Coming out to my 91yo grandmother, that spring I first broke the news to her about dating a woman, did not proceed according to plan.
My mother’s mother took a long moment, squinting at me intently, before she spoke.
“So…when are you going to lose the weight?”
I sputtered back incoherently, shifting quickly into defensive mode while still trying to confirm if she had heard and understood what I had said. But once begun, Gram was not to be dissuaded. From critiquing my body, she moved on to my brother’s, and then my brother’s wife. When her litany of complaints reached the circumference of my preschool niece’s thighs, I stood up to leave the room.
“I don’t understand what happened,” my grandmother’s querulous lament followed me. “You used to be so young and thin.
“You used to be pretty.”
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This is not a story about living in a fat body, though I do and I could tell it. Nothing has felt so loud as flesh pressing out against my clothes, belly spreading across my seated thighs.
This is not a story about living in a thin body, either, though I have and I could tell it. Nothing has felt so fragile as bones emerging from flesh, the butterfly wing of my collarbone arching delicately below my throat.
This is a story about sight.
About the reclamation of seeing.
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Living through the verdict of someone else’s eyes, we are always vulnerable.
Just before I met the man I would later marry, I lost a third of my body weight in six months. Lost it through the proverbially healthy “diet and exercise” approach, like pacing my kitchen floor at 2am, wondering do I dare to eat a frozen grape. Lost it with the prayerful wish never to find it again.
When my new lover spoke three magical words — “you are beautiful” — I wept.
I wept because what I heard him saying was, “you are pretty.”
I heard: You are finally thin enough to be pretty. Thin enough to be looked at.
Thin enough to belong.
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The memory of that moment fuels my disgust with the Dove Real Beauty Sketches. Few designed-to-go-viral advertisements bother me more than these, which all build off the premise that every woman deserves to be told she is beautiful. (Which is mere stand-in for tell a woman she is beautiful — and she will buy your products.)
One of the best known of these advertisements is the 6-minute short, “You’re More Beautiful Than You Think.”
Perhaps you’ve seen it? A series of women sit down with their backs to a sketch artist, who then draws their faces according to the self-description each woman provides. Before she can see what he has crafted, however, the sketch artist does a second portrait, this time based off a description of the woman provided by another project participant. The grand reveal is meant to show how we are all more beautiful in the eyes of others than we let ourselves feel.
It’s not a horrid sentiment. It is, however, a horrid film.
All of the women are thin, conventionally attractive, and (with one exception) white. When asked “general questions” about the face of a woman they had met earlier, what word do they repeat again and again? “She was thin, so you could see her cheekbones.” “Her chin was a nice, thin chin.” “Her face was fairly thin.”
Asked to evaluate her portraits side by side, how does at least one woman describe what she sees? Her self-description, she says, “looks closed off and — fatter. Looks just kinda shut down, looks sadder too. The second one is more beautiful.” The whole commercial weeps even sappier tears than I had at my most grape-starved.
The word “beauty” used in this way is a lie, a trick. It is the brittleness of “pretty” dressed up in a mink coat.
Thin and pretty.
Thin as pretty.
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I can gauge how “pretty” I look to my family by how they treat me. At my thinnest, my father will take picture after picture of me. “Our daughter looks like a supermodel!” he once exclaimed in an aside to my mother — then bought us all champagne at dinner. My mother herself later told me that when I had passed the bread basket without taking a slice, she nearly wept from joy.
On fatter visits, they buy me not champagne but coats. Fall jackets, full-length raincoats, woolen overcoats. The coats are black or otherwise drab: navy blue, mud brown, olive green. Shapeless and voluminous, always with a hood to hide my bulky face. The last time I wore a gift from my mother in the rain, a cabbie refused to unlock his taxi doors until I first flipped back the hood and showed him my lack of menace.
During a recent winter visit, I refused my mother’s repeated offers to buy me yet another of these shrouds, showing off instead the coat I had recently acquired for myself: fitted, no hood, blood red.
If anyone, relative or not, is going to avert their eyes from me in public?
I want to be sure they have first seen what they are looking away from.
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Mine has never been a face one calls pretty. Nor have I much cultivated “pretty,” preferring to spend most of my adulthood somewhere on a continuum from “couldn’t be bothered” to “get out of my way.” I get angry, ugly haircuts that stylists occasionally refuse to perform, insisting that I see a barber instead or their coworker one chair over, who has less compunction about shaving a woman’s head to the felted length of putting-green grass.
I’m not sure what lies at the root of this: did I reject pretty, did pretty reject me? Did anger tempt me like forbidden fruit, or drive me forward with its drill instructor’s bark? Or maybe ugly simply felt like the safest travel companion, the only one of the lot that did not salivate at my approach but lumbered along in silence, grateful for whatever company I offered.
Nearly 20 years ago, I came across Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity, a book that spoke to me less through its language and more through the images Halberstam had collected: faces and bodies actively rejecting the terms I was wrestling.
Forget pretty, forget ugly, transmute angry.
[Beauty, though. That still shone through, spirit revealed through certain electric crackles in the eye or set of the jaw.]
A pair of photos by Catherine Opie haunted me. One, a delicate woman’s back with the word “DYKE” tattooed in ornate font across her neck; the other, the back of the photographer herself, with two stick figures and a child’s drawing of a house cut into her skin and bleeding. Why these two photographs?
Perhaps for all the days home feels carved into my back also, even as longing is painted across my face.
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I did not remain thin long, after getting married. The reacquisition process common to human metabolisms, in part, and also the fear that arose from living in a thin-pretty body, unprotected. Beneath their tender sheath of skin and muscle, my bones felt mere porcelain — one swift drop and they would shatter. Or perhaps the porcelain was my flesh itself, awaiting its own moment to break into pieces.
Nor have I returned to thin, five years after my divorce.
This fact distresses my mother immensely. We tried to discuss the issue once, each of us stepping carefully through our words as if they were landmines, both of us as reluctant to blow the other up as ourselves.
“I love you so much,” my mother explained, “that when I look at you, all I can feel is how that fat must feel. It must be so uncomfortable. I feel so uncomfortable, looking at you and loving you like I do.”
As I tried to explain how it seemed the furthest thing from loving, to tell me she feels physically unwell every time she looks at me — as I tried to suppress the shuddering desire to eject my mother from her imagined donning of my flesh, my body is not a coat for you to wear — I looked into her sad, stony face and knew no explanation could reach her. She needed this to be true; she needed this to be how a mother loves her only-and-precious daughter.
A quiet echo in my head: “So…when are you going to lose the weight?”
My mother hurts my feelings the same way her mother for so long hurt hers. She loves me the same way, too: just as she herself was mother-loved.
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Motion swells. Emotion swells.
Hearts can swell with pride or love. Bellies swell with new life. Music swells to its climax, and a swelling river overflows its banks. Swelling waves threaten arctic sea ice.
Swollen is the leftover and the damage. Swollen and bruised. Swollen ankles. The swollen rhetoric of a bombast.
“Your face looks the same as always, only swollen,” a long-time friend remarks on my continued weight gain of the past few years, then pops a hand over her mouth, abashed by what she has just said aloud.
“Yes. I look mostly the same,” I nod in soothing agreement.
The same, only not swollen. Swelling.
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I began trying to photograph myself at the start of this year, after several years of not only not taking selfies but also forbidding others from capturing my face.
I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
I captured fragments instead: one ear, the top of my head or the curve of my gut, the healing scar on my left leg. Anything but what made me not-pretty: what made me enough to turn my mother ill.
I last communicated with my mother on Valentine’s Day. While I ache each day to hear her voice, I will no longer make myself available to a love unable to distinguish between feeling hurt and causing hurt, between feeling shame and being shameful. Between her body and mine.
I hope one day we can repair the rift between us.
In the meantime, I have begun taking selfies.
“Fcuk Pretty” is part of an ongoing memory project.
The entire series can be found here.