Sometimes Freddy liked being fat.
One time at a bar, a girl had started patting his stomach repeatedly, as if she was petting a furry animal. He had been prepared to ask her for her number, but a guy showed up in a suit and tie who turned out to be her boyfriend. Freddy had finished his basket of chicken wings in silence and gone home alone, the memory of the woman’s fingertips still fresh.
In 2020, as the COVID quarantine stretched into months, Freddy lost the last bit of motivation he had to stay in some semblance of shape; his diet shifted entirely to take-out, with pizza and Chinese fried chicken alternating as each day’s lunch and dinner. Occasionally he would walk to the corner bodega and order a short stack of pancakes, which at least required him to wear pants.
Freddy worked in marketing at a startup direct-to-consumer socks company. As far as startups went, the socks company was about as low-tech as you could get. Indeed, as a marketing manager, Freddy liked to make it clear to everyone around him that he, in fact, hated anything related to math or engineering. Which he assumed all tech to be, with broad sweeps.
Freddy had been 289 pounds the last time he weighed himself, at the doctor’s office on February 7th, 2020. As the year round to a close, and Freddy realized he could no longer fit into a particularly stretchy sweatshirt which had lasted him comfortably since his college days, he took the initiative to order a scale on Amazon Prime, right before ordering a double-smokeshack burger from Shake Shack via UberEats.
When the scale arrived - two days into 2021 - Freddy spent more than a half hour fiddling with the various buttons before managing to ‘set’ the scale. Stepping on, and leaning slightly over his stomach to read the screen, he felt oddly disconnected from the large number displayed:
Was that him? In pounds? Surely something must be off, he thought. He bent down with some effort and tapped at the various keys, not quite sure what he was looking for. After a particularly arcane mash of buttons, the scale blinked twice and turned off.
He wondered if he had broken the scale, and felt an odd relief.
He was on his couch later that evening, eating peanut butter on toast - what he considered a healthy-enough snack - and scrolling through his phone when his eye caught a reminder in his ‘Tasks’ - ‘Activate GetSkinny App from Mom.’
His memory drifted back to Christmas Day - his Mom had sent him a text, letting him know his present would be coming via e-mail.
In his email had been a ‘Welcome’ from a brand called GetSkinny - “Hey Freddy, you’ve received a year of GetSkinny - the AI app for dieting and fitness.”
The GetSkinny app had been the most obvious ploy for him to lose weight in recent memory; Freddy had so far been relieved his mom had neglected to follow-up on if he had activated the app.
The GetSkinny welcome e-mail, Freddy remembered, had been filled with hyperlinks, all presumably pointing to the same destination, urging Freddy to ‘Download GetSkinny Now!”
Creating hyperlinks was about as technical a task as Freddy had to do in his own job, which involved drafting up and reviewing marketing emails by the boatload; he had always found something oddly satisfying in linking a bit of text to an outgoing web page. The only other semi-technical task he was involved with was ‘A/B testing’ different email copies, to maximize conversions for the company’s socks.
As explained to Freddy, A/B testing meant setting up two versions of an email to go to t randomly-selected groups of users, and measuring the key metrics between the two groups.
Freddy always struggled to wrap his head around how A/B testing actually worked, chalking it up to more math and science miscellania. Nevertheless, Freddy liked the idea of rapid-fire test and learn strategies, and he began to use the term ‘A/B test’ rather flippantly whenever he made a minor change in his life.
When he started waking up earlier, he told co-workers he was ‘A/B testing’ his waking time. When he switched out his regular living room lights for LED mood lights, he told friends he was ‘A/B testing’ his environment. No one had corrected him so far.
Now, opening up the GetSkinny welcome e-mail, Freddy placed a hand gently on his stomach and sighed.
Well, no harm in A/B testing….
In under a minute, the pleasant beveled square of GetSkinny was on his home screen; the green logo was engraved with a white-etched figure of a giraffe.
He went through some fairly rudimentary questions - such as his age, height, typical activity level, current weight and goal weight - before he was presented with a bevy of questions that made him increasingly uncomfortable.
“At what age did you first realize you had a weight problem?”
“What’s been the number one piece of advice you’ve been given about losing weight?”
“How would you rate yourself at taking that advice?”
He answered the questions with precaution, until he reached one that made him nearly cough up the peanut butter toast:
“What’s been the most hurtful thing anyone’s ever said about your weight?”
Freddy put down his toast, wiped the crumbs on his pants and frowned at the screen; Now seriously, what’s the app going to do with that information?
His finger hovered uncertainly over the keypad for a moment before he tapped in, “My mom told me no girl would want to be with a man who had bigger breasts than her.”
He tapped, and digital bubbles percolated for a moment; on the next screen, a vaguely Japanese-anime cartoon of a grinning giraffe appeared.
“Thanks, Freddy! Please wait a moment while we compile your comprehensive plan to GetSkinny™.”
The waiting didn’t last longer than ten seconds. The resultant screen was blank and white, save for the GetSkinny giraffe in the top-right; a single chat bubble appeared, accompanied by a pleasant dinging noise.
“Hey Freddy. How are you doing this evening? You can respond by typing, or by speaking.”
“Good,” said Freddy, with a mouthful of peanut butter toast.
“Great to hear!” The app responded instantaneously. “We’ve got a great plan for you to reach your goal weight of 250 pounds by July. You’ll need to check-in on GetSkinny at least three times a day for our recommendations and latest updates. You’ll receive alert notifications if you don’t login for longer than an 8 hour period. To confirm you understand, please type or say ‘Understood.’”
Freddy said, “Understood.”
There was a moment of silence from the app while the screen bubbled; Freddy wondered if it was a bot or a person talking to him.
“First off: We’ve noticed you said you enjoy after-dinner snacks. Research shows that food eaten in the few hours before bed can be a major cause of weight gain. Our first step tonight: Put down the snack.”
Freddy had been balancing the toast for another bite as he received this message; he retracted his hand a few inches from his mouth, and gulped saliva.
“Okay,” said Freddy, after a few moments of what felt like a stand-off.
“Great!” said GetSkinny. “Now, you’ll be needing more sleep in order to meet your weight goals. Did you know that sleeping less than 5 hours a night is linked to higher body mass?”
Freddy sighed and glanced at his laptop; he had an episode of ‘The Wilds’ he still wanted to finish.
“It’s now 10:30 p.m., which means you should be getting ready for bed. Are you ready for bed now?”
There was a pregnant pause, followed by a pleasant, “Just tap or say ‘Yes’ to the screen when you’re ready!”
Freddy let out a groan, then said, ‘Yes.” He didn’t move though.
“Great. And before you go to bed, also remember - drink up! A glass of water before bed can significantly boost metabolism…”
Freddy’s mouth was dry anyway, he reasoned; a glass of water sounded like a good idea. He heaved himself from the couch, grabbing the toast plate from the coffee table on the way up, and made his way to the kitchen.
As he filled up the glass of water, GetSkinny chirped up again.
“Remember to check in tomorrow morning for the latest updates on how to continue your weight loss journey. Good night!”
The resultant silence that filled the kitchen made Freddy realize how alone he had been in quarantine. An old copy of Men’s Health magazine, dated February ‘20, lay on his kitchen counter.
He took a sip of water and flipped through the magazine; his eyes caught a feature piece about professional matchmakers in Manhattan. He wondered if he fit the bill for their ‘highly selective’ clientele, which had gotten only more picky during COVID. Maybe once he lost the weight...
He got absorbed in the article, rubbing his stomach absent-mindedly; then, feeling his legs grow tired, he scooped up the magazine and, for the first time in 9 months, retired to bed before midnight.
GetSkinny worked like a digital Trojan Horse, surfacing Freddy weight-loss tips and reminders in every other app throughout the day.
He would be in WhatsApp, talking with friends from his old college drama club, and a new message from ‘Gary at GetSkinny’ would come through:
“Hey Freddy, don’t forget to take a walk today! People who participate in regular exercise are significantly less likely to suffer from depression, coronary heart disease, strokes….”
At another point, while playing around with Snapchat selfie filters, he was surprised to see a filter icon with the familiar giraffe from GetSkinny. He swiped onto the filter; his cheeks sucked in and his double-chin was lifted out of sight instantly.
“Check-in to GetSkinny™ now” was written in bold letters above his face. He marveled at the chiseled face staring back at him for a moment, then clicked the call-to-action. He immediately landed in the app.
“Don’t forget, you’ll need to eat less at lunch today to make up for that breakfast croissant!” said GetSkinny.
When Freddy weighed himself on the Saturday after his first week with GetSkinny, he was pleased to see he was down to 321 - a 6-pound drop.
“6 down, 71 to go,” thought Freddy.
As the days turned into weeks, Freddy’s weight-loss progress picked up; when he reached 305, after a month on the app, he was elated.
That same week, he started turning his camera back on during work calls. His face, he thought, was starting to look like a normal person; not so obscenely bloated as just pleasantly, professionally plump.
Around early March, Freddy found himself plateaued at 295 pounds; he began to grow increasingly irritated at the app’s nonstop shadowing across his entire digital life.
Also at this point, Freddy got it in his head that he should take a shot at online dating, which he hadn’t tried since pre-COVID.
On the same day he had signed up for a dating app, Hinge, he received a message from GetSkinny which gave him a sense of familial deja-vu, in a way he couldn't put his finger on.
“Hey Freddy! Don’t forget to hold on the bread at dinner tonight! Excess carbs in bread can lead to gynecomastia, and no woman wants a guy with tits!”
That night at dinner, while eating a carb-light meal of broccoli and tofu, he spent a few fruitless minutes of swiping before matching with Rachel, a beautiful 28-year-old Communications Manager in Kips Bay.
The first message he received from Rachel was remarkably free of pretensions.
“Hey Freddy! Great to meet you :)”
Part of him wondered if Rachel were some catfish, cooked up by GetSkinny, to get him to drink more water.
After asking her how her life during COVID had been, Rachel responded with an emoji-filled paragraph, and asked him a simple question:
“How about you?”
Freddy couldn’t remember the last time someone had asked how he was actually doing, rather than lecture him on what he should be doing.
He managed to get Rachel’s number by the end of their conversation that night, and the next day - after going for a morning jog-and-walk and weighing himself, again clocking at 294.6 - he proposed they meet for lunch.
When Rachel accepted, he pounded his kitchen counter in excitement and - feeling the need to tell somebody - went into GetSkinny and tapped out a message.
“I got a date!”
The app responded instantaneously.
“No matter the date, it’s always a good day to drink water!”
Freddy smirked; if the app were a person, this was the point where he would call it a jackass.
Freddy and Rachel met at a bar in Midtown which was open for outdoor dining. He had all of one-and-a-half seconds to consider Rachel from the end of the bar - admiring her permed-and-pressed hair - before she glanced up from her phone and, immediately recognizing him, gave a little wave.
Years of drama class had taught Freddy how to overcome nervousness; Rachel, too, seemed genuinely warm. After the first five minutes of pleasantries, the topic turned to horror movies - a subject they were both passionate about - and carried itself until the food arrived.
Freddy had ordered a cobb salad, while Rachel had ordered a fried chicken sandwich; Rachel eyed Freddy’s salad with a smirk and said, “You know, ordering a salad at a sports bar might be a red flag for some people.”
Freddy smiled sheepishly, not looking up from his salad as he picked up his fork.
“Oh, I probably won’t eat most of it.”
“Seriously, you trust that hard-boiled egg?” She said, pointing at the greyish-white ovoid plopped on top of the lettuce.
Freddy shrugged, then poked his fork at Rachel’s fried chicken sandwich.
“You trust that chicken?”
“Maybe not. But I guarantee you it tastes better than that slaw you got there.”
The conversation turned to sports for a few minutes; Rachel was raised in New Jersey and had been a lifelong fan of the Giants. Freddy was about to honestly break the news that he was a Jets fan when his phone dinged.
“Try adding kidney beans to your salad! Kidney beans go great with greens and reduce your risk of cancer, fatty liver….”
Rachel caught sight of the green-limned GetSkinny app interface on Freddy’s phone, and gasped.
“Oh no - you actually use that?”
“Hm? Use what?”
“GetSkinny!” said Rachel. She pulled Freddy’s hand towards her and glared at his the phone screen.
“Hah. So screwed up. Are they like sending you creepy messages in other apps, too?”
“No. Well, kind of -” Freddy pulled his phone back from Rachel, trying not to appear frustrated. “It’s honestly helpful. I’ve lost thirty-five pounds since January.”
“Hm. My sister lost forty; she also turned into a huge, self-motivational pain. GetSkinny brainwashed her.”
“It’s not brainwashing!” said Freddy. “Honestly, GetSkinny is the only thing that’s helped me to lose weight...”
“Who says you need to lose it?”
Freddy cast a hand up and down his body.
“I mean, I think a lot of people would say.”
“Not me. I like bigger guys.” Rachel shrugged and took a bite of her sandwich, then added, “And you know another thing I like? People who think for themselves.”
“I think for myself…” Freddy protested. Rachel chewed silently and stared off across the bar.
The conversation took odd turns after that; several times Rachel waved a french fry at Freddy’s phone and said peevishly, “How you like this fry, GetSkinny?”
At the end of the meal, as the conversation turned back to sports, Freddy finally brought up that he was a Giants fan, Rachel stuck out her bottom lip and said, in an exaggerated pout, “Oh honey, this’ll never work.”
At the very end of the date, Rachel gave Freddy a small hug goodbye and told him, ‘Delete that app. Whatever woman you end up dating will prefer you bigger.”
Freddy lay in bed and replayed the date in his head. He felt unexpectedly light-hearted, as if Rachel had lifted a weight off him he hadn’t been aware of - even if he wouldn’t be seeing her again.
After an hour of restlessness, he opened up his phone and started to flip through Hinge; within minutes, he matched with a dusky-eyed blonde girl named Amy. Many of her photos, Freddy noticed, featured some kind of food.
Her description read, “Hi, I’m Amy, I’m 26, I love my cat, my Saturday afternoon naps, and eating any and everything in sight. I prefer to date foodies.”
Just then, a message from GetSkinny came through:
“Hey Gary - Celebrate the first weekend of spring by making one of these spinach meals, cooked up by our partners at SweetGreen….”
A message from Amy pulled him away from GetSkinny:
“Hey Freddy :) Got any fun weekend plans?”
GetSkinny, again, retorted:
“Freddy, remember to go light on the salt this week! Salt can lead to increased blood pressure and stomach cancer…”
Freddy lay his phone on his bed and massaged his temples; his mind drifted to work, then to A/B testing. He suddenly realized he had been thinking about his GetSkinny test all wrong; he couldn’t run in an A/B test on himself because couldn’t exist in two states at once. He would either GetSkinny, or stay fat.
The words of Rachel bounced around his brain.
“Whatever woman you end up dating will prefer you bigger….”
Freddy held his finger to his iPhone screen until all the app icons started to shake, like angry little bugs; grey x’s appeared to the top-left of each one. Freddy tapped the x on GetSkinny, and confirmed the notification that he wanted to delete the app.
Then, jumping back into Hinge, he pounded out an eager message to Amy:
“Hey! No plans yet, want to go for pizza? I’m starving ;)”