About that Facebook challenge

Thanks to fortuitous timing of my birth and my graduation from high school, I was one of Facebook’s very first generation of users, a rising college freshman in the summer of 2004. This was the era of thefacebook.com. There was no timeline and no wall (which is what the timeline used to be called); you could “poke” people, but you couldn’t address them directly unless by private message.  You got one picture and that was it: the profile picture, which was of course what the site was supposed to be all about. That, and what dorm you were assigned to, and a list of favorite movies and books and TV shows and quotes. As I prepared to become a college student, thefacebook.com was my chance to remake myself into the person you’d want to hang out with. More honestly, after four years of all-girls high school, it was my chance to curate myself so boys would like me. My movies and TV shows and books reflected that desire, to be sure. Fight Club, Family Guy, and Catch-22, on these I built my totemic Facebook avatar. This part was easy. Choosing a profile picture was not.

I weighed nearly 200 pounds as a rising college freshman, and I didn’t need people to know this right away. I’d been one of the biggest girls in my class in high school (yes, people sure did keep score of such things) and I wanted to prolong, at least during the pre-arrival stage of college, the polite fiction that my size was irrelevant to how people would perceive me. I remember the photo I chose extremely well. My hair was straightened, I was wearing one of those flowy tops that left you to draw your own conclusions about whatever bulk might lie beneath, and I had my back to the camera but was bent over backwards in a silly, fun-loving pose such that you could just barely see my face. In other words, it was impossible to look at this picture and glean from it any real sense of what I looked like, which was, of course, the point. What it conveyed was a certain carefree ease, a happiness and boldness that I aspired to. You couldn’t see that I was afraid of what you’d think of me when you saw me.

I can only describe this photo to you because it no longer exists. If Facebook filed it away with my past profile photos, then I deleted it, as I did most photos from before college.  Once I lost the weight, I excised every fat photo I could from my digital footprint. I recall being at a party during my sophomore year and one of my male rowing teammates came up to me and said, approvingly, “hey, you’re a lot less fat now!” He then explained why what he’d said was a compliment and I should take it as such. He didn't even have to, though – I was genuinely flattered. This was not a person who would ever have gone out of his way to be nice to me, and I was quick to interpret his frank appraisal as validation. Best to cling to the weight loss for dear life and hope that everyone forgot all about the existence of the fat me.

My 2006-2008 Facebook profile pictures. I do like that bottom left one with the alpaca.

My 2006-2008 Facebook profile pictures. I do like that bottom left one with the alpaca.

Peruse the profile photos that I allowed to stay, and you’ll see a fun, goofy, thin and pretty young woman with hair she was finally allowing to be curly. Hiking, traveling, running marathons, smiling. Lovely pictures, each conveying moments in which I truly felt that I was right where I needed to be. In between the photogenic moments, though, was a deep and seldom-relenting fear. I wasn’t unaware of it, and in my most lucid moments I could admit that I was deeply afraid of regaining all the weight I’d lost. Statistically, it was the most likely outcome. And at the age of 21, on a college campus known for a high level of average “hotness,” no one would have challenged the notion that getting fat was indeed something to fear. My fear coexisted with the genuine happiness I had built for myself, socially and athletically and academically. I wasn’t faking the smiles; I was truly happy during the last two years of college, which are the only years from which I allowed the profile pictures to stay. I had wonderful friends, I had a boyfriend, I was running well, I was doing well in school. But that approving “you’re a lot less fat now!” from my teammate – he was the only one who was enough of an asshole to actually say it, but wasn’t that what everyone was thinking? Would anyone still admire me if I couldn’t run marathons anymore? Would anyone love me if I got fat again? Unlike my teammate, they’d be polite about it, but I’d know the difference. 

The fear of that politeness dictated everything. I only enjoyed food when I knew I’d run enough miles that day to justify it. I probably wasn’t as good at hiding my fear as I thought I was at the time, but I operated under the assumption that as long as I could suck in my stomach and smile in the pictures, everyone would at least allow me to maintain that same polite fiction of my carefree boldness, much as I’d hoped to convey with that first profile picture.

The last profile picture I’ll ever need.

The last profile picture I’ll ever need.

I made a decision when my daughter was born: the fear had to go. Fear of food, fear of body fat, fear of the way my stomach looks in a bikini; I couldn’t have it anymore. Deciding this was one thing and living it is another, but I am living it with a lot of help from people who are not going to run from me the second I gain a pound. Many of them are the same people who have always loved me and whose loss I never needed to fear. I stopped updating my profile picture in 2016, because I finally got the perfect one. My husband took it; I am posing with my 13-month-old baby at the finish line of the Tufts 10K. My hair is a frizzy mess. I’m not thinking about my stomach or the way this squatting pose makes my legs look. It’s as complete a picture of me as I think I’ve ever posted to Facebook, and I don’t need it to look any different.

I didn’t know it yet in 2016, but I was on my way to my strongest and happiest years of running and my most fearless years of adulthood. I was becoming the person I am right now, the person who just spent two weeks in Paris and enjoyed eating good things the whole time, without the dread that such indulgence always used to bring on. It still feels like new territory, but it doesn’t feel like a fiction anymore.