Seven years ago, my grandfather died in his bedroom, just across the hall from mine. He battled stage four head and neck cancer, as well as drug addiction, and I had witnessed his decline for several years. I watched as a big, strong man obsessed with his appearance transformed into a small, sickly man who relied on morphine and heroin to temporarily escape his personal hell.
I stood outside his doorway. The pungent scent of cigarette smoke and the bittersweet aroma of death filled my lungs. My body was frozen with shock, grief and fear. Before this, I had seen three other dead bodies, but those bodies were at funerals, in caskets, dressed in elegant outfits and makeup. This was different. My grandfather’s body still had warmth. His clothing was soiled with urine and food stains. And he wasn’t lying in a soft casket; he was on the cold hard floor.
Today, I still don’t know what killed him, the sickness or the drugs. All I know is that I couldn’t get the sight of his body out of my head for months, keeping me awake at night. I couldn’t forget how his mouth was agape in relief, arms sprawled against the floor, and how his face, which had been disfigured by years of chemotherapy and painful operations, had turned cold and lifeless.
Three days after my grandfather’s death, I developed what I would later realize was a peptic ulcer. I mistook the pain for terrible hunger pangs; it felt like a tight burn squeezing around every cramp that I experienced. No amount of ice-cold water would extinguish the fire residing in my abdominal area. On top of that, there were the sleepless nights replaying my grandfather’s last moments. If I was going to experience hell every night, I didn’t want to do it hungry.
So I ate. I ate all night. I ate until my stomach felt like it would explode.
I wasn’t much of an eater before my grandfather’s death. I was very picky, more than picky. I was disgusted by the thought of enjoying food. I felt guilty whenever I ate something. I hated my body. I valued thinness. Sometimes, I would stick a toothbrush down my throat to relieve myself from the food I consumed.
But after my grandfather’s death, I let go of my fear of being fat and I ate ravenously. There were nights when I ate sandwiches, an entire container of ice cream, and a party-sized pack of cookies followed by a large bowl of fruity pebbles — all in one sitting. I binged every night to achieve fullness. I became addicted to the painful feeling of it, a distraction from my grief.
In a year, I went from wearing medium-sized shirts to barely being able to squeeze into a large. My new body had love handles, thighs that shook whenever I walked, and a belly I couldn’t hide no matter how hard I tried to suck it in.
By the time another year passed, I had gained more than 130 pounds. I was now the body, and the person, I once feared that I would become.
I went to the doctor two years after my grandfather’s death. I needed a physical examination for a new job. I didn’t tell him about the pain in my stomach. My doctor’s jaw dropped when he learned that I had gained 130 pounds in two years.
“Have you been exercising?” was his first question, but his pursed lips and wide eyes let me know that he thought he already knew the answer. He used words like “diabetes,” “obesity” and “heart attack”— words that I’d used whenever I ignorantly body-shamed someone who was fat.
Soon after this awful appointment, random strangers started making unsolicited comments about my body. An elderly woman came up to me and pinched my bottom, saying, “You have a nice chubby butt.” Some gave me disgusted looks, and others offered me unwarranted advice about losing weight. I grew self-conscious about eating in the presence of other people. It was like my body had become other people’s property, theirs to criticize, touch and ridicule.
At the back of my mind, I knew I should have been used to this feeling: I’m Black and queer. People who aren’t Black have always claimed dominion over my existence. They decide which clothing makes me look like a thug, though when they wear it, it becomes a fashion statement. They want to place their hands in my hair, or stroke my beard because they like how it feels. Since I was 12 years old, I’ve been subjected to the “big Black cock” narrative.
When it comes to my sexuality, people who aren’t queer ask invasive questions. They want to know how my body responds to the touch of another man. They want to control my gender expression by telling me how much bass I should put in my voice, how much of a swish I should put in my walk, and even which music I’m allowed to enjoy. If I’m too feminine, I make them uncomfortable. If I’m too macho, I must be the stereotypical down-low guy who’s spreading diseases.
Being fat was no different from any of this; in fact, my weight seemed to amplify these attacks. I graduated from being Black and queer — a doubly hated minority — to Black, queer and fat, now triply hated. My bodily, sexual and racial identities intersected to create something deeply unruly — something deeply against the norm.
When I reconnected with an old friend from middle school, he was immediately shocked by my transformation. “Damn, Arkee, you got big!” he said. He has been fat for most of his life and decided to get the gastric bypass procedure, a surgery that slices the stomach in half to make overeating near impossible. I expressed that I was considering the surgery myself. Years after having the surgery, he noticed that he hadn’t lost much weight. But he did lose other things: his hair was thinning. His teeth fell out. But most importantly, he was full of regret. He allowed people’s beliefs about his fat body to pressure him into doing a surgery that terrified him. He was convinced gastric bypass would solve all of his problems, but it only caused more. “No amount of surgery can remove someone’s inner fat-ass,” he told me. “You may as well just accept who you are until you choose to change.”
Seeing what my friend went through gave me a new outlook on my body. I refused to let people bully me into harsh workouts and unrealistic diets. I started with small changes: I started shopping for foods that I enjoyed, and alternatives for my guilty pleasures. I stopped eating white bread. I stopped drinking soda. I stopped eating whole pies of pizza by myself. I started drinking more water. I continuously make small steps at my own pace, despite people still staring at my body and making assumptions about me. Most of the time, I still ate unhealthy, but now in moderation. I soothed my hunger by being realistic about my cravings and not depriving myself of what I liked, and by not making myself throw up because I felt guilty that I enjoyed something.
I bought brightly patterned shirts that read “FAT BOY” and “B.I.G.” in bold letters. I stopped sucking in my stomach. I stopped wearing tight undershirts to hide parts of my torso — besides, I couldn’t fit into those tight shirts anymore. My body became too honest for me to tell any lies — I liked that.
Becoming unapologetic in my fatness meant knowing that if I continued to make healthy choices that I enjoyed, I would slowly get where I needed to be to feel healthy again. Choosing to be unapologetically fat meant acknowledging my weight, my unruly body, without shame.
When I finally went to the doctor to treat my peptic ulcer, my doctor weighed me and told me I gained 20 more pounds since our last visit. This time, instead of sinking into shame, I smiled and said, “I just doubled my awesomeness.”
My grandfather’s death taught me that grief can physically impact our bodies. Reflecting on how I mistook the painful peptic ulcer for hunger pangs reminds me that my body and I were never in accord. My thinner self was full of lies. My thinner body told me lies about fat people choosing to be fat. My thinner body told me lies about me not deserving to eat, or I’d be choosing to be fat. And I let myself believe that the pain I felt was a lie, too.
Whenever I think about my grandfather’s death now, I think about all of the other things that I lost when the coroners placed his body in the bag. I lost sleep. I lost friends. I very nearly lost my sanity. But in the sea of losses, I gained one valuable thing: an understanding of self-love like I have never felt before.
My new, unruly body feels everything. My new unruly body knows when something isn’t right and demands me to seek medical attention. My new body knows when that last bite is too much because my new body understands fullness. The kindest act of self-love is discovering the ability to identify the difference between self-harm and self-care and making sure that you give your body what it enjoys, regardless of who’s watching and disapproving.
I realized that losing weight would not kill my inner fat-ass; he was always there — trauma just made him more visible. But I will continue to make healthy choices that feel good for me, and enjoy the body that I have — without any apologies.