I'm going to tell you some deep, dark secrets here, and your job is to not do the following:
Do not comment that I'm wrong. Do not tell me what I am or what you think of my body. Just listen, because there's not enough of that going around.
The thing is, I don't like my body and I never have.
I want to, but I don't know how.
The first time I remember hating my body was when I was 7. I took gymnastics and ballet, and that year, both my gymnastics instructor and my ballet instructor pulled me aside and told me that I should consider dropping out of class because I had the wrong body type and was wasting my parents' time and money.
"You're just too fat," the gymnastics teacher said. "You can't even skin the cat."
"You might try Jazz," the ballet teacher said. "The costumes are more forgiving."
I quit both.
When I was 8, we were vacationing with another family, and their daughter was my age and the kind of girl the 1980s told us would always get the guy. Thin, blond, tan, bikini. I was pudgy, introverted, and tomboyish. There was a boy vacationing at the dock, and we hatched plans to meet him. I wore one of my dad's shirts over my bathing suit because even at age 8, I knew that mine was not a body that boys would like. She ended up kissing him while I sat on the roof of the houseboat and cried.
When I was in 10, a boy called me Gorilla Girl and pulled a tuft of hair out of my arm. He went on to mock my unibrow. I went home that night crying. My mom taught me how to shave my legs and pluck my eyebrows. I learned my body hair was ugly and must be destroyed. The boy still made fun of me, but for different reasons.
At 12, I had what I'm pretty sure was my first real bout of depression. I quit all the sports I loved, got dumped by my best friend, and quit caring about myself. I became an insomniac and spent most of my nights awake and watching the Disney channel with my parakeet. When I refused to wash my long hair, my mom had it all cut off. I thought I was getting rad, undercut, skater girl hair. I got the Mary Lou Retton wedge. My clothes weren't cool, I had bad hair, and I was overweight. It was a really, really bad year.
When I was 13, I got my period and started puberty. I was mocked for not wearing a bra, so I went out and bought bras. Then I was mocked for wearing a bra and had the band snapped by whoever was sitting behind me. "Your tits aren't big enough," a boy told me. My period was so bad that I bled through my pants at school and ended up staying home one day a month, sleeping on towels on top of garbage bags. I learned that boys did not like my body, and my body did not like me. I wore baggy clothes and played a lot of Mario and DuckTales.
The summer between middle school and high school, I decided to pull a makeover montage on myself. I put myself on a strict exercise regimen, rode my bike 10 miles every morning, and stuck to a diet of 900 calories per day. If I was watching TV, I had to get up and do sit-ups or pull-ups throughout every commercial break. I let my hair grow out and studied fashion magazines and met a cute boy at the skating rink. He told me I was pretty. Then he told me he was gay.
Remember the blond girl in the bikini when I was 8? She invited me to my first boy-girl party. I was the heaviest girl there, and I had glasses. Every time the bottle landed on me, the boy nudged the bottle and said it was pointing at the girl next to me. I did not get kissed. But I learned most of the words to Ice Ice Baby, so there's that.
15 was better. My summer montage worked, and I was pretty. A boy in my pre-Cal class asked me out using a TI-81 calculator. We dated for nine months. He was my first kiss and various other things. He told me I was beautiful. But I never let him see me without clothes. When he came to the beach with my family, I wore a t-shirt over my one-piece bathing suit. I had confidence that my face was good enough, but my body felt like a dirty, ugly, lumpy secret. If I let someone see it, would they still like me? We broke up after the trip.
When I was 16, I messed around with a friend. I let him peel off my shirt and see my body under a streetlight by a lake. "You are a woman of definite curves," he said as he traced my stomach, and all my brain could recognize was that his girlfriend was thinner and more perfect than me and that I could never be what she was. It did not feel like a compliment.
I was pretty but overweight. I was smart but a nerd. So I overcompensated with snark and humor and cleverness. I became the cool girl. I made fun of girls who were too thin, who were fashionable, who knew what to do with makeup. I made them the enemy because I hated parts of myself. I thought if I was pointing fingers at their bodies, no one would notice mine.
I dated a boy who called me an angel. "I'm not an angel," I said, over and over again. He insisted I was. When I dumped him, he stalked and raped me. For a long time, my body felt like an alien thing, like my head was a balloon tethered to this dangerous, unpredictable landscape. My body had betrayed me. It hadn't fought-- it had lain there, limp, and taken the abuse. I felt empty inside. I wore baggy jeans and flannel shirts and big, stompy boots as armor. I didn't trust skirts anymore. I didn't trust anyone.
I tried to kill myself when I was seventeen. I failed. For a few years after that, I forgot to care so much about my body. There were other things to get depressed about, after all.
One day, after college, I was reading a fashion magazine and had a little epiphany. They were feeding me all this negative bullshit about my body, about how I needed to spend money on pills and makeup and undergarments and clothes and beauty products. They showed me women who were starving to death and used lots of exclamation points to tell me I could look like them if I followed Ten Easy Steps. I took off my clothes and looked in the mirror. It wasn't so horrible, this body. They were making me hate it. Everyone, from the media to my parents to the other kids to my gymnastics teacher, were making me hate myself. I got so mad that I burned the magazine over the sink and bought myself a cake. I thought I had taken back control.
A month later, I was at the store, looking for more slimming pants and new hair products. In the cashier's line, I bought another fashion magazine.
The only time I've ever been happy with my body was when I was pregnant. Of all the parts that I criticize-- the flabby arms, the weird boobs, the jiggly thighs, the unwanted hair-- I hate my stomach the most. At my thinnest, it's still round. I've never seen my abs. But when I was pregnant? Oh, it was deliriously wonderful. I loved my body, loved what it was doing, loved my big, beautiful, glowing, round belly and up-two-cups boobs. I was that girl on the beach, 8 months pregnant and wearing a teeny bikini. I was powerful and strong, and I ate whatever I wanted to because I was creating life, and that's pretty fucking insane. I loved buying maternity clothes. I had photo shoots. I was a living goddess who didn't look at a scale or think the word 'diet'.
Having children changed my body. The moment the kids are out, all that glowy goddessness... deflates. There are new wrinkles, new stretch marks. Your hair starts to fall out. Your skin stops glowing. Nothing goes back to where it was before. It's as out-of-control as a bad game of Tetris. You develop a sleep deficit the likes of which even god has never seen. When you wake up to humanity a year later, you look ten years older. They don't tell you that in What to Expect.
I'm 37 now, and let it be known: This is THE YEAR YOUR AGE STARTS TO SHOW HARDCORE. I never had to put in the work with my face before, and now I do. Without makeup and concealer, I look like a slack-skinned zombie. Without my hair styled, I look like a hobo. If I spend a week eating whatever I want, my skinny jeans don't fit. Hell, if I forget to put on mascara before a public event, I get to see myself tagged all over social media looking like Gollum. I used to laugh at the idea of crows feet, but that's because I didn't have them. Maintaining beauty feels like running the wrong way up an escalator. But the models only get thinner, and the ads only get more perniciously doctored, and now women my age are played by the same 25-year-old actresses playing high school kids on Glee.
When I look at my body now, I despise it. For not being thinner and effortlessly lovely. When I see someone post that meme about stretch marks being tiger stripes, I want to claw their face off. I guess I always had this weird assumption that as I got older, I would grow thin and angular and have some sort of wise gravitas, but I persist in being a goofy, curvy weirdo.
There was a post this week about body types through the ages (watch it here), and it made me feel... furious. Because I look at these women and think... really? That's what they thought was beautiful? All the movies and TV shows tell me that the ideal woman has always been 105 pounds with big boobs and curvy hips and plush lips. And she has to do Crossfit and yoga and be a great cook and love craft beer and have a thigh gap that she never mentions. To be quite frank, the thought that if I'd just lived in a different time, my body might be not only acceptable but desirable? Is maddening. Because in all the real and made-up worlds and all the time frames of our current media, no one ever shows us a woman worthy of love and desire who's over 120 pounds.
That's the most maddening thing, really-- that I don't feel like I ever had a chance. There was no point in time (outside of those two, glorious pregnancies) that I felt good about the body in which I was doomed to spend my entire life. No time that I felt empowered to love it. No matter how many (still Photoshopped) ads Dove shows me, urging me to embrace my curves, I just see another company manipulating me in a new way to sell more products to make me feel beautiful when I don't.
At the height of my power as a woman and a human being and an author, I am terrified that someone will discover that under my intelligence and humor and beautiful hair, I am flawed and ugly and have somehow managed to successfully hide it, all these years. I don't leave the hotel room without makeup. I dress to look as small as I can, to hide my stomach and that weird place at the top of my arms. I put filters on my selfies to hide the wrinkles around my eyes.
No matter how many times anyone, even my husband, tells me I'm beautiful or that I look pretty, my brain alters it to, "My face is beautiful. Everything else, not so much. But they didn't notice. I'm safe."
You know how women are often threatened with having nude pics end up online? I've never been scared of that. First of all, because no one has ever taken nude pics of me. Secondly, because it would almost be a relief. Once everyone saw what I looked like, maybe I could wear baggier clothes or not adjust my shirt every time I sat down to hide my tummy rolls. I'd just be all, "Welp, the jig is up. I weigh 140 pounds and always have and FUCK THIS NOISE." And I'd put on a shapeless shirt and pajama pants and eat some cake and not be pretty for a while.
If you're a woman who struggles with her weight and is reading this, chances are you're thinking the same thing I think when my husband holds up his shirt and says, "Two months of pizza and hamburgers and my six pack is still a four pack." And what I'm thinking then is FUCK YOU TO HELL, SKINNY. YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW WHAT THIS IS LIKE, HOW MUCH I THINK ABOUT FOOD AND DENY MYSELF PLEASURE JUST TO HOLD ON TO WHAT I HAVE.
And I don't know what anything else is like. I just know that I'm a size eight and hate my body and always have, and if that's not being trapped in your own personal hell, I don't know what is. Because there's this weird pressure--like, once you've been called pretty, you owe it to the world to continue providing that prettiness. Like there's a Pretty Police that's going to catch you and kick you out of the club, and people will stop treating you like a person. I am terrified of getting old, because what will life be like when I'm not pretty, when my thyroid disease really starts kicking my ass and nothing can keep me from going up a jeans size? What am I going to be worth when I don't fit the paradigm, when I stop trying so hard to fit it and let the Mr. Goodbars into my house and throw the scale in the trash?
I don't know if it's going to feel horrible or like I've finally escaped jail.
The reason I'm telling you all this is because my 8yo daughter pinched her belly today and said, "I think I'm getting pudgy," and I was horrified. Because I have never, ever let her into this private closet of body hatred hell. I stand naked and proud in front of her, tell her it's nobody's business if I don't shave my legs in winter, and never, ever comment on her body.
"Why do you think that?" I asked.
She shrugged. "I don't know. Because I can pinch my belly."
"That's your skin," I said. "Your belly is covered with skin." I pulled up my shirt and pinched my belly. "Everybody's belly sticks out."
My 6yo son saw my belly, ran into the room, and put his cheek against it. "I love your soft, squishy belly so much," he said. "It's my favorite part of you, because it's so soft and good to hug."
And it's like something broke in me. Like, I've hated this stomach all my life, and having these two amazing children just made it uglier to me, but he loves it. He thinks it's beautiful. Maybe he'll grow up loving women with round, pudgy bellies. Maybe he'll meet a girl who loves her belly and her body and doesn't suck it in or wear too-tight pants, a woman who owns her sexuality and doesn't let anyone tell her to quit dancing. Maybe he'll change the world because when he was little, I let him hug my belly and didn't tell him how ugly I think it is. Maybe when he tells a woman she's beautiful, she'll just smile and say, "I know."
I don't know how to change this paradigm. I can't tell anyone else how to start loving their bodies because I don't love mine. I don't know how. But, God, I want to. I wish every meal didn't feel like a mine field, like getting dressed wasn't the equivalent of donning camouflage. I wish I could look in the mirror and say, "I look awesome," and not, "My face and butt look great, but the rest...ugh." I wish I could put on a bathing suit and not worry about every little ounce of fat and every stray hair and just think about having fun.
But, again, I don't know how.
Still, there's hope. I'm a late bloomer. I didn't write a book until I was 32. I didn't know how to roast a chicken until I was 36. And I didn't learn how to keep a clean house until this year. If there's a great how-to book or a show like What Not To Wear called How Not to Hate, please let me know.
I tell you all this not because I want pity or compliments or rage. Please, please don't offer those things, because they don't help anyone. I tell you this for the same reason that I told you about my depression, about my suicide attempt, about being raped, about losing my shit during a miscarriage. I tell you this because we're not allowed to talk about it and I think we need to talk about it. I tell you this because I want you to know that if you feel the same way, you are not alone and it is not your fault. This is a thing that is done to us, that is insidious and bone deep and subtly reinforced in every single facet of our lives from the ads in the Facebook sidebar to the clickbait links about Eat This One Fruit and Never Diet Again.
I tell you this because I see things on tumblr that say YOU'RE BEAUTIFUL JUST THE WAY YOU ARE, and I hit reblog thinking, "I don't believe it, but maybe you can." Because at some point, we have to figure out a way to buck the system, to reject the idea that anyone gets to tell us what beauty is. That anyone gets to imply that we're not good enough without expensive eye cream, or that we don't know we're beautiful unless they tell us. We've got to get over this idea that beauty matters so fucking much.
They got to me, when I was a kid. I don't know how to break free.
Beauty is a complicated thing. Like pornography, we can barely describe it, but we know it when we see it. It's in the eye of the beholder. It's not skin deep. It's biological, a function of symmetry and the ability to produce healthy offspring. It's in our power. It's out of our hands. But we're drawn to it, always. When a writer writes an unbeautiful character, it's always for a reason. Sometimes, there's an Ugly Duckling moment, a makeover that turns them from zero to hero. Sometimes, it's part of the character arc or represents a hidden flaw of character that will be revealed later on. Sometimes, it's because it's an easy way to make the character seem relatable. But a character's level of attractiveness is always mentioned, whether obviously or subtly. We need to know how to categorize these people, after all. We need to know who to love.
In the book I revised this week, WAKE OF VULTURES, the main character bucks the binary in a lot of ways. She's raised as a slave and told she's nothing, ugly and flawed. But there are few mirrors, and she meets few people other than her keepers, so once she's out in the world, she has to redefine beauty on her own terms. What is pretty? What is handsome? What is it that makes some people good and others monsters? In the first draft, I didn't describe her physicality much--I didn't think it mattered. But my editor requested a description. And I struggled with it. How would you describe yourself, looking in the mirror for the first time, when you'd been told all your life that you were ugly and worthless?
Writing a character who thinks herself hideous yet still has pride and inner strength made me think about the ways I hate on my body, the unkind thoughts I think about myself. Like Nettie, I don't like my body... but if anyone else complains, I'll get riled up like a damn honey badger. Like Nettie, I feel like my worth is based on what I can accomplish and how I treat people, which means that I feel pretty good about myself most of the time. But, like Nettie, when I'm standing directly in front of a mirror and unable to look away, I frown and start categorizing flaws. Like Nettie, most of the things I count as flaws are things that are never going to change. Things that shouldn't *have* to change.
I was on a panel at a con once, sitting next to a very famous author. During the Q&A session, a young woman stood and asked a question about strategies for writing a character who is very different from you. The famous author pointed at the girl and shook her head.
"You're too pretty. You'll never be able to write someone who's suffering because you don't know what that's like. You've never been ugly."
Rage flared up inside me, and I opened my mouth to protest, but this girl needed no white knight.
"I recently lost 150 pounds," she said, "So I assure you that, yes, I *do* know what that's like."
The room went silent, and then everyone broke out in applause.
And everyone else on the panel tried to give that girl an honest answer to her question that might actually help her become a better writer instead of making her feel bad about how her physicality reflected who she was inside.
We need more diversity in our literature, and that requires more empathy. That requires us to ask exactly the same question that young girl asked. How do we write The Other? How do we build worlds filled with people who look or think differently than we do? Every hero can't be a physically attractive white person fated for glory, and we need to stop expecting that to be the default. I know this. And yet... I was once told to submit a new proposal because my proposed heroine had dark skin,and that wasn't what my readers could relate to. I've had two covers start out whitewashed and have to be done over. The industry says it supports diversity, that it wants diversity, but I don't think it knows what to do with it.
And even when you buck the default, it's hard to write an ugly character. It's almost impossible, in traditional publishing, to write a fat person who finds love and success. No matter what we think we know, we want to write beautiful people that everyone will love. Because we all want to be beautiful people that everyone loves.
The thing is, looking at someone, you have no idea what struggle they're going through or what they've experienced. You don't know which thin girl is sad, which fat girl thinks she's fucking awesome, which person is wrestling a devil or kicking ass in ways they never dreamed of. You don't know who fights depression or social anxiety, who has cuts all up their thighs, or who is going home to another inescapable black eye. Everyone is fighting a fight you can't see, and most of us are hiding it behind a smile.
The only way I know how to escape these feelings is to get the hell away from the mirror. I may never look at my body and feel pure love and appreciation for what I see there, but I can take a flying trapeze class or swim with sharks or paint or ride my horse and forget, for a while, that what my body looks like matters at all. Those are the moments that my heart is happy and my well is refilled--when I forget that I'm a soul in a weird, lumpy, breakable body. When I simply am. That's one reason I love writing: I forget that I'm anything else.
So where do we go from here?
I'm not going to impel you to go write down five things you love about your cellulite or tell you to make love with the lights on or eat a steak. I'm just going to remind you that the prettiest person you've ever met has probably considered suicide and the thinnest person you know still has one patch of fat that she can't eradicate. If you can love your body, honestly love it, then you're already ahead of the pack. No matter how you feel about it, just remember to treat it well. It's imperfect, but it's the only one you get. Good food, deep sleep, and lots of hugs feel good no matter what you look like. Find the thing that makes you forget what makes you sad and do that thing regularly. Be kind to others. Be kind to yourself.
As for me, I'm going to bake brownies and snuggle my kids, because they think I'm perfect, big squashy belly and all. One day, I hope I can learn how to believe them.