I still remember the first time my dad saw my profile while I was standing in the living room one afternoon wearing spandex leggings and a waist-length shirt and he offhandedly said, “Getting a belly there, huh?” I was fourteen and devastated. Of course, my dad was only making a nonchalant observation completely oblivious to the fact that it would exacerbate my body-image issues for my entire life. It wasn’t his fault. It was the early ’90s. Girls in hair-band music videos were Victoria’s Secret models with flat stomachs, always perfectly not athletic and flawlessly fat-free at once. And it wasn’t just music videos. It was commercials, movies, shows, a few lucky girls at school. Just like now. My father, my male role model at that fragile age, confirming what I already suspected–that I was too lumpy at 135 pounds–just made my heart flush down my intestinal tract.
It was already bad by that time. When I was twelve, amidst relentless bullying (by girls) and being called ugly (by boys) on a daily basis, I stopped eating in front of other people. It wasn’t just that being in the cafeteria filled with a swirled cacophony of my enemies gave me anxiety (which it did), it was that I came to understand that I wasn’t supposed to eat. I was a little overweight, mostly because I’d always soothed sadness, anxiety, depression with food, but as my body developed and those teenage girl hormones kicked in, my body started to store junk food as fat. I figured part of the reason the boys all thought I was ugly was because of my weight problem. Eating in front of them, then, was an absolute no-no.
It wasn’t just the weight problem though. It was something else. It was something about being judged by my peers and no longer wanting to be human. Humans eat, they go to the bathroom, they burp, they sneeze, they cough. I did none of these things while I was at school. Only with my best friend who lived in the neighborhood did I do those things. Or by myself, which was how I spent most of my time.
Most days, by the time I got off the school bus and walked the half-mile back home (sometimes when I felt brave I made it shorter by cutting through my angry neighbor’s yard), I was absolutely starving. But not just starving. My stomach was caved in and hurting. My bowels hurt from holding in farts all day. My shoulders and head ached from being tense all day repressing everything about me that was human. Though I hid in the bathrooms, I tried like hell to avoid actually using a toilet in case one of my enemies came in during and found yet another reason to mock me. Only if I had to pee desperately would I take the risk. And number two was absolutely prohibited.
In my disheveled state, and with the house empty except for the family dog, I would throw my book-bag down at the door and proceed to binge on whatever was in the fridge. Oftentimes it was something like leftover spaghetti with half a stick of butter and a mound of Parmesan cheese. Or I’d go ahead and make myself a fresh box of macaroni and cheese. And then maybe I’d have a few Oreos afterward. Then I’d lie down on my bed and watch whatever was on TV, Maury Povich or some such thing, sometimes falling asleep for three hours with undigested food in my stomach. I did it every day after school without fail. Unless I was sick, and even then I found room in my stomach for candy and soda.
Now as an adult, having finally arrived at a place where I eat fairly healthy, I still eat things I shouldn’t (gummy bears and wine, I’m talking to you) to cope with depression, anxiety, etc. Very much the same things as when I was a child. I could stand to lose twenty pounds or so, but why should I if overall I’m rather healthy? I workout plenty. I keep myself muscular and my heart healthy. And indeed, women are not supposed to look like lean, fat-free adolescent boys, unless you look to the runway dolls as *the* standard, which I don’t. We’re supposed to have a little meat. Most grown men like the meat, even if mass media tells us different. But it’s not about them, is it? And it shouldn’t be.
I know that in an average way, I’m alright to look at. I don’t think I’m ugly, and though I’m tubby, I don’t think I’m fat. On the other hand, I don’t think I’m gorgeous either. Overall, I have no illusions about how I rate in this highly superficial world. And yet, my belly that persists despite many crunches–and you can see my abs, but you can see the fat as well–has troubled me to no end. I smooth it out with this or that Spanx-ey apparatus. The flab on my arms that persists despite doing thorough weightlifting regimen with 8-pound weights, is the bane of my existence. I see women everywhere who are much more overweight than I am and probably don’t workout at all, and they have these skinny little toned arms that don’t flop when they move them. And the obsession this country has with women having flat bellies is ubiquitous.
Do these traits bother me because I feel I’m being lazy and could workout more, eat less, and probably get closer to the body I really want? No. I don’t mind being thick. I think I wear it well. It’s not about the weight. I focus on these bothersome traits because even at 40, the world’s message that women (and to some extent men) are supposed to be physically flawless pervades my psyche even as I like myself. As recently as a year ago, I would consider not going out anywhere some summer days because I didn’t want anyone to see how “gross” my arms were, or how jiggly and round my belly was. As much as it wasn’t his fault, I still so lucidly remember that day my dad said, “Getting a bit of belly there, huh?” It was a sort of point of no return in the development of my body image. As I come to terms with the fact that I’m never going to be physically perfect, I wonder why I ever wanted to to begin with. So now when I hear my dad ask me that rhetorical question in the too-frequent replay of that fateful memory, I step in front of my fourteen-year-old self and give her hand a squeeze. Then I look at my dad, shrug my shoulders, and answer, “Eh,” upon which my fourteen-year-old self promptly forgets about it for the rest of her life.