A while back, I started a self-improvement project, inspired by Jenny Lawson, the Great Bloggess. To read about the origin of my project, look here. For the short version, each week I will set out to conquer something that is holding me back from being the person I want to be. A relationship, a memory, a fear. . .anything that makes me less than I am. I will attack each challenge wearing my red dress as a cape for inspiration and as a symbol of the superheroes we all are inside. My goal is to undertake the daunting task of taking one crazy, neurotic, and mentally unstable woman and molding her into a productive member of our crazy, neurotic, and mentally unstable society.
I had a bit of a scare at the mall last week. I was paying homage at one of the triumverate of my Holy Trinity, H&M,*
*The other two being Target and Starbucks
when I discovered some darling denim shorts on the sale rack. Snatching them up with unbridled glee I scurried off to the dressing room and was just zipping them up when I turned to discover that a strange woman with cellulite and cankles had followed me in there. I shrieked like Fran Drescher with her hand caught in a blender and hurled my purse at the woman, only to have it ricochet off the mirror and leave a rather unfortunate mark on my left arm. Yeah. . .that strange woman was me.
Due to multiple extenuating circumstances over these last couple of years. . .*
*Not the least of which is my propensity for lying on the couch eating Wheat Thins and watching "What Not To Wear"
. . .I have gained some weight. Not enough to qualify me for gastric bypass or a "Chub Chasers" ad on Craigslist, but enough so that clothing over a year old is as useless as Paris Hilton at a spelling bee. Despite exercising regularly and attempting to eat right, my 41 year old body has dug in its heels and proceeded to beat my metabolism like a Gitmo detainee. On a rational level, I know that my body weight is healthy and normal. But for someone with my history of disordered eating and my whickety-whack body image, anything other than underweight will always be distressing to me; that simply is what it is.
Eating disorders are a lot like alcoholism,*
*Both of which I have. . .yay me!
but in my experience, the food demon is harder to tame. With alcohol, it's all black-and-white: you lock up the tiger and never let it out. But with an eating disorder, you have to lock up the tiger, then take him out for a walk three to five times a day; it isn't nearly as cut and dried. My eating disorder will always be in my head, but whereas before its voice would drive me to exercise for five hours on 300 calories, now I can tell it to fuck off and and go eat a sandwich. . .but it's always there.
Unfortunately, while I no longer allow my eating disorder to compromise my health, it does still affect my self-esteem and my daily activities. I won't go to the 7:00am Pilates class because the skinny girls all go to that one, I won't visit the Starbucks near my old house because I'm so much heavier than when I used to go there and I worry they'll judge me, I won't eat fattening foods in public because I think people are saying "she doesn't need that", and I haven't worn a swimsuit in three years. You heard me. Three. Years. With summer approaching, my short people have been begging to go to the water park, and while I did say yes, my son M said "Why don't you ever swim with us, Mommy? I really want you to swim with me." Ouch. I always thought that if I was eating and exercising in a healthy manner around my children, and not saying disparaging things about my body, my eating disorder wouldn't affect them. Apparently I was wrong. The thought that this monster in my head that spent so many years trying to kill me was now hurting my kids sent me into an unholy rage as I will be DAMNED if any part of me compromises my childrens' happiness. So, this week's Red Dress Challenge was born -- buy my first swimsuit in three years. God help us all.
As I'm never one to venture off without backup, I decided to rope in one of my homegirls. Since Misty, Bex, and Jess all live over a thousand miles away and Kelly looks WAY too much like a "Friends" era Courteney Cox,*
*That level of jealousy could lead to manslaughter in a fitting room, people
I enlisted the aid of my friend Gina who is four months pregnant and therefore apt to be the only person at the store more nauseous and bloated than I. We entered Old Navy with a goal in mind and credit card in hand.
If you hook a sister up I may even forgive you for putting Robin Thicke in your goddamned commercials.
GINA: I need to pee again; this kid has been doing the 'Riverdance' on my bladder since 5am. (pause) Dude, is there a reason you look like you're about to get a pap smear from Josef Mengele?
ME: If there is anything in this world that I hate more than creamy peanut butter, Kristen Stewart, and ESPN, it's swimsuit shopping.
GINA: When was the last time you bought one?
ME: About four years ago, right after I had mono. God, I was so skinny then. I need to get mono again! Maybe I should start tongue-kissing the undergrads on campus!
GINA ((snort)): What do you mean "start"?
ME: Oh, you should talk. If you'd kept that nickel between your knees like a good girl you wouldn't be in this predicament right now, you whore.*
*For the record, Gina is happily married. . .to my friend Alex. . .that boy deserves a medal.
While Gina scuttled off to the restroom for the four billionth time, I started shuffling through the racks like a Vegas pit boss. By the time she returned, I'd amassed a few likely candidates from the spandex jungle.
GINA (plunking dramatically into an armchair): Jesus! Do I really have five more months of this to look forward to? I'm already huge. Is it normal to be this big at four months?
ME (shrugging): Isn't having a big baby a GOOD thing?
GINA: Yeah, but not THIS big! I'm thinking of taking up smoking; I hear it stunts their growth. Or crack! Crack would be good. Then I'd have the benefit of not being so damned tired all the time.
ME: Ha! Don't you wish you'd embraced my lifestyle of hedonism and lethargy in stead of being all healthy and responsible and shit? Who's laughing now, hmm?
GINA: I stand corrected. OK, Dara Torres, are you actually going to try any of those on or just stand here babbling while you delay the inevitable?
ME: OK, OK, I'm going. . .
But as I started toward the fitting room, I was suddenly caught in a maelstrom of Clearasil and Bonne Bell as a horde of waifish young Jennifer Lawrence clones emerged giggling from the stalls to pose for one another in their swimwear. Looking at them, I couldn't help but sigh nostalgically.
ME: You know, I used to look like that in a bikini.
GINA (absently texting on her phone): Seriously? When?
ME: Oh, back in the year 2000-and-fuck you!
GINA: Jeez! Sorry! Defensive much?
I mumbled a ham-handed apology at her and began my Bataan Death March-like walk back to the fitting room stalls. The first one I tried on was a one-piece which is never a good choice for me as despite my short stature I have a ridiculously long waist. This one pulled down so far in front and gave me such a brutal wedgina that I could practically hear my ovaries crying out for mercy, but I thought I'd let someone more objective cast a vote. I wasn't out of the room for three seconds before Gina erupted into paroxysms of laughter, sputtering so hysterically that the only coherent words I could glean were "camel toe" and "Borat". Aaaaaannnnd, no. Back to the drawing board.
The next one I tried was a patriotic stars and stripes number, and one I thought actually had some potential. I pranced out of the fitting room feeling pretty saucy and smug. Gina, however, simply stared at me in stunned silence.
God bless America.
GINA: It's the American flag.
ME: Yeah! Cute, right?
GINA: But. . .it's the AMERICAN FLAG.
ME: Yeah, I know. So what?
GINA: I don't know. I guess. . .well. . .if you have about six billion rules on how to fly it, fold it and dispose of it, I'm pretty sure that rubbing it up against your va-jay-jay is not OK. But, hey! What says "American Pride" more than slutty swimwear, cheap beer, and "Girls Gone Wild"? U-S-A! U-S-A!
I sweetly flipped Gina the bird and returned to the fitting room for round three, but the sight of my nether regions in bootie shorts had the shock value of a Tijuana donkey show so I quickly changed back into my clothes before emerging dejectedly. A concerned saleswoman must have seen that I was dangerously close to bursting into tears like a fat chick at a Clay Aiken concert because she raced immediately to my side.
SALESGIRL: Can I help you?
ME: Yes. Apparently someone has photoshopped a narwhal on my ass and I am in desperate need of either an emergency liposuction or an ungodly amount of illegal phen fen. Do you have either of those in the back?
SALESGIRL: You aren't fat! You're just very muscular. You're obviously quite athletic.
GINA: Yeah! If throwing her opinion around and running her mouth count as athletic she's a goddamned Olympian!
ME (to the salesgirl after shooting Gina a withering glare): Look, I'm realistic. I'm not asking to be a Koutrney; maybe just something a little less Khloe and a little more Kim.
The salesgirl obviously spoke fluent Kardashian because she simply nodded sagely and headed off in quest of the perfect suit. As she did, I couldn't help but note how odd it was that someone who laid eyes on my just thirty seconds ago was a better judge of my body than the person who'd been living in it for almost 42 years. I guess when I see myself, I still don't see 41 year old Jen, I see 25 year old Jen, because that's the person I feel like inside. It is still unfathomable for me to wrap my twisted brain around the fact that the metabolically-charged, size-two body I used to know has crept away in the night like a dime-store hooker and left this body in its wake. But then I thought of all this body has done since I was 25. It has run 13 marathons, it has learned to rock-climb, fire a gun, and shoot a bow and arrow. It has completed a Master's degree, started a doctoral program, hugged countless people, written countless letters, papers, and blogs, and most importantly; it has given birth to the most extraordinary short people on the planet. To be fair, I had to give the old girl some credit.
As I tried on the suits the salesgirl brought to me, I was again impressed with her keen eye. She chose colors and patterns that flattered my skin tone, and the sizes were spot on. I was still hesitant to look at myself dead-on, however, and was praying for one of those gauzy filters over the mirror like they used when filming 'Dynasty' after Joan Collins and Lynda Evans aged out. Instead, I improvised by squinting one eye and looking lazily out of the other for the perfect blurred effect.
GINA: What's with your face? Oh my God, are you having a stroke!?!?
ME (squinting and turning in front of the mirror): Shut up, I'm visualizing.
GINA: You look like Oprah Winfrey in "The Color Purple". Ooh! Quick! Say, "All my life I's had to fight! A girl child ain't safe in a house fulla mens".
ME: Bitch, please. If I had a "house fulla mens" do you really think I'd be standing here checking out my own ass in the mirror?
I squinted and scowled a few more times but finally my unquenchable curiosity and raging case of vertigo forced me to open my eyes and. . .huh. Not bad. Maybe I didn't look like Elle MacPherson, but then again I didn't look like a Telletubby either so, that's something. . .right? The cut of the suit was flattering and age-appropriate, the colors were just vibrant enough to give my pasty Northwestern skin the illusion of a tan, and I'll be damned if it wasn't on sale too. I thanked the salesgirl. . .*
*I may have hugged her too. And possibly cried. I will neither confirm nor deny this statement
. . .paid for the suit, and took Gina out for a well-deserved smoothie. Will I ever be truly comfortable with my body? Probably not, but that will never again stop me from being the mother I want to be. As little girls, we are goddesses; we stand atop the jungle gyms and treetops with arms held high believing we are industructible and glorious and powerful. Then, inexplicably, that goddess slowly dies. She is replaced by shame, and degradation, and self-loathing, and we suddenly no longer see our bodies as instruments of greatness, but as something that must be punished and whittled away. I spent years trying to make myself "less" and all it did was make me tired and sad. I want to be "more". Not just for me, but for my children, and for the legion of little girls out there who are slowly sinking into the same abyss. Be more. Buy a crazy swimsuit and jump into the chilly ocean. Call in sick to work and drive somewhere you've never been. Go back to school. Go back to work. Spend the day making your children laugh. Learn Italian. Build a tree fort. Learn to play the drums. Eat ice cream for breakfast. Let yourself love someone again. Let that someone be you.
Be kind to yourself.