For most of my adult life, excepting the nine months I was pregnant and the eight weeks or so that followed when I starved myself to fit into a bridesmaid dress for a friend’s wedding, I have wavered between a size 0 and a size 8.
That is a fairly wide but mostly healthy range, accounting for a roughly 30-pound variance across a relatively narrow, 5’6″ frame. There have been times when I have felt too soft, other times when I have felt too sharp, and other times when I have felt just right.
The problem is that the “just right” times are elusive. I almost don’t appreciate them until they’re gone, because when they’re here, I’m often so worried they’ll slip away that I’ll overdo an exercise routine or I’ll skip every meal but breakfast. Next thing I know, my daughter doesn’t want to cuddle with me because I’m “too pointy”. Then I’ll think, “She is right. I am too thin,” and I’ll inch back up another dress size. It’s when my size creeps up again that I start to panic – and yes, I mean panic – that I’m losing my figure.
It’s more accurate, of course, to say I am losing my perspective.
I know it will annoy the hell out of some of my friends to see me bitching about my weight. Even at my heavier end, I have the sort of shape (long legs, flat stomach, round butt, slender shoulders) our (post-JLo) culture deems desirable. But too often what I see are misperceptions I developed in childhood.
In the same way some people carry around the baggage of their parents’ divorce or other trauma, the way I perceived my body at 12 affects the way I treat it today.
One of my grandfathers used to tell my brother he was too skinny, while “complimenting” me for “putting on a few pounds”. My grandfather grew up in the Depression Era, without a lot of money. He was, and still is, thin as a rail. I don’t know for sure, but as a mostly rational adult, I suspect his approval of my growth spurts was in fact an acknowledgment of my dad’s financial success. In any case, he would be baffled and ashamed if he knew the effect on me. I should have just told him how his words made me feel, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
And this is not at all to say he is the only person who affected my early self-image.
Around the same time – early puberty – I carried myself around on crutches for fear of falling all the way to the ground because of a seizure. I have epilepsy, which was undiagnosed (and thus unmedicated) at that time, which meant my knees would shake or buckle, which meant I wanted a literal crutch to hold me steady.
Other kids would ask my why I was on crutches and I’d say something vague like, “Um, my knees give out a lot? And I tend to fall down? So the crutches stop me from falling all the way?”
I would lay the crutches beside my desk when we sat down for classes. For some reason the history teacher would leave class a lot and two asshole boys in that class (one is now a Facebook friend and seems like a decent person) would grab the rubber underarm paddings from the crutches and wag them around like sex toys.
Those boys called me all sorts of names, including “fat”, even though earlier in that school year (before the crutches), I am pretty sure several in their circle chased me around trying to look up my dresses at my not-at-all-fat thighs.
Alas, the memory that sticks is the one that stings.
I am writing this from a beach, wearing a bikini, at the age of 35 and squarely in the middle of my adult weight range. I see long brown legs and a jiggly ass. Nice abs. Arms I wish were toner. A chin I wish was sharper. Sometimes I say dumb things, including to my child, like, “Does this dress make my butt look big?”
My daughter, who is running headlong and awkwardly (as I did) into puberty, sees herself with the same skewed, critical eye. She says her thighs are big. She says her lips (which she hates) are so big they make her eyes (which she loves) look “tiny”. She says her eyebrows are “out of control”.
I asked her where she gets these nutty ideas. She raised a beautifully arched eyebrow over a dazzling blue eye. “Uh, Mama. Duh.”
I am a beautiful woman who needs – right now – to find a way to own it before some dumbass middle school bully or well-meaning relative has more impact on my daughter than I do.
Here is another memory from seventh grade I think I’ll share with her:
That fall I was on crutches, I went to the junior high dance with a group of girlfriends. A very sweet boy asked me to dance during a slow song, and I set my crutches aside. We sat on top of the speakers and swayed from side to side.
He was a cute boy, and I’m guessing he still is. I was a cute girl. I know where my daughter gets it.