Laying my eyes on Elijah* for the first time in 2012 is a memory that’s forever seared into my mind: I stood there frozen as he slowly walked across my college’s gravel-strewn parking lot, dressed head to toe in black with the brim of a black baseball hat covering his brown eyes. We’d connected through a dating site, so I knew that he was a plus-size man with a gorgeous, joy-inducing smile, neat locs, a well-oiled beard, and an incessant need to compliment me every time we exchanged messages or spoke on the phone. But envisioning the size of someone’s body based on perfectly angled photos designed to attract a partner is vastly different than confronting their body offline.
As Elijah walked closer, and the start of our first date loomed, several paranoid scenarios flitted through my mind: Would one of my classmates or friends see us together and taunt me for dating a fat man? Would someone secretly snap photos of us and then spread them on social media as a way of poking fun at us—a fat couple? I waited for him to reach me, and when he did, all the panic and fear dissipated into the warm night. I looked him up and down, noticing his beard and the largeness of his belly and waist, and a sense of calm set in. I felt safe with him.
“I’m Elijah. Are you Evette?” he asked as he reached out his hand to me. I nodded, looking up at his looming 6-ft.-2-in. frame, still unable to find the words, but able to place my hand in his. “Can I hug you?” he asked. I looked around, making sure nobody was lurking in the shadows, before I stepped into his arms. I knew I wouldn’t be able to fit my arms around his waist, so I opted for his neck, and hugged him—first with a hesitance, and then with an eagerness. Nobody was watching, so I hugged him and then hugged him again. As long as we were in this secret bubble, away from prying eyes, I was invested in getting to know him. After we’d hugged, and I’d inhaled his scent—a mix of weed and a clean-smelling cologne—he enclosed my hand in his and walked me to his car. That was the closest Elijah ever got to stepping foot on my college campus.
We’d met on one of those dating sites that many college students frequented in the 2010s. Elijah, unlike so many other men I’ve encountered, had a profile that was completely filled out. He had multiple photos and a bio that explained why he had moved from California to North Carolina, and he spelled out his intentions clearly. He was open to casual relationships but really wanted a girlfriend who would eventually become his wife. I swiped right because we had similar interests, an equal investment in being in a committed relationship, and a lot of ambition that could be encouraged through a friendship and, eventually, a romantic partnership. After we sent a few messages through the app and exchanged phone numbers, Elijah took the initiative to ask me on a date. His urgency impressed 21-year-old me.
But when he stepped out of his car in that parking lot, I felt repulsed, and then overcome with shame for having such a viscerally fatphobic reaction to his plus-size body—since I was also fat. Dating sites are often cesspools for plus-size people, especially for fat women. We’re often fetishized or pursued by “feeders,” people who overfeed fat people and enable us to overfeed ourselves to make us undesirable to others. (Yes, this a real thing!) Or we’re being fat-shamed—whether it’s through those “no fats” or “prefer women who exercise” (as if plus-size people don’t use their bodies for anything other than eating) that litter profile bios or being deemed liars and catfishes because we choose to show our faces instead of our entire bodies.
Men on dating sites have called me “thickness” and “fat queen” in introductory messages and have even told me that I should lose weight before trying to date. As much as that rejection stings, however, I have also perpetuated sizeism against potential partners. I’ve swiped left on men simply because they’re larger than me or because they, like me, have more than one chin. Dating doesn’t exist in a vacuum of choices that are somehow separate from the ways in which we’ve been socialized to think about desirability and attraction. Whom we find attractive and whom we choose to date is a reflection of our indoctrination into a culture that creates hierarchies of desire around race, gender, religion, and size. But knowing how attraction is colored by oppression doesn’t excuse the shallowness that often guides my dating decisions. All the messaging I internalized about fatness shone through my relationship with Elijah. While I’ve written screeds about it being fatphobic and discriminatory to hide relationships with plus-size women, I participated in the very culture I rebuked.
Our first three dates were so delightful that I became convinced I was meant to be in a relationship with Elijah. Yet, I couldn’t express this to my friends, classmates, or relatives because they’d already started making insensitive jokes about our courtship. I downplayed our relationship as they pointed out that we were a mismatched couple because we were both fat. My friends bombarded me with uncomfortable, penetrating questions: How would we have sex? Did I worry about eating in public with him since we were both fat? Would we have fat babies? With shame and embarrassment blossoming in my belly, I swallowed the discomfort and humiliation, laughing and answering their questions as if we were all in on the same joke. The only party who wasn’t privy to the framing of our relationship as a humorous bit was Elijah; I was into him but not enough to shut down the sizeism being perpetuated against us.
Broaching the topic, calling them out, and holding them accountable for the fatphobia that had crushed Elijah and me our entire lives was too difficult, so I chose to confront the trauma in private. I’d internalized so much fatphobic rhetoric that dating Elijah seemed like a sin. At the outset of our relationship, he was incredibly doting and devoted: he would prepare my favorite meal at the time—fried pork chops, macaroni and cheese, and broccoli—and bring it to me in that parking lot I never let him move beyond. He brought me flowers, surprised me with gifts, and even helped me decide which graduate school to attend. But on the night he asked me to pack a bag because he’d planned something special, competing desires—wanting to be intimate with someone I cared about and wanting to avoid being the butt of the joke—clashed.
Elijah rented us a beautiful hotel room, complete with a jacuzzi, a table with a spread of some of my favorite foods and desserts, and rose petals that led from the door, through the small living room, and into the bedroom. He’d put so much effort into making the first night we were supposed to have sex special. But even as he massaged my neck and my shoulders, gently tilting my head back so that he could softly plant his lips on mine, those haunting questions from my friends and family crushed my chest like a large boulder that I didn’t have the strength—or willpower—to remove.
After dinner, Elijah made his move; there was kissing, the fondling of my breasts, the removal of my nightgown, the lingering heat between us, and me pushing him away as soon as he tried to climb on top of me. I blamed the rejection on him not having a condom, but I knew it wasn’t just the lack of protection that made me turn on my side, wrap the blankets tightly around myself, and whisper that I couldn’t have sex with him. “Are you serious?” he asked as he pulled on his shirt and boxers. “I am only with you. You’re my girlfriend. Why do we need to use a condom?” I quietly reiterated that I couldn’t have sex with him without protection. He sighed before grabbing his car keys and leaving the hotel room, making sure to slam the door.
My mind raced as I waited for him to return. What if he didn’t come back? What if he went to get condoms? What if I ran out of excuses? I decided that falling asleep was the best option because maybe my mind would be clearer in the morning. Eventually, Elijah came back with condoms, but as he tried to nudge me awake, I purposely sunk deeper into sleep. Finally, he sighed with frustration, turned onto his side, and began watching another movie until he too fell asleep. When we woke up in the morning, shame seeped through my skin and into the blankets. How could I be so repulsed by someone I cared about? How could I deny sex to someone who treated me with so much care and tenderness? No matter how much I tried to reason with myself, I couldn’t move past the size of his body. I couldn’t have sex with him. Though he seemed to be the partner I’d been searching for and we’d even talked about getting married and having children, I couldn’t envision a future with Elijah.
I was a willing participant in perpetuating the fatphobic idea that Elijah and I weren’t meant to be together because of the size of our bodies. When I told my friends about turning down Elijah’s advances, I framed it as a joke. “I thought he was going to crush me,” I said with glee, taking joy in their laughter. “It has been fun, but we have no future together,” I continued. “I can’t f-ck a fat dude.” He was the punch line in my cruel jokes, and I knew he always would be. My relationship with Elijah was a reminder of the insidious power of social factors like outside judgments, societal expectations, and—of course—what we see on-screen.
Plus-size couples don’t exist—at least not in popular culture. While the CDC estimates that 36.5% of adults in the United States are “obese,” a pesky term that doctors use to tell you to lose weight every time you come into their office, TV shows and movies are primarily populated by thin actors who don’t mirror the actual population. It’s no surprise then that fat couples are a rarity on television. If we see a fat person in a relationship at all, it’s often as part of mixed-size couples—a plus-size male star partnered with a smoldering woman who is seemingly ill fitted for him. Take Doug Heffernan on The King of Queens, for instance. He is fat, clumsy, untrustworthy, and often cruel, but somehow, he marries Carrie, a drop-dead gorgeous legal secretary. Or picture Cheryl and Jim on According to Jim. Peter and Lois Griffin on Family Guy. Philip and Vivian Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Gloria and Jay Pritchett on Modern Family. Miles and Iris in The Holiday. Mixed-size couples dominate television.
When we do see plus-size couples, the caveat is that their relationship must revolve around their mutual quest to make their bodies smaller. On Mike & Molly, when Molly Flynn walks into her first Overeaters Anonymous meeting, Mike Biggs is at a podium oversharing about his desire to gain control over what he eats so he doesn’t become an old, lonely fat person with “six or seven cats who happened to wander into my gravitational field.” On This Is Us, Kate Pearson and Toby Damon also meet in a weight-loss support group, because apparently that’s the only place where two fat single people cross paths. Plus-size couples, like Mike and Molly and Kate and Toby, are forced to perform contrition for seeking happiness while not fitting into a thin ideal. Still, despite all the trauma written into their stories, love sustains their union, which is something fat women need to see on-screen. We need to see a fat woman being supported and nurtured by a partner who could care less about her ability to sustain weight loss.
When you are as aware, as most fat people are, and I definitely was when I was dating Elijah, that you are under constant surveillance—when you eat, get on a plane, go to the doctor, or even try to fit into movie-theater seats—the goal becomes shaking off the target on your back. Choosing to partner with someone who’s also facing scrutiny merely because of their size takes courage—a courage I didn’t have. On our first date, Elijah took me to one of those chain restaurants that sell good drinks and appetizers for reasonable prices. Immediately, a waiter tried to sit us at a table that had high barstool chairs at the center of the restaurant. In a calm but firm tone, Elijah told our confused waiter we couldn’t sit there and pointed out a spacious booth in the back corner where we wouldn’t be on display for other restaurant goers. Our waiter sheepishly obliged.
Navigating those simple elements of relationships was made difficult by a world that’s not built to accommodate larger bodies. A fear of becoming a public spectacle—a fat woman dating a fat man—made me push Elijah away for nearly two years after our hotel-room debacle. He was supposed to meet my parents and attend my graduation ceremony, but I made excuses for why he couldn’t. I ignored his phone calls and text messages, and then pretended I didn’t remember that we’d made such arrangements. When I left North Carolina to spend the summer in Minneapolis and then head to graduate school in Illinois, it became very easy to leave Elijah behind. He never brought up that night in the hotel room and I never did either. I buried it instead, content to use the narrative of long distance being too difficult as an excuse for why our relationship eroded.
When we separated, I could sense the relief from my family and my friends; they no longer had to worry about me having “fat babies” or being stared at as we walked down the street. In their eyes, ending my relationship with Elijah was a return to normalcy. Six months after we broke up, I sent him a message on Facebook as I walked a treadmill in my personal trainer’s private gym. I couldn’t shake Elijah or the affectionate moments we had shared or that quiet inner voice telling me he hadn’t deserved to be shunned in that hotel room. He quickly responded to my message, and we fell right back into a routine, as if no time had passed at all. We decided to continue a long-distance relationship until I finished grad school. While outwardly I expressed disappointment about not being able to move in together, internally I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t have to worry about integrating him into my small college town or about being ostracized. And when I visited him in North Carolina in April 2013, one year after I’d graduated, we had sex—a lot of it. We locked ourselves in a hotel room for nearly a week, only coming out to get food, and in the privacy of our own space, I was able to be myself and really push aside all the negative thoughts about our bodies.
Good sex wasn’t enough to sustain our long-distance relationship, which we decided to end for good in June 2014. Nor did it put an end to my battle with the internalized fatphobia that dictated so much of our relationship. Even now, years after we’ve separated and I’ve learned about fat acceptance and the politics of desirability, I still find myself swiping left on the majority of plus-size men. It’s unclear if I’ll ever be able to partner with a fat man, or even if I deserve to, but I’m at least on an ongoing journey to unlearn fatphobia—and Elijah is still the conductor who first put me on the train to doing so.
*Name has been changed to protect his privacy
Dionne is the author of Weightless: Making Space for My Resilient Body and Soul, from which this essay is adapted