At first my only confidante was the friend who, years later, would read me the celebrity fitness article, and she made a pronouncement that became my motto: "They don't put your weight on your tombstone." (Well, my own family might, as a joke, but still.) When they're summing up your life, she said, they tell what you've achieved, not that you've stayed the same weight since infancy.
I would like to say that after abandoning the weight-loss life, I became, ironically, more fit than ever, but such is not the case. Liberated abruptly from famine, every one of my cells said "Party!" and stocked up against the day when I might again cut off supplies. A petite woman with whom I stayed for a week marveled, "You eat no more than I do," and she was right, but this body was making up for lost calories; gradually the pounds added up, and I became a cautionary tale for young hedonists.
But I experienced much joy. This body was now a temple, not an icon; the housing, not the jewel. I was still poor, still weary, still the oldest of four motherless siblings, still struggling to raise a child. But when my father, 100 miles away, became ill or broke a leg, I had a full mind to devote to retrieving him; when my daughter was afraid, I was fully present to hear her; when a school project approached, my whole brain set itself to the task. I felt smarter, more competent, less a failure, for I was succeeding at big things rather than failing, day by day, at a small one.
Few people approve of my choice. Doctors admonish me at every visit, until I mention the fat ladies I know who, afraid of being shamed, never brave a medical office until they are too sick to be helped much at all. Grudgingly, my physicians withdraw their assault, sometimes all at once and sometimes with a last token lecture about health risks. The ones who don't withdraw, I never see again.
It's not that the naysayers don't have a point. I will die young. I will, perhaps, suffer diseases like diabetes, arteriosclerosis, and joint deterioration. But I will have written books. I will have parented well. I will have taken care of an ailing father and survived his death, as well as the death—young, herself—of my mother. My headstone will not read SHE NEVER LET HERSELF GO, but neither will it say SHE WAS AS BIG AS A BARGE. It will, I hope, say something like SHE KNEW TRUTH AND SUBSTANCE AND ABIDED IN THEM. It's the best I can ask, anyway, because I'll not again—understand this—do otherwise.
Natalie Kusz is the author of a memoir, Road Song (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and teaches at Eastern Washington University. This piece is excerpted from The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage; edited by Cathi Hanauer; published by William Morrow.
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