At night, if I am laying down before my husband Steve gets into bed, my belly shakes. I hold it down with my hands, under the blanket, to calm the jiggle. Then I grab the excess, measure the thickness by squeezing, and dream about cutting off the fat.
I wonder if I would die if I did it myself. I think about a paper cutter, and wonder if I got my belly in there, and sliced down, if the doctors would be able to save me.
After they fixed me up, my belly might look a little strange, scarred perhaps. Missing a belly button.
But it would be flat. Flat, flat, flat.
My daughter says “Oh, Momma, I love your belly.” Because I want her to love her own body I say, “I love my belly too,” and rub it affectionately.
When I am younger, in the backseat, Dad notices an overweight woman walking on the sidewalk as we drive by.
“If she would just get off her fat ass,” he says.
This is a strange thing to say. She is off her fat ass.
I can see myself getting as large as that woman and larger. It seems like it would be easy to lose control. Isn’t everyone worried that they will lose control? Cookies, cake. I daydream about getting my license and a car so that I can go to McDonald’s anytime I want to.
My mother-in-law tells me that she can tell I’ve lost weight. That it’s especially important for women to lose weight.
“Makes us feel better. I stopped putting sugar in my coffee. It really works.”
“I take my coffee black,” I say.
“Well. I lost five pounds, just by leaving the sugar out. And I’m part of a walking group you know.”
I love to eat out with my friend T because she orders a lot. If we are ordering together, to share, she sometimes says, “Do you think that’ll be enough?”
At a pizza place during lunch, she orders an entire personal pizza and a full dinner. I order the slice and side salad special.
I tell her she is lucky because of her high metabolism. She is offended, and gives me a list of reasons why she isn’t fat: no snacking between meals, hot yoga, biking to work. But to me, it sounds like a list of accusations.
When I am younger, my mom tells me that she hopes I won’t struggle with weight the way she does. It hasn’t occurred to me yet that I should be worried about that.
Sometimes, I wonder if the love Steve and I share is legitimate. It’s possible that we are not small enough to be socially acceptable, so I wonder if the affection we have for one another is socially recognized, and if it isn’t, is it enough that we love one another, and know that we love one another? If we got skinny, would our love be more significant to outsiders?
When I cross the street, and a car has to slow down, I imagine them saying, “Get going, fat ass.”
T gives me a pair of pants that are too big for her, size seven. I tell her they won’t fit.
“Really?” She holds the pants next to me.
“Maybe after I lose these extra sixty pounds,” I say.
“Sixty pounds?” she says. “How much do you weigh?”
“It’s all coming from these.” I cup my breasts and gyrate them. She laughs. We drop the subject.
I am 5’4” and 185 pounds.
I am elementary school aged and watching my mom get dressed. She pulls up her shiny beige undies over her belly and I ask what size she wears. She won’t tell me.
Before Steve and after a very hard break-up, I sleep with a lot of men. I wear a Spanx bodysuit and most of the hipster guys think it’s cool, like a jumpsuit from Urban Outfitters. It opens at the crotch.
One guy runs his finger on the stretchy material over my belly and says, “What have we got here?”
When I get together with Steve, one of my friends says, “How cute, hipster and nerd consort. A modern love story.”
I protest about being a hipster, but am actually thrilled. I’ve just been compared to those people who wear high-waisted pants over flat stomachs, who have slender ankles and wrists.
The bike messengers who pass—zero body fat and flying—as I pedal slowly over Broadway Bridge.
And the barista with the seed packet flower tattoo, starting at the side of her delicate neck and down her breast chasm, no bra because hers are perky and small.
I thought I couldn’t belong to that group.
On a body positivity site, I learn that I need to reprogram my brain. So I start with a suggested exercise. I stand naked in front of a full-length mirror and say, “I love you” to each part.
I linger on my belly because that is the section that repulses me the most.
It hangs over my pelvis a little, obscuring a small patch of pubic hair. I touch the sagging part, wrinkled and soft like my grandmother’s cheek.
“I love you,” I say.
How many times will I have to say it before I mean it?
I am spreading as I get older. My face as round as the moon, Cheshire cat, pancake.
My mom has ulcerative colitis, inflammation and ulcers in her digestive track. One of the symptoms is diarrhea.
For a while she doesn’t know what is wrong, and often has bathroom emergencies. When we go shopping, she notes the restroom location. In the middle of one transaction, she hands me her credit card and runs for the toilets.
She is worried about leaving the house, having an accident.
One day, she gathers the fabric of her shirt, holding the excess at the sides so that I can see her small waist. “At least I’ve lost weight.”
After her diagnosis, she has surgery to remove most of her colon and replace it with an external ostomy bag.
Ulcerative colitis is hereditary.
First thought when I find this out: maybe I can have it just long enough to make me skinny, just before the colon removal stage.
Then I learn that in young people, they can often save enough of the colon to create an internal ostomy pouch.
So, I will develop it early enough, let myself get tiny, and then alert the doctors. I’ll probably have just enough healthy intestines left.
I am pregnant with Grey and no longer have to hide my belly with loose fitting shirts and body skimming dresses. My flab is now a firm round ball. I am proud of it. When friends and family want to take pictures I cradle the underside with my hands.
“This is going to be a large baby,” my obstetrician says as I sit in her office—swollen ankles, chipmunk cheeks. My arms rest on the top of my belly, and I feel her move, my baby.
I’m very happy.
At the very end, the baby moves up and the bottom of my belly deflates, becomes a loose sack. This is when I start to worry about my post-pregnancy body.
“People who have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) think about their real or perceived flaws for hours each day. They can’t control their negative thoughts and don’t believe people who tell them that they look fine. Their thoughts may cause severe emotional distress and interfere with their daily functioning. They may miss work or school, avoid social situations and isolate themselves, even from family and friends, because they fear others will notice their flaws” (Anxiety and Depression Association of America).
Do I have body dysmorphic disorder?
B and I are at the last dive bar in the Pearl. This is where I go when I can’t find my ID because the bartenders know me. The music is loud and we are sitting at the counter. I am drinking tequila soda. The man next to me keeps interrupting our conversation. He is very drunk. He puts his hand on my lower back and leans into me.
“I like you,” he says.
“I’m married,” I say.
He is slow about removing himself. Eventually he puts his arms on the table and resumes drinking. He hunches over the bar and slurps through a red straw. B and I resume our conversation.
Again, he interrupts. “This whole kind of thing,” he gestures grandly at my breasts. “I like ‘em big.”
I don’t want to sound like I am accusing my mom and dad of anything. Does it sound like I am upset at them? I am not upset at them.
What I learned in church:
The body is a temple with which to glorify the Lord. Being fat is not glorifying to the Lord.
Women should serve their husbands. This includes looking nice for your man, and looking nice
includes a small waist.
Gluttony is a sin, and being overweight is a physical manifestation of that sin.
Sometimes I tell people that my body was made for another time. That it is really sturdy, made for stirring a pot over a fire and carrying buckets of water from the creek. I will often squat and pretend to stir something and say, “See, this is what I was made for.” This usually gets a big laugh.
I’m in the doctor’s office for a check-up. He has hairy arms and a block head.
“Any sudden weight gains or losses?”
“Yes. It’s my first term of graduate school. I’ve been stressed.”
“How many months?”
“Two and a half.”
The doctor low whistles and continues to type. When he stops, he gives me a lecture about how to lose weight.
“Exercise for at least forty-five minutes a day.”
He looks at me suspiciously. “It needs to be vigorous. And avoid carbs: breads, pasta, rice.”
I’m sixteen and it’s Christmas. We are all at Aunt C’s. I’m wearing a form fitting red dress and knee-high boots. My silhouette is very sleek.
Usually I am self-conscious about my belly poking out, but today I found a solution. Duct tape.
It’s wrapped around my midsection, up to the bra line.
I want to look good for K, my older cousin’s friend. I know that he is going to be there. He is lanky with hair that always gets in his eyes. During this period of time, I am obsessed with old movies, and K reminds me of Jimmy Stewart, his voice and everything.
My cousin says, “You look nice,” and gives me a hug. He pats my back. “What have you got on under there?” he asks. I back away and shrug. He doesn’t pursue it.
I avoid physical contact for the rest of the night. K spends most of the time outside, smoking.
Later, when I pull the duct tape off, it hurts like a motherfucker. I almost can’t stand it—feels like my skin is ripping off. I get in the shower and turn the heat up, hoping to steam it off, but the bond is just as strong. Finally, all of it is off—a pile on the bathtub floor—tangled and wet. Patches of grey residue mark my belly. I try to scrub it off with a washcloth, but eventually give up.
Today Grey makes me play-dough food. “Eat your dessert so you can be big and strong,” she says.
I watch the season five finale of Girls. In this one, Lena Dunham is running. She wears a tank that cuts above her belly, and I can’t help but think, this is very brave. At each impact, fat shudders. But, how nice that must feel—skin exposed to the air.
I wonder: should I start running too? Do it in a jogging halter and shorts that cut into my cellulite? Maybe this would be therapeutic, like exposure therapy. I’ll go to a busy place, maybe campus, and run by a herd of jocks. The lesson will be: nothing terrible happens after all.
But really, something terrible will happen. I’ll run by, and even though the men probably won’t say anything derogatory, probably won’t sneer, they will think things.
Look at that cow, what a heifer.
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures).
At the REI checkout, I ask if they have mace.
“For what?” the sales associate asks.
“Like, for walking alone at night.”
He nods. “I think we have bear spray.” His shoulders go up as he says this.
“Hey,” he says to the employee at the next cashier. “Is bear spray safe for humans?”
“No!” the man says. He scowls at me. He really scowls at me. “Bear spray is for bears only.”
“I didn’t want bear spray.” I say. “Never mind. Thank you.” I walk away with my purchases, paper bag hitting my leg. I imagine them staring at the back of me. Watching my fat ass.
They think: why would anyone want to rape her?
The New York Times runs an article about The Biggest Loser. Scientists have been following former contestants. Their findings: metabolism slows significantly and doesn’t pick up again.
In this article, a worship pastor, Sean Alagier is quoted: “It’s not as dramatic as being told you have a disease, but it’s along those lines.”
In the comment section, Kevinizon from Brooklyn, NY writes: “I’m sure all they are say[ing] is true but this is a dangerous New Concept. Easily usable as an excuse for morbid obesity, that their bodies are controlling them and they have less ability now to maintain healthy weight. Yes their metabolisms may have slowed, I’ll bet! But explaining as if being obese is akin to being a victim of circumstance? No, I don’t buy that.”
We are at a winery that serves brunch on Sundays. It is very hot. I’m in a short sleeve dress. I feel sweat gather between my shoulder blades and run down my spine.
My mom is sitting across from me. She is wearing a blazer. Her face is flushed and she dabs her temples and forehead with a napkin. We are sitting at a long, foldable picnic table inside a warehouse. Wine barrels line the walls. Mom shrugs out of her blazer, and carefully drapes it over the back of her chair. She is in a modest black tank top.
“I hope no one thinks that I think my arms look good,” she says.
“Don’t talk like that,” I say. It comes out stern.
My daughter is next to me. She is in a pillowcase dress, one that ties with ribbons at the shoulders. She is playing with two forks, walking them along prong side down, making up a story in a low voice.
“Well aren’t you bossy,” Mom says. She is trying to keep it light, tease me. But I can tell that I’ve hurt her feelings.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Grey shouldn’t hear that kind of thing. You’re beautiful.”
No I’m not.
She shrugs. I can tell she is holding back.
My friend E is getting married. She is a few years younger than me, only eighteen. The bridesmaid dresses have arrived and we all go to her house to try them on.
I’m in mine, trying not to act embarrassed. It is strapless, cutting into my armpit fat. E’s mom walks around, making suggestions for each girl. She looks at me, and makes an announcement to the room.
“Everyone should consider a girdle.”
“Mom!” E says.
“These are tight. Nothing wrong with a little something to hold you in.” She pushes her own stomach in to demonstrate.
The day of the wedding, I realize that the undergarment I’ve procured isn’t going to work. It’s ribbed with hard plastic and the fishbone pattern shows through. For the second time, I decide to use duct tape. I’m wrapped so tightly that, when I sit down at the head table with the rest of the wedding party, I can’t breathe.
After E’s honeymoon, she invites us over to look at the wedding pictures.
“I love how this dress works for everyone,” she says, lingering on a picture of me.
As I walk to campus, I repeat positive affirmations. You are perfect just as you are, perfect just as you are.
I list the ways that I am grateful for my body. I can go on long hikes, pick up my child, have sex. But when I am in the classroom, I can’t shake the feeling that my belly is the focus of attention. Like it’s own entity. A bear smoking a pipe or something, right there at my middle.
Not just my stomach.
Loose underarms, double chin, swollen fingers, back fat.
“Notice meeee,” they say.
I email Dr. Patty Watkins, a professor in the psychology department at Oregon State University. She teaches courses in Fat Studies, and researches body image issues in relation to weight. When she emails me back, she includes a link to an article about her work with a cautionary note:
“The unfortunate thing about it is that it was published with a degrading, stereotypic image of what we call a
“headless fattie” which tends to dehumanize fat people and perpetuate weight bias.”
It is noon on a hot day, and my husband is standing in the living room, waiting for me. We are going to get lunch during his work break. I have on leggings and a bra, a pile of discarded tunics and dresses on the bed. I march to the laundry room and pull out clothing, steaming and wet. I sort through the pile, trying to find something that will work in this weather, that will cover my arms. I’m feeling anxious. I know that nothing I wear will make me feel comfortable today.
It is even hotter inside the restaurant. If I don’t shed some clothing, I’ll start to pour sweat. I pull of my cardigan, angry that I have to expose my skin, angry at this warm spring weather.
Dr. Watkins keeps handing me things: research studies, a printed chapter of a book that she co-authored, a blog post. She also lists things for me to look up online and she recommends an organization in Portland that helps individuals let go of food and weight obsession. She even adds me to her online class page as an observer.
She tells me that she doesn’t diet anymore, doesn’t weigh herself.
“Do you think that’s important for body acceptance?” I ask.
Her eyes widen. “Absolutely,” she says.
Scales that I remember:
A textured beige one with a needle pointer. Always out on the bathroom floor, between the toilet and the bathtub in my childhood home.
The doctor’s office scale. The progression after high school: 125, 135, 145. The thunk of the extra fifty-pound weight. That was when I started taking off my shoes and jacket first.
The white digital scale I purchased after moving into my first apartment and placed under my bathroom sink to use only when I was dieting.
A fancy one with Wi-Fi in our master bathroom. After I step on it, my weight and BMI are automatically beamed over the interwebs and onto a chart. The numbers fluctuate but have never gotten below 169.
I’m afraid that if I do away with my scale and dieting permanently, I’ll lose control and eat my way to non-functional.
Dr. Watkins tells me that I have to think about quality of life. That her mother is ninety and still thinking about body image.
What “letting myself go” means:
I lounge in oversized sequined sweatshirts and watch soap operas while the children are in school.
When my husband comes home he finds me on the couch, grease stains on my faded black yoga pants, uneven skin tone, large porous nose. The house smells like old food and dirty diapers, the kitchen counters are crusted with food.
My husband no longer finds me attractive, and begins looking for someone more attractive to have sex with.
My feet don’t fit in shoes. I wear slippers everywhere, even to the grocery store.
I am lonely.
My arms don’t hang straight down anymore.
The children don’t bring friends to the house because they are embarrassed. A few of them are also overweight, and it’s my fault. I give them hotdog dinners with paper-thin potato chips. Sometimes I add baby carrots. We eat in front of the TV.
I snort laugh at the screen, I slap my monstrous thigh. Food spittle flies onto my chest.
I will not do this anymore. I will not do this anymore. I will not do this anymore.
Layers of fat or not, I spoon at night with my husband, stick my bum in the nook under his belly. I leave the heel in the bread bag and lose pen caps, cooking oil lids, the other sock. I would like to eat popcorn for dinner every night, chase Grey stomping my feet so that she can feel me charging; catch her; spin her; give her a raspberry at the side of her belly button and do the same when she changes the name of the fruit (give me a blueberry, blackberry, gooseberry). I have difficulty deciphering analog clocks; grind my teeth when I see something cute; can’t pronounce “rural” correctly; love the smell of pine, mist on cement, and gas stations.
Substantia Jones is a body positivity activist. She photographs fat people in various states of undress.
They are perhaps even the women you’ve clucked at on the subway, rolled your eyes at in the market, or joked about with your friends.
I’m at a clothing store. Instead of avoiding the “plus size” section, I walk directly there and find several dresses size fourteen. I’ve been avoiding this size—squeezing myself into an ill-fitting twelve.
When the sales associate approaches, I momentarily consider behaving like I’m lost. I feel for the tag in the folds of a dress, rub it between my thumb and forefinger.
I’ll look at it and widen my eyes. Oh this isn’t where I meant to be.
I stand up straight and begin sifting through the rack with confidence. The hooks touch with a satisfying click, click. I look up at her and smile.
“Can I help you with anything?” she asks.
“I’m doing fine. Thank you!”
My enthusiasm hits a manic pitch, but she doesn’t seem to notice.
In the dressing room, I try on a denim peplum dress. When I look in the mirror I immediately feel anxious. I squeeze the visible armpit fat and wrinkle my nose in disgust.
I take a deep breath. This is me. This is my body. I wear what I want.
I want to know how to break free from the cycle. Dr. Watkins tells me, after fifty-six years, she is finally “body comfortable.”
She speaks quietly and her hair is carefully coiffed. The day is warming, and her office is getting stuffy. I wonder if she is comfortable in her blazer. She has a colorful silk scarf at her neck.
Notice the irony, how I scrutinize.
It’s a process,
it’s still hard,
society wants me to look a certain way,
there are setbacks,
sometimes it feels like I’m starting over.
I intend to just get my feet wet on the impromptu trip to the swimming hole next to the park. But Grey wants to sit in the water, and she wants me to sit too. So I do. The cold is shocking, and we are laughing, and there are all kinds of bodies here, laid out on the pebble riverbank, on the dark rock slab, in lawn chairs. My daughter scoops up a handful of rocks and tosses them.
After a while we get up and tip toe across, feeling for smooth stones on which to balance.
We come to the other side and stand, dripping, next to a row of sunbathing college students. My dress clings to me, but I don’t pull it away. I know that my dark underwear is visible, my purple lace bra. I know that you can trace the outline of my belly, the way it hangs, the panty line thigh bulge.
Grey steps on shore, water pools at each step, spreading in the coarse sand. Her shoulders are back.
She leads with her belly.
This is letting go.
MEGAN GOSS, a MFA candidate at Oregon State University, is interested in literature that challenges social norms. As a former pastry chef, she uses non-writing time making cakes for family and friends. She believes the secret to sustainable creativity is buttercream piped directly into one’s mouth. ☆ “My Body in Parts” was selected by Maggie Messitt as “Editor’s Choice” for the prize issue.