I began my APW writing internship with a story about how forgetting to pack work clothes begat yet another spiral of feeling badly about my body. A year and some change later, it seems like the perfect time to close the loop and write a final intern post about the current state of my relationship with my body.
A few weeks ago, I pulled the final, horrible stroke of a two thousand meter piece on an ergometer, or rowing machine. I looked at the clock, gasping, and felt deeply satisfied (and only slightly like I might throw up). Since November 2012, I’ve knocked twenty-six seconds off my 2K time. That is no small feat. That is a big deal. I worked really hard for every damn one of those seconds (particularly considering I would almost always prefer to be watching Pretty Little Liars than participating in athletics). I returned to rowing in 2011 after a decade-plus hiatus, at a time when city life was wearing me down badly. I remembered that being on the water is incredibly restorative for me, and a respite from the hectic, crowded city pace. So without really thinking about it, I threw myself into training, and a year later, I was euphoric when I saw how much I’d improved.
Afterwards, K and I went out for burgers to celebrate this milestone in my adult-onset athleticism. I hobbled into one of Park Slope’s many organic free-range locavore haunts on legs that felt like sour punch straws, and it wasn’t more than thirty seconds after sitting down that I noticed the guy sitting next to us. I met his gaze the first time he looked at me, but the next time, and the time after that, I ignored him. “That guy will not stop looking at me,” I murmured to K. “Do you want me to take him?” she joked. I settled for meeting his eyes and staring back at him while eating my burger, and his smile eventually faded and he started looking uncomfortable, but he still kept glancing my way. To the point where I couldn’t really focus on what I was eating, I was so annoyed.
Was he looking at me because he was deeply impressed by the super high tech sports bra I was wearing, the one with the a thousand hooks that turns your chest into boob pancakes? Was it my matted, sweaty ponytail? The deeply fragrant t-shirt from 2001? Or was it the side effect of all that training, the loss of forty pounds, which means that I’m that much closer to a body that our society considers attractive?
“So that’s happening more often, huh,” K commented neutrally as we walked out. “How do you feel about it?” Oh. How to fit that into an eight hundred-word piece.
I started losing weight long before we started wedding planning, and at first, it was because I wanted to see the health benefits of losing five percent, and then ten percent of my body weight. There are a lot of stairs in this city, and my commute comes with 127, to be precise, and I was tired of how my knees hurt when I climbed them.
And you know what? I can bound up those stairs now without losing my breath, and my knees don’t hurt. I like that. I like seeing my thigh muscles emerge like Easter Hams from all the erging. I like that the coat that was uncomfortable a few winters ago is now loose. Me and my body, on our own, we’re fine. But I do not like that it’s okay, that it’s considered appropriate, for other people to notice how I look and to comment on it.
That sounds strident, no? But when you compliment me on how good I look now, what I’m hearing you not say is that I looked less than good forty pounds ago. And that makes me feel lousy. It makes me feel like all the good work I did to accept my body at any size, all the years I spent actively talking about body image and acceptance, and consciously using my body as a plus-size public teaching tool, like it gets a little smaller as I get a little smaller. And that feels really troubling. I don’t know how to walk the tricky line between body acceptance and acknowledging that I wanted to, and did, change my body. It feels like a terribly personal thing that is nevertheless on display.
So in the midst of all of that, I got married. Last year I wrote about how I was stuck, how I wanted to see myself the way K sees me, but couldn’t figure out what to wear that would get me there.
We got a few early shots back from our wonderful photographer, and K forwarded them to me while she was traveling. I scrolled through them on my phone, greedy and excited for first glimpses. K looked wonderful. I still remember a moment from when we were first dating, when she straightened up from fixing her bike, and I felt a little sick to my stomach with how good she looked, and I felt the same kick in my gut when I saw her in those pictures. She was glowing, handsome, dashing. All day our friends kept laughing and saying they’d never seen her smile that wide. When she fell into bed that night, she kept saying how much her face hurt. Her happiness is all over those pictures.
Then I saw myself, and the outfit I crafted so carefully and lovingly. The charm bracelet from my mom, the pearl earrings my grandfather brought back from a tour of duty, my great-grandmother’s ring, the perfect fascinator that a little old lady put together for me after my best friend and I climbed five flights to her funny little Upper West Side walk-up in the July city heat. When I put on that outfit that morning, I was delirious with joy.
But when I saw the pictures, I started down the well-trodden path of criticism. I started to think the things I always think when I see myself in pictures, which seems to be part of the human condition, that you think and feel one way and then when you see the pictures, you wonder who that slightly foolish, goofy person is that took the place of you in your perfect outfit. And I pulled myself out of it, and instead, I remembered how many people marveled at how beautiful and happy I was that day. And how different those compliments felt than a well meaning, “You look great! Have you lost weight?” On my wedding day, they weren’t commenting about changes, about how my past body compared to my future one. They were seeing a moment in time where I felt such deep, authentic joy that it couldn’t help but show, and I was so present that I didn’t think about the politics of my body once. I felt and looked radiant.
Just the way I hoped I would.
Photo by Elizabeth Leitzell