Carly was my most recent, and last, matchstick friendship. By that I mean a friendship that starts with a spark and burns intensely and brightly until a short while later it burns out.
I met Carly where I met most of my friends in my early 20s: church. She was new to our side of town, eager to make friends, and more outgoing than anyone I had ever met. The night we were introduced she literally grabbed me off the couch so I’d go dancing with her at a country-western bar. Line dancing was about as far from my idea of fun as you could get—but I went anyway. That was the power of Carly—she always got you to do things you never thought you would.
That first night we hung out (with the “cool” people from the church singles group who never paid me much attention) I found her to be exciting and sweet. I’m not the kind who warms easily to strangers, but here she was, spinning me around a dance floor filled with cute guys in cowboy hats, acting like we had been friends for years. I was in a transitional period of my life then and kind of lonely. She was just what I needed.
We jumped right into the best-friends zone after that night. She had me over to her house, where she lived alone, almost every day. I was much more into staying in and watching TV, but Carly always wanted to be social. Together we organized game nights, casino parties, dancing, bowling, pretty much any kind of quasi-wholesome non-drinking activity you could have fun with your clothes on doing. We were good Christian girls, after all.
There was also the reading of entire books of the Bible nights—mainly Revelations—and the frequent “worship” parties, where our friends from church would light candles and gather to sing worship music for an hour or two longer than made me comfortable.
While Carly was in her element at these events, I always felt uneasy. As much as I loved God, I didn't love the end-times obsession, or the way the people from the awkwardly-named IHOP church made me feel.
Above all, Carly was passionate. Mostly about God, but also about fitness. She paid her bills working as a personal trainer and Pilates instructor, even taking out a business loan to open up a small studio in her house.
It was clear early on in our friendship, that as much as Carly liked me, she didn't like my weight.
Even though I was no shrinking violet back then, this was before I had discovered Health At Every Size. It was before I ended a horribly unhealthy “relationship” with a guy who would periodically convince me to sleep with him, then tell me he couldn't talk to me afterward because Jesus didn't want him to. And it was before I learned how to love, let alone actually like, my body. I’d always loved myself—I was proud of who I was—but had yet to accept the bag of flesh and bones that self was encased in.
She was a good personal trainer, I’ll give her that. Half the time I didn't even realize what she was doing -- we’d just be walking somewhere, then walking farther, and farther, and then running for some implausible but fun reason. Her two adorable dogs certainly helped with this distraction.
Carly never said “we need to work out” so much as she made exercise a part of our friendship. I moved more and ate less during the months I was friends with her than any other time in my life. I even lost a negligible amount of weight. Mainly because as much as we hung out together, we never really went out to eat. Or ate much in general.
Even though she was fit and toned and a solid, muscular size 6, Carly was herself always trying to lose weight. There was almost never food at her house. I was often hungry when I was with her, but was too embarrassed to complain. If I did, her most common response was, “You don’t need food.”
One night, at yet another wholesome party, Carly and I lounged on a pile of coats in a darkened room, talking about the cute guys on the other side of the door.
“Doug seemed to maybe be flirting with me a little, right?” I asked her. The expensive black dress I’d bought for the party had me feeling prettier than normal.
Her pause was long, and deafening. “Guys like Doug don’t go for girls like you, Emily.” She said this flippantly, while checking her cuticles.
I sat up, slowly. “What do you mean?”
She laughed. “You know what I mean. You’re too big.”
The rest of the party I spent hiding in a corner, or huddled outside in the cold, staring at the pitifully small bonfire.
Even though she’d commented on my weight plenty of times before, it’d always seemed to be a small part of who I was to her. I knew I was fat, but I didn't see myself as defined by that, especially in our group of friends. Not until that night. Reluctant to cause a fight, I convinced myself she was right. None of the single guys at our church had asked me out. I forced myself to use her comment as motivation to lose weight.
At the same time Carly and I were spending all of our evenings together, some other big changes were happening in my life. My best friend of over a decade had just come out to me, and his revelation was shaking up a lot of my religious beliefs. I discovered feminism for the first time, and realized I didn't need to hate my body. And, much to my surprise, one of those cute guys from church actually did ask me out.
These events pulled me away from Carly. The more I was away from her, the more some of her behavior began to wear thin. Like her insistence that I shower at her place, if I told her I needed to get ready before coming over, because she hated being alone. Or the way, if I tried to go home because I was tired, she’d beg and plead for me to just sleep over and spend the night with her. And especially how, if I tried to take a night in by myself, she’d get hurt and offended and refuse to text or call me back.
It was during the cooling-off period of our friendship, when we still were friendly but no longer spent every weekend together, that she started her blog. It was ostensibly about the connection between health and faith—her business had one of those Christian-y fitness names—but as I read more deeply, it took a turn.
She had written a blog calling for repentance in the church. This was not unusual. But the repentance she was talking about was for the “sin” of obesity. I remember reading her words while sitting on my couch, and just staring at them, dumbfounded. She was saying, essentially, that my very existence as an overweight person was sinful. That I needed to step on a scale every morning and pray for forgiveness.
I was furious. So I left a comment on her Facebook, outlining every reason why I disagreed with her post. I’m not sure why I expected her to backtrack and apologize, but I did.
My parents, who she had met and spent time with, and who were arguably more religious than she (but full disclaimer: also fat) jumped into the fray. Respectfully, they used Bible verses and reasonable logic to dispute her claims.
This made Carly very angry. She said that if we didn't repent we deserved “rebuke.” Immediately, she un-friended me and my family.
I was shocked. There was no conversation, no phone call, no text even. Just a click of a button that effectively ended a nearly year-long friendship. For days after I simmered, waiting for an apology, or even a figurative olive-branch. None came. She had already moved onto a more conservative church at this point, so we never talked again.
A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with my now-husband (that cute guy from church), when I saw someone familiar a few tables over. I realized with a lurch in my stomach that it was the mother of the guy Carly had been on-and-off-with for years. Carly sat across from her, smiling and looking happy.
I started to sweat and my heart raced in a way that was not normal for me. I switched seats with my husband so that my back would be to their table, but I kept myself braced for her to come over, to say hello.
She never did.
It wasn't until this nerve-wracking near run-in that I realized my matchstick friendship was actually an emotionally abusive one. One that I’m very glad my “sinful fatness” inadvertently ended.
I’m still fat. A good 20 pounds heavier than I was back then. I’m also still a Christian, albeit one with much different beliefs about God and sin than Carly. But what I’m not anymore, is someone who will let others treat me like garbage. I guess have my fat to thank for that.