I spent one teenage summer starving myself and running incessantly, but even with all my effort I wasn’t thin. Half of my roots are in Greece, and I came out of the womb destined to be muscular and athletic with strong shoulders and legs; it’s just not in my nature or stature to be skinny. No amount of calorie or mile counting will allow me to achieve willowy, lithe, or Gwyneth Patrow-esque.
When I was in kindergarten I leg pressed more than my weight in a ski lodge weight room and impressed the spindly legged, middle-aged men. I flexed, they cheered, I smiled. Before cell phones a friend tried to locate me in downtown San Francisco, and asked a guy at our pre-determined meeting spot, “Have you seen a girl with long, dark hair and overdeveloped calves?” I was wearing a dress that day, and he pointed her in the right direction.
If only my perception of myself was as strong as my base. Sometimes I’ve been a little overweight, sometimes a little more than a little, but I rarely know how much. I’ll see pictures of myself and be shocked. I’ll be surprised at the roundness of my face, the thickness of my thighs, or the girth of my biceps. I’ll wonder why I did that with my arm or my leg or my chin. I examine the images and wonder what the hell I was thinking. I wonder who let me out of the house. I question my friends’ judgment.
On the contrary, I’ll see a photo of myself squatting or with my arm around a friend, and be shocked by the sinewed shape of my legs, the definition of my clavicle, the narrowness of my shoulder, the length of my neck. I’ll stare at those photos and be mesmerized by what must’ve been a flattering angle. Clearly how I feel inside is never a good barometer for how I look to the outside world, and my internal mirror belongs in a fun house.
Though never diagnosed, my mild body dysmorphia started early and was amplified by generations of undiagnosed OCD. When I was a first grader I realized that I’d never have my mother’s body. My wrists, elbows, and knees would never be sharp like hers; her concave stomach and cleaver-like hip bones were not available to the body I inherited from someone else. I pounded fists into my belly in hopes of tenderizing it like a piece of meat, and I’d lie face down on my bed with arms outstretched over my head because that’s what my mother told me she did after she gave birth to me, her only child, to reflatten her stomach. It worked for her, but it didn’t work for me. I was just a baby myself. I was supposed to be round.
I remained round and awkward with thick glasses until sixth grade when I got contacts and my body changed as if on demand. The flesh of my belly migrated north and south to create the tits and ass of a woman, someone I was not mature enough to inhabit. Track transformed my legs, and my newly developed hamstrings lifted my bottom into something resembling two scoops of vanilla ice cream, which at the time was more of a curse than a blessing.
In the absence of disfiguring eyeglasses and a peripheral vision I’d never before possessed, I viewed the world and myself differently and that door swung both ways. My brain couldn’t keep up with my body and I didn’t have the tools to bridge the gap.
My body first betrayed me when I was twelve. It’s hard to blame it all on my body, but that’s what I did for over twenty years. The other factors were alcohol, a swarthy, older boy, and a mother preoccupied with her own problems. When the boy peeled my clothes off he said, “You don’t look twelve,” and I didn’t, nor did I feel it. The word no and its equivalent weren’t at my vocabulary’s disposal and it seems fairer than not to blame the alcohol for that.
I blamed my body for betraying me, though it was just the beginning of our love-hate relationship, and the attention it brought me was addictive, constant, and exhausting. When I was twenty years old I played strip-Jenga with a high school buddy in his dorm room, and when I had all my clothes off and stood at the foot of his bed he told me I had porn star titties, which was news to me.
The next summer I moved across the country for the first time to a town where I worried less about what people thought of me. I walked around in flimsy dresses and short skirts, and often went braless because I now knew I could. An older man—probably my age now—stopped working in his yard to tell me, “You’re the sexiest woman I’ve ever seen.” I rode it like a high all summer, skinning dipping at the first invitation and wearing thin, white tank tops to concerts.
But my confidence was thinly veiled, and the truth was: I was uncomfortable inhabiting a body that had betrayed me.
Years later I was in a bar that my friends and I treated like something between a living room and a romper room, which was not so different from how I treated myself. One night I was by the pool table with a group of guys I considered friends—guys dating or married to my girlfriends—when a brazen one said:
“You know you’re our #1 jerk off fantasy, right?”
No. Not right. Who says that? Who allows it?
I hadn’t had a solid boyfriend in years, though I’d had lovers and boyfriends who’d challenged me, and I’d gotten into the habit of using sex as a weapon and a tool. I used what had betrayed me as an unreliable, protective shield though the irony of the contradiction was lost on me.
Most of the men I’ve dated have, in the beginning, been attracted to me physically, but on the way out the door have called me fat. It stings both because it’s true and because it’s not. I’ve been aware of my tendency to pack on protective pounds in lieu of emotional maturity, but because that hasn’t worked out in the past, I’ve recently taken an inventory of why I’m afraid of the body that betrayed me and what’s so scary about inhabiting it.
There’s nothing fair about sex and betrayal and weaponry.
There’s also nothing fair about the way we view our bodies. When I say we I mean women—that’s the demographic I know best. Some men hate their bodies too, but I don’t believe the hatred is as vehement; the sense of betrayal is not as deep.
As a massage therapist for ten years, I can’t tell you—it’s too sad to quantify—how many women apologize for things like unshaved legs and fat that is often imagined. Sometimes a brave woman will tell me she’d like to lose weight, but she keeps the added pounds on for protection. She’ll tell me she feels safer that way. It’s a bit of a guarantee to be alone, a guarantee not to be betrayed by the thing that sustains you, a guarantee to not fully embrace that which gives breath and mobility and choice.
Some people say it’s a crock. They say these women are looking for an excuse to be fat, unattractive, single and bitter. To those people I say: you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. These women might have stories you’re afraid to hear.
Now the strength of my brain has caught up with the power of my legs, and I’m in near constant motion. Even when I don’t know where I’m going, I continue to move forward because I trust myself and I trust the process.
I’m no longer looking to protect my heart and soul with an armor that’s no longer serving me, and I’m getting rid of what I don’t need. I’m unloading what’s been within me, what’s been on me, and what’s been around me. In the process my body has shrunk—not dramatically, but enough.
I still eat cheese like its going out of style. I’m not afraid of salami or butter or roadside tacos. I’m not afraid of food or myself or the body that used to betray me. In fact, I’m not afraid at all. Perhaps that’s the difference?
Actually, let’s strike that question mark.
I’m not afraid.