I’ve been feeling a bit down on myself and my body recently (I’ve been sick for a couple of weeks; nothing serious, just a cough and a cold and general ickyness), and this felt like an appropriate Throwback Thursday post.
Original post was a Facebook note from May 6th 2012.
I’ve lost a lot of weight recently. I sometimes dread going out in public because I know half the conversations I’ll have will sound a little something like this:
“How much did you lose?”
“You look so skinny! How’d you do it?”
To which I dutifully respond:
I don’t know, I never weigh myself.
By accident. I was sick.
And then come the apologies and the remarks about silver linings.
This isn’t going to be a rant against our weight-obsessed culture and the superficiality of the skinny = good mentality. That all goes without saying and I’m not going to waste your time with it. This is a lot more personal.
I’ve never thought of myself as skinny. I’m not built that way — I’ve got hips, I’ve got shoulders, I’ve got meat on my bones.
I’ve never thought of myself as fat, either. As a kid, my older brother called me “fat” all the time, because in my family, most of the kids are skin and bones with no meat whatsoever, and I was not. Throughout elementary school, I was bigger than he was — when he was in eighth grade and I was in sixth, I was two whole inches taller and probably had 20 pounds on him. So of course he called me fat.
My mother constantly corrected him, steering him toward other words. I wasn’t fat, I was “normal.” “Regular.” Also “muscular,” and muscle weighs more than fat. I’d internalized that fact by the time I was three.
I was also a tomboy. Completely and totally.
I was the girl who got inspired by the “shoot ‘til you miss” scene at the opening of Space Jam and wanted to be Michael Jordan before “Like Mike” was ever a thing. I was the girl who could outrace the boys. I was the girl who taught herself to ride a bike, one pedal revolution at a time, on long afternoons alone in her driveway. The one who could kick a soccer ball clear from one end of the field to the other. The one who could catch dodgeballs thrown by the strongest boys in her middle school class. Who spent hours teaching herself how to swing a baseball bat to pull, and how to hold back her wrists to hit to the opposite field. Who could jump 7 feet in the long jump without a running start. The one who would rather be a Jedi or a Power Ranger than a Disney princess.
In fifth grade, my school had a fitness evaluation, and gave out certificates to only 80 of the 380 participants. I think I was prouder of that certificate than any of my academic achievements.
Skinny didn’t enter into it. Skinny was girls who teetered in high heels and blew away in the wind.
I’d rather be strong. I’d rather be solid. I’d rather be tough. I’d rather be powerful.
I also had a fascination with precision and control. Free throw shooters who couldn’t miss. Pitchers who could paint the corners with perfect strikes. Characters who could shoot a bow and arrow as well as Robin Hood (Katniss hadn’t been invented yet). Ones who could pilot a ship like Luke Skywalker or Will Riker. Fence or lightsaber-fight like a dream. Fire a gun like Shane, who “could shoot the buttons off your shirt with you a-wearing it and all you’d feel would be a breeze.”
Controlled, concentrated power. It still kinda makes my heart race.
The me of my dreams doesn’t have a bell-like laugh and cascading tresses of glossy hair. The me of my dreams isn’t a size 0. The me of my dreams isn’t sweetly doe-eyed and princess-y.
The me of my dreams can whirl in a cloud of dust and fire a bullet right between your eyes. The me of my dreams can slam the heel of her hand into your nose with enough force behind it to make you spout a bloody geyser. The me of my dreams can wear a dazzling dress and whip a knife out of her boot to slash you before you could scream.
(It’s not about the violence, I swear. It’s about the power. I don’t actually want to do these things; I just want to know that I can. And for other people to know that and treat me accordingly.)
The me of my dreams is not pretty.
She is acutely, painfully hot. I’ve heard both girls and guys express distaste for that word, but I like it. Hotness comes with a kind of power that prettiness just can’t wrangle. And I like power.
And the me of my dreams is not skinny.
Skinny snaps like a twig in a halfway decent fight. Skinny has no power. Thin, maybe. Slim or slender, possibly. Skinny, no.
My body first started giving out on me in sixth grade.
I wish I could say it started small. A tweak here, a twinge there.
I wish I could say there was some kind of accident, a fall, a crash, or at least a broken bone or some stitches.
Nada. I basically woke up one morning and, apropos of nothing, could barely move.
It was my back. It was the type of pain that burrows in deep and sits there, and you think after a few minutes or a few hours that maybe it’s your imagination, maybe it doesn’t really hurt that much, and then you try to move and it knocks the wind out of you.
I pushed through it at first, not mentioning it. I couldn’t stand hitting the ground hard, so I walked and ran a little more gingerly. I couldn’t bend down to tie my sneakers, so I jammed my feet in and yanked them out without untying anything. I did everything else as usual, because my highly evolved current attitude of “playing through pain is only sexy in the playoffs” hadn’t yet emerged.
Did I mention I’m a control freak?
Obviously, it quickly became something I couldn’t control, couldn’t hide. I remember a classmate of mine walking into the empty class area after the school day had ended and finding me lying facedown, spread-eagled on the floor, where I’d carefully positioned my body to try to find the least painful pose in which to collect myself.
“Oh my god, are you okay?!”
“. . . I’m fine . . . I just . . . need a minute . . .”
Yeah, I was kind of an idiot.
At some point, I told my parents. Probably on a day when I just couldn’t physically get out of bed. I honestly don’t remember; I was a mess by then.
And then came the testing.
X-rays. MRIs. CAT scans. Bone scans. The only helpful or useful thing any of them did for my back was that sometimes I had to lie still for extended periods of time while the tests were taking place. Otherwise, nothing.
There was nothing there.
We went around to different specialists for a year or two, not getting a definitive diagnosis. Theories ranged from “stress fracture” to “torn spinal tissue,” and had Dr. House existed back then, we would have bemoaned his fictional-ness. Basically the only thing all the doctors could agree on was that I should “take it easy” and hope for the best.
Didn’t really have a choice by then. I quit the basketball team. I got exempted from gym class, and from that dance class that we sixth grade girls were supposed to take so that we’d have something to do at bat mitzvahs. (I should be honest and admit that even before my back gave out, I’d been spending 30-minute chunks of that class holed up in the bathroom. I spent the dancing portions of many bat mitzvahs in the bathrooms, too. The me of my dreams evidently does not dance. But I had never ditched gym. Not once.)
I never did get a diagnosis. The pain is still settled there, near the base of my spine. It’s dormant, and I can’t feel it most of the time, but it’s always there, like a balloon just waiting to inflate. Whenever I overexert myself — run or walk too fast, jump too far, throw too hard, lift too much, sleep too little — it flares and I have to pull back immediately before it becomes paralyzing. I don’t talk about it, I don’t really think about it. It is what it is.
Not long after all this had sunk in, I had my second major health crisis: my stomach problems. To this day, I still blame it on the antibiotics that were prescribed to me for my acne, which chronologically precipitated all of it — but there’s no way to know for sure, and at this point it hardly matters anymore.
I made it through ninth grade relatively unscathed, only missing a few mornings here and there because of pregnancy-free morning sickness. But then came the summer.
I’d been accepted to summer program for young writers, 826NYC’s 2005 Young Adult Writers Colony, a program for budding novelists which had initially been advertised as limited to 5 students, but due to the quality of the entries was expanded to 15. One of the main draws was that if you finished your novel during the program, they would publish it. I was so incredibly psyched.
But my stomach pretty much knocked me out. I was throwing up almost every morning, couldn’t keep food down, was afraid to leave the house lest I wind up puking on the subway. I missed the first two weeks of the 8-week program, and the directors called me in to talk.
I was terrified. I thought they were going to tell me I was disqualified, since I’d fallen too far behind to catch up. I thought I’d never be published. I thought I was screwed.
But they didn’t kick me out. They admittedly couldn’t keep me working with the rest of the group for logistical reasons, but they believed in me and wanted me to succeed, so they set me up to work with a fantastic volunteer editor named Chris. We’d meet once a week, and together we conquered the insurmountable goal of THE FIRST NOVEL.
In between writing, writing, more writing, meeting with Chris, and more writing, there was my second rapid-fire round of medical tests, these ones all gastro-intestinal. And there may have been some blood tests and some allergy tests, I don’t remember.
What I do remember is that, weirdly, my medical records showed that I’d gained weight, not lost any, since the start of all the digestive issues. Which was a real headscratcher for obvious reasons, but aside from that — I recall vividly one of the female technicians at one of the hospitals looking at me incredulously after we told her, and saying, “I wish I could gain weight and look like that.”
And that’s the thing, really.
At no point have I ever looked bad. I know that’s the kind of statement I make a lot that sounds very arrogant, but hear me out. My body and I have a complicated history, and I’ve gained and lost and gained weight for various different reasons over the course of it, never on purpose, and I’ve been in plenty of unflattering pictures and I’ve worn many unflattering hand-me-down and just plain ugly clothes.
But I honestly believe I have never looked bad. Even at my heaviest, which I can’t spell out for you because I don’t know when it was or how much I weighed because I never weigh myself despite that uber-convenient bathroom scale that stares at me daily — even then, if I dressed right and I held myself right and I didn’t get caught up in trying to compare myself with some classic mold or with my sisters, I looked pretty freaking good.
I’d be lying if I said it’s always easy to stay out of the comparison traps. But I’ve always seen beauty in things other than skinniness, and when Sara Ramirez (Callie from Grey’s Anatomy) and Christina Hendricks (Joan from Mad Men) are unquestionably gorgeous TV goddesses who are unquestionably not skinny, it’s easier to see the flaws in the narrow definitions that keep being shoved down our throats from other directions.
None of this is meant as an insult to skinny people everywhere. I love you, skinny people. (Though of course the fact that I love you has nothing to do with the fact that you’re skinny.)
But when my body takes a turn for the skinny, as it certainly has lately, and I can feel my clothes hanging off me, and people keep commenting on it, what it means to me is: something’s wrong. It means my body has been eating itself from the inside out. It means I’ve lost control over something elemental. It means I feel powerless and weak, physically and mentally and psychologically and just overall everything-lly.
I’ve been able to eat again, and I have been eating. I may gain the weight back, I may not. I won’t care. The people around me who’ve been complimenting me — they’re the ones who’ll care.
So if you’re reading this, please know that right now, I don’t appreciate compliments about my weight. It’s something completely outside my control that I can take no credit for and means something different to me than it does to most people. Compliment my hair, my makeup, my clothes, my overall appearance and bearing, if you must — those have a lot more to do with me.
And if I do gain all the weight back, just remember: Fat people are harder to kidnap.
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