It’s about to get serious up in here.
I wasn’t always happy with my body– it’s an odd sort of irony that I’ve only become so after it stopped working.
One thing I’ve noticed is that, bombarded as most people are by the idea that you have to be thin to be considered worthy and attractive, it’s often one particular source that really sticks enough to become a self-image enemy. I know it was that way for me. I could brush off commercials for “cleanses” and diet pills, go unfazed by media ideals of feminine beauty, and never forget that “those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” All that aside, I have had a hard time ridding myself of are the things my mother told me.
I remember being six years old, in first grade, and being called on in class. I stood up to answer, and (nervous little thing I was), fidgeted by stretching my arms over my head and running my fingers through my ponytail. After class, my teacher called me over to her desk.
“Just be careful stretching your arms up like that,” she cautioned, “You might be driving the boys wild.” She tickled my stomach gently. I was a little embarrassed, but I went back to my desk and sat down.
I told my mother about it when I got home. I’d gotten as far as being called up to the teacher’s desk, before she interrupted me.
“Why?” She said acidly, “Because you were hiking your shirt up and letting your big, fat belly hang out?”
Flash forward a few years. I’m in a combination ballet/modern dance class. Though it isn’t as much fun as fancy shawl dancing, I enjoy myself plenty. After class one evening, my mother stood up and clumsily imitated me.
“See? The other girls can dance. You look like this. All swaybacked, with your butt sticking out.”
By thirteen, I was deliberately sleeping through dinner, skipping breakfast, and packing a rice cake and a thermos of unsweetened tea for lunch. Two of my teachers pulled me aside after class to express concern. My friend’s mom regularly asked if I was alright, since I was starting to look “sick-skinny.” I would go home every night and scrutinize my posture in the mirror, sucking in my stomach, pulling my hips forward, and doing whatever I could to try to minimize the appearance of my naturally high, round derrière. As I grew older, this obsession manifested in different ways– laxative and diuretic abuse, over-exercising, bulimia. It took a long time to heal my relationship with food, and longer to heal my relationship with mirrors and cameras. Even at 5’3″ and 115 pounds, I zeroed in on what I saw as my “trouble areas.”
As an adult, she’d tell me, “Well, you know you don’t need to eat every day.” When I came home from the holidays after months of extreme dieting, the first thing she did was get on the phone to my grandmother. “Jessie’s here!” She said with audible excitement, “And she looks great!” No word about me having arrived safely after traveling solo from several states away. Nothing about me having arrived in time for my aunt’s Christmas Eve party. In a few words, she had underlined what was really important.
Part of me knew it was her version of looking out for me– as someone who had struggled with her weight and self-esteem for ages, she wanted to impress upon me the importance of being very thin so I wouldn’t end up “fat and miserable” like she was. She frequently told me that I was a reflection on her, and I knew it meant being held to a high standard that included, among other things, lying about my job, pretending my apartment was nicer than it was, pretending I had more money than I did, and making sure I had a perfect, trim figure.
It was a strange kind of parental love.
When I developed idiopathic intracranial hypertension, things got a little weird. I lost a distressing amount of weight on Diamox, and I knew it… But it was hard to look at the ever-shrinking numbers on the scale and not feel a little thrill of triumph. I could look in the mirror and be horrified at the way I was losing muscle and fat to my meds, but I’ll be damned if seeing a “104” on the scale didn’t make me feel accomplished.
Am I happy with my body now? Yes and no. I’m back around 115-120 pounds and (while there are still things I wish were better) most of my desire to change my body comes from wanting to improve its function, not form. Back when my body worked properly, I didn’t know how good I had it. I took my mother’s criticisms of me to heart, wasting years on worrying about things that didn’t need fixing instead of reveling in the things I could do– dance, hike, ride horses, go spelunking.
If I could send a message back to embarrassed-six-year-old-me, humiliated-nine-year-old-me, or suffocated-teenaged-me, I would: Don’t waste your time on other people’s ideas about what you look like. It says more about how they think than what you are.