.

When other girls had complimented me, they had always said, “You’re so skinny!” But now it seemed like there was nothing left to say.

Without my skinniness I was just an ordinary woman. I felt plainer, invisible. I felt like I didn’t have a shot at natural elegance, the way that the girl in my biology class with the long neck and slip of a body did. I felt like no matter what I wore, it looked bulky.

But for some reason, I felt confident about the way I looked when I was with a guy.

Once, on a date, I went to the bathroom and I remember that in the mirror, washing my hands, I caught myself looking almost angelic. I remember my hair as a curling golden halo, softly lit. I was wearing a white shirt, and my face was surprisingly sweet. I felt beautiful and I wanted to stay and stare, but someone else came in and I went out and walked back across the restaurant, head held high, feeling like everyone was appreciating me as I passed.

Once I hooked up with a guy and after, while we lay next to each other in my little bed, our arm hair touching tips, he told me about this really hot Scandinavian girl who totally wanted him.  She was really tall and leggy and blond and beautiful, he said. And she’d flown all the way to America just to have sex with him. I listened and listened, and then I sat up and looked at him. I said, “Dude, I’m naked. Maybe you should focus on me.”

He laughed a little nervously. “I mean, obviously you look really good,” he said.

“I mean, obviously,” I said.

That is how sure I was about how guys should act towards my body and how comfortable I was asserting my feelings about it. It is not a story about being spurned and sad.

Maybe I have been lucky with boys and men, to some extent. I counted on them to appreciate me naked. I counted on them to enjoy my body in ways I had forgotten how to. For being the way that it already was, rather than for being an ideal.

But I didn’t listen to them the way I listened to other women. Or to the things other women weren’t saying.

Bear especially loves my belly, and how it is rounder than it used to be, because he thinks it makes me look fertile and sexy and nice. I especially remember how my belly used to be flat and how I felt accomplished about that, as though I had emerged victorious from a pile of frantically dieting women, the natural, effortless winner.

It’s women who seem to be monitoring weight constantly- at least in my life.

“Did you lose weight?” my friends say sometimes to me, to imply that I look good that day.

“I don’t know,” I say, flattered despite my best efforts. “Maybe!”

Nope. I didn’t.

It’s women, at least in my life, who are fascinated by weight. We are watching each other closely. The lines between support and competition are fuzzy. I have felt deeply grateful in the past for a friend’s chubby arms. Now mine can be chubby, too. There was that study, about how people gain weight when their friends do. Everyone was going, “How terrible! Don’t hang out with fat people! Let’s ostracize them even more!” But I think it sounds nice. I think it makes sense. Let’s all gain some weight together so we don’t have to keep keeping it off for each other.

There are a lot of things I do, or try to do, for other women, even before I realize the reason. I try to dress up. I think that I need a better purse because mine is from Target and made out of cloth and it’s like five years old. Sometimes I wear some eye makeup. I suck my stomach in. Because I want to be one of the women who gets a compliment. “Love your dress!” “You’re so cute tonight!” “Oh my god, your shoes. I want them.” It feels good. I notice it when it doesn’t happen.

I wonder what they say when I’m not there.

I want other women to like me. To think I’m cool. To think I look good. And coolness and looking good have gotten all wrapped around each other. And looking good and thinness have gotten all tangled together. So it’s confusing.

And then sometimes it’s not. Like the boy who told my friend she should lose weight and it was like he’d given her a gentle push off a cliff.

I listened to a woman I know describe another woman we both know, talking about how she’d put on a lot of weight, and it was unfortunate, because she’d been so pretty before. And this woman who was being described, let’s call her Mara, because for some reason that’s the first name that comes to mind, I happen to know that she’d been struggling with an eating disorder. So her weight was a triumph. And it was beautiful. She looked suddenly full of life, and I mean that more literally than usual. She looked vibrant, and she had claimed her clothing and was owning it and she was smiling this giant, bursting smile.

And when I saw Mara, I’d thought, “Her arms are like my arms!” and immediately loved her for that. I’d thought that my arms were promising, because she was so beautiful. I felt encouraged in that secret way where you aren’t even really thinking about it, the way that you might feel secretly discouraged without even thinking about it when someone mentions Lena Dunham.*

“I thought she looked great,” I said, and the other woman disagreed with me. “She’s really put on a lot of weight,” she said, as though that meant “She’s really gotten hideously ugly and unforgivable looking.”

“It’s a good thing, though,” I said, trying to be diplomatic and not start yelling or crying or hitting my head against things. “It’s healthy. And she looks great.”

“I don’t know…”

“No, she really does.”

“Hmm…She was so thin before, though!”

It is so much work and exhaustion and misery and danger and guilt and stress and boredom and angst and thoughtless striving to be thin for other women when your body wants to put some fat in your arms, or make your belly curvy and plump up your thighs. Back in college and right after, I didn’t even notice myself doing it, but I was. I was trying to be better for other women. Not for specific women. For all of them. For the ones I hadn’t even met yet, but who would probably like me more later. And better meant thinner.

I was afraid that someone would say those things about me behind my back. “She’s really put on a lot of weight. She used to be so pretty…”

But then, when that woman said it to me, about Mara, she sounded ridiculous. She sounded strange and distant, as though she had been looking at Mara from far away, through a broken telescope, from a world where beauty has gotten so confused with other concepts that it can’t stand on its own anymore. It’s been so warped and muddied and perverted that it is no longer translatable.

Sometimes that confused world is this world. It’s a world some people carry around in their heads. It punishes them constantly.

But it’s not my world. It’s only a place I sometimes stumble into accidentally.

I stand naked in the bathtub, water trailing off me, not sexy like in a movie, but sexy anyway. Of course, it’s right after dinner, so my belly is at its most pronounced. My arms look deceptively strong, my body solid. For a moment, I cover my head with my hands. Would I look better, more feminine, with long hair again? Am I not pretty and feminine enough? I drop my hands. I silently give myself my favorite compliment: I look like a woman who can make a difference.

I look like a woman who will not let other people make my decisions for me. And I am a woman, as Mara reminds me, who will try very hard not to let the women caught in the trap of that warped world describe my body to me.

*That’s a joke– a lot of people I know are talking about her multimillion dollar book deal right now. But I was never actually comparing myself to her. I’m more like, “If only someone would give me money, any money at all! for a book that I’ve written…what a glorious thought! I would be queen of the world!”