Have you read Jennifer Weiner's essay about the F-Word? Read it here. It's okay, I'll wait!
So. Did you love it? Did it resonate with you? I did, and it did with me. Resonate is an understatement. Stuck to me like pine sap, it did.
It brought back some memories, some bad ones. Memories I thought I had cleverly hidden, so cleverly that nobody and nothing could release them.
But there they were, flashing, blinking neon memories. Forcing me to reexamine them. Relive them.
The worst of these memories involved two things that strike fear in my heart to this day: boys, and swimming. In fact, when I first opened up Ms. Weiner's essay, the picture at the top caused an instant lump in my throat. Three girls, huddled at the edge of a pool. One bigger than the other. All in swimsuits. Honestly, the photo alone dredged up long-forgotten emotions. Her words were like, pardon my food analogy in the midst of a post about weight, the icing on the cake.
It must have been 6th grade. Maybe 7th, but by then the junior high nightmare had begun so I'm inclined to think it was 6th. Anyhoo...a bunch of us, boys and girls, were swimming in the junior high pool. They used to have open swim time on the weekends, and for a while, it was the cool place to go.
We were splashing and yelling and playing. I remember standing in the shallower end with a few of my friends, water just high enough to cover our budding bosoms and my already budded belly. A couple of the boys had goggles on, and were, unbeknownst to us, submerging themselves right behind our little group.
One of the boys shot up, and I'll preface this with my own decades-late jab: he wasn't the most attractive of them all. In fact, I had already dubbed him Alice the Goon due to his unfortunate resemblance to Popeye's stalker/nemesis (remember her? All forearms and pin head?).
He popped up through the water's surface, snapped the goggles from his eyes and yelled out:
"Jenny has baby elephant legs!"
For just the briefest of moments, time stopped. For that second, I was still happy and still blissfully oblivious to judgment and mockery and pubescent cruelty. I was still me. Simply, Jenny.
Then time started up again and his words hit me. They pierced me, and changed me forever. It was over 30 years ago, three decades have passed, and I can still hear his voice, still smell the chlorine.
I wanted to die. I wanted the tiled floor of the pool to open up under me and swallow me whole.
This wasn't the first time my weight had come up. There was the comment from my little brother a million years ago, as we were looking through some photos of us at the beach, "You have a fat tummy." There was the doctor's appointment with my mom, the diet they put me on that forever ruined my taste for carrots and celery. Like Jennifer spoke of doing in her essay, I was the one sneaking bread topped with butter after school and late at night. My mom was forced to keep the butter in the freezer, and I can still see those tattered slices with chunks of cold butter jutting out... tiny, pale yellow icebergs in a soft white Wonder bread ocean.
But..this was the first time it had been brought up by a peer. By a peer who happened to be a boy.
From that day on, even to this very day, my weight has been an issue. Not a glaring issue, God knows, I've had to deal with so many other things over the span of my lifetime, but an issue nevertheless.
I dieted myself down to a size 4 the year after high school. I had taken a year to save money for college, and during that year I did little else besides work and work out. By the time I started college, I was skinny. There was a particular hallway in the main building on campus... a long, window-lined corridor. The jocks (it was a major hockey school) would perch themselves upon the marble ledge under the panes and as girls walked by they would shout out numbers. Numbers from one to ten.
And just like the words of Alice the Goon still ring in my ears, so do the voices of the sporty boys. "You're an EIGHT!" one called out to me, and for the first time in my young life I felt pretty. I felt wanted. I had to resist an urge to raise my now-thin arms above my head and triumphantly scream to the heavens, "YOU HEAR THAT, WORLD? BABY ELEPHANT LEGS IS AN EIGHT!!"
Those are two of the most vivid memories Jennifer Weiner's essay in Allure magazine forced me to recall. But along with those memories came some soul-wrenching thoughts. I thought about not only what it was like to grow up as a "fat girl", but also about how it's been being the parent to a daughter.
A beautiful, smart as hell, freaking hilarious daughter. Who inherited my weight issues.
I have been blessed with four kids. Four kids who are, for the most part, healthy. They have been my constant companions since the first one showed up 18 and a half years ago, and together, we have been through thick and thin. Literally.
I sometimes question the fairness of life. I have pondered such big things as destiny and fate and plain old dumb luck. I have marveled about the roulette game that baby making is, how mind-blowing it is to think that if just four of my ex-husband's millions of sperm cells had been a mere nanosecond slower or faster I'd have four completely different kids with me today.
I wonder why, out of four children, only one of them received my metabolism. And why it had to be my only girl.
She was my second baby, and from the instant they identified her tiny girly bits on the ultrasound I fretted. Of course, like all expectant moms I worried about the biggies: would she be healthy? Would she have ten fingers and ten toes and would all of her parts be where they were supposed to be? But there were other worries. Worries that made me feel ashamed for even allowing them refuge in my mind: would she be pretty? Would she look like her older brother, he of the curly strawberry blond hair and the thick, sturdy physique? Would she have her dad's beautiful blue eyes or her mother's gray/green ones? Would she be smart, and funny and would she have good friends and a good life? And lastly:
Would she be fat, like I was?
Of course, once she was born almost all of those frets were extinguished: healthy girl, all parts intact and in place. Lovely blue eyes and a wisp of dark hair. I named her Molly and loved her immediately, loved her so deep and so true it was (and still is) sometimes almost overwhelming.
As Molly grew I kept a close eye on her. She was strong, right from the start. Strong in mind, and in body. She was sturdy, like her brother, her stick straight golden brown hair cut in a little Dutch boy bob. She loved wearing her older brother's hand-me-down clothes and wore a backpack stuffed with treasures almost every second of the day. Even as a toddler, she chose her friends carefully and loved those special few with a fierceness that astounded me.
And right from the start, she loved food. Just like her mama. Was it my doing? Did I somehow pass on my penchant for eating my feelings without even knowing it? Or was this something more than that...was it a kink in her DNA, a dimple in an atom? I hate to admit it, but I did screw up sometimes. I offered food as rewards, not often but often enough.
Potty training my daughter took about 3 minutes. When she was about 2 1/2, I told her I'd give her a present if she started using her potty and swear to God, she put on the pink panties I'd purchased for her right then and asked for a Hershey's Cookies and Cream candy bar. She never needed a diaper again. My boys? It took days, weeks..a month in one case. And they all wanted a toy of some sort: a Transformer or a Power Ranger or a Star Wars Lego set. Only Molly asked for a treat.
Was it something else? Was it the way I spoke about myself? "I need to lose some weight." "I look so fat in this!". "Ugh..I hate my arms." Children hear us just as clearly, if not more so, as they see us. How many conversations did she overhear, chats between my friends and I as we clucked about who had gained or lost weight?
Most girls start to lose their little kid softness around 3rd grade. Molly's friends started shooting up, thinning out. Some were string beans, some were already sporting athletic physiques. Molly grew taller, but hung onto that belly, those soft arms and legs. Those sweet round cheeks. By 6th grade, I was buying her jeans at Limited Too in their mini versions of plus size. 12 1/2. 14 1/2. She wasn't obese, but she was bigger than most of the other girls in her grade. I was worried, but vowed to not do what my own mother did and make weight an issue. I offered healthy choices at home, and always reinforced to my daughter how beautiful and smart she was and what a good friend and good sister she was.
When her father left, things went to hell for a while. I was lost in my own grief, and my parenting wasn't stellar. To protect my broken children, I overcompensated: You want to go to a movie? Let's go! You want candy? Here, have some! Pizza for dinner? ABSOLUTELY. Anything to keep you from wanting, my angels. Anything to avoid having you look around and realize that your world is no longer what it once was.
Would things have been different if our lives hadn't been rearranged? Would I have been more attentive to my shaken daughter?
The dust eventually settled and we began rebuilding our family. My blinders came off and I could see that Molly was struggling. She was big. Bigger than her friends, bigger than the other girls her age. Remember I said she chose her friends carefully? Turns out she chose wisely, as well. Her friends were, and are, a fabulous few girls who stood by Molly. The subject of her size never came up. They loved her unconditionally and for that I will be eternally grateful. As far as I know, she was never teased at school. She and I are close, and although I'm not delusional enough to think that she tells me everything, she never voiced fear or self loathing or worry about what other people thought of her.
And then...and then her brother called her fat. I won't say which brother it was, that doesn't matter. It came out during a stupid, typical sibling smackdown. I will never forget her face. I will never forget how she holed herself up in her room. I will never forget hearing her cry.
Another thing I will never forget: the way I took out all of those years of worrying and fearing on my own son. I spoke not only for my own pudgy daughter who was wailing into her pillow behind a closed door, but for Jenny, with the baby elephant legs. My son, who had tears rolling down his own cheeks, became Alice the Goon and the jock on the ledge and every guy who had ever called a girl a cow, a whale, a pig.
Not my best mothering moment, to say the least. But it happened. And when it was over I knew that no matter what I said, nothing would take away what my daughter had felt. Nothing I said would change the world we live in, where women are judged by their looks before their brains or their hearts or their ability to make someone think or laugh. A world where someone like Kevin James is a movie and television star and gets a girl like Leah Remini and someone like Melissa McCarthy is a movie and television star and ends up with someone who looks like...well, Kevin James.
We live in a world where anything over a size 10 is considered plus size and some stores will only sell bigger sized clothing online, as if allowing fat women the luxury of shopping in an actual building is outlandish and horrifying (Old Navy and Target? Nice.). A world where even one of the strongest and smartest women I can think of wrote of how it felt to be fat when she was a size 12 (Tina Fey, I loves you somethin' fierce, woman, but that made me cringe).
I know that's a kind of doom-and-gloom outlook. There are worse things in this world, things that suck more than being fat sucks. And unlike some of those things, fat is something that isn't permanent. It's just hard figuring out how to change yourself without changing who you are. It's hard figuring out if changing yourself is something that you want to do for YOU, or if it's something you want to do for others. Sometimes the only change we need to make is in that space between our ears.
I joined Weight Watchers in July. I didn't do it in hopes of catching a man, or because I was worried about what other people think about me. I did it because I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I was snoring, not cute little chipmunk snores but big old man snores. I did it because I found myself actually wheezing when I walked to the farthest ball field for one of my son's baseball games.
So far? It's working. I have lost 30 pounds, but I am still Jenny. I am still me.
And my daughter? My lovely girl with the skin like porcelain and the wit so sharp she could cut glass? Last summer she started going for walks. She'd take our dog and just walk. She started talking to me about healthy foods and exercise and self esteem. She picked up my dusty kettlebells and fired up the DVD that they came with.
She is tall now. Tall and slim. She is a junior in high school. She has a best friend whom she loves and who loves her right back. She recently approached me about some anxiety she was feeling and we got connected with a wonderful therapist who talks to Molly about how she feels, about her body and her dad and her brothers. She's taking something for the anxiety and so far, it's working.
We talk, every single day. We laugh together and we make meals together and we sometimes just hang out together. I help her with schoolwork and we talk about nothing and everything.
I know that being healthy is something she will need to work on for the rest of her life. Just like she'll always need glasses or contacts, she'll need to keep an eye on her body and treat it well. I know she'll never be one of those girls who can eat like a linebacker and look like a supermodel. I also know that she's strong and smart and has hopefully learned from watching me make my own fumbling attempts to attain self love, and self acceptance.
My sons, including the one who called his sister fat...they are learning along with us. They hear me talking about how much stronger I feel, how much faster and farther I can walk now (and run, holy crap..their mom is starting to run!). They are noticing the healthier foods in the house and how much harder it is to convince mom that McDonald's or Taco Bell is something they need (we still get it, people...just not as often). They've complimented me on my success with Weight Watchers, and one of them actually told Molly the other day: "You are really pretty, Molly."
And what about Alice the Goon? Want to know what happened with him? Thanks to the facebook, we got in touch a few years ago. A bunch of people from my high school got together one night, and he was there. There was no pool this time, no goggles. No bathing suits. I wasn't Baby Elephant Legs, and he wasn't Alice the Goon. We were two people in our forties, with lives and families and some war stories to tell. We hugged. I said, "It's good to see you."
And he said, "You look great."
Somewhere, deep within my soul, the girl with the baby elephant legs smiled.