Posted by: emjb | January 10, 2004


There are hundreds of pretty women in New York. Most days I don’t feel like one of them. And that’s ok.

It used to not be ok. I used to feel a sort of gut-clenching shame over it. I would see a woman pass, and think “If I just lost weight I would look like her. Then I could find decent clothes. I would look like I’m supposed to.” Followed by an internal catalogue of all the things I ate that I shouldn’t have, and all the things I would never eat again, plus the intense exercise program that I would immediately adopt, so that I could look like her. The hers in question varied wildly–blondes, brunettes, tall, short, black, white. Just so long as they were thinner and better-dressed than me, more acceptable.

It’s the same little mantra, the same internal dialogue, that lots of women start repeating to themselves at about age 10 or 11. I remember the day precisely; my friend and I read a letter to the editor in Seventeen from a 14 year old girl upset that she weighed 105 pounds. The editors reassured her that she was “perfectly normal.”

We were fascinated by teenagers at age 11; we were dimly aware that things were starting to change for us, that we wouldn’t be kids much longer. So we got out the scale, and I was horrified to discover I weighed 121 pounds. I remember that number with perfect clarity 22 years later. I don’t remember what my friend weighed; probably less, since I was taller than her. But it was more than she thought she should, and she was just as devastated.

I felt like a monster. I wasn’t even 13 and I weighed more than some girl older than me, someone who was “perfectly normal.” Which meant that I wasn’t. I had missed the benchmark of “normal,” the magic number of 105, without even knowing it. I went home and stared at my belly in the mirror, and the unself-consciousness of childhood took a fatal blow. I paged through every issue of Seventeen after that, looking for mentions of girls like me, who weighed more than the girl in the letter. I never found one. No one ever wore bigger than a size 9, it seemed. No one but me. The shame bled over into other areas, too. I wasn’t that good at being fashionable, at hipness, at being normal. But all those kinds of embarrassment proved easier to deal with than fat, the last acceptable prejudice in America.

That shame never left me entirely. But I got better at dealing with it. I didn’t let on that I knew I was a monster. I took pride in the good things about myself, did the best I could with my appearance, thought about other things and found friends who thought about other things. Discovered to my shock that men don’t necessarily equate thinner with more attractive. But whenever I interacted with women who were thinner than me, part of me always wanted to disappear. They reminded me of my failure to be perfectly normal. I felt one-down, a bit embarrassed for them to see me. I assumed they were judging me as I judged myself, and I assumed that that mattered.

In high school I was fascinated with anorexics for a year or so, and read everything I could about them. I knew I could not make myself be one of them (though sometimes I wished I could) but I think what attracted me was the fact that they wore their obsession about their weight on the surface. Most girls were like me, obsessing and feeling ashamed in private. Feeling that just having a weight problem made you a failure–that only bad and weak people ever got fat in the first place. Sure, you could talk about dieting, but only if you were already pretty much ok-looking. Actual fat girls who talked about dieting opened themselves up for ridicule. But anorexics openly proclaimed that they thought they were fat and that they were going to do something extreme about it, even if it killed them. It was brave, in a psychotic and suicidal way. It illuminated the fact that for girls trying to live up to society’s expectations, something somewhere was going terribly wrong. Something that had little to do with not being able to refuse seconds at mealtime.

Oddly enough, what has finally made me ok with not being skinny for now was losing a bit of weight a few years ago. It made me think about what I expected to happen if I did become thinner, and what I was willing to do, exactly, to achieve that. For the moment, I’m in weight-loss limbo. The diet I was on isn’t doing any more for me, and I’m proud that I stuck to it as much as I did, but I’m bored with it too. Finding out how to proceed from here has been tough. I can’t afford a gym membership, so finding a way to get enough exercise is hard. It’s hard for everyone. We live in a society that has made sedentary jobs and sugary diets the norm. We pump our foods full of chemicals and hormones that interact with us in ways we don’t understand. A lot of towns don’t have sidewalks in their neighborhoods, and riding your bike to work is to take your life into your hands. Then we scratch our heads and wonder about the obesity epidemic. It’s an epidemic I was born squarely into the middle of, and I haven’t escaped unscathed. Which doesn’t let me off the hook for my own health, but it does give me some perspective that I didn’t have at 11.

So while I’m at this in-between place, trying to figure out what exactly I should do now and how I got where I am, I have decided that there was one bit of weight that I could lose immediately; my old shame. Other women’s bodies are not rebukes to mine, or reminders of my failure, or any kind of goalpost for me to attain. They’re just…bodies. Bodies with their own histories, good and bad. I don’t have to compare myself with them, with the girl in Seventeen, with anyone at all. Whatever I do or don’t do with my body from this point on is my business. Skinnier women are not better or worse than me, even if I gain 200 pounds, and I won’t be a better person if I lose 50. This may not be the all-time best place to be, but it’s ok for me to enjoy the good parts of it, and to switch off the old mantras, like switching off an annoying song on the radio.

There are hundreds of pretty women in New York. It’s not really important whether or not I’m one of them. Because I’ll be ok just the same.


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