Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On the Body (A Skinny Woman Confesses)

I wasn't raised to think skinny was beautiful. That's not how my family worked. The epitome of beauty -- in my father's eyes -- was Teri Garr. In retrospect, this was one of the best things he did -- unwittingly -- to convey to me the concept of beauty. Teri Garr wasn't known for her knock-out sex-symbol beauty (well, there's the line in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN "nice knockers," of course). She's a comedic actress -- blond and beautiful, yes, but she was considered serious in her talent. Funny was beautiful. Smart was beautiful. Vulnerable (Teri Garr played it so magnificently) was beautiful. Beautiful -- and not uber skinny a la Jane Fonda of the era -- was beautiful.

And yet I was skinny. As a child, this was a vexation for my mother to bear.

I was so small that one of my high school friends confessed that her mother told her not to tease me about being so puny because I had a disease. This wouldn't have been so alarming if her mother hadn't been a nutritionist with a strong medical background.

Well, according to my mother, I was sickly. Terribly sickly. Just this winter, she mentioned my sickly childhood. I thought, "Was it really a sickly childhood?" When I visited my second grade teacher in the nursing home, she said, "Oh, but you had such a hard childhood, wee girl, what with your sickly constitution." (She was Scottish.)

I missed a lot of school, yes. My mother preferred me at home with her. I was the last child, the baby, and she was bored.

But I don't remember really being all that sickly. I had pneumonia at five, yes, took antibiotics and bounced back. I had a few fevered Christmases, unlucky that way. But I don't remember doctors ever worrying about me -- only my mother.

And she worried hard. The catch phrase thrown at skinny kids those days was, "Doesn't your mother FEED you?"

This killed my mother. She fed me and fed me and fed me. She desperately wanted me to get bigger.

And I did. I ate huge amounts of food, and then I burned it up. I was hyper. I remember my mother always saying, "Stop jiggling around!" I'd say, "I'm not jiggling, I'm dancing." I was the fastest runner in my elementary school in third grade -- across genders. I lost that title for a few years when bussed to the inner city, but regained it in Catholic school, outrunning boys through 8th grade. My gym teachers always pulled my mother aside.

"Put her in gymnastics," one said.

"Gymnastics? Have you seen those girls? Stunted for life? Even their vocal cords! She'd never grow!"

One suggested track. But I can't run solely for the sake of running. There has to be someone chasing me or me chasing a ball. I finally found my way onto field hockey and lacrosse fields -- and although the track coach was always after me, this was where I ran and ran and ran. Some of my best dreams are of field hockey played on a newly mown field.

In this way, my body came to define me. I was scrawny, but very athletic. If picking teams among kids who didn't know me, I was chosen last. But after that first time, chosen first. I felt I constantly had to prove myself. I still do. On the page, I'm certain that other writers get away with crap that I can't. I still hold onto the deeply ingrained notion that I have to write harder, just as I used to have to run faster -- to make up for some other lack.

Everywhere I went people fed me -- an extra breakfast at the house next to the bus stop, my grandmother and her cups of flan just for me, a woman down the street who told me she'd pay me a dollar once I weighed fifty pounds. I don't know how old I was when I could finally collect -- old enough to walk there on my own and demand my cash. And I was also runty in the short sense; and it didn't help that "Short People" was a billboard hit in elementary school.

At thirteen, I wore my swimsuit backwards -- the kind that looked similar front and back. I realized it in the water that it was ballooning in the crotch. I was a board.

I hit high school at the height of anorexia and bulimia awareness. People eyed me with concern. One of the first things my mother-in-law to-be said to Dave after meeting me at twenty-two was her concern about my eating disorder.

Except I didn't have one. For ages, I always tried to eat in front of others -- even when I wasn't hungry -- to set them at ease. I'd never go to the bathroom after a meal, worrying that they thought I was throwing it up. Still, people accuse me of not eating, of dieting, of being weird about food and trying to stay small. I've only dieted due to gestational diabetes -- which was excruciatingly hard and I gained deep respect for those who truly diet.

I have gained weight in my life. 5 pregnancies (4 babies and a miscarriage), I've gained and lost well over my entire body weight.

And, interesting to note, the only time I gained weight without thinking about it was when I lived in France, had no money, and took public transportation. Always nervous about when I'd next get to a table, I learned -- for the first time -- to rely solely on three meals a day, banking as much bread dipped in yogurt as humanly possible and then, bustled around on the Metro, I was inert.

(I write all of this, by the way, knowing that I'm breaking a rule. Skinny women aren't supposed to talk about their bodies. If we do, we're told to shut up -- usually in a nice way, but not always. Fair enough.)

I've been expecting to gain weight all my life. My grandmother who got pregnant at 17, weighing 87 pounds, and at 9 months weighing 117, was tiny -- until later in life. Under five feet tall, she eventually weighed 180.

Not that my body hasn't changed. Trust me. It has. Irrevocably. And age? Just recently, I've suddenly seen a shocking (shocked?) woman in the mirror -- one I do not completely recognize.

But just recently it has dawned on me how much a part of being small has shaped my adult life too. Napoleon? Do I need to walk into a room and take up more psychic space? Do I use my small size and femininity to a different kind of advantage? (There has to be SOME advantage to being a woman.) In my head, I'm still a scrawny girl with a lot to prove. If there's something good in that, there's something also destructive -- something I hope, one day, to outgrow, at least a little.

And, too, I've absorbed my mother's worry. Her hypochondria became mine. The old soul case! Mainly, I just want it to work. Mainly, I just want it to last. Mainly, I'm still the scrawny kid on the ball field -- mentally willing the coach not to take me off the field.