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A dark, moody, abstract illustration of a female figure embracing a larger-than-life hamburger. Jesse Zhang/Eater

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Me, Myself, and McDonald’s

Making peace with my body in the glow of the Golden Arches

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I fucking love McDonald’s.

Wait — let me clarify: I don’t mean the multinational corporation known for its shady labor practices and an almost universally misunderstood lawsuit over hot coffee. I love the food at McDonald’s — thick McFlurrys studded with frozen M&M’s, the weirdly shaped yet perfectly crispy chicken nuggets, the way that the aroma of that aforementioned coffee mingles with hot grease and grill smoke to produce the chain’s classic scent. There are few things I find more comforting than a cardboard tray of McNuggets paired with the carbonated zing of a McDonald’s fountain coke and fries so salty that I can lick the sodium grains from my fingertips. What I don’t love, though, is how many years I spent hating myself over such a simple pleasure.

I am a fat person, and have been for pretty much all of my life. I started counting calories somewhere around age 10, attended Weight Watchers meetings as a chubby tween, and took my first prescription diet pills (read: legal speed) before I graduated high school. With that, of course, came years of dieting and restriction, of rigidly defining foods into “good” or “bad” categories, and trying so hard to only eat the “good” foods — or nothing at all — until I ended up binging on the bad. Often this vicious cycle led right to the McDonald’s drive-thru, where I could end a week of amphetamine-induced, intentional hunger with a feast that would make an all-you-can-eat buffet look puny.

These binges were, without exception, conducted in secret shame in my car, and ended with all evidence being tossed in a trash can on the way home. I couldn’t let anyone know that I’d had any McDonald’s at all, much less a double cheeseburger, McNuggets, large fries, a giant drink, and maybe even a McFlurry all in the same trip. Even being seen by someone familiar in the McDonald’s parking lot was terror-inducing, because I knew that they’d think I was just another lazy fat person on their way to becoming a drain on the American healthcare system because they couldn’t put the Big Macs down.

My hiding did not entirely exempt me from that abuse. Even if jerks that I went to college with or who commented on my stories online didn’t know that I was eating at McDonald’s, they just assumed that I, and every other fat person, spent my days shoving burger after burger into my face, and were happy to tell me that. I got snide looks from teenage cashiers in the actual restaurant, who often “accidentally” handed me a Diet Coke even though I hadn’t ordered one. I was once called a “fat bitch” in a McDonald’s drive-thru line because I was, apparently, taking too long to order my Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

I know that this kind of side-eye is not directed only at fat people. Harmful stereotypes about the types of foods eaten by marginalized people across all intersections are often rooted in racism, classism, and pure ignorance. Low-income individuals are frequently shamed for relying on fast-food restaurants to keep their families fed despite almost zero other reasonable options, and Black and brown people are disproportionately likely to face fatphobic discrimination in healthcare settings and beyond. This kind of treatment has wide-ranging impacts on everything from a fat person’s job prospects to their healthcare outcomes. If thinness is a moral good, then those who cannot achieve it must be morally bad.

For much of my life, McDonald’s and fast-food chains like it have been blamed for the fact that bodies like mine even exist. First came the issue of childhood obesity, which some argued was fueled by the introduction of the chain’s iconic Happy Meal. In 2002, two New York teenagers filed one of many lawsuits against the chain for “making them fat,” as was widely reported — and derided — in the media. Then, as the “clean eating” trend of the 2000s grew into a full-blown phenomenon, fear-mongering over ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, and preservatives argued that those too, along with the grease and the carbs and the sodium in McDonald’s food, were making Americans fatter.

Perhaps the peak of that phenomenon came in 2003, when Morgan Spurlock’s blockbuster documentary Super Size Me was released. The premise was simple: Spurlock would eat nothing but McDonald’s for a month, then track his health along the way. Eating around 5,000 calories per day, Spurlock said that he gained 24 pounds, added fat to his liver, and experienced erectile dysfunction.

I wasn’t eating anywhere near 5,000 calories per day, much less entirely from McDonald’s, but after watching the documentary for the first time a few years after its release, I was sure that McDonald’s was my problem. I vowed to stop eating at the chain, holding a funeral for my favorite “bad habit” in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Lubbock, Texas. I even “celebrated” the occasion with an apple pie, which was not usually part of my binge-eating repertoire. And for the next several months, I kept this twisted promise to myself. The Lean Cuisines, cigarettes, and Diet Cokes I replaced it with were not in any measure healthier than McDonald’s fries, but I definitely felt more virtuous.

But even after years of yo-yo dieting, continued diet pill use, and outright food restriction, I never actually lost any meaningful amount of weight. Sure, I’d drop 20 pounds here or there because I was eating almost nothing, but as soon as I fell off the wagon, even just for a week or two, I’d gain it all back and more. My mental state continued to deteriorate thanks to my eating disorder and a host of other factors, like being stuck in a miserable West Texas town for college, and I eventually dropped out and moved back home with my parents to get my proverbial shit together.

It mostly worked, at least for a while. After a couple of months of fighting with my mom, surreptitiously smoking weed, and spending way too much time watching Rachael Ray on the Food Network, I moved out again. I worked as a live-in nanny for a while, for a rich family that I hated. In the evenings, when I got any bit of free time, I would get in my car and chain-smoke cigarettes, blasting music and trying to forget that I had to wake up in just a few hours to chauffeur the world’s most annoying four-year-old to preschool. And so when the Golden Arches appeared after one especially stressful day, like a grease-drenched North Star in the dark of night, I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I turned my car into the drive-thru and ordered the usual.

I was not prepared, however, for the wave of shame that would crash over my body as soon as I threw away the wrappers. I felt like a failure, someone who wasn’t even able to do something as simple as stay away from fast-food restaurants in Dallas, a city with so many other good restaurants, ones where I could actually order something “healthy.” I attributed that failure to my fatness, that I cared more about satisfying my appetites than my health, and not the fact that I was depressed and looking for a modicum of comfort in an absolutely miserable time.

It was by sheer luck that I happened across the online fat positivity community just a few months later, in a desperate online search trying to figure out why the hell I couldn’t seem to lose any weight. I was still dieting, which meant that the work of fat activists like Ragen Chastain, Marilyn Wann, and Sonya Renee Taylor felt almost like heresy. I wasn’t yet ready to believe that the science on obesity was wrong, that fatness wasn’t inherently a bad thing. I read study after study, dispelling truths I held almost religiously, like the flawed notion of BMI or the outright lie that simply being fat was inevitably going to kill me one day.

I can’t remember when exactly I started going back to McDonald’s every once in a while, but I did. Maybe it was during a late-night road trip, where a double cheeseburger and fries was the only option. Only now, I wasn’t binging. I was ordering a normal amount of food, and actually enjoying it. I didn’t care whether or not someone saw me walking around with a cup from McDonald’s, but I never lost sight of the fact that there would still be people in this world who would think awful things about me based only on where I had chosen to eat lunch that day.

When I finally learned about intuitive eating, everything really clicked into place. I figured out that the reason I was craving cheeseburgers and fries was that I had been depriving my body of fats and sodium for years. My body couldn’t trust whether I was going to fuel it regularly or not, so it offered its own input. Working with a therapist, I was able to finally recognize that there wasn’t anything specific about the food at McDonald’s that was “making me fat,” that it was entirely possible that I was just one of many people whose bodies were naturally at a higher weight. Years of thrashing my metabolism via an endless loop of dieting had only made that more true, but I was finally ready to make peace with the body that I’d been given.

My McDonald’s shame still creeps up from time to time. In 2021, as most of us were still stuck inside due to pandemic regulations, I saw a clip from comedian Bill Burr in which he admonishes fat people for daring to demand respect. Outside of parroting the typical “calories in, calories out” nonsense, Burr of course turns his attention to McDonald’s, which he describes as “the reason for why everyone’s fat.” He shames those “out-of-shape” people who asked the chain to add healthier options, like wraps and salads, to their menu. Listening to that bit definitely stung, despite my knowing that everything he said was complete bullshit.

Now, I neither obsess over nor deny myself McDonald’s. I’ll catch a craving for McNuggets every once in a while, and those salt-coated fries remain my favorite PMS snack. It’s nice to have McDonald’s as an option when I’m road-tripping across the country in the middle of the night with my best friend, hangry after a day of traipsing around in the woods. And though there are some who will still insist that there’s no amount of McDonald’s that’s healthy in any diet, I think I’ve finally found the happy medium in mine.

Jesse Zhang is an illustrator born and raised in Brooklyn, New York; making all the moods and feelings.

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