I am very thin. I’ve always been thin, except for briefly when I was pregnant, and even then I didn’t gain much weight other than right at my belly and a little on my hips, and it was all gone within a month of my son’s birth. When I was in high school I was so slender that my mother took me to the doctor for weekly weigh-ins for over 2 months until, after I never lost a pound, the doctor informed her there was no way that I had an eating disorder, thyroid problem, or anything of the like.
I know that I am very lucky. I know that I don’t always eat as well as I could, exercise as well as I could, and yet I have never drifted above 138 pounds, and that was my absolute heaviest, right in the center of a deep, mid-winter depression.
In spite of that, I have never seen my body as thin and spent years covering it oddly. When I was in high school I shopped in the men’s section of clothing stores as often as the women’s. I’d stride down the hallways at school with 32” men’s cargo pants hanging off my hips and a thrift store button down draped loosely over my none-too-curvy frame as often as I wore skirts so short and goth-y that my mother stealthily disposed of them when she found them in the laundry room.
I was a fashion disaster, not just because I had no fashion sense whatsoever (which I did not), but also because, in hindsight, I realize I’ve probably spent over 14 years with a certain level of body dysmorphia. When I look in the mirror, or look down at my body, I genuinely, honest-to-god see myself as much heavier than I am, my legs thicker and less toned than they are, my belly more protruding and rounded, my whole frame smashed down as if in a fun house mirror.
I remember I once saw a photograph of a woman. I thought she was gorgeous – slender and graceful and elegant. Then I looked again and realized it was a photograph of me. Like some sort of strange simulation, I watched as the image shifted and morphed. The woman – myself – became clumsy, and I suddenly saw all of her flaws appear. She ceased to be beautiful. Something inside me screamed as I witnessed this change. Something inside me knew that this was all terribly wrong.
How does this even happen? How did it happen to me? I don’t entirely know. I do know that we live in a culture where no girl is ever really skinny enough, ever really pretty enough. I do know that in spite of my parents’ best efforts to keep me from those damaging elements of popular culture there is only so much you can protect a daughter from.
I do know that I spent from the 4th grade through the 7th grade being mercilessly teased about everything from my taste in television to my toes’ tendency to point toward one another (now, ironically, “sexy” when I wear heels). It was never my weight that took any of the harassment, but my body got far more than its fair share of criticisms. My lips’ sensitivity to chapping, the dark circles under my eyes born of forcing myself awake due to the horrible nightmares I suffered from.
I also spent 6 years with a man who told me that I would not be considered skinny at all in Europe, and, in fact, were we to visit, I would be considered heavy. And that I was certainly not skinny for New York City, either. Maybe I was sort of thin in fat-ass Pittsburgh, though. He would concede that, at least. What person is not, in the end, affected by that kind of talk? I was foolish – I thought he loved me.
About 2 years ago I began buying clothing that, style-wise, looked better on me, but I bought it all 2 sizes too large. Skirts rested at my hips that should have fit to my waist. I bought flowing hippie dresses to hide what I saw as my unattractive body. I looked at my face and I didn’t see a face, but a collection of features. I looked at my body and didn’t see a body but a collection of parts, all strangely sized and shoved together.
I used to be very bad at picking up on it when men would flirt with me. I have been accused more than once of encouraging attention I didn’t realize I was even receiving. I didn’t see myself as pretty enough to get attention. When someone would make a comment like, “You’re so thin!” or “You look really pretty!” I would blush and deny, deny, deny. People probably thought I was obnoxious, incapable of taking the simplest compliment.
These are all things I only began to cognitively understand about 7 months ago, and I only fully realized when I stepped outside of it all for a moment this past weekend while visiting with my partner. He’s forever telling me how pretty he thinks I am, and I usually get bashful and hide my face in his shoulder and try really hard not to argue with him on the point. I was getting ready to go out to dinner, trying to decide which leg wear looked best with my skirt. I stepped in front of the full-length mirror and balked at the pretty, slender girl who looked back at me.
Confused, I summoned my partner from the living room. Once he had joined me, I asked, “Is there something wrong with your mirror?” Now it was his turn to be puzzled. I pointed to the full-length mirror at the opposite wall. “Do I really look like that?”
He smiled and kissed my hair. “Yes. You’re completely gorgeous.”
And I almost cried.
About a year ago I was spending time with two of my lady friends. They’re both absolutely beautiful. (I’ve been accused of saying all my female friends are beautiful. I’m okay with this accusation.) We’d been drinking a little bit, and my two friends began to lament the flaws of their bodies – flaws that I would swear on a whole stack of Bibles (or whatever the agnostic equivalent would be – a whole stack of copies of Origin of the Species?) do not exist. I tried to argue with them, but they would have none of it. According to them, I was simply being nice. In their voices I heard my own.
I don’t think anyone needs to be thin, be a certain weight, look a certain way. Hell, I don’t think I do. What I’m trying to say here is that so many women, myself included, see ourselves in this horribly inaccurate way. We see only our flaws. We refuse to see our own beauty. My dysmorphia has primarily taken the form of seeing my body as strange and misshapen, as genuinely differently sized than it is, my face as a collection, rather than a face. Please do not think I am body-shaming. I’m shaming a culture and people who would try to shove these lenses onto a woman that cause her to see herself other than she is.
Image: Olivia Lilley
Margaret Bashaar’s poetry has been collected in 2 chapbooks – Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel (Blood Pudding Press, 2011) and Barefoot and Listening (Tilt, 2009) as well as in many literary journals and anthologies. She edits the chapbook micropress Hyacinth Girl Press, attempts to repair antique typewriters, and spends far too much time at haunted hotels in coal mining towns for her own good. She’s only been suspected of being possessed once and hopes to someday become a rogue taxidermist. She misses the Midwest. Follow her on Twitter @myhyacinthgirl