by Valerie Vigdahl
I am ten years old and heading to the first day of fifth grade. Puberty hit over the summer. When I walk into the classroom I am horrified to discover that I am not only the tallest student in class, but I also tower over my teacher as well. I suddenly become even more aware of my newly developed breasts and hips. And yes, these also surpass those of my teacher. They seem to stick out in all directions. I feel awkward as I squeeze into the elementary school desks. One girl in my class, a cute blonde named Carrie, looks me up-and-down disapprovingly and asks, “Why are you so big?” I say nothing. Pools of tears threaten to flow.
That night I have a dream—a nightmare actually. I am a towering fifty foot tall woman in a mediocre horror flick. I terrorize and destroy all in my path, including all the pretty, petite, perfectly proportioned people.
Thus began what I now perceive to be my struggle with the media for my own body. Media hype told me I should be thinner. I should have a flat stomach. I should have buns of steel. And I should diet constantly, do whatever it takes to attain these goals. With my body type, the only way I’m going to be a size 3 is to saw off some bone!
In my pre-teen and teenage years, I felt that my genes had failed me. They had given me a body unlike the models in my teen magazines, unlike the actresses and singers I worshipped, unlike the peers I admired. I kept thinking, “If only I could lose 30 pounds I would be pretty and popular, and therefore happy.
Like many mothers of teenage girls, my mother tried her best to counteract lessons I was learning in magazine ads, in movies, and on television. She told me that the weight I gained was essential to my growth. It was just baby fat.
I wasn’t buying this for a second.
I am twelve years old. My mother and I are in our Oldsmobile, heading for the community center up the road. I want so badly to lose weight. I beg and plead with my mom to let me join a clinic. After numerous exasperating conversations, she finally relents. I am heading to my first Weight Watchers meeting.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asks as the car pulls into the parking lot.
“Yes mom, I’m sure!” I pull myself out of the front seat. “I’ll see you in an hour.” I slam the car door and run into the building before the questioning continues.
Inside the lobby are flocks of females, many of whom do not seem fat at all to me. Some are dressed in business suits; others are clothed in jeans and casual shirts, as I am. Much to my amazement, I am not the only preteen there. There are dozens mixing among women from every other age group.
Looks of disappointment fill each woman’s face after she steps on the scale, realizing she has gained instead of lost or has not lost enough to meet her weekly goal. I feel this disappointment many times myself in the following weeks.
Looking back, I see how ridiculous this scene is. No female—especially no young girl—should put herself through this daily torture. I encourage anyone who obsesses over weight, as I once did, to get rid of the bathroom scale. I tossed mine out years after this particular incident.
Weight Watchers wasn’t the only place that reinforced the belief that I should lose weight.
I am in the waiting room at my doctor’s office, standing on the scale. I focus my gaze on the metal markers the nurse flips along a row of numbers on the scale. Finally she announces my weight to her assistant—and the rest of the crowded waiting room.
Red creeps across my face.
The nurse then leads me to the sterile exam room, where I reluctantly remove my clothes and replace them with a gown of paper-thin tissue. This is the last thing I want to wear after hearing how heavy I am. As I sit here, I focus on the ten pounds I’ve gained in the past six months. Ten! I want to jump out of my skin. I can feel every disgusting inch of fat on my body, just crawling beneath my skin.
Minutes later, Dr. Hunt enters the room. After viewing my current height and weight on the chart, she informs me that I am above my “ideal body weight.”
“You should lose about thirty pounds to be in the healthy range,” she says.
I am fifteen. I eat three healthy meals a day. I’m on the high school swimming and skiing teams. But the numbers on the scale are more important. I am completely devastated. How can I be overweight? I’ve been working so hard to stay in shape. Tears stream down my face as I wait outside the clinic for my mother to drive up.
Now when I go to my physician’s office, a different one I might add, I refuse to let them weigh me unless weight is directly related to the reason for my visit. If it is absolutely necessary for me to get on that scale, I do not want to know the magic number. For the past six years, I’ve had no clue how much my body weighs. Being comfortable with myself has nothing to do with what a scale tells me. It is a kind of validation I no longer crave.
In my younger years, cool clothes and thinness were two holy grails I could never reach. In addition to the perfect body, I also wanted perfect clothes—the same cool clothes my friends were wearing. Unfortunately, fashion designers have a narrow ideal of beauty. My size 14 body wasn’t even a blip on their radar. Their ideal resembles the Victoria’s Secret models more than any “real” women I’ve met.
It is a Saturday afternoon in late August. I am at the mall with my mother, attempting to find clothes for school. Every cool girl I know has Girbaud jeans. They proudly sport their spoils, complete with the rectangle logo covering the zipper. I wear my shirts long, covering all zippers and pockets of my jeans to hide the Levi’s logo and to cover up any fat that may be visible. The “Girbaud Girls” look so slim and perfect in their jeans. If I could only fit into a pair, I’m certain that my problems would be solved.
We arrive at the right store; a trendy boutique called “The Closet.” I look through the racks of jeans, desperate to find any juniors size that will fit me. The closest I come is a size 13, which is the largest size available. I’m sure I can fit these.
“Are you sure, honey? I don’t think that’s your size,” my mother questions.
She doesn’t know that I’ve been watching what I eat. I’m sure I’ve lost enough to fit this size. I am confident as a beautiful brunette lets me into the fitting room.
Five minutes later I emerge, defeated. As we leave the store, neither one of us says a word. I can feel tears threatening to gush forth. I don’t let them. Not yet.
“Let’s go to Sears,” my mom suggests.
Oh no! I know where she’s going with this. She wants me to shop in the misses section. There’s no way I’m doing that! Those clothes are for old ladies, not me. I want to be cool. I want to be in style. But I can’t. My body doesn’t concur.
Around the age of eighteen I begin to realize it is mentally unhealthy to squeeze into smaller sizes. Beauty has nothing to do with what dress size I wear. It has to do with confidence in my abilities and pride in myself, both inside and out.
In the past five years my eyes have opened even wider to how popular culture makes women feel. Images in magazines, on television, and in the movies bombard us with a false image of beauty only attainable in one of three ways:
I lived through a common experience, not a unique one. A high school friend was always teased about her weight too—only her problems were the flip-side of mine.
“Do you ever eat?,” I overheard one jealous female classmate ask her.
“Are you anorexic or something?” a crass male observer asked on a separate occasion .
I even overheard an insensitive loud joke that she was “a carpenter’s dream—flat as a board!”
Her doctor was telling her she needed to gain weight to be in the correct range; my doctor was telling me to lose weight.
Cool clothes were too large for her; they were too tiny for me.
She was teased for having small breasts; I was teased for having large ones.
At the time, I did not consider my friend’s dilemma in any way related to mine. Until we went shopping. She couldn’t find junior-sized clothes to fit her either. She swam in them! (That doesn’t seem like much of a problem these days, with actresses and models becoming more waifish by the minute.) My friend did not view her body as an advantage. She was torn apart. She didn’t skip meals, excessively exercise, or binge and purge. At our local hangout, Rosa’s coffee shop, she’d scarf down chocolate cake with whole milk lattes as I drooled across the table, sipping on my simple black coffee.
After our shopping excursion, I began to ask the right questions: Who says we women have to look a certain way? Who sets the standards? Why do they get to decide if my friend, or I , or any other woman is beautiful? And why do we let them?
Now I look around at women in public places. They are an eclectic blend of shapes and sizes; tall women, short women, thin, and full-figured. Not one of them looks like the seemingly flawless, but actually airbrushed, models in every fashion magazine. Every time I observe this, I am a bit more convinced that I am beautiful.
My high school friend? She’s beautiful.
My good friends and co-workers? They’re beautiful too.
The women I saw at the grocery the other day, the ones on my bus to work this morning, and those women at the Weight Watchers meetings all those years ago?
We are all beautiful.
Valerie is a freelance writer and visual artist. She lives in Minneapolis, MN.
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