“…I had work to do to make my body bigger and bigger and bigger and safer.” — Roxane Gay, Hunger
I am 18 chapters into Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. A recurring theme is the idea of safety, and how, for her, gaining weight has been a way to keep herself safe. I am realizing more and more with each line of hers I read that much of my life is centered around keeping myself safe. It’s why I can never keep the weight off. It’s why I don’t have a romantic life. It’s why I don’t own property. All my energy goes toward creating that safety I never experienced as a child. I have no reference point as to what it feels like to be safe. I see in the relationships and families of others what it might look like, but any attempt at feeling safe is always performative on my part.
Having a bigger body like mine is like having a cloak of invisibility. Despite the fact that I take up a lot of space, if I walk into a bar or a party or cultural gathering, other than the people I already know, people look right past me. If you are fat, people think you’re unintelligent because you obviously can’t handle the mind over body control thing. (In the most backhanded compliment ever, my father once said to me, “You are too smart to be that fat.”) They don’t stop to actually look at you and assess whether they find you attractive—beauty truly being in the eye of the beholder—but they check the box for “too fat,” which lets them off the hook for even trying. Which is fine with me. I keep even my oldest friends a little bit at arm’s length because if they truly saw me at my worst—my saddest, my angriest, my most depressed, my most manic—then I know they’d leave me.
Relationships are the most fragile thing of all in my mind; they’re not built to withstand utter honesty and vulnerability. That kind of thing just places a burden on other people, well, at least my vulnerability and need does. So better to stay in the safe place, where you only reveal part of yourself. It’s better not to trust that anyone could actually stand the real you lest you undo the precious bits of safety you’ve found in your relationships.
(I just reread that paragraph, and noticed that toward the middle, I stopped saying “me” and moved into the general “you.” Even that distancing is a trick for keeping myself safe. It’s true that writing about the personal can lead to the universal, but modulating to the universal can also protect the personal.)
Even my identity as a writer is predicated on this idea of staying safe. I started writing because I learned that it was dangerous to express emotions in my particular household. It was dangerous to be angry or sad. It was even dangerous to be happy because you could be reprimanded for being too happy, incurring the cut of my mother’s “Don’t get carried away” or my father’s sheer indifference to what most would have considered happy news. So I squashed what I could down inside me, and if they insisted on leaking out, I put those feelings on paper. I wrote mostly stories when I first started, before I hit high school and threw my lot in with poetry, and they were all about murder or suicide. A young woman shoves a butcher knife in the old boyfriend who ended up wanting to marry someone else (while wearing a tattered lace wedding dress, of course). Another young woman commits suicide to punish her mother for not accepting the girl’s accidental pregnancy, her final message spray painted on a wall, “Please forgive me.” (My ideas around suicide were clearly not very developed when I was in my early teens.)
Poetry was an even better hiding place as I could obscure the roiling inside me in opaque images, coming after each other so quickly that there was no space to interpret them, or appreciate their depth. In my 20s, I wrote about music and musicians, unconsciously believing—wrongly it turned out—that if I wrote about other people, if I focused on deconstructing the blues that shook me to my core, I could keep the turmoil inside me invisible.
I’d always had a technically good singing voice so I took voice lessons in Chicago with a flamboyant woman—Jackie? Judy?—who would say to me, “You’re cooking up something good but you’re not dishing it out.” The same was true of my foray into acting. I had a small talent that could, perhaps, have been nurtured into something more, but it was unsafe for me to reveal myself that way, it was unsafe for me to metaphorically bare myself on the stage.
Staying safe means I don’t really dream for myself. Or, to be more accurate, I dream big, I write down plans with the intention of really exploring them, and then I let those dreams expire on the pages of my journal. I find something else to be enthusiastic about until the urge to even dip a toe into unsafe waters subsides. I don’t set goals, because reaching goals means stepping outside of my comfort zone.
As I’ve written before, I do grab opportunities, because I have learned the trick of bravado, which can be surprisingly useful when you need to apply to grad school or a prestigious fellowship or even send a batch of poems out into the world. I’ve learned to perform safety in ways which allow me to have a fairly decent life. But there’s always a backup plan: Oh, if X doesn’t work out, I’ll be fine where I am. And if X does work out, then the bravado kicks in mostly because I’m too scared to disappoint anyone, people-pleasing another form of seeking safety.
I wonder sometimes if I’ll only ever have a mediocre life. because I haven’t been able to consistently build that bedrock of safety beneath my feet. I use the term “mediocre” in a relative sense. I know that I get to do extraordinary things in this life: interview deeply imaginative artists who are sometimes even celebrities; engage with thought-provoking and inspiring visual art; explore my ideas in interior design in a light-filled apartment that makes my heart sing and makes me feel the way you feel when you get to home base during a game of tag. But I also think that the extraordinary things I do are merely glimpses of what I’m capable of. What more could I do, who else could I connect with, how could I change the world in a larger way if I could figure out how to feel safe in my own skin?
I try to find safety with God (and I thank him every day for his infinite patience and grace with me cause I promise you I’m a trial), but even that relationship feels unsafe sometimes not because of who God is, but because much of the cruelty in my childhood was the result of my mother’s privileging of religion and ministry over anything and anyone in her life, including her children. And there is safety, too, in not always trying very hard with God. A successful relationship with God requires action. It requires letting go of whatever it is we have come to think of as giving us safety. It requires trust.
I know there are others who have had emotionally abusive childhoods who manage to somehow build a platform of safety in spite of their histories. I know there are role models out there—like Roxane Gay—who have something to teach me. But right now that story of learning to feel consistently safe when you never had that overwhelmingly important early road map, that’s not my story. That’s not my story yet. That’s not my story yet?
In my nuclear family, the body was not something to be celebrated. It was not a marvel or a wonder. It was not a beloved house or a blessed one. I learned that bodies were to be hidden. Or punished—by you or yourself or by others. Bodies were always in want of improvement and chastisement. They were rarely enough as they were. And they were not just an aspect of who you were, they were everything about you. They told the story of your laziness, your unintelligence. They whispered the secret that you were the kind of girl to let a boy get you into trouble. They were too loud, too big, too much.
Bodies were the landscape on which you endured your punishment: a slap in the face for forgetting to come home from a sleepover in time for your piano lessons. Welts left by a belt across your behind for some infraction it turned out later that you hadn’t committed at all. My body was at times marked by the tines of a swizzle stick, the curved bowl of a pot spoon. My sister and I would spend long minutes pre-punishment, hidden in our shared closet, hitting each other to test out which belt hurt the least. (I didn’t understand geometry then; that it was better to be hit by a broad belt than a thin one.)
Later, when I’d grown too old for spankings, my body became merely a disappointment. My father, I think, wanted most of all a pretty daughter. No one with an outcropping of an ass like mine, whose genetics gave me thickened ankles and fat thighs as pre-existing conditions could, of course, be seen as anything as fat, despite my narrow waist, my small breasts, my small, sloping shoulders.
My mother wanted a daughter who didn’t remind her of sex. She made me drape my body in long skirts—at church, during high school—shaming me into sobs when I came home from college one summer audaciously wearing shorts that showed my curves. They didn’t cling; they skimmed, but still my body was a sin I didn’t know I was committing.
I was very smart. I had a beautiful singing voice and was becoming a talented writer. But I was short. But I was fat.
A friend told me once, years later, after I’d gained weight and dieted and gained weight and dieted and gained weight and dieted, and gained weight again, that I moved gracefully. We were at a writing retreat, and were doing some sort of movement exercise that would, the theory went, eventually yield poems. I had never thought of myself as graceful, not someone as big as I was, who stayed “big as I was” even when I wasn’t. In grade school, a classmate had told me I walked like a duck, and that’s who I was, the girl with the awkward body, what Trinidadians call obzuky—out of place, awkwardly wrong. How could there be grace in this body with its legs once likened to tree trunks by a boy who presumably liked me? I mean, can there be grace in a body like mine no understanding of how to be—or to stay—just enough?
A Latina physical therapist told me once, as we were working on fixing the knees I had somehow mysteriously wrecked, that she liked my culo and wished she had one like mine. Mine? My very fat ass?!? I walked out of therapy that afternoon knowing something of what it must be like to feel beautiful. Not because of an outfit or a hairstyle or even a sparkling personality, but that kind of beautiful that comes from sitting squarely in your body, inhabiting every square inch of it, joyfully, unabashedly, unashamed.
I don’t remember what that feels like now. Though that’s the story I’d rather tell, how that one conversation changed me forever. I want to write my body a happy ending, and I want to stop writing about my body. I want my body to become a neutral space.
I threw my scale down the trash chute last fall and vowed not to do Weight Watchers ever again! I felt so bold. So empowered! So free!
Now, I feel disappointed. I feel shame when I look in the mirror sometimes that here we are again, and I’m confused that that shame is no longer enough to get me to diet again. I question whether I obsess about my fatness because it’s comfortable to do so, and it’s what I’m used to. Is “why can’t you lose weight?” what hangs in the closet where we used to keep the belts?
I can make peace with my body for hours at a time, like yesterday when I was wearing leggings so soft and so pretty that I didn’t really care that you could see my multiple levels of tummy. And, to tell the truth, when I’m naked, peering at myself in the mirror like a voyeur, my body doesn’t read like an unsexy blob, but rather like a beautiful and mysterious landscape, maybe somewhere in the British Isles, where there are rolling hills and verdant valleys, and people purposefully set out to go striding through those undulations because who knows what joy will be found there?
It’s hard to feel unbeautiful when Josh Groban has his mellifluous tongue (virtually) stuck in my ear. And also when I’m drinking a bottle of sauvignon blanc I bought at the corner store on my way home from work. Which may point to a certain type of single-woman-of-a-certain-age solitude but has nothing to do with if I am beautiful. But what does have to do with beauty? Why do I feel beautiful on one day and not another? Or in one hour of the day and none of the others? Or vice versa? Is it the clothes? Is it the makeup? Is it the way the sun feels on my shoulders? Is it remembering–as my sunglasses slide down my sweat-slicked nose one. more. time.–how giddy I was when I first tried on said sunglasses? Is it the precise torque of curls in my hair? Someone might answer–it’s confidence, but I’d counter that confidence is as fickle a beast as any, perhaps moreso, and there have been plenty of days I’ve felt gorgeous while still feeling insecure about something or the other. Is the question what makes me feel beautiful, or what makes me feel unbeautiful? Which set of answers is most useful? Do I then avoid at all costs the unbeautiful makers and surround myself as much as possible with the beautiful makers? Or can certain things fall in either camp depending on the phase of the moon, if the bus is late or not, how many times I hit the snooze button, if I’m listening to Jack White or Josh Groban on the way to work, if I’m reading a romance novel or staring into space, if the person sitting next to me is thin or fat and I feel comfortable or squished in the seat, if I’m late or on time, if I took a shower that morning or the night before, if I have five meetings that day or not even one, if my sister has made me laugh for the 1,000th time this year or the 1,000,000th, if I get light cheese on my pizza or none at all, if I watch Jeopardy or get so caught up on Facebook that I forget, if I want to write a blog that night or I don’t want to write a blog? If I can’t aspire to feeling beautiful every minute of every day because the conditions are mutable, unknowable, irreproducible, imprecise, what then do I aspire to that gets to the same place? Or is the question not whether or not I feel beautiful but rather how sensitive I am to that place in me where I feel beautiful most of the time and know enough to fake it the rest of the time? When I don’t feel beautiful, am I just making to much noise of all the wrong sorts? Is it not the appreciation of our peculiar and singular and wonderful beauties that changes, but our willingness to walk in those peculiar and singular and wonderful beauties? Is it a choice?