This post was inspired by the lovely and moving essay by Ashley Judd a few weeks ago. If you haven’t read it, you should. Go ahead, my post will still be here when you get back. It took me a while to find the courage and the attention to devote to writing about my puffy face moment (one of them anyway) and my experience with The Conversation.
I must have been 12, maybe 13. My parents had been divorced for several years at that point and my step-mother had firmly taken root. She seemed nice and caring at first, but her true personality quickly shone through as time rubbed the cloying dust of newness from our relationship. Her anxiety manifested itself in rage that was usually directed at her own children, but was at times more subtly directed at my sister and I.
She and my father were a tag team of narcissism fueled by their own caustic, unrelenting insecurities. With no interest in actually making their childrens’ lives better than their own, they projected those insecurities onto us on a regular basis. One of my father’s favorite ‘concerns’ was about my weight. I was not a rotund child by any means. I ate a mostly healthy and diverse diet, didn’t gorge on candy and sugar that often, and spent an ample amount of time outdoors. Yet, he spared no opportunity to express concern about the shape and size of my body (a body that my step-mother would later point out, in stroke of insight she was disgustingly proud of, was much the same shape and ‘size’ as his).
For the most part, the comments and ‘concerns’ rolled off of me. Or at least I thought so at the time. I didn’t devote much energy at first to fretting about what my body looked like and I was blessed with a mother who, although skinny by nature, had no shame about her own body and never criticized mine. While every other weekend I was stuck under a microscope, when I was home with my mother I didn’t have to worry or think about it.
That summer day in my 12th or 13th year, my dad and step-mother were having a gathering. Several of their friends were on the back deck around the in-ground pool. The grill was going and the alcohol was flowing, standard fare. I had just put my swimsuit on and was walking through the livingroom when Bunky, the cheerful wife of one of my father’s friends, came towards me.
“Oh Eva,” she said, referring to my step-mother, “she’s not chubby, she has a nice shape.” She put a gentle hand on my suddenly-very-exposed hip and smiled at me. I looked away, nervously checking the towel that was draped over my opposite arm.
When I looked up, a couple other women who were in the room at the time had encircled me with detached curiosity. They looked uncomfortably at me for a few seconds, my step-mother speechless and slightly embarrassed. I don’t remember the conversation that followed and soon the band of women awkwardly dispersed. What stands out to this day was a knowing that my step-mother and father not only criticized me directly about my weight, they had taken to talking about me to other people. And one of those other people thought my step-mother was full of shit and was brave enough to say so, out loud, in front of me and other people. I was simultaneously horrified at The Conversation that was happening behind my back, yet quietly smug that Bunky had spoken up and said the truth.
The Truth is that I have curves, I always have. I had my first training bra in the second grade. And I needed it. Big boned, curvy, solid, stocky – whatever you insist on calling the shape of my body, the point is that it has always been a variation of normal. Everyone’s body is a variation of normal. Although my weight has fluctuated with normal life changes like going to college, having a baby, having another, it has remained fairly static regardless of what I eat (mostly healthy) and how much I exercise (not much, like, ever). I actually remember being surprised that no one made fun of me for being fat in school because my father had been so successful at convincing me I was. I was not. I’m not fat now and was not fat when I was 10 lbs skinnier (my high school weight).
And The REAL Truth is, it doesn’t matter.
The Conversation should have been about how creative and talented I was. The Conversation should have been about how smart and gifted I was in math. I should have been asked what I loved and encouraged to pursue my passions. Instead, I was always being told what I ‘should’ do with my intelligence. Instead of admiring the art work I was creating, I was being told that I ‘wouldn’t be so chubby’ if I just got outside more. I was always being told I could do or be better, but I see now that the path to perfection is a mirage. There is no perfect other than just as I am. There never was.
My heart breaks for that girl, the one encircled, her pubescent body scanned for imperfections, deemed beautiful by a stranger who knew the love and tenderness that her father and step-mother did not. I’m sad that she has carried, all these years, the idea that she was anything less than perfect just as she is. My chest feels empty and hollow when I think of all the time she has spent feeling not good enough because her body and heart didn’t fit someone else’s ideals.
And I am even sad for them, the father and step-mother. They spend so much time, still today, searching for the imperfections in everything, in everyone. They are so paralyzed by their own fears of not being enough. They can’t see daughters, grown and strong. Daughters who have become mothers, who have raised amazing, tender hearted children of their own. Daughters whose gifts are rich and varied. Daughters whose hearts wish to know love without condition. Instead they push these things aside, looking for proofs of imperfection, blind to the exquisite beauty before them. Oh, what they are missing.