I am 41 and last year I ended a five-year relationship with the man I thought I was going to marry. It took me a long time to realise that while he was charming and interesting, he also had a thoughtless streak that could veer into cruel. Over the years my self-esteem was worn down and I became a bit depressed. I started comfort eating and gained weight, which led to him telling me that I wasn’t attractive. We stopped having sex and grew further apart before I finally left. I feel a bit sick at the time I lost to him. I didn’t think I would be dating at 41. I do want to find someone and get back out there, but I’m self-conscious of my weight gain and feel like I should wait until I lose it so I feel more confident. Is it better to wait until I’m “fighting fit”, even just so if it goes wrong, I’ll know I was trying while at my best?
There’s a poem by Marty McConnell that I’m inordinately fond of. It’s called Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell and assumes the voice of Kahlo, guiding the poet through a break-up. In it, she writes: “don’t lose too much weight./ stupid girls are always trying/ to disappear as revenge. and you/ are not stupid. you loved a man/ with more hands than a parade/ of beggars, and here you stand. heart/ like a four-poster bed. heart like a canvas./heart leaking something so strong/ they can smell it in the street.”
I love this poem; the recognition of a relationship that takes so much from you, and the pressure to take even more from yourself in the aftermath; to shrink yourself down physically so that you’re more palatable, more ruly, smaller – which society declares to be more attractive. It’s become a trope now to lose weight after a break-up. A “revenge body”. Funny, isn’t it, that when we think about tropes of men and revenge, we think of quests and missions, we think of them getting stronger, building physical and emotional muscle. Becoming heroes. Becoming more visible. But if a woman wants revenge, we tell them to turn it inward, to shrink, to try to disappear, to look hot on their way out.
This is not going to be your story. You are not going to try to disappear. You are going to live so fully because you deserve to. You should be proud of yourself for surviving a relationship that made you feel bad about yourself, and for leaving even though the prospect of being alone, of dating, of trying again was daunting. You may not have felt confident leaving this relationship but you don’t need to always feel confident doing something. In fact, doing the hard thing when you’re scared? It’s better than confidence. It’s courage. And courage, when exercised, grows like a muscle and it leads to a more robust form of confidence. It builds self-belief and self-worth. And that’s what you need now. Courage, self-belief and self-worth.
These things didn’t leave you because your body changed over the course of this relationship – they left because your internal narrative changed. You started internalising all the ways your ex made you feel unworthy, undesirable, unlovable and started believing them to be true. You began to believe that your self-worth was conditional on being smaller, physically and emotionally. And you’re carrying this narrative forward with you now, believing that you don’t even deserve to date, to meet people, to try connect with someone unless your body is back to some ideal that he made you believe was the only acceptable way to be.
He’s wrong. Your weight and body have nothing to do with your worthiness. There will be some people who are attracted to smaller bodies but guess what? Life is long and bodies change, as you know. People who are rigid in their expectations around bodies and value a static, unchanging body type over emotional growth and connection are not your people. You have just learned this. And guess what – you were apparently smaller in size when you met your ex, and it didn’t result in a happy relationship. He started treating you badly before you gained weight. Your body was not the problem. He was. He just latched on to your body as another weapon to use against you.
You are not going to repeat his cruelty on yourself.
Get yourself a therapist, if you don’t already have one. Work with them on exploring the way in which your ex crossed your boundaries and made you feel small, and the emotions you have about yourself that made you believe you didn’t deserve better. Explore your relationship with your body and the ideas about bodies and worthiness you have inherited not just from your ex but society, pop culture, the messages you received growing up. Look at why you believe you need to lose weight to start dating again.
If you cannot love your body yet, learn to treat it well. Learn what movements bring you joy – is it dancing, sea swimming, yoga, or an exercise you enjoy?
Sociologist Lauren Berlant has an idea called “cruel optimism”, which refers to a social phenomenon where people become so obsessed with a vision of their future, ideal selves that they prevent themselves from flourishing in the present. Cruel optimism is an obsessive attachment that is impossible, toxic or all-consuming. It’s predicated on the assumption that we alone are somehow worthless, and our future proximity to something – an object, an achievement, a status – is the only thing that will make us different in just the right way. If we don’t have any of this thing, we are not enough. If we only have some of this thing, it’s not enough. It’s the only thing that will make us happy, but it will never be enough.
So many women engage in cruel optimism around their bodies, withholding themselves from joy, pleasure, fulfilling experiences, even love, promising they’ll start living their lives when they “lose the weight”. It’s an awful way to live, perpetuating the idea that our worth grows as we shrink. Your ex and that relationship perpetuated that idea, and held you back from so much joy, pleasure, fulfilling experiences and love for so long – let’s not surrender even more of your life to him.
If you cannot love your body yet, learn to treat it well. Learn what movements bring you joy – is it dancing, sea swimming, yoga, or an exercise you enjoy? What foods genuinely make you feel good not just comforted in the moment, but like you’re nourishing yourself and allowing yourself pleasure? Buy yourself some gorgeous clothes and lingerie that fit your body now, as is. Make yourself feel as beautiful as you can – no conditions attached, no sizing down so you can wear it when you lose weight, no more waiting to treat yourself well. You have waited too long already.
Get dressed up, gather your courage and meet someone new for coffee. Take it slowly, and pay attention to yourself – how you feel, if they make you comfortable, do they make you laugh? You have spent so long shrinking yourself to your ex’s desires – it’s time to reclaim your space and find the people who make you feel comfortable doing so.
And, when you’re ready, when you’ve met someone kind and respectful and who makes you feel good, let them find you beautiful. Believe them. As Frida Kahlo tells Marty McConnell, “take a lover who looks at you/like maybe you are magic”. You are.