Body Narrative


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.


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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