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Recently my friend Liz and I were listening to the car radio when an old Linda Ronstadt tune came on. "What ever happened to her?" I asked as we sang along.
"She got fat," Liz answered, as if that explained the end of everything.
Getting fat did explain the end of my first marriage, which at the time seemed like everything.
The night I met Robert, my ex-husband, I was wearing a faux-leopard miniskirt, tight black T-shirt, and punked-out hair and was deep in my bohemian phase. I lived in San Francisco and had just returned from a six-month backpacking trip through Asia that had left me whippet thin, tan, blond, and in desperate need of scaffolding to support a new life. At 29 I was ready for someone who actually owned furniture instead of someone who slept on the floor surrounded by his guitars.
Robert wore wire-rimmed glasses, a button-down plaid shirt, and khakis, an outfit that revealed him for what he was -- a refugee from suburban Connecticut with a big-money job. We spotted each other across the dance floor of my favorite club and, with the magnetic force of attractive opposites, we moved in together six months later. A month after that I was pregnant, an accident that we took as a sign that fate was deciding our future. We got married.
During those first few years Robert and I lived nearly parallel lives. We moved to Massachusetts to be near my family and he found a different job, one that required him to travel. I traveled, too -- not physically, but into motherhood, navigating the strangest terrain of my life. On weekends Robert escaped on his mountain bike, becoming fitter and faster than ever before. Since we'd have had to pay a sitter if I went with him, I usually stayed home and took care of our son and, within two more years, our daughter. When it was my turn to have free time, lord knows I could have chosen to jog or pump iron. But motherhood had made me hungry for the company of women. I chose friendship over exercise.
When Robert's friends called it was to invite him to bike. Mine invited me to eat. Four years into our marriage he still fit into his San Francisco jeans. I tossed my old clothes after our son was born, trading tiny skirts and tops for oversize cotton pants and shapeless shirts that made me look like a retired professional wrestler with bad knees.
Robert and I seldom fought. We laughed a lot and were still affectionate, even holding hands. We got along better than many rock-solid couples we knew. So why couldn't we make it? What were our "irreconcilable differences," as the lawyers say?
I could point to political land mines. Robert was a Republican and an avid fan of conservative talk radio; I had a knee-jerk liberal's history and would join a protest at the drop of a leaflet. I could also cite differences in our friends, in that his were mostly salesmen who acted like frat boys, while mine were disheveled cotton-clad intellectuals whose favorite pastime, next to feeding frenzies, was watching films with subtitles. I could even say that Robert and I divorced because he held up his end of the bargain as a provider while I failed in my designated role as domestic goddess.
But in the end we split up for a more primal reason: He stopped wanting me in any physical sense. I'd gained so much weight he no longer found me attractive. Worse, I was beginning to see myself as he did. It was as if I were permanently positioned in front of a fun-house mirror, the kind that makes you look freakishly short, rippled and round.
"But you gave him two beautiful children," a friend exclaimed furiously when I confided to her about Robert's lack of interest. "There should be a special circle in hell for men who make women feel bad about gaining weight after motherhood."
She had a point. On the other hand, I understood that Robert couldn't force himself to desire me. And I'd put on not just a few pounds, but a lot of them: forty, to be exact, in four years of marriage. True, I'd started year one thinner than usual, thanks to an all lentil-and-rice diet, so actually I'd gained less than it seemed. But Robert hadn't known me before and I'm sure he worried that I'd continue this 10-pound-a-year expansion, saddling him with an Incredible Hulk of a wife.
I was not -- and I swear this is an objective view -- obese. But Robert was trim and muscular and I was buxom and plump and busting out all over. I looked nothing like the woman who had seduced him in that San Francisco bar. How could he have known that lurking inside that lean, mean dancing machine was a Rubenesque big mama ready to slip into comfort-waist jeans?
Robert was less bothered by our dormant sex life than I was. I wondered if he was having an affair, but he denied it, and he was one of the most honest people I knew. That left just me and my body as the cause of his languid libido. "What's the big deal about sex anyway?" Robert asked one day. "The point of marriage is to raise a family. Nothing's perfect for any couple."
I struggled to accept this view, with little success. And as time passed our marital clashes increasingly centered on my blossoming shape.
Why did sex matter so much to me? Because I firmly believe that a feverish tryst, or even a tender, familiar roll in the hay, expresses what words can't. I view sex -- and science backs me up here -- as the glue binding a couple together, essential for withstanding differences in politics and personalities, not to mention the rigors of aging and daily life with children. Occasionally, with prodding from me, we rallied on a Saturday night, but the spark was gone.
We saw five marriage therapists in seven years. Finally I broached the issue of my weight with Carol, our last counselor. How could he not desire me, I asked, weeping, when I'd given him two children he treasured so much?
Carol, a size two on a fat day, nodded her sage therapist's nod and turned to Robert. "You know, many men would find your wife sexually attractive precisely because she looks so...," and here she scrambled for the perfect word before continuing, "maternal." She might as well have slapped me. Hell, Carol, I wanted to scream, why not just say "matronly"?
Still, Carol convinced me that if losing weight could save my marriage, I should give it a go. I joined a gym, a cavernous place with a smoothie bar and gleaming equipment. As I walked to nowhere on the treadmill I wondered if I'd really be happier if I were thinner.
Would Robert want to have sex with me; would we stay married 50 years; would our children get into Ivy League colleges? Unlikely. On the other hand, what if being thin had everything to do with happily-ever-after?
Week after week I walked until my leg muscles burned. I managed to lose 10 pounds but nothing else changed. Robert still wasn't begging to see me naked. And I still longed for him to want me in every sense of the word, emotionally, spiritually and, yes, physically.
In the end, after two separations and gallons of tears, Robert and I divorced. It was the most painful and the most wonderful thing we ever did for each other. With sex out of the equation, he and I became what we should have been all along: good friends.
I missed Robert. I missed being married. But a funny thing happened after my divorce: I relaxed. Without someone monitoring every morsel, I stopped needing to eat everything in sight. And once I began dating men who were actually pursuing me, rather than the other way around, I (almost) stopped caring that I could no longer fit into a size 8. Or even a 10, some days.
I focused on work, kids, and friends, and pretty soon I was married again. My second husband, Tim, isn't a graceful athlete like Robert, but a thoughtful software engineer, a geek god who's as enthusiastic about my body as he is about my mind. I am still not thin, all these years later, but I'm thinner than when I was married to Robert. Now I eat because I love food and because Tim is a great cook, not because I'm lonely. I exercise not because my husband tells me I should, but because I discovered tennis, which has become an unexpected addiction. I am not angular, but fit and healthy.
Tim thinks I'm gorgeous in wet hair and sweatpants, in painting clothes and peeling sunburn, even after 14 years of marriage and one more child between us. When I was pregnant he told me bellies were sexy. When I had breast cancer and was afraid I'd need a mastectomy, he said, "Well, I'll still have one breast to play with. We'll just have to change sides in bed."
As I discovered with Robert, every spouse acts as a mirror for the other. I'm pleased to report that Tim's mirror has some very favorable lighting. I remember the first time we went to his family's home on a Wisconsin lake. The water looked exquisite, but I made excuses to avoid swimming. "Why aren't you going in?" Tim asked, genuinely puzzled. "You love to swim."
"I'll be in a bathing suit in front of every one," I moaned.
He slapped my rear end and grinned. "And I can't wait," he said.
I laughed and put on my suit. Holding hands, we walked down to the dock, where we admired the sunlight sparkling off the green water before diving in. There, in that vast lake, we swam side by side in an easy rhythm, our skin cool and smooth when we touched, my body a vessel that barely contained my joy.
*All names in this article have been changed since my ex-husband understandably went ballistic when I told him I was writing it.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2009.