This is the look of a sunburned 6th grade girl who just got back from a water park field trip, at
which she wore a T-shirt over her swimsuit the whole time.
When I was 12, I was convinced I was fat. I decided to order a weight loss plan from the back of a teen magazine. For just $10.95--which I paid by mailing an envelope full of dollar bills and change--I received in an unmarked package a little book filled with platitudes. I took it very seriously. In the book was a black-and-white photo of a hippopotamus, which I was instructed to hang somewhere I would see it every day. Apparently, a constant reminder that I was one Oreo away from hippo status was supposed to scare me--or shame me--into losing weight.
The book also suggested taking a "before" picture of myself, so I could record all the imperfections I would soon erase by following that $10.95 advice. I can still remember what I was wearing in the picture: a white wireless bra from Walmart and a pair of purple Hanes Her Way briefs. I assume this image has burned itself on my brain because I obsessed over it so completely. I wanted to change everything in that picture. My thighs were just a little too wide, my stomach wasn't perfectly flat. I can still see how I pressed my arms nervously against the sides of my gentle pear shape.
I hid the photo in my desk drawer and would look at it now and then--a human hippo to provide inspiration along with the animal one. One day, sometime after this craziness started, my mom found the photo. She freaked out. Who took this picture? she asked, pure fear in her eyes. It hadn't occurred to me that the photo looked like a molester's trophy. To me it seemed completely rational to ask my 7-year-old sister to take a polaroid of me so I could fixate on my hatred of my own body and torture myself into changing the way I looked.
It worked to some extent. I went through a phase in which I ate saltines almost exclusively. I wouldn't have said it then, but I was right on the edge of anorexia. I never became the obsessive exercising type, though, so I didn't get the full "benefits" of starving myself (please, make sure to note my sarcasm here). I never got to feel small, fragile, petite--the things I wanted but could never have, the things a woman--a desirable, sexy woman--was supposed to be. I wanted to be light enough for someone else to pick me up. Was that so much to ask?
This yearning to be small started early. Around third grade, I got tall, taller than most of the boys in my class. I also wasn't skinny. I wasn't grossly obese or anything, but I was chubby. These are both common things for girls that age, but between the tallness and the chubbiness, I felt like The Hulk. In fourth grade, I became a bit of a novelty because, as the monster that I was, I could grab those scrawny boys by the hands and spin them around like rag dolls.
9-year-old Adrienne, wearing a swimsuit and getting knocked down by a wave. Classic.
Just as I grew tall early, I also grew breasts early. I've never had to complain about having a flat chest, but the attention I got for my "development" only made me uncomfortable, and it usually came from the wrong types of guys. (That is a storyline that has continued throughout my life. Something about my body type or face really attracts the sorts of rednecks who shout at you from moving pickups.) I wanted an athletic body, even a waifish one. I wanted to be Audrey Hepburn, not Sophia Loren.
I have spent most of my life battling my weight, worrying about my weight, fussing over a body that could just never be what I wanted it to be. I am the kind of person who eats ice cream in secret, because I'm too ashamed to let anyone--even my husband--know that I'm adding more fat to my already fat body. I am the kind of person who turns to junk food for comfort, and then beats herself up for eating the junk food. When someone tells me I'm beautiful, I cringe. It feels like an awful lie, a cruel joke. Who is this person who can't see what I see? What's wrong with them?
When I got pregnant the first time, part of me really wanted a daughter. Another part of me was very relieved when we found out Jack was a boy. That same part of me is very nervous about having a girl the second time around. What will all my body issues do to her? What will she learn from me? Will she see me try on ten different outfits and mumble under my breath about how fat I look in each one? Will she see me eat a bag of chips in one sitting after a particularly hard day? Will food be connected to her emotions the way it is for me? Will eating to feel happy and hating herself for eating become a never-ending loop for her, too?
Maybe she'll get my husband's genes and metabolism, and she'll never have to worry about being fat. But if she gets my genes and my metabolism, the world will be a tougher place for her. Whether we like it or not, girls and women are constantly told how to look, and constantly reminded of how they fall short of the ideal. And an overweight woman is still a pretty unforgivable thing in our society.
I want my daughter to be strong and brave, to go against the grain, to be comfortable in her own body and not let other people's expectations change her or paralyze her. I have not succeeded in doing any of these things. I still fail at them every day. And whether I intend to or not, I am afraid that, no matter how much I want a better life for her, I will still teach her to be like me.