Last night, my mother threw my sister a bridal shower in the back yard. Once more, it filled up with loved ones, delicious food, and white Coleman coolers brimming with beer and wine. I made white Sangria, full of chunks of summer fruit and chopped mint from the garden.
Halfway through the night, people began to post pictures from the event on social media, and I had the now-common moment of recognition and reckoning—there I am. There’s my body.
I hate it.
Roxane Gay writes in Hunger about her internal bargaining process, the one she has with herself, her body: if I do x, then I can have y. If I have too much y, I’ll do double the amount of x. If I cut out x entirely for the months of September and October, then by November, I will be svelte enough for the holidays that people will see me—me—the real me inside this body that I know is there, because I live with her, daily. My parents will smile upon this newly-minted self. This newly viable commodity.
This was the moment, reading the book, when I thought, for fuck’s sake. We are all Roxane Gay.
I remember the end of my first year of lightweight crew. The season culminates with the National Championship in mid to late-May, depending on the schedule. You have another fallow month of school left, during which you are free to reclaim your time when the final bell rings—go home, go to the beach, the boardwalk, whatever, rather than the daily grind of practice. For a week, I rode around in friend’s cars (I didn’t have a license, yet, at 16) and smoked some pot and ate McDonald’s French fries and goofed off and then, panic set in. It was beach season, shortly—I was working as a beach badge checker, a coveted, appallingly gendered job wherein lucky girls walked the Ventnor beaches in bikinis and short shorts, “checking tags,” the little $10 pins the city charged for the season, to raise revenue for the beach maintenance, the lifeguard salaries. At the time—1996—the lifeguards were almost exclusively male. The checkers were exclusively female. I had a spot as a checker. And I had been eating garbage and having fun without care. My stomach dropped. And I made an internal bargain, the first of many.
I just won’t eat until the summer, I told myself, and felt absolute calm settle over me.
I could do it. I had done it before, for short periods. Not usually intentionally—sometimes I just woke up late and couldn’t have breakfast, and then got a sick stomach, so didn’t want much lunch. And then I’d eat a small dinner. I wasn’t being literal, I suppose, when I made the silent decision not to eat, but I was deciding I wouldn’t eat during the day, since, if I refused dinner, my parents would know something was up. It was May. We were in school until late June. This gave me about thirty days to get skinny, really skinny. I felt a rush of relief so strong, so physical, I blushed.
I weighed 116 pounds.
My mother’s family is full of petite, strong women with thick, shapely calves and thighs, round hips, small waists. I grew up hearing them—no, listening to them, it was active, it was a thing I strove to do—decry their bodies. Their bodies were awful, and they did not love them. They were a problem to be solved, but also an unsolvable problem, since genetics, as my father often says, laconically, are tough to beat. Their thighs were the main problem, which they dealt with comically, often smacking their flesh with gusto, proclaiming them “Thunder thighs!” or saying “Getta load-a these gams, fellas,” in the voice of a mock-film noir femme fatale. They were blond, they were funny, they were beautiful and smart and accomplished. They were—are—great mothers, great teachers, good writers. My own mother studied theater, and wanted to act, but married my father, instead, and directed decades worth of middle school plays that were better than most of the college productions I’ve seen.
I say this to point out that, growing up as a young, white, straight woman in America, almost none of this was held up to me as mattering in any way by either the larger world I lived in, or even by my mother and her sisters. What mattered, first and foremost, was the body, and then the face. The face could be pretty—theirs were actually beautiful, my mother and her sisters are exquisitely pretty, even in their 50s and 60s—but if the body was chunky, pudgy, misshapen, fat, the face mattered not. It’s a shame, I often heard family members say—She has such a pretty face. We said it like it was a waste, like it would have been better spent on someone else with toned legs and arms.
I can see my body as it was then, at 116 pounds. I remember its curves and flats and problems. I remember there were actual sections I wished I could hack off. I wrote about it, much later, in a poem— an idealized woman is speaking to me in the poem, a woman who changes in the light, who is a missus, who is perfect and beautiful. The woman, in the poem, is onto me—she knows my feminisms are bullshit, that I can say what I want in the day, but inside, in the dark that hides beyond the light of the body, what we show to the world, I am terrified. I collapse upon myself in this terror. I want a new body, one that matches the self I do, reluctantly, like and sometimes admire. I am brave. I am loud, when others are afraid to speak at all. Once, in the middle of the night, I fled a violent relationship to save my son’s life, and my own. Afterwards—for years—I did the hard work to truly survive that relationship’s aftermath, to reclaim my own life.
I think I am still doing that work. As I write this, I can’t see for crying.
The woman in the poem tells me I see you in the shower, how you clutch/your glutted flesh/you’d hack it off, if only—
Then, she disappears.
At 116 pounds, my flat belly was a plus, but my hips and thighs were a disaster. I had just finished a full season of elite exercise and dieting to the point where I wouldn’t even drink diet soda (some stupid crew myth about the carbonation interfering with your ability to breathe during a race), and they were as small as they were ever going to be.
Which was not small enough. I had been trained to believe they were gross. A liability, even, since what we were all supposed to be after was the attention of men, and the attention of men belonged to waifs. It was 1996. The most famous model on earth was Kate Moss, who was, by all appearances, half-dead: her face pure, arrogant misery, smudged with exhaustion and hunger—fuck off, she seemed to say with her sleepy, haunted eyes, her pouty, empty mouth. She was wordless, which was to say, she was perfect. A finished thing. Women’s bodies in motion, in the present, in action, were hard to come by, then and now. Then, as now, I had this wild inner life, all poetry and dreams and desire. Activity, incarnate. But when I stared in the mirror, I imagined curves and inches away. I disappeared them. At night, alone, I danced in the dark of my room to Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant’s voice crooning Since I been lovin’ you… I’m about to lose, my weary mind… Ohhhh yeah… I lit candles. I was a virgin, sexually innocent, but not naïve, I wanted to crawl into the speakers and fuck their brains out, men and women both. But in the day, I looked askance at the round bubble of my ass in its cut-offs and blushed in shame, wanted to cry. Sometimes, I did cry. Always, I sucked it up. Got it together. Left the house, went to work, did whatever I needed to do. Disgusted with myself until I entered the world, joined it, and re-entered my self, as opposed to just my body.
My sisters, I think, and some of my friends, thought I was vain. I spent a fair amount of time staring into the mirror, the glass of passing shop windows. I remember reading Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do” for the first time, how she writes of catching “a glimpse” of herself in a passing shop window. She is filled with cherishing. I’m still waiting for that day. What might have been viewed as vanity was actually, almost all of the time, a deep despair, or disgust. As recently as fall 2014, I stared into the full-length mirror in my living room at the backs of my thighs. I wondered how anyone could love them, which was to say, how anyone could love my body. I imagined Vincent seeing them during sex, during sleep, I imagined myself bent over, naked, a player in a film, passively waiting for his approval. In this imaginary version of our imaginary love-making, he is as disgusted as I am. He passes. He moves away.
Then, I was about 130 pounds. I was 34-years old. I had secured, against all possible odds, a place on the tenure-track, having spent five years as an adjunct. I was the Great White Hope. I had survived, and then, I had thrived.
But fat thighs were fat thighs, and they were gross, and they had to go.
You’d hack it off, if only–
What wouldn’t I give for a saw?
I remember telling Vincent about this moment, about how much it inspired me to lose weight, lose inches. He looked askance at me. You’ve got dumps like a truck, baby! he exclaimed, with real panic. Understand—this is a man who, early in our relationship, said, as we lay side by side in bliss, Your body is absolutely perfect, you’re perfect. I have never been loved more or better. I don’t think it’s possible, really. Vincent, like he says of his sister, loves hard. I think he would kill someone if they really tried to harm me, or our children. But Vincent—walking, talking, loving, hysterically funny, brilliantly smart Vincent—is not the Vincent in my head. He’s not the dark player in my dark story, who hates me, hates me, hates me.
For a long time, at 116 pounds, I thought all the truly skinny girls were enthralled with themselves, and pitied me. I thought they loved their bodies, gloried in them, spun giddy circles of joy when they stared into the mirror. I stared at them in their string bikinis and thought, I wish I looked like they did. No, I longed to look like they did, and a longing that expressed itself in petty jealousies.
The irony: I did look like them in a bikini.
The further, more awful irony: they hated their bodies, too.
I vividly recall one young woman from my boat, the envy of everyone, the most beautiful, popular girl in our class, saying, as she shrunk and shrunk until she weighed 101 pounds, I wanna be 99 pounds. Just so I can say I’m in the 90s. She flashed her set of perfect white teeth. I wanted to punch them out of her head.
And not only because she was smaller than me, but because then, as now, I knew this was nuts, that we were possessed by some larger cultural machination that was killing us slowly, from the inside out, that was turning us against one another and against ourselves. Every movie, every glossy magazine ad, every billboard. Every parent, every coach, every teacher told us two totally divergent messages at the same time:
Be strong. Love yourself.
But, being strong means starving yourself until you look like the women on these billboards, and you can only love yourself once you get there, so, have at it, ladies. You’ve got your work cut out for you.
They wanted us to go to college on scholarship, to study and become whatever we wanted. But scholarships also came from athletics, and so, we had to excel at that, and we had to excel at school, and we had to be thin to the point of starvation and misery but we had to smile the whole time. And boys had to love us, and we were outcasts if they didn’t, and it was our fault if they didn’t, because we hadn’t put in the time, we hadn’t done the work. And we were supposed to be virgins, sexually naïve while also being sexy enough to attract those boys, but turn them down if they wanted to fuck us, because if we allowed it, we were sluts.
And if they acted out?
Cheated on us? Fucked other girls? Slandered our names, sometimes publicly, humiliated us in front of our peers? Raped us?
Well, boys will be boys.
When my boatmate who wanted to be in the 90s, who was never really my friend but who made, as I did, a valiant effort to be civil since our personalities were like the motor oil from the launch and the brackish bay water we rowed through each day, saw her boyfriend making out with another girl on the dance floor at the annual Margate Lifeguard Ball—the final straw, the coup de grace of a series of abusive acts—she punched him so hard, she broke his nose.
I called her the next day and left her a message, full of laughter and joy. She was my hero. My actual hero. I couldn’t wait to see her and hug her. I remember I called her from the tent of the New Haven Avenue beach, where I was “checking tags.” It was a cloudy, rainy day, with almost no beach-goers. I sat adjacent to a lifeguard, at least ten years my senior, handsome, seemingly benign.
But he asked me to lay next to him, and “scratch my head. You have those perfect, long nails.”
I was 17.
And when, almost twenty years later, I sat, nursing my 10-month old son in the dark of my childhood bedroom, having fled his violent father in the middle of the night, staring at my son’s face, latched onto my breast, his eyes wide open, taking in my face, memorizing it, it was not her 101-pound, 17-year old body that returned to me. It was not the moment when she saw me emerge from a dressing room in a prom gown, and said I am so jealous of your small boobs, I would kill for a flat line in a dress with total sincerity, covering her gorgeous, voluminous breasts, at the top of 20-inch waist, which I had coveted for the whole of the time I had known her, and I realized this awful self-effacing, this mental hacking off went both ways. It was her terrifying courage, her outrageous act, her tiny, fierce body erupting in righteous rage, smashing, at least, the bulbous nose of a minute part of the patriarchy, reminding me of my body’s power, as my son’s fist twisted my flesh.
I made a new friend, this year, although he is technically someone I’ve known most of my life. We grew up in the same town, but he is a few years older, and moved to California, where he lives with his wife and sons. We “met” through writing—he has a smart blog about politics and philosophy that I admired, so I reached out on social media, where we began an ongoing series of conversation about politics, philosophy, writing, and life. Sometime in the fall, he said that he and his wife would visit in the summer, and we should all have dinner; his wife would love me, and vice-versa.
And so began another series of bargains: I could not meet these two, in all of their perfect physical beauty, in my current state. Vincent is svelte and handsome. He is a few years younger than me. People must wonder why he would even consider being with me. People would look askance at my body, its gross misproportions. People would hate my body, just like I hate my body, and they would be right. Justified, even. I take up too much space. I am gross.
Last night, I stared at my body in those pictures, and I couldn’t keep it together. Outside, in the twinkle lit yard, my beautiful, svelte sister and her series of perfectly lovely friends were laughing and drinking and singing along to Beyonce. The night was winding down. I stared at an image of me next to her, literally looking like I was twice her size.
But that’s the thing about dysmorphia. I know this can’t be true, but there it is. It’s true. My eyes do not deceive me. I look like two of her.
In another picture, all three of us, my sisters and I, grin at the camera, and all I can see, instead of the love that glows and flows between us, is my arm, like a fucking ham hock, my sloppy belly in its hip romper.
Vince is on his way home from work, and I am texting him almost frantically, trying not to cry, trying to persuade the children it’s almost time to go. The children: Hank frequently pokes my belly, or kisses it, smackingly. Stella, my stepdaughter, whose mother was absent for almost all of the time I’ve been in her life, and before it, associates the word mother with absence. A beautiful, aching absence. A fairy princess with heaps of glossy black tresses, a perfect face, a skinny, perfect body. Beauty, beauty, beauty. Skinny, skinny, skinny. Her best friend’s mother (a woman I adore) looks, coincidentally, like her own biological mother—a stunner. Killer body. Like Stella’s biological mother, she is almost ten years younger than me, and possesses the time and inclination to be hip and beautiful. Lately, I feel like a hag. Stella has begun to impersonate her best friend’s mother in her speech—if I ask her for something, she says “Kk,” in a clipped tone and tosses her beautiful hair. I said “Wait, what’s that mean?” and she answered, “It’s how cool people say ‘Ok.’” Hank nodded in agreement. Back at home after the party, I can’t stop crying, tears are just pouring out of me, and Vince just hugs me as I babble. My parents will never love me unconditionally, my mother told every person there they looked beautiful except for me, because she doesn’t think I’m beautiful. My mother doesn’t think herself beautiful, which is part of the problem, but the thinner we are, the better she loves us. My father, from a distance, still looks like a guy in his 30s, and just looks away when he has to see me in a bathing suit. He hates my body, too, so it stands to reason I hate my body. Stella, like me as a child, takes notes, actively listens—my body is a problem to be solved, and I am worth nothing. All of my accomplishments, my first-rate teaching, my rising competence and responsibility at a university, my writing, my ability to care for my family emotionally, logistically, financially, means fuck all because I am not thin. She wants that beautiful absence, and I just will never be that woman. I will never be that woman. I will never be that absent woman with her perfect skin and body and hair. Her destruction. I may get fat and I may hate myself but I will love those kids and Vincent and my students and my job and I will write and write and write some more about that and everything else. And someday, maybe, they will see all of that as real love, and as something they want, and want to emulate.
I am crying so hard my eyes are blurry and I can tell Vincent is concerned. I strip off my romper and walk from the bathroom to our bedroom in nothing but panties and the corked heels I wore that evening. And then, it happens—transformation. Dysmorphia in action. Without clothes and with heels, I suddenly feel momentarily sexy and in control. I walk toward the bed and stand there, in that fleeting moment, a goddess, a stunner, a beautiful, aching absence of a woman who flees the moment I lay down, inhabiting my real body, trying to find myself.