Ever since I was small I was aware of my body, of the weight of it. You’re healthy, my mother would say every time I complained of being fat, grabbing folds of skin and offering it up as evidence. I was the opposite of healthy, feasting on cans of Chef Boyardee, fried cutlets and buttery potatoes, Little Debbie cakes and bags of cheese doodles–but this was Brooklyn in the 1980s where one didn’t contemplate salads and farm-to-table fare. We ate what we could afford. We ate what was put in front of us and we didn’t complain about it. Back then it was normal to have hot dogs from the vendor in Sunset Park for lunch and plantain chips as a snack. It would normal to consume plastic bottles of grape juice because they only cost a quarter. I abhorred vegetables: slimy string beans steeped in metal cans, iceberg lettuce reminiscent of wet paper. If given the choice I would prefer my chicken fried, pizza greasy, and my chocolate mini-cakes sealed in industrial-strength plastic bags.
Pair my penchant for eating anything in a 5-block radius with a body intent on an early bloom, and I soon discovered there would come days when I didn’t want to leave the house. Days when I’d cover my chest with my arms while boys in the pool beckoned me to come closer. I wasn’t pretty like the other girls, but that body. That body could take you places. That body was an invitation for the swarm to advance. That body scored you free loosies and tickets inside an air conditioned movie theater.
Back then, I was the body who read books. Part of me wondered where had that skinny child gone off to? The girl who chewed at the ends of her hair when she was scared? The girl who was all sharp edges and congruent angles. When would she return? Would she recognize the girl standing in front of her, all swelled breasts and expansive hips? Would the body make the child run?
Sometimes I look at those photos and think: take me back. Take me back before the body, before cocaine, before the drink, before a heart forever cloaked in black and mourning. When I didn’t fear everything that followed in my wake.
How is it that we only know now how wonderful it was then?
The summer before junior high school I spent my days swimming from one end of the 16-ft pool in Sunset Park to the other. For hours. Rarely did I eat, and before long I ignored the hunger pangs in favor of a body that had whittled down to bone. Because the business of body was a distraction (why bother listening to what I said or the words I wrote when soft, swelling skin was infinitely more appealing?), and I would do anything to winnow it down, to disappear. Don’t raise your voice; don’t make a sound, I urged any part of me that had threatened to be fertile, to grow.
Over the next decade I waged at outright war on my body. I toyed with purging for years but couldn’t get it right because I feared getting caught. More importantly, I feared choking. Even then I feared time, knew that there would be a moment when I’d slumber back to the dark country from which I’d come, and no way did I want to toy with the clock.
Not eating had its drawbacks too–I couldn’t concentrate and I didn’t have the discipline to ignore the heaping piles of iced cinnamon buns or Otis Spunkmeyer cookies fresh out of the microwave oven. So I was left to binge and feel a kind of hatred toward myself that I can’t put into words. It’s the kind of hate where you feel you deserve nothing. You close your eyes when the boys hurl crumbled paper over your head and taunt you in the hallway because your hair betrays your skin. You’re white, but not really, and this sets everyone’s teeth on edge. They hate you because you’re smarter, different. They hate you because there’s still a remnant of the Spanish lilt to your voice that you can’t quite shake–even though your Brooklyn friends shake their heads and pronounce you white. You are forever white and not white, and you think possibly this is your penance. Maybe petty cruelty is what you deserve for being a thick girl caught in the betweens.
College is kind of like training wheels for real life, and in real life everyone wants to be a thin bride. Sure, we’ll earn our advanced degrees and have our careers, but really we want to be desired. Really, we want to be thin. So I spent the greater part of college dressing to attract men who either respected me too much to sleep with me or didn’t want to play the boyfriend game because I hadn’t yet slept with anyone (I realize now how lucky I was to have been surrounded by men who sincerely didn’t want to take advantage of me). These were men in my study groups; these were men with whom I competed for internships at prestigious investment banks. These were men who’d hookup with women who were uncomplicated. In response, I’d drink until I saw black, wondering if I were thin would this be an issue?
When I graduated college, I was alone. My best friend decided to study law back in Connecticut, and everyone who I cared about either moved out of New York or busied themselves with their new, post-collegiate lives. I took a fancy job at a prestigious bank and it would take me three years to leave an industry I so fervently despised. During that time I became a kind of thin that bordered on uncomfortable. Every day I ran 7-10 miles in the sand or on the treadmill and subsisted on Lean Cuisine meals, Starbucks and bottles of red wine. I was that asshole who complained about lack of integer sizing in the dressing room. I was that woman who loathed being photographed, who couldn’t stand to look at herself in the mirror even though the motley lot chorused, you’re beautiful! you’re so thin! It would take me a decade to detangle health and beauty from a pant size. It would take me fifteen years to understand that my worth was not tethered to a scale. It would take me 18 years to look back at that frail woman and want to seize her, shake her, and say, you were wrong. About all of it.
You deserve the world and everything in it. You deserve nothing less than extraordinary.
Four years ago I came to Bali depleted. I was working for a man I didn’t respect, much less like, and I allowed my work to devour me whole. My mentor had to buy me a plane ticket and remove access to my email because my behavior scared him. I was irrational, insecure and unhinged and while my boss only cared about the money I brought into the company my mentor said, on your deathbed, are you going to regret the days you didn’t spend in the office or the days you lost to it because you weren’t with the ones you love? I understood him enough to board a plane but it wouldn’t truly internalize until last year. Until I made several conscious decisions to choose me over a paycheck.
I spent much of my adult life uncomfortably thin, obsessive over my weight, and two years into the job that would slowly undo me, I ballooned. While in Bali I started to confront the fact that nothing fit; I was squirming in my own skin, violently uncomfortable with my chest size. I remember writing about this, my anguish, and although I can’t find the post I know that I wanted all the wrong things. I wanted to be thin again. I wanted the body to edge out of the frame, to disappear.
Who knew it would take precisely two years from that trip to realize that I was living a life that was slowly killing me? That I was no longer driven by greed? That I wanted to live a life of my own design? That year was one of the worst I’ll know because in the span of a few months I left my job, my beloved Sophie grew sick and died, and I relapsed. Who knew that this journey into the dark, the deep, deep dark, would deliver me into light?
Over the past year I’ve detailed, at length, my journey back to health. This journey isn’t about gluten or weight loss or Sakara Life, it’s about regarding my body as a house I’m no longer interested in torching. The past year has been about ripping off the bandaids and dealing with anxiety head-on and not using food as I once abused alcohol and drugs–as an anesthetic. This year has been about shifting my mindset to healthy and strong rather than thin, small. And while there’s nothing wrong with being thin, that’s no longer my endgame. Small is no longer an end state, a reward.
The past year has been about me rewording sentences. About me complimenting someone and not immediately following with, did you lose weight? You lost weight! This year has been about me being more comfortable in my own skin.
I’m turning 40 this year and it’s strange. I don’t feel the weight of my years although I am starting to see signs of age on my face, hands, and body. Yesterday, while searching for the image I posted during my previous trip to Bali, I got lost in a Flickr rabbit hole and I discovered photos from my 20s, a time when I was beautiful and didn’t know it. Couldn’t see past my own self-loathing. Back then I could only see a body from which I sought escape–all I wanted was the glass of wine in arm’s reach. The sorrow I felt during those hours was deep, raw and real. Look at the time I squandered pillaging myself. Look at all those years lost not seeing the complete beauty that inhabited me, a beauty that inhabits everyone.
Anyone who knows me and knows me well knows that I hate being photographed. It’s also rare you’ll find me in a bathing suit, exhibiting skin. So know that I agonized posting this photo of me in a swimsuit for hours. DAYS. Because it’s less about me being in the actual suit but rather me seeing me in said suit and being okay with it. That I can look at a photograph of myself without immediately dissecting it. Without feeling the need to delete it, delete me.
Half a life ago I drunkenly asked a man to write what I thought was chaos on my body. Yes, I’ve a tattoo and I oddly don’t regret it. Although I’ve learned that the symbol doesn’t mean chaos, I think about what it means to write on your own body. To leave indelible marks. And while I don’t regret the act of getting a tattoo, I regret the intention I laid out for myself. Perhaps I should have written: you will become old and your body will thicken and soften and that is okay because this is your one life and you deserve it, all of it.