Note: This was a reflection I wrote for a lay-led service at my church, where our theme was Identity.
When I think about hidden identities, some things that come immediately to mind are religion, sexual orientation, gender, and political affiliation. But my own experience of it relates to something else entirely: my weight.
Admittedly, in my adolescent and young adult years, this was a very obvious part of my identity – it’s hard to hide being fat. At the time it made me feel ashamed and stigmatized, but looking back, I recognize that this aspect of my identity was, in some ways, freeing.
Even now, it feels a bit counter-intuitive. But in those years, since my default assumption was that people would reject me based on my weight, it didn’t matter if they also rejected me for other reasons. I felt like if someone could get past my weight, they would be less likely to judge me for other aspects of my identity.
This meant I was fairly open about being interested in paganism, liking sci-fi and fantasy, playing Dungeons & Dragons, being concerned about the environment, and spending much of my free time writing – none of which were considered particularly cool for a teen in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s.
But things changed when I lost weight in my mid-20’s. For the first time, I had the ability to pass as “normal” – whatever normal might be. This was a radical concept and gave me hope that I would no longer be immediately and negatively judged on my appearance.
It was exciting but also strange. Should I tell people about my earlier weight issues? Did I want to risk the judgment that I expected to come with that? Should I pretend that it was never part of my life, that I had always looked as I do now?
It was during this time of internal questioning and tension that I had cosmetic surgery on my arms to remove loose skin, clearing away the most obvious signs of my younger self. I did not, however, go so far as to have a tummy tuck or thigh lifts, because much as I liked the idea of smooth skin, I was not willing to chance the greater risk of complications with those surgeries.
In a way, this split approach only made things worse. Most of the time I looked like someone who had never been obese, but wearing a bathing suit, for instance, made it immediately obvious that I did not have a “normal” body. It made me sometimes feel like an imposter in my own skin.
My new weight also made me more cautious of expressing opinions or thoughts that might not be popular. I did not want to risk the tacit acceptance that seemed to come with my thinner appearance.
That didn’t truly start to change until 2014, when I decided to publish my memoir about my journey with food and weight. Once the book came out in January 2015, my internal dissonance – between wanting to be accepted and being my whole self – started to heal. I had owned up to and claimed my past.
This wasn’t easy, but it was very important to me to be comfortable with who I am. And I’m intensely grateful that I didn’t go to extremes to erase my past, like one woman I heard of who destroyed all of her younger fat pictures and didn’t even tell her fiancé about her weight history until well after they were engaged.
Of course, I still want to be accepted. I’m lucky that being a geek with interests in sci-fi and fantasy has somehow become popular – I’m still not sure how that happened. Similarly, it’s become more in vogue to be environmentally conscious, including having a focus on sustainable food choices, recycling, and composting.
But admitting to other truths can still be scary, especially these days, like saying I’m an atheist, or sharing some of my political views at work.
Even so, I’m now much less inclined to stay silent simply out of a desire for acceptance. It’s too important to me to integrate both past and present, without shame or hiding parts of my identity, so I can be proudly and authentically me.