I wrote this piece after the election, but I don’t want to talk about politics. We’ve had enough of that this week. Just this morning I was told by a man on Facebook that I was “extremely arrogant” for expressing my political views. So I’m not even going to mention the election, or even tell you who I voted for. It will have to remain a yuuuuge mystery. I promise this piece will be absolutely unbiased toward any candidate or gender.
Just kidding, I love Hillary Clinton and this piece is specifically all about women’s bodies.
Having a body is incredibly hard. I suppose it’s better than having no body, though. Having people care about your body can also be hard. Although I suppose it’s better than being cared about by no body.
Having a female body is especially hard. As a little girl, I had an extremely tall body. All through grade school, I towered over all of my other friends. “You’re only eight? You look so much older, you’re so much bigger than everyone, you’re only 10?” Doctors projected that I would be six feet tall as an adult. But as we all know, sometimes projections by really smart people aren’t correct in the long run.
Around 14 or 15, my tall body engaged with my teenage spirit by saying, “Meh, this is probably good enough” and just stopped adding inches – vertically, anyway. Everyone shot up past me, but I still used the language of tall people: “Let me get that for you, I’m tall.” “I’ll stand in the back for this picture, I’m tall.” “Do you have these jeans in a tall? I’m tall.” When I got to college and made a bunch of new friends, friends that hadn’t grown up with me, they teased me, “Why do you always say you’re tall? You’re actually kind of short.” I still had the muscle memory of being told repeatedly that my body was hilariously out of place, but that I was lucky because one day as an adult I would enjoy a long, giraffe-gazelle body that would inspire jealousy in everyone, because this is how we talk about female bodies.
I’m 37, it should be here any day now…tick tock, I wait on my gazelle body. I don’t – no, what really happened was I had to look in a mirror for a long time one night in college and explain to myself that I was wrong about who I thought I was. That I was only 5’6” and would only ever be 5’6”, a height everyone referred to as “average.” I remember breathing a huge sigh of relief; after all, gazelles are prey animals.
Having a female body is especially hard. As a little girl, my mom brought me a book she had purchased which explained what was going to happen to me during puberty. I sat, mouth hanging open, and argued with her ferociously, “That is bullshit! I am NOT doing any of that!” She seemed concerned about my complete rejection of the entire idea of growing up. I pushed her stupid “changing bodies” book back into her hands, but a year later, despite all my efforts to prevent my body from changing, it did anyway. I sheepishly walked into her room one night and said, “Can I have that book now? And can you buy me some of those whatevers? And also I guess I need deodorant and razors and bras now, too. And NEVER TALK ABOUT THIS TO ME UNLESS I TALK ABOUT IT FIRST.” My friends are familiar with this line. It’s not that I live in denial, it’s that I have a sort of exaggerated fight-or-flight system built into my body, and need to ease myself into new ideas and changing bodies.
Having a female body is especially hard. Everyone wants to talk about it and look at it and think about it, which is really the worst because who knows what kind of trouble you’re getting into in other people’s heads.
I took my changing body to college and made friends with a ballet dancer who had weekly weigh-ins as part of her curriculum. “We should start taking ephedrine,” she suggested casually while grocery shopping one night. I said sure because it was college and you say sure to everything people suggest and also because the ephedrine was right there in the grocery store in a yellow box enthusiastically labeled “Fat Burner!” If it was sold in a grocery store, it had to be safe.
We took ephedrine together for a while and then she stopped and I didn’t. I went back to the grocery store and bought an endless supply. I took it for almost a year. Instead of gaining the “freshman 15” I lost nearly 60 pounds in a matter of months. You could see each of the bones in my back when I wore a tank top. Everyone told me I looked amazing and that they were so proud of me. I got a boyfriend. He told me to keep it up. I nibbled mindlessly on junk food for dinner and survived mostly on Mountain Dew and coffee. I was taking up to twelve fat burners a day and sleeping pills at night, or not sleeping at all. Sometimes I would lose track and just have one long continuous day.
I started failing school. But I wasn’t fat, at least. The thing is, I hadn’t really been fat to begin with. I had just been comparing myself to a teenage ballerina who had said “we” should try ephedrine and if her body wasn’t good enough, mine must have been terrible.
Someone once told me that I should try to look the way I did my first year in college. They said, “I thought you looked really great, then.” And I laughed and said “Well yeah, man, everyone looks really great when they are 18 and on speed.” And then when he walked away I cried because, fuck.
One of my female professors pulled me aside after class one day and said, “You’re eating the inside of your mouth during my class, you’re a shaking jittery mess and you are starting to disappear. Don’t do that.” Then she walked away. It wasn’t a beautiful heart to heart; she wasn’t a concerned mother figure. I don’t even remember her name. I thought it was sort of bitchy, actually. And yet, it seeped in slowly over the next few months as I slowly removed the boyfriend and the pills, which are now considered an illegal drug and no longer sold in grocery stores.
Having a female body is especially hard. Having a fat one is even harder. I can say that but you can’t. You also don’t need to call me big or heavy-set or plus size or round or hearty or chubby or funny or sassy if you really mean fat. Unless you are my sister, and by that I don’t mean one of the four skinny broads I grew up with, I mean unless you are also a fat girl, you don’t need to call me anything but Brooke. One time I was eating an exceptionally delicious apple and I said, “Mm, this is an exceptionally delicious apple!” and my very thin, very well intentioned friend responded with, “See! Fruit is delicious!” To my surprise, I didn’t shove the apple core directly into her eye socket, but instead calmly explained to her that no one, and I mean no one, knows more about fruits and vegetables and salads and smoothies and calories and diets than a fat girl so don’t even play.
After I finished losing lots of weight quickly in college, I started gaining lots of weight quickly. I have alternately cared and not cared about this. When I’ve cared, I’ve worked really hard and focused all my time and attention on it. I’ve trained like a marathon runner with diets and special groceries and pep talks and what feels like almost constant sacrifice. When I’ve not really cared, I have sat and listened patiently while other people talk to me about my body and how they are just concerned for my health. I have been mocked and monitored and told I should dress differently. But listen, I’m always gonna wear tank tops because they are comfortable and what does arm flab have to do with anything anyway.
When you are fat, people assume you hate yourself as a full time job. They assume you have no confidence and then when you prove them wrong they become sort of angry. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked out on dates by men who have said in the asking, “I actually like women your size” and “I’m really into big girls” only to be shocked when I immediately turned them down. There is a fat community, and only other fat or formerly fat people belong to it. It exists when any two or more fat people find each other. We don’t all stand around talking about how much we love cake or how we wish we were thin. We mostly talk about all the ways we’ve experienced people just not being able to handle us. When a fat woman starts to lose weight, people are really supportive until she starts edging too close to being average size. Then everyone looks at her and thinks, “Oh, you’re real? You’re an actual person? And you’ve been here this whole time?” I can try to explain it further, but only members of the fat community are going to understand this; that the way people treat you when you are gaining weight is tough, but nothing is as tough as the way they treat you when you are losing it. Being fat is something I don’t love and it’s something I don’t hate, it’s just something I am. I’ve lost almost 25 pounds in the last three months because I’ve decided it’s time but don’t talk about it again unless I bring it up, got it?
There are so many things you’re supposed to do with a female body. Dress it up, squeeze it into tight clothes, paint it, rub different types of lotions all over it at different times of the day and night. Wash it, dry it, inspect it for flaws, cut it, curl it, shave it, wax it, press your cool hands against your warm face to take down the blushing when you get embarrassed, dig your fingernails into the palms of your hands so you don’t cry, sit on the edge of your tub and heave big uncontrollable sobs that feel like they are coming from the center of the earth. Walk your body down the street and hope no one yells at it. Stand with your ass against the wall and hope no one grabs it. Always keep one hand on your purse and hope no one grabs it. Go out of your way to disguise the fact that you fart and pee and poop and bleed and burp and vomit and blow snot out of your nose and if anyone catches on that you might engage in these activities, apologize. Always have, in the back of your mind somewhere, a plan for what you will do if you are raped by this date, this cab driver, this guy walking down the street towards you. Walk up a steep flight of stairs in heels. Walk down a steep flight of stairs in heels. Lose weight. More. More. Put elastic bands in your hair and around your chest and around your waist. Smile too much, see a picture of yourself smiling, think you have an ugly smile and practice smiling in the mirror. Smile too little, be told you don’t smile enough. Be told to smile. Be told, every damn day and night by every damn stranger on the street to SMILE, you would be so much prettier if you smiled. Be reduced to nothing more than a decoration, like a flower or a vase, and then still feel like you are failing when you disappoint strangers for not being a good enough object. Have cramps. Have a baby. Be unable to have a baby even though you want one. Become pregnant with a baby you don’t want. Have it painfully but safely and legally removed. Have it delivered and then feed it milk from your breasts which, whoa! And also, what?! Have a baby and give it away. Have the U.S. Government decide for you what you should do about having or not having a baby. Get highlights. Get lowlights. Go gray. Turn into your mother. Cry with pride in a voting booth when you vote for a woman president. Cry with grief on the street outside an election party when she loses. Wear Spanx. Have your heart break into a million shards while you stand there in uncomfortable shoes and smile and smile and smile forever, because having a female body is especially hard.
But not impossible. The thing to remember is that a female body is also incredibly capable and beautiful and magical. If you have a female body you have a choice about what to do with it, and if someone takes that choice away you have a choice about how you want to handle it.
Your body is not too tall or short or fat or thin or old or anything else, it’s a reflection of where you are today, and it belongs to you completely, and that’s all that matters.
Brooke Allen is a playwright, veterinary receptionist, cat mother and storyteller. Her plays Ruby Wilder, The Life and Death of Madam Barker, and The Deer have been produced through Chicago, New York, Osaka and London. You may have seen her perform in You’re Being Ridiculous, Story Sessions, Mortified, Guts & Glory, Write Club (Which she WON), That’s All She Wrote, Paper Machete or Essay Fiesta. She is published in the essay collection “The Awkward Phase.” Great job, Brooke.
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