When I was a teenager I was convinced I was fat. This is pretty typical, right? It seems we never stop hearing about young girls and their body image. Mine had some root in reality. As a little kid I’d been chubby. Not overweight, not “husky-sized” but solid, with a round face and a little round belly. My mother and my aunt in particular were fond of reaching over, grabbing my belly and saying, “Looky here! I can pinch an inch!”
When I was about ten I went to visit my aunt at her lake house for several days and someone suggested to me that it was a DIY fat farm. I remember eating lots of salads (I developed a taste for exotic mushrooms) and being told to make sure I went swimming every day for the exercise. I’m not sure what else a ten year old would do at the lake, but it did take some of the fun out of it, this sense of swimming as discipline.
That summer I was invited along on a trip to Florida with my mother and step-father. This was the first trip I’d ever taken with them and I was super excited. We were going to Disney World! We were going to Tampa!
The day before we left I came down with a horrible allergic reaction to some penicillin I’d been given to treat my 800th case of strep throat. When we arrived in Orlando I was feverish, shaking, and covered in a rash from head to toe. Our first stop was urgent care.
The nurse stood me up on the scale, scribbled something in her notebook and asked me to get down. “101 pounds,” she muttered to herself. I nearly fainted in the hallway. I was mortified. I was desperately sick with a fever of 103, but suddenly my symptoms paled in comparison to the fact that I’d somehow broken the hundred pound threshold. Under usual circumstances I would have been able to hide my shame, rearrange my face into something, if not cute, at least non-commital, but the fever had burned through my defenses. As soon as the nurse left the room I burst into tears. It took me a while to come clean to my mom, who in addition to looking exhausted (sick kids will do that to you) also looked genuinely concerned. I mustered up the courage to tell her that I was officially fat at over a hundred pounds (I have no idea why this was a benchmark for me, but it was).
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she huffed and marched me right back out into the hall and onto the scale which, this time, miraculously read 77 pounds. She made damn sure it was changed in the official record.
By the time I was twelve I was using my mother’s Diet Center book to look up the calories of everything I ate. I’d mark them down meticulously for a few days until I blew it binging on granola bars or chocolate chips while babysitting. I don’t remember ever successfully losing any weight, but I do remember obsessively reading every exposé of anorexia and bulimia ever posted in my teen mags. For me they were not cautionary tales, but tips for success. Unfortunately, I lacked the willpower for starving myself.
About this time my aunt developed a keen interest in photography; she had a fancy Nikon with an assortment of lenses. Every time we drove up to her lake house she had me pose for pictures, usually wearing clothes of hers that were about ten years too mature for me.
This was the 1980s, years before the development of digital cameras. These pictures were taken on film (gasp!) that had to be developed. As such, I saw very few of the photos. However, this Christmas, my aunt asked that I bring down the boxes of pictures belonging to my mother that had been stored, unopened, in my attic since she died. As my aunt flipped through the pictures I was stunned by what I saw.
I wasn’t fat.
I wasn’t even CLOSE to fat.
Why hadn’t someone told me? Did they tell me and I just didn’t listen? I have no idea. What I know for sure is that I spent years of my life believing something about my body that photographic evidence proves was absolutely untrue.
This has a name. It’s called Body Dysmorphic Disorder and interestingly, it can go both ways.
By the time I’d had three kids, I had pretty much gotten over my body image issues. In fact, I thought I was doing pretty damn well for a mother of three. That is until I saw photos of myself at my childrens’ birthday party. I was stunned. When had I gotten SO FAT? Why hadn’t I noticed? Why hadn’t someone told me? Still, when I looked in the mirror, I felt ok. When I looked at photographs, I felt definitely not ok.
This was an easy problem to solve. I started refusing to be photographed.
I can only think of only a couple sanctioned photographs that have been taken of me in the last five years. In one of them, I’m 34 weeks pregnant with twins, so, really, anything goes. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I hide from the camera – ducking behind walls, throwing my arms up across my face like I’m being attacked.
That is until the other night.
A few days ago my twelve year old daughter, Zoë, was knocking around the house in a t-shirt and messy bun. Now Zoë is the kind of cool I could only dream of being at twelve. She plays guitar, she writes songs, she makes movies, she loves the Gilmore Girls and Dr. Who. Besides all this, she is drop dead gorgeous. Yeah, yeah, I know, but it ain’t bragging if it’s true. So anyway, I’m looking at her, just loving how she is in her body and how at peace she seems to be with herself and I pull out my phone to take a picture. And this is what happened:
She is actually running from the camera.
It was funny for a minute until she said, “You don’t let anyone take pictures of you, why do I have to let you take a picture of me? I don’t like it either!”
Here I thought I was doing such a good job of modeling healthy self image for my girls. I don’t talk about being fat. I don’t demean myself in front of them. I don’t talk about how beautiful or thin some other woman is. I talk about food in terms of how many nutrients it has, not whether it’s bad or good, “fattening” or “low-calorie.” But still, I’ve failed. I’ve taught my daughter that an unflattering photograph says something about her. That a digital image can make a judgement. That how we look in a particular moment is more important than the moment itself.
That shit’s gotta stop.
So I made her a deal.
I’d let her take a picture of me if I could take a picture of her.
Neither one of us look particularly happy, but you gotta start somewhere. After all, five years is a long time, I’m out of practice. I’m going to stop hiding from cameras and I’m going to start practicing radical self-love. Cuz evidently, my children really are watching. And maybe, if I can manage to stick with it, someday they’ll have some pictures to prove that I was actually there, no matter what size I was.