Love on Credit: Meditations on Fatness, Queerness, and Transformation

tags: cultural history, LGBTQ history, History of the Body

T.J. Tallie is an Assistant Professor of African History at the University of San Diego. He specializes in comparative settler colonial and imperial history, with a focus on South Africa. His interests include colonialism, gender and racial identity, indigeneity, sexuality, and religious expression. He is the recent author of Queering Colonial Natal: Indigeneity and the Violence of Belonging in Southern Africa (2019).

It is a strange thing, learning to love your body on credit.

I grew up in Southern California in the 1990s, in a multiracial, deeply loving, and profoundly Evangelical Christian family. This upbringing came with so many wonderful memories as well as a casual, if not ill-intentioned daily dose of homophobia. One of the more frustrating things about my family’s quotidian denial of queerness was that by my late teens I had a strange hope, a quiet desire, that my growing queer feelings could be resolved, straightened, acceptable. I imagined that with enough determination, focus, and the recognition of some profound inner truth I could keep some of the brokenness of the world from seeping within me (as I imagined it) and could instead move past what I wrongfully perceived as the problem of these stubborn feelings. I imagined, with alarming regularity, how my future self would joyfully look back at these moments of soul-wrenching existential fear, of the awkward juxtaposition of my body and its desires, as a temporary embarrassment or a rough patch.

I was twenty-three years old when I realized that no matter how many prayers or personal vows or praise songs, nobody really gets better. Indeed, I finally realized there was no better to get from. I remember the feeling in my hands, the weird tingling in my fingers, and the knotting and unknotting of the muscles in my neck as it finally occurred to me that nobody gets “fixed.” All those stories I’d heard, that I’d felt in the background of my mind for years, of people leaving queerness? They were fairy tales, pun intended. At best, they were temporary delusions pulling desperate people away from what they later accepted was not a problem at all. At worst, they were epistemological quicksands, sneaky pits into which people sacrificed decades or even entirely lifetimes to a brutal lie. When I realized this, my shoulders shook and my breath came out in a slow, terrified shudder that surprised me by turning up the corners of my mouth in a smile.

It was devastating on one small level to give up an illusion of progress. And it was also deeply freeing.

I began to realize to my deep regret and occasional rage that the churches I had attended were full of good kind people who ostensibly loved me, but were also full of absolutely willing participants in the most brutal types of deception and false hope. Worse still, these people were unable to recognize that the transformations, the changes they offered, were neither possible nor healthy.

I have begun to realize that this strange sensation of expected transformation is not limited to the realm of queerness; I feel a similar sense of pressure and tension as I reflect on my recent weight loss. I find that currently I am fifty pounds lighter than I was in the summer of 2021. After emerging from the cocoon of pre-vaccination isolation, rather than thanking my body for keeping me alive I looked at it as a project to be improved upon. And improve I did: I now weigh the same as I did in 2018, which was the last time I lost such a significant amount of weight. I lost weight through concerted exercise and mindful eating. Eating mindfully is, to be honest, super obnoxious; for me it involves separating the comforting sensations I receive from food and recognizing other ways to deal with my terror and anxiety in this terribly exhausting time. It was a mixed success in some ways, but one undeniably good choice was adding daily walks to my routine. Walking grounded me; it allowed me to feel my body moving confidently through space as well as add regular exercise to my already existing time in the gym. That’s when it happened.

As I was walking last week, I caught sight of my reflection in a storefront display window and saw a rather unflattering sight. At just the right angle, I could see my t-shirt had begun to lift, and the edge of my stomach hung slightly over my belt loop, despite the fact that the belt has gone in three notches and my pants have had to go down a size. I gasped, and I felt a weird, panicky coldness in my chest. My blood pounded in my ears as I stopped on the sidewalk for a second, suddenly winded.

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