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Body Narrative

1/6/19

Body Narrative

F-A-T

I write the word in 12-inch letters on the dry erase board in a class of 30 psychology majors at the local university. The silence is complete. I am a guest speaker. I’ve been introduced to them as a cultural anthropologist with a specialization in psycho-cultural studies, but nothing else.

“What is the first word that comes to mind when you see that word spelled out here?” I ask, looking out at a seeming sea of deliberately blank faces. They are male and female, mostly white and Latino, with a tiny scattering of African-American and Filipino.

Some of them are F-A-T.

So am I.

And that is why they can’t respond. Some are caught between the truth and what they dare not say in front of this teacher-speaker-so-called-expert who is white, middle aged, and weighs 300 pounds. Some are locked into their own pillories of shame about their own bodies and are feeling both vulnerable and targeted.

“I’ll start,” I say. I write the word P-I-G next to the word fat. “If you live in this society, certain things come to mind when you see the word ‘fat.’ Those associations are bred into you. So let’s hear them. Anyone. You don’t have to raise your hand.”

“Obese,” someone says from the back of the room.

“Unhealthy,” someone else volunteers.

“Gross.”

And that opens the floodgates. “Dumb.” “Ugly.” “Sad.” “Unhappy.” “Depressed.” “Unemployable.” “Smelly.” “No Self-Esteem.” “Lazy.” “Miserable.” “Suicidal.” And then, “Addicted.” And “Shame.”

Ah, yes.

I will talk to them, these youngsters, roughly 18 to 30 years of age, about evolving standards of beauty, and how the average size of a Miss America contestant has consistently lengthened and slimmed while the average size of the American woman has increased substantially over the same period. I’ll talk about the history of eating disorders in this country and its correlation with two major waves of the feminist movement in the 20th century. I’ll talk to them about the rise of convenience foods and standardized clothing sizes. I’ll talk to them about capitalism and a self-sustaining industry devoted to diet, health and exercise that reaps a rich reward from women who, twenty years ago, spent on average $16,000 a minute on supplements, diet programs, classes, and equipment in hopes of attaining the unattainable. God knows what the cost is today.

I’ll talk to them about my doctoral research, undertaken when I myself was maybe 30 pounds overweight—about women I interviewed and observed in a recovery facility who had never been more than 10 pounds overweight in their lives, but whose body obsession had compromised their ability to maintain jobs, relationships, and even a modicum of sanity. We will talk about the work of Foucault, and how you don’t have to imprison people if you can chain their minds by framing their world view such that they are convinced of their own inferiority. We will talk about the rich dividends earned by those savvy enough to know how to take advantage of their pain.

We will not talk about the fact that I weigh 300 pounds.

 

Mirror, Mirror

I stand in front of the mirror.

I didn’t know until recently—or didn’t remember—that the formal word for the bone that runs on either side of my sternum, or breast bone, is the clavicle. I’ve always just called it the collarbone. I didn’t realize that the rib cage doesn’t start AT my breasts, but actually extends all the way up to just below the clavicle. This, in part, is because I never studied anatomy. It’s also because, until recently, I had never seen those bones on my own torso.

Now, standing in front of the mirror, they are the first thing I see. They protrude from the smooth, pale flesh of my upper chest, impossible to miss. There is no fat—not even the little underarm pockets that women routinely work to hide. Thanks to my Le Mystere bra (molded cup, 34D) and my concave belly, from the waist up I look taut, feminine, built. Without Le Mystere, I am in the plight so graphically described by Maya Angelou as watching my left breast engage in a race with my right to see which can reach my waist first. And even the graceful lift and tilt of Le Mystere does not detract from the slight pucker of flesh at my waist—no more of one, I imagine, than any woman might experience who has borne one or more children.

I have borne no children.

Beneath my pantyhose, my thighs are smooth, my legs shapely, my abdomen relatively taut. The thighs are a little large, the torso a little low-slung; the legs could be an inch or two longer, but overall—attractive enough.

Under the pantyhose, there’s a flap of skin that hangs on my abdomen. It is hidden by the nylon, but I know it’s there, just as I know that the flesh around my rounded thighs is loose and flabby when released from constraint.

Age is part of the equation, certainly. But so is the loss of 165 pounds—the loss of far more pounds, in fact, than now comprise my body.

The mirror shows a face that lays full claim to its 63 years. Thanks to Le Mystere and Hanes, it shows a body I didn’t have at 18.

I like this body. It feels right. The appropriate exterior vessel for the awakened interior self—the self that enjoys freedom of movement, that engages in the world with a charming lack of self-consciousness.

Maybe, given time, I will recognize this body as rightfully my own. Not borrowed. Not temporary.

Because, right now, when I look in the mirror, I still see size 28. I don’t see size 6.

 


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The Birthday Doll

9/27/15

            “Don’t pick the biggest or nicest gift,” my mother instructed me. Each afternoon, The George Day Show provided Popeye cartoons on our local television station for the after school crowd, and co-host Zippy the Clown, a dwarf who made his living hosting birthday parties, interviewed children who formed the live audience for the show. On my sixth birthday, I got to meet Zippy the Clown and make my television debut on the George Day Show. Because it was my birthday, I would get to go to the table loaded with gifts and select something for myself. (Other prizes would be given away over the course of the show; no child left without something.) “Don’t be greedy,” my mother continued. “Leave the nicest gift for someone else.”

            I sat stiff and excited in my pink dress with my knees pressed together like a lady, and I answered Zippy’s questions. When he sent me to the table to select my gift, a beautiful doll stared up at me. I felt my cheeks burn. Most of the other toys were for boys; there was also a Slinky, coloring books, and jacks. I took the doll.

            “It’s okay,” my mother told me later. “There really wasn't anything else worth choosing.”

            I think about that doll to this day, when the memory of my mother’s voice reminds me that ladies are not greedy. They have few expectations. They show they are well brought up by not complaining when given less than the best. I think of that doll when I see a homeless man pushing his shopping cart, and wonder if my relative state of prosperity is in part responsible for his concrete state of poverty. I think of her when I give bonuses to my staff at Christmas rather than funding my 401k. I think of her when I look at my blessings, and realize how little I can do to ameliorate the sufferings of others not so fortunately circumstanced. I think of her when I remember how my mother constantly denied herself so that I could have all the books and toys and dancing lessons and piano lessons that she never had, and that she was unable to give my older sisters. 

   I still have her, that doll, though most of the others were given away long ago. I never played with her. She is still pristine, looking up at me with beautiful eyes, reminding me of the continuing battle I wage with myself to feel that I deserve her.

 


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Some of our battles are life long as if the original events were written with indelible ink. They continue to haunt us as if that is their only purpose. I keep thinking there must be an end to peeling the onion. Then there it is are rearing its ugly head once again, in its all-to-familiar way. Some people call it depression and call for meds. Yet I keep thinking there must be another way to get underneath and coax it out and into the light.
-- Maria Karras, 1/31/20



At 30,000 Feet

9/30/14

I was listening to an audiotape of a talk by Joan Borysenko recently in which she talked about the liminal space between the "no longer" and the "not yet." This is a space of new beginnings, a transformational stage when doors from the past have closed, but the doors to the future haven't yet appeared. It's not a space of waiting, though. Instead, it's a place of being.

Don't ask me why I find this so intriguing. I live my life--and I write--by mining the past, and fantasizing about the future. If there's a space I've rarely been comfortable inhabiting, it's the here and now. And I find the idea of just "being" less transformative than terrifying. I'm very skilled at avoiding being in the moment, because being in the moment requires my full presence, and that in turn requires being inside of, fully acknowledging and taking responsibility for the expression of my feelings. Somewhere back in that past I like to examine from afar, I learned to deny and sublimate feelings, usually by substituting food for anger, sadness, or fear. The idea of simply being in my fear or my anger and feeling it--all the way down to ground zero--was never an option.

Something has changed.

It might be the fact that in a period just eight months, I recently lost my aunt, my sister, my father, and a close friend. My sister's loss was entirely unexpected; both my aunt and my father had been ill a very long time. My friend fought cancer for two years, and she was fully present throughout the experience. I watched with awe as she peeled away layer after layer of denial, fear and anger until she was left with nothing but the present moment and the knowledge of her own mortality--very much in the land between the "no longer" and the "not yet." Her courage humbled me, and made me want to emulate her. And so, when the time came, I chose to be present with my father, to be witness to the process of his dying, and to companion him as far as I could-- because, unlike my friend, my father never came to peace with his dying, unless it was in those very last moments, when his body took over and brought him out of denial and into the present moment. That seems to be where truth lives.

Something happened to me over those months. I stopped fearing death, and I stopped fearing my own emotions. I started feeling my feelings, claiming my truths, and becoming willing to live with uncertainty and ambiguity in nearly every area of my life. 

This has been anything but comfortable--and it isn't like I don't backslide a lot. Still, it's made me feel more alive, more a part of myself, than I ever remember feeling before.  I'm taking each day less for granted. In moments when I do backslide into mindlessness, denial or negative thinking, it's made me an interested and indulgent observer of my own behavior--the patient mother watching the antics of a spoiled and overtired child who needs a nap. For the most part, I've gotten off my own back, and this is definitely new behavior.  An unexpected side effect is that it'made me less concerned about what other people think, more willing to take risks.  

I don't know where this journey is taking me, but it's a fascinating ride, an "E-ticket" for those that remember them. 

So here I sit, in an airplane at 30,000 feet, on my way home from visiting a friend in Oregon, with not a clue as to what tomorrow will bring, but in the knowledge that, God willing, I'll be fully present for it.

Or not. And that will be another story.

 


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Perfect, Dixie. This is a wonderful piece, thank you for sharing it!
-- Susan, 10/3/14