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Is That What I Really Look Like?

Reflections on joy and body image

I’ve seen hundreds of photographs of myself and felt a pungent dread, thinking, “Is that what I really look like?” These are photographs in which I look heavier, fatter, less feminine than I feel, or than I think I look. In the language of my harshest critic, these photographs reveal that my jaw is wide like a cave woman’s, my arms are ham hocks, my torso is a sausagy box, my legs are toothpicks, and my shoulders go on and on, like linebackers standing elbow to elbow.

Of course I don’t feel so extremely negative about my body all the time—maybe a few days a month. But when I see a photograph that seems to capture this person, I recoil. I feel fear, panic, and a twisted version of revelation, “Oh god. Oh god. Fuck. Is that what I really look like?”

It happened on my honeymoon. The Jamaica sun broke through afternoon thunderclouds and seemed to burn within, not above, the aqua sea. Orange and black birds rested on jungle trees growing in sand. My husband and I drank champagne and coconut water for breakfast; kayaked in our bathing suits to craggy rock faces where red starfish dotted the ocean floor; swam naked in warm waves; napped hot afternoons in a white hammock, drifting left and right, between rest and sleep, sun and shade, breeze and water.

I felt many things, including happy.

Then I saw the photographs. The woman I saw was stocky, masculine, so shapeless and wide. Totally unlike how I felt dancing near midnight in a flowing blue dress, the sweet pings of oil drums stirring my feet. Totally unlike how free and golden I felt, naked as a newborn, reading my library mystery in the island sun, sand between my painted toes.

I stared and stared at those photographs. And then I had the thought that mattered, “But it doesn’t make sense. I was so happy when they took that picture! How can I look this way?”

This is it: How could I be both fat and happy? Put differently—and putting aside what I look like “in real life”—I had no way to comprehend that I might have danced, and felt free, and swam, and been giddy while being fat. Fat and happy was—is—an oxymoron in some intimate part of my brain. I could not accept that I felt genuinely good, loved, healthy, happy, sexy, funny, fully aglow in the living of my life if I was also…big. I had to choose; couldn’t have both. And since the picture showed I was fat, how could I trust my happiness?

And is it any wonder? Have you ever read a magazine, seen a movie, watched a TV show, seen an advertisement, etc., that showed you clearly, matter-of-factly, emphatically that you can be fat and happy? Perhaps a few times, which proves my point. The message is that happiness waits, maybe a whole lifetime, until the body is good enough.

This isn’t about whether I’m fat, whatever that means. It’s about teaching women that they cannot simultaneously experience joy and bodily imperfection. It’s about seeing a photograph in which my husband kisses my cheek and I laugh with delight, registering my appearance negatively, and believing I must have been mistaken to feel so good, because how could I feel so good and look so bad?

It’s about analyzing this dark learning I’ve done, deeply, deeply, from girlhood to now, and finding a different way to comprehend and believe my own joy.

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