The Right to Keep and Bare Arms
When I was born, I weighed 7 pounds, 11 ounces, my lowest and therefore best weight. The days that followed were marked by disastrous and precipitous weight gain.
Things got worse when I started taking steroids for my asthma, which increased the appetite of a child who, in dog trainer’s terms, was already highly “food motivated.”
Around that time, I showed up for a homeschooler ceramics class and one little boy who had known me the year before said, “Hi, Molly. You’re a lot fatter than I remember.” “Well, Nathan,” I responded, swirling my juice box thoughtfully, “You haven’t changed one bit.” And so began an exciting life of noticeable weight fluctuations, punctuated by strained interactions with men I would later understand to be incels.
When my babysitter would ask what I wanted for lunch — “Half a sandwich or a bowl of soup?” I always responded “Both!” “You’re going to get big and fat one day,” she would warn. I would beam back at her in response, assuming “Big and Fat” was the name of a literary award. I don’t know why I loved to eat so much, but I remember seeing the buffet at Sizzler and thinking, “If I work hard, one day I will be able to buy this Sizzler and make it my home, and that trough of macaroni and cheese will make me its wife.”
Around 9th grade, as I was just about to walk on stage and perform as Viola in a homeschool thespian production of Twelfth Night, a girl from my class came up to me and scream-whispered, “Remember to suck it in!” as she gestured at my lower belly, a mound of soft dough under my clingy velvet dress.
As a woman, I try to avoid phrases like, “As a woman,” because I know how irksome it is to hear from women. And yet, it’s undeniable that part of the female experience is an assigned value that’s inversely proportional to your pant size. Your friends do it, your family does it, and as you reach adulthood, men are always finding subtle ways to let you know exactly how much your virginity would fetch in a bidding war among disturbed but highly successful businessmen. More than expressing an aesthetic preference, we all get a special thrill from a shared repudiation of self-indulgence, and your size is an undeniable reflection of which circle of Dante’s Infatso you belong.
With the words “suck it in” ringing in my ears, I tried to limit myself to around 500 calories during the day, followed by a dinner where I panic-ate everything I could see. I lost quite a bit of weight and almost never felt happy. Then I gained it back, lost it, and gained it again — a rollercoaster of moral turpitude. Every year brought with it a new high or low, the cause of which I almost never understood. Try and eat healthy as I might, in my heart I knew the Devil was always waiting for me in the Vestibule of the Clean Plate Club.
Yet, life did bring its slimmer moments. During college, the limitations imposed by the cafeteria helped to whittle me down. Here I am, gloating over finally having a kitchen for senior year:
Like a lot of people who struggle to reach a goal weight, I’ve always been unreasonably horrified with pictures of myself. I remember looking at this picture and thinking, “I need to check myself into a correctional center for criminally obese women,” and not, unfortunately, “I should probably stop cutting my own bangs.”
By senior year, my growing repertoire in the kitchen meant that late-night snacks turned into midnight celebrations of northern Italian cuisine. Every weekend spent working on my senior thesis added another half inch to my waist, but I still crammed myself into old clothes, which I refused to admit didn’t fit. Too bad mental gymnastics don’t burn calories, am I right ladies? (Hold for laugh, but a grim silence falls.) During a weekend at home, my aunt piped up to say, “Jesus Christ, are your pants tight enough?” as she jammed her hand down my waistband to emphasize.
At some point, I developed the habit of always posing for photos with my arms held away from my body — my upper arms have always been a “problem area,” and I have it in my head that no one will know the truth if they’re forever akimbo. It’s a photo habit that eventually seeped into real life. Even now, as I’m typing, I’m holding my arms aloft and doing arm circles, as a I peck at the keyboard with a chopstick clenched between my teeth.
Five years ago I started freelancing, which gave me the freedom to spend arguably too much time putting together sumptuous repasts. Nearly every lunch involved multiple dishes and a hedonistic disregard for serving size suggestions. And through it all, I thought — “just don’t let them catch you with your arms down.” The higher the arms, the closer to God.
Fast forward to September of 2018, when my love of weird YouTube dieters led me to videos about intermittent fasting. The most popular version limits daily food intake to an 8-hour window. I gave it a whirl, and by November, I found that I had lost at least 10 pounds. I’m not sure how much weight I lost in total, because I couldn’t bring myself to step on the scale when I started. But the proof was in the absence of pudding. I was starting to feel light and breezy, practically floating away — I could hear the angels, in their single-digit sized angel robes, calling!
And then, I received the following message from a college classmate that brought me down to earth, like a fallen angel who ate a big lunch:
He is referring to Avatar, the St. Mary’s College of Maryland poetry magazine that I participated in for most of my college career — meeting attendees voted on submissions and I sometimes submitted my own absurd work. One of my accepted poems went something like this:
Beat my meat
You can have me meat, baby
Baby, meet my meat
Meat for my baby
(It was about abortion.)
I showed his message to some mutual friends to help me suss out what exactly this person wanted. It seemed clear to them that he had only reached out because his fragile male ego couldn’t cope with the decade-old rejection. Shocking, but you know — men.
As one who has been rejected many times myself (I’m a freelance writer with a lot of bad ideas — see “Baby Meat”), it seemed inconceivable that someone should dwell on such an old and inconsequential rejection. “Oh, fricken well!” I said to myself, and left it at that.
In response to my confused silence, my former classmate followed up:
I know what you’re thinking, “Wow, a man thought of you? You must feel amazing!”
Between blushes, I’ve managed to have some darker thoughts. The older I get, the more I think to myself — “No one notices your stupid arms! You need to grow up and stop fantasizing about a helicopter accident that would leave you armless and, at long last, beautiful!” Luckily, someone reached out to let me know that my fat arms did, in fact, haunt him.
I’m back to scrolling through this collection of Spanx that’s just for your arms.
I’ve also come very close to buying this bathing suit with sleeves.
You might be thinking, “Don’t make purchases based on strange, unwanted comments from people you barely recall.” Wow, look at you! You’re so sensible! “It beats crying alone at Sizzler,” you might add, gently pulling me away from the macaroni and cheese.
I’ve had the chance to commiserate with my not-skinny friends over this phenomenon — certain men believe they have an exciting new invention called Finding You Fuckable, and present it as an innovation that they seem certain will shock and delight you. “Wow!” You’re supposed to respond. “I never thought science would come this far!”
This is the kind of thing I used to be able to dwell on for the better part of a moon cycle (to non-women: that’s a month), but as someone who recently turned 30, I have a whole new world of unsolicited comments to process. Right before my birthday, Facebook’s algorithm came at me with this targeted ad:
When I browse Tinder these days, looking for a man worthy of going halvsies on a Sizzler franchise, I’m swiping past a ton of ads for egg-freezing companies. My favorite one uses the following tag-line: “The one can wait. Fertility? Not so much.” Even when I’m not getting unwelcome missives from real people, artificial intelligence is here to fill in the blank spots.
I may have fat arms and no place to go (the Sizzler in New Jersey closed years ago), but at least with this latest onslaught, I know my flesh will always provoke strangers, thought-policing robots from the future, and weird little men who “opine” on “virtue” (did you write that message in between harpsichord lessons, you nerd?) to comment on my fleshy mortal coil.
I’ve been doing some reading lately on some of the great beauties of our era, chiefly Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, and Anna Nicole Smith (please listen to my podcast). They all died young and, in spite of their beauty, led objectively miserable lives.
It’s not only that beauty is skin deep, but that it does not guarantee happiness. A lot of women take this kind of feedback as a chance to scream, a la Tyra Banks, “Kiss my fat ass,” or something equally fun. And it IS fun! But I’m more interested in a remark I heard in the days following Anna Nicole Smith’s burial, about how she “had finally reached her goal weight.” Yikes, but if you’ll humor me, yeah — I’ll have skinny arms when I’m dead. Then I’ll rot away into nothing, and spend eternity at a perfect weight of zero pounds, my time spent on Earth with fat arms infinitesimally small in comparison.
And maybe, even I, a fat arm-haver, can find some little joy in this tiny life I get to live. Maybe in the fleeting moments just before the sun sets over a parking lot in Florida, as I eat quiche from a cooler in the trunk and let one arm, just one, rest at my side.