Thursday, October 17, 2013

being a person is more than being a number

Growing up in the late 90s/early 2000s, my childhood was a mixed bag of the reticent "kids can eat sugar" era and the "giving sugar to kids is a gateway to future health/eating problems". Really, what I'm trying to say, is that when I was a kid, my parents let me drink pop sometimes. And by pop sometimes, I mean diet pop, and sometimes my dad would sneak me regular pop when my mom wasn't home. I used to love watching the carbonation - the way that bubbles would jump along the surface, the way fizz would bubble to the top of the cup and sink down.

The point isn't really my weird love for pop and carbonation (that carries on today with a gross Diet Coke addiction), but that what I was drinking was diet pop and I was deemed an overweight child. My cousin who is the same age as me and markedly thinner was exactly the opposite - she was forced to drink regular pop and longed for the diet she was banned from.

I was in the second grade the first time I really remember becoming aware of my body and I was in the fourth grade the first time I remember feeling ashamed of my body.

We were in the doctor's office, my mom and I, and I was sitting at that token kid's table that must be on the checklist for every pediatrician's office. Disney-themed coloring books? Check. Small table with mismatched crayons and markers haphazardly tossed in a tupperware box? Check. I wanted to shrink into myself as my doctor asked my mom if our family had any previous history of being overweight and I tried to focus on the crumbling indigo of the worn Crayola marker I was coloring with instead of her response.

I was always thin as a child and growing up, but my mother, she was just like Mary Gael.

If I could, I would go back in time to this moment, pat my nine-year-old self on the back, tell her, you will be so much more than your body. It wasn't a criticism of me, my mom bringing me to this doctor's appointment that changed my relationship to food, but out of concern for my health. This was an era when child obesity was just emerging as a serious problem in America and I think my mom was scared of me developing diabetes.

I started wearing a bra that year. And I was somewhat active. That fall, I played volleyball and that winter, I played basketball. In the fifth grade at my Catholic elementary school, we began to wear token plaid skirts and these super cool polo shirts with a band around the bottom - you know, so you didn't have to look completely lame and tuck your shirt in like all the boys. I didn't wear my bra that year and pretended I didn't feel really weird when we changed for gym in the dark classroom. In the spring, I developed a virus that severely limited my appetite and I remember tucking a small piece of pride in my pocket when the number on the scale at the doctor's was noticeably smaller than it had been beforehand.

No one ever told me it was okay to look the way I did, that worth was not equivalent to the number on the scale. No one teased me on the playground, but no one besides other adults paid me any sort of compliments. Some days, I vowed I wouldn't eat the next day. I read a lot of Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul and learned all about eating disorders, the psychological and physical scars they would leave on my body. I never developed one, although you might call the way that I waver between loving and hating food a form of disordered eating.

I don't remember a period of feeling really bad about myself all the time. My journal entries aren't filled with self-loathing and cursing my body. They're mostly observational of the people around me, of the daily goings-on in my life, the gossip from fifth grade, a rant about hating something or someone because I was somewhat sensitive as a child.

My relationship to food and my body has always challenged me. I've been told that I'm beautiful, whatever, by a lot of people, and that's nice to hear. But it's always, and you've just got such a pretty face! What's implied, then, to someone who is traditionally fat, is but your body is gross and unworthy of that word and you need to change it. I was somewhat active until the sixth grade, when my mom no longer could spare the time to coach my basketball team and I was coached by a man. I cried after a lot of practices and games and didn't really get the playing time I deserved. I quit basketball that year and started Irish dancing again the next, only to quit that in the eighth grade, when I started playing volleyball again.

In high school, my activity waned considerably, though I played volleyball again in the tenth grade and I gained a considerable amount of weight that year that stayed on until the eleventh grade, when I started doing yoga. Tenth grade deserves its own, separate post, but know that it was a long year without my mom, which meant unhealthy food at home, and in addition to a lot of sadness that lead to laziness and apathy, there wasn't much moving going on. Junior year, I started doing yoga and I lost, like, ten pounds in a month or something ridiculous and it was partially growing pains and the last stretch of developing "curves", but I started to develop a more adult body that I'm still growing into.

The summer before senior year, I went to my second writing camp, this time at a school called Walnut Hill School for the Arts. I was one of the oldest there but made some really solid, amazing friendships - but the girls were horribly insecure and constantly looking to me for validation. It made me similarly insecure, and looking for validation isn't something that should be shamed, but for me, it's just unnatural. I like to be paid attention to, but I can validate myself. We ended the program with a big, all-girls sleepover in my dorm and we did normal sleepover stuff, but the best thing we did was a compliment circle, where you basically went around in a circle and told random people the best things about them. A lot of the compliments were looks-based, as they often are with girls our age (and there ain't nothin' wrong with that), and also you're, like, a really great writer and I'm so jealous because, well, duh, it was a writing workshop. Of course a bunch of writers want to salivate over each others' writing styles.

But after these three weeks of being weirdly self-conscious (which probably had to do with the surplus of Really Cute Boys who paid absolutely no attention to my feminine wiles), the most meaningful compliment was told to me by a girl who I wasn't really close with at all but we had collaborated on a pretty funny one-act play. She told me, basically, that I had a really hot body. Like, yeah, I've got big boobs I guess and normal curves, but no one has ever told me that I might be hot and it's totally insane that the idea of me as a sexual being didn't really exist until that moment. In what universe could a fat girl with glasses be considered hot????

The fact that I'd never even considered being hot or sexy the way I am, the way I was that summer, is pretty demonstrative of the unhealthy body image our society perpetuates. That girl whose name I don't even remember (Abbie, I think) really impacted me and made me comfortable in my body the way I never had been before. It marked a better relationship with my body, and even though some days I look in the mirror and frown at the near mermaid-tail of my thighs or the weird look of back fat in some of my shirts, to this day, I'm happy with the way I look. I feel good and I want to be a healthy person and I want to continue to look in the mirror and like what I see for the rest of my life.

Being fat doesn't mean you're unhealthy. Skinny isn't equivalent to healthy. The average woman purportedly wears a size fourteen and I wear a size twelve. The last time I looked at the scale was the middle of the summer and it sent me into a body-image-related spiral that really put a bit of a damper in my summer fun. I am more than that three digit number, more than the cellulite on my thighs, and more than the media's skinny ideals of what I should look like if I want to be healthy.

I am so much more than my body.



    also it's SODA ;)

  2. I don't even know what to say I love this so much and you, you gorgeous human. Brilliant.

  3. You, my dear, are wonderful. Love, love, love....

  4. Hey Lovely blog, can we stay in touch?
    Can we follow each other?