It was some sort of Greek Life sanctioned spring event, a Spring Fling or Daffodil Days or Fun in the Sun, and my sorority was in a tug-of-war tournament and there was no way for me to get out of it. And at no point in my life prior to this tug-of-war had the rules of the game ever been detailed to me beyond the basic (long rope, pull, fall, win), but it suddenly became clear that before the tug, there was to be a weigh-in. Apparently teams were by the pound, not by the body count, so all participants needed to step on a scale set in the middle of the quad. When I was my turn I stepped on and rolled my eyes at my friends, like Oh my GOD, you GUYS! I can’t believe we have to GET WEIGHED, like, I feel SOO fat! And “Son of a Preacher Man was blasting over the loudspeaker and girls were dancing in sorority t-shirts and Jack Purcell sneakers and I watched the dial spin on the scale as I stepped on. Unbeknownst to me, this bitch named Jessica stepped behind me and put her foot on the scale too, and I saw 150 go by, then 160, then 170…and I was HORRIFIED, because HELLO THERE WERE FRATERNITY GUYS NEARBY and what if they saw? WHAT IF THEY KNEW HOW MUCH I WEIGHED? And what if they thought it was 170 pounds?? The bitch behind me stepped off the scale laughing and the numbers dipped back to an acceptable “decade” and eventually settled just slightly higher than what I weigh today. But I stepped off the scale shaking, angry, and worse, terrified. And so began my obsession with weight.
Of course the beginning wasn’t quite as clearly marked as that, and of course my high school years had their share of body image demons, but there is something about being 20 and thin and healthy and then feeling your chest constrict in fear, fear that you might weigh too much, not knowing what too much was, but knowing that you did not, you really, really did not want to weigh Too Much. And I was an athlete at that point, still fit enough to call myself an ‘athlete’ without smirking, at least. But still, the fear, the horror, the panic of WHAT IF SOMEONE THOUGHT I WEIGHED TOO MUCH? came over me. And moved in, camping out permanently somewhere between my psyche and my ass.
My weight has gone up and has gone down and has gone up and has gone down since then, and the invisible marker that has always stood at the Now You Are Fat point has been passed twice on the way up, twice on the way down, and for the past few years I have maintained a consistent weight that is juuuussssst this side of Where I Really Want To Be (meaning, Oh, to be seven pounds lighter…). But my weight, my size, have not come easy, and it is not diet nor exercise to which I refer, not the portion control or treadmill that has been my adversary. I keep my monsters closer to me, deep, deep inside, and if I had a dollar for every time I have squeezed my eyes shut and wished, wished so hard to have the perfect body, for every time I have stood in the shower and run my hands over my belly and willed it flatter, for every pair of pants that made me want to cry as I tried to pull them up just a little higher and I will be able to button them, a dollar for every time I have stared at smooth legs and jutting hip bones and small waists and chests with bony ladders of ribs going 1-2-3-4-5 down to their navel and wanted it, wanted it so badly…well, I would have enough dollars to fly us all to my private island where the sheets are all Egyptian cotton and backfat is worshipped as a sign of intelligence and splendor.
It’s a disease, really it is, an insidious black bug that gets in your brain and feeds on your confidence and your pride and your memories of being 15, healthy and carefree, and it wrecks you. And it is always there. The envy I feel for those with narrow waists and slim legs, the shame of my own pasty thighs, the want – the paralyzing, nauseating, consuming WANT to be thinner…I carry it with me, everywhere I go, every second and minute and hour of my day, it is a deep, dark bruise, a wound, a scar that aches and dares me to press on it and feel that little rock inside, the small, hard place where my greenest, ugliest jealousy curls up with my rawest insecurity and breeds black, black thoughts.
On Friday I walked to the subway behind a group of three girls. They were 11 or 12, on their way to school, one had a flute case with her and one had capri pants and feet that were too big for her gangly body. And as I walked I stared at their bodies. I stared at their skinny adolescent hips and their legs – their legs that had never been shaved, that were thin and taunt and brown, legs that were smooth and thin and that ended in pink sneakers and clumsy young feet. And I wanted them. I wanted spindly young legs that had never known cellulite and hips that had never known the scorn of a bitchy sales associate. I knew it was wrong, but I stared at those girls, none of them a day over 12, and I wanted their bodies, and when one of them dropped her keys and bent over I counted the vertebrae on her skinny back and with shame realized I wanted that too. And if you think that is shameful, let me tell you that there is no humiliation quite like bending over a toilet, sticking a toothbrush down your throat repeatedly in hopes of getting every last bit of food out of your stomach. Your eyes are watering and your nose is dripping and there is snot and vomit on your hand and it doesn’t matter because you want to be empty, you want to feel EMPTY, you want the food out and you want to feel the virtue of an empty belly again. Every bite is bad, is wrong and you are jealous of the girls who can will themselves to not eat, you can’t do that, but you can do the next best thing and in a humiliating, shameful, painful game of catch-up, you plan your meals around times and places to void your belly. You try to remember the first thing you ate and you keep jabbing that toothbrush or pen or finger down your throat until you see something that might be your first bite, and then you start to relax and you blow your nose and you wipe your eyes and brush your teeth and promise to never, ever do it again. You rejoin your husband or friends or table. And you look at the people around you who chew and swallow without hesitation, who are not afraid of their food, and you feel envy that makes your eyes ache.
In the same way that you sometimes look at other people and wonder, Did they have sex today, Do they ever get diarrhea or gas, How much money do they make, I look at women and wonder, What does it feel like? What does it feel like to have skinny legs whose thighs never touch, to have to ask for a smaller size, to have the bitch salespeople look at you with ADMIRATION because you have done it, you have triumphed, you have proved your worth and value by the size of your jeans and I wear a size 29 and that is too fucking big, I am a size six and it is not small enough, I am tall and skinny but not skinny enough and I look at other women and wonder, What does it feel like. If they are bigger than me I wonder how they can be happy, I want to know how to be happy with my shape, how to let go of my ugly green monster once and for all. If they are thin I barely notice whether or not they look happy, I just look at the twin X’s of their pelvic bones strung with denim and I covet their physique.
It is an obsession born early, nurtured in its dormant state for years, and without warning, it roars. It suddenly gnaws at you, and you stare at hips and bellies and shoulders and ankles and you think, five more pounds, five more pounds, just five more pounds.
I plan on turning 30 healthy, though. I am familiar enough with my wicked little demon to find comfort in it, almost, like a fading bruise, and those pangs of jealousy sting me in much more lucid ways these days, front and center instead of deep inside. I can feel them coming and breathe through it and look around my house, my life and see all that I have that is good and know that who I am is more than a series of measurements. I can deal with the waves of envy and obsession like birthing pains, like cramps, and come out the other side stronger and more focused, and that is why tonight I pulled on my running shoes and took my size-six-sometimes-an-eight-with-belly-roll-and-back-fat-but-it’s-okay-body out for a run and tried to concentrate on putting one leg in front of the other and feeling lungs and muscles and breath instead of shame and envy. I ran along the Promenade which was full of mothers and lovers and sisters and brothers, dogs and strollers and homeless men and beautiful women and tourists and cigar smoke and babies with ice cream dripping down their faces, and the city was pink in the sunset and in that moment I forgot the jiggle in my ass and instead looked at the brownstones and high-rises and felt myself getting sucked into a whole other vortex of Want, which is the beauty of New York as well as its worst trait, that you are constantly rubbing shoulders with someone who is thinner, more beautiful, richer, living in a better home, attended a better school, walking a more well-behaved dog, sitting at a better table, better, better, best, within a few square miles. My little green monster has ample fodder to feed on here. But I feel that wisdom and serenity hovering on the other side of the door, and I do not want my friends to say, Yes, Molly is so thin, Molly has the flattest stomach; I want them to say I am smart and kind and funny and compassionate and not begrudge me a messy apartment or a t-shirt that clings to the backfat. My friends are good, good people who never would, but I am learning to realign my own priorities, or to look at them honestly, at least. To be beautiful is special but to be loved is essential.
If I have children it will be in my thirties, and if I have a daughter I do not want her to regret her hips for an instant of her life. I would not wish this on anyone, and envy is dangerous. I think it is easy to lose sight of what was originally coveted and instead become obsessed with the desire. I remember girls in college who would sit in the cafeteria slowly eating a bowl of milk with a banana, their ritual act of eating, and they were sick, these poor girls, sick with a disease and they were lonely and unhappy and sad and I think that they probably started innocently, eyeing someone else’s smooth, thin body with jealousy and eventually losing themselves in the obsession, the disease.
It’s exhausting, I tell you.
And for me it is my body and for you it may be a better job or a better house or the perfect shoes or a sports team or a band or a fetish or a woman or a man, but don’t we all have something that burrows deep and keeps us awake at night? Don’t we all have an ugly green side, breathing hoarsely in our ear in certain quiet moments? It’s slippery and malleable and cool and smooth, but there is something, in all of us, that catches in our throats and makes us want and want and want. How we feed it or starve it or nurture it or kill it epic. I’m just relieved to have identified it.