This is a bit of a departure from my usual post. I wrote this last summer & submitted to an essay collection but it didn't get picked...boooooo. So I've been sitting on it since then, and finally decided maybe it was worth sharing to my blog, even if it doesn't fit with my usual more educational style here.
If you're not in the headspace for a body image journey and some intergenerational body image bullshit, consider skipping this for now.
I sit on the blanket my grandmother spread on the ground at the music festival, sun blazing down, but it’s really the humidity that kills you. I’m nine. I’m sticky with sweat. My thighs stick together, and they embarrass me. I try to sit in such a way that they aren’t flat on the ground, because when my legs are flat on the ground, all of the meat of my thighs spreads out and looks humiliatingly wide. Gram and I are listening to music, trying to enjoy it, while we also melt into the Pennsylvania hillside. We debate going into the grove where there is more shade, and where there are usually jugglers performing. They bore me, because I’ve seen them before, but shade sounds appealing, when suddenly, abruptly, my grandmother cuts the conversation to point at another woman’s body and ask, “Am I fatter than she is?”
It was routine, and when I was young, I would usually say no, that she was smaller. As I got older, my answers would grow more specific. “Your butt is bigger but her belly and thighs are bigger than yours are.” “You’re bigger, but she looks worse.” You couldn’t lie, she was too razor sharp for that, but you could soften the blow. Then I eventually turned hostile, and would just flat out tell her who was fatter, and made no attempts to soften it. Sometimes, I would ask why it even mattered. She was a smart, accomplished woman, full of both knowledge and wisdom, and wasted energy comparing the size of her rear end to other women’s out in public. Occasionally, she would point to a fat woman, and say something like, “If I ever get that fat, just lock my mouth shut.”
In high school, I made a collage out of magazine clippings highlighting the ridiculous standards of thinness. Magazines that would scream at you to “Slim Your Thighs With These Easy Moves”, a few pages over from a Calvin Klein ad featuring impossibly thin models. I could see the absurdity of it, yet it felt like an inexorable pull. I said I was worried about my health. Deep down, though, I wanted to shrink those thighs I’d been ashamed of since age nine.
Maybe I’d been ashamed for even longer.
We’re at Macy’s; I shop for a prom dress. I hate everything, the dresses, my body, my budget. “You’re Rubenesque,” she tells me. She intends it to be a reassurance; I’m big, but I have a good shape, whatever that means. All I hear is that I’m fat. She tells me I have the right shape for the wrong time. It’s the nineties, and we’re into waif-thin, not curvy. The dresses are so much thin satin, A-line, open back. I hate my back because sometimes you can see rolls on it. I’d prefer it covered. Eventually we find a dark blue Jessica McClintock dress in a heavier satin with a corset top. It has a voluminous skirt that hides everything below my waist. She assures me I look beautiful.
The next day, when I come down in the morning, she immediately complains that she’s gained three pounds. "Go take a poop, you goofball,” I sarcastically quip. “I already did!” She skips breakfast, and lunch. Then in the afternoon, she eats most of a box of Wheat Thins and olives.
I visit the beach with my husband and his family. I’m 27, and I’ve been aggressively dieting. I'm probably the smallest I’ve been in my adult life. I still don’t feel good about my body. I wear a bikini, but timidly, often grabbing for a coverup to avoid showing my belly or legs. I’m bigger than all of the women in his family, and I am keenly, painfully aware of it. I sit on the edge of seats so my thighs don’t spread out to their full width. I lean back a little bit while sitting to try to avoid having belly rolls. It is impossible to fully relax while I’m in a swimsuit. I feel like my body is under constant scrutiny. I’m not sure where I would have gotten such an idea.
In my obsession for health, I dwindle my eating down to a low calorie protein shake in the morning, a salad with grilled chicken and balsamic vinegar for lunch, heaps of baby carrots and a few boiled eggs for a snack. I don’t allow myself yogurt cups (too many calories), and continue chipping away at what I can eat. I workout multiple times per day. The number on the scale trends downward, but never low enough for my satisfaction. In my eyes, you can barely even tell I workout. I obsessively take and compare photos. Do I look bigger or smaller in this one? Can you see the definition of my bicep in this one? I’m 34 and all I think about is exercise, and weight. I track, monitor, chart, research.
I move through my days, looking at the women around me. Bigger, bigger, smaller, bigger, smaller, smaller. I reduce to specific parts, comparing arms, legs, bellies, butts. I hear my grandmother’s voice, even though by now she has died. “Am I fatter than she is?”
But what if… what if the question were not who is fatter? What if we measured our kindness? What if we measured the love we give, the love we receive? What if we measured the moments where we connected deeply with the people we loved? What if we measured joy and celebration? The comfort we offer to others in suffering? What if we smashed our stupid scales instead of letting them dictate our moods?
What if we stopped handing this terrible inheritance of body shame and body obsession down through the generations?
I’m on the pool deck with my sister and our friend. The kids splash in the pool, laughing. “Marco!” The cries of “Polo!” come in response. We sip on lemonade, wearing bikinis. I feel the heat on my skin, but stay in the shade. We’re trying to chat, but keep interrupting ourselves to stop a kid from splashing another -- “Not in the face!” -- or help a kid with their goggles. It feels like the perfect summer afternoon. I’m not sure which of us was the biggest.