I discovered that I could make a butt with my stomach when I was in the third grade, catapulting my belly up the list of favorite body parts, right up there with my armpits and any area that could generate a fart sound.
“Mom, check it out! A BUTT!” I would say, squeezing together the fat around my belly button and dancing a little, sometimes a shoulder shimmy, sometimes a rolling motion like a sexy extra in the director’s cut of Aladdin. My younger sister would try to mimic me, but she took after my mother’s side, small-framed, skinny women whose very bones seemed like they might be hollow, like the sun-bleached ones found in the sand on the shore. My sister had her own unique talent: she could suck in her stomach to look like a human skeleton, pronouncing her ribs like a Save the Children PSA, usually accompanied by a low moan. This came in handy when we needed to illustrate that we were in desperate need of a dollar for the ice cream man. Her trick was utilitarian, but mine was sort of for the greater good: if my mom was chain-smoking over a pile of bills or bleaching the bathtub in a silent rage, I could just lift up my shirt, make a butt, and if I was lucky, she would forget about being angry for a second.
From the front seat of the bus, I could see myself in the rearview mirror on the way to junior high. Eighth graders filed in and went directly to the back where they threw pencils out the window and used words like “fingerbang” and “whack.” There was a hierarchy among the seventh graders that was based on development, socioeconomic status, and the bagginess of your jeans. Two things I had going for me were that I didn’t have braces or acne. On the other hand, I had glasses, frizzy hair down to my butt, and otherwise looked like the lost Duggar child they keep in a shed. The jeans I had were skintight and Sears’ store brand, Canyon River Blues, which conjures images of men whitewater rafting on one of those retreats where you go into the woods with a bunch of other guys, beat a drum, and scream your father’s name. Nothing about Canyon River Blues says going to school and being seen as a cool, worthwhile human being, but then again, when does anyone care if you are a good person in the seventh grade anyway?
In the seventh grade, I shot up five inches, gained twenty pounds, and outgrew my jeans. They were too tight to move in, and the best part of the day was walking in the door after school and unbuttoning the fly so that I could breathe. This was the 90s, before jeans had any give, and Canyon River Blues were made out of the stiff burlap that might be present on a hay bale during a barn raising; certainly nothing you’d want to have on your skin.
“Can you put your gut away?” my mother asked while I was sitting on the couch watching Ricki Lake and finishing my my homework.
Comments like these fed the new voice in my head that told me I was not only a financial burden for needing bigger clothes, but I was also disgusting. It’s probably common sense to most people, but nobody explained to me that physically growing was a normal part of life and nothing to be ashamed of. I felt deeply embarrassed and my too-small clothes made me feel that just by virtue of staying alive, I was doing something wrong. I didn’t look like the lip-glossed girls on the cover of Seventeen and Sassy in their carefully ripped denim. I didn’t look like Alicia Silverstone getting her belly button pierced by some creep in the video for Cryin’. And I certainly didn’t look like the girls in the back of the bus who wore white eyeliner and said things like, “What are you looking at, dyke?”
Every magazine that came to our house offered advice to transform yourself into somebody you weren’t. Redbook offered crash diets my mom went on, and occasionally I would come home to find the refrigerator full of grapefruit or red meat. One article in Prevention talked about the importance of visible cheekbones and abs in being attractive. I remember making a conscious effort to suck in my cheeks and stomach when I saw the boy I liked in school. One day I caught a glimpse of myself doing this in the rearview mirror of the bus. I looked like I was imploding, which is neither sexy, nor carefree. And I actually was imploding in a way, without a sound, hoping to disappear.
The first time I can recall being aware of my body, I was probably eight or nine. I stood up after a long Saturday afternoon of American Gladiators and barbecue potato chips.
“Just look at your stomach,” my mom said. “It’s protruding.”
I didn’t know what protruding meant. I assumed it was a compliment, like I was buff and ripped like Nitro or Laser. But when I looked it up in the dictionary I won in school for being a good speller, I felt betrayed. My own mom was saying I was fat, the very person responsible for my health and emotional well-being. Insults became a regular occurrence as I got older, spiking in moments of anxiety and special occasions. If her jeans didn’t fit right, my mother told me I needed to go on a diet. If a relative was getting married in the distant future, she wrote down everything I ate and worked out until she could buy clothes in the kid’s section. I felt less like an individual and more like an extension of my mother’s body, as if my existence fluctuated with my mother’s weight and whatever her current feelings were toward herself.
My mother described herself in high school as the “fat friend,” and though she had thrown out every photo of herself between the ages of 12 and 25, she backed up this claim with a single picture she took of her friends: behind them, two long, skinny shadows next to a slightly wider one holding a camera. She mentioned losing this weight when her first boyfriend cheated on her. His name was Guy, and in my imagination, he looked like the smooth-talking but occasionally skuzzy Ian Ziering character on Beverly Hills, 90210. There weren’t any fat people on TV in the 90s except for Roseanne and Carnie Wilson, so in my mind, I frankensteined my mother’s face onto their bodies. During the good times, my mom and Guy would sit on the beach of my imagination singing like in the video for “Hold On,” and when things were bad, they screamed at each other behind the counter of the Lanford Lunchbox.
My mother is a small woman. It would have been hard for me to believe that she had ever been overweight, if not for her constant uphill battle against becoming fat again.
“Seventy-five pounds I gained with you,” she would say, pointing at the one Polaroid of her holding me after I came into this world. “I thought it would never come off, but can you believe that? Seventy-five pounds.”
In the astonishing seventy-five pound weight gain picture, my mother looks normal. She isn’t wearing any mascara and she is clearly tired, but she is an average woman holding a baby in a stucco early 80s livingroom. There is one thing that does stand out in this photo, though. From the look of disgust on her face, my mother might have been holding a dead carp. Instead, she is holding me on the second day of my life. I grew up with the overwhelming feeling that I was to blame for something and wracked my brains and body trying to figure out what it was. The answer was in this photo all along: seventy-five pounds I couldn’t control.
I worked at a doctor’s office in the west village a few years ago. It was upscale, but people mostly came in for pills. Xanax. Adderal. Klonopin. One guy came in for acupuncture and liked to talk about art. He was a middle-aged photographer holding onto a rent-controlled lease in Union Square. His wife had some important breadwinning job, and he took freelance photos for magazines. Tattooed women. Tasteful nudes. He offered to take pictures of me, and I felt like I didn’t have anything to lose. I had just turned thirty and realized that I wasted the entirety of my twenties hating myself. I fretted over the bump in the bridge of my nose. the stretch marks on my butt, the size of my teeth. I stopped wearing shorts because I was afraid that my thighs shook too much when I walked. I got Brazilian waxes for boyfriends who didn’t even shower, one of which had hemorrhoids so bad it looked like a family of pink salamanders was living in his butt. I hated myself like it was my second job and I was going for employee of the month. Living this way is exhausting, and if I could somehow find the strength to be comfortable enough to let some perv take pictures of my beav, then I had made it through The Gauntlet in the private American Gladiators of my self-loathing.
His apartment was huge but cluttered, a mishmash of patterns and eastern-cultural art objects that you see in rich white people apartments where it looks like somebody got a ten-thousand dollar gift certificate to Pier 1 and blew it in one day. We took pictures in the bathroom and kitchen, then on the roof in rollerskates. At the end of the shoot, his sixteen year old daughter came home and was completely unfazed. Just a typical day with cool New York parents, I guess.
I was kind of worried that when the pictures came back, I would look as uncomfortable as I felt being directed to move and contort so that my stomach would be flatter, or that I might be making a dumb face from staring too hard at a school photo of his daughter in the hallway. What I did not expect was to be airbrushed into a skeleton with hair.
“I look like a ghoul here,” I said to the doctor I worked for as we scrolled through the photos. It was insulting to see what this stranger with bad taste in living room furniture thought it took to make me attractive. I finally had visible cheekbones, but my arms and legs were rain thin. I looked like one of the aliens that probe Christopher Walken in the movie Communion.
“Well, you’re like Art Hot here,” the doctor said.
“Yeah, but I don’t look like myself. I am actually missing a piece of my arm in this photo,” I said, pointing out the accidental photoshop amputation.
“Yeah,” said my seventy-year old boss, “but it’s hot.”
I rolled away from him in my office chair. “It’s actually not hot. I’m fine the way I am,” I said.
And for the first time in my life, I actually believed it. It took seeing all the things a stranger would take away from me to realize that I wanted them back because I had earned them. The chickenpox scar between my eyes. The bones that stick out of my feet from years of standing in Converse at menial jobs. The stomach that made my mom laugh once or twice when I was kid. This picture removed all of my stories, the things that I am proud of. I am fine the way I am, and I worked hard to be here.