Last week I sat at a booth at the Humboldt Made Fair right across from an information table about The Ink People, a community arts organization I love with a fiery passion. Next to the table was a display of mannequin heads topped with brightly colored wigs and a dark poster with a tiara in the middle. It said something about a beauty pageant for teens. As I read the information about Factory Girl, the program putting on the fundraising pageant, I became more and more confused. Where’s the stuff about diversity and acceptance? This couldn’t really be a pageant pageant, could it?
Fortunately, Ryan Burns was confused too, so he took the time to research, talk to people, and write about it. Thanks, Ryan. I started out this post with the intention of writing my thoughts about the article and the pageant, but then I noticed that Jen had done just that in her own personal and insightful way. I really don’t think there’s anything more I could possibly say about this oddity, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking about body image in general.
I was a round child. My face was shaped like the full moon, punctuated with a small crater that showed only when I smiled or grimaced. My stomach was moon-shaped as well. My legs were sturdy, my arms – creased at their uppermost parts, my collarbones – nonexistent. Now that I’m an adult, do you know what has changed? Not much.
I was a healthy, active kid, and I loved my body. I could swing upside-down around metal bars on the playground. I could rollerskate in wide graceful circles, both backward and forward, and spin until I was dizzy and breathless while still remaining upright. I could climb high into my favorite apple tree and settle myself into a nook of branches with a book, a sweet snack growing right above my head. I remained round.
As I began to edge toward my teen years, people began saying things to me – kind yet ignorant attempts to make me feel better about a body I hadn’t yet learned to despise. “You just wait until that baby fat comes off. You’re going to be a real beauty.” The ubiquitous “You have such a pretty face” became synonymous with certain visiting relatives. As the years passed, and the baby fat hung on until it turned into teen fat, I began to realize that I would never look like any of the thin popular cheerleaders or the models in magazines.
But this is not the Story of a Fat Girl. The truth is, I haven’t spent years hating my body. Moments – absolutely. A few stints with diets and diet pills, angrily not being able to fit into just the right jeans, being afraid to meet someone new for fear they’d find me too fat – all part of my world plus many more. Though I’ve always been rounder than I’d like to be, I still haven’t spent days agonizing over my body. It is not the only thing that defines me. But I know plenty of women whose bodies do define them.
I remember watching my friend Kathy rip open 20 packets of Sweet ‘n Low and pour them directly into her mouth because she was so hungry from dieting. A suite mate at college used to make herself throw up after any meal she allowed herself to eat. I’ve watched members of my own family – thin the majority of their lives – go on one diet after another, attempting yet never attaining their skewed perception of perfection. The list goes on.
Two years ago, my gall bladder was shriveling up and dying inside my body. I was terribly sick, and for over six months, I endured doctor visits and invasive tests – all trying to diagnose what was wrong with me. I stopped being able to eat anything with any amount of fat in it. Then I stopped being able to eat anything with fiber. Before I finally went to the emergency room with pain so bad I could barely stand up, I was living on white bread with jam and root beer. This nutritious diet resulted in a 40 pound weight loss.
After getting a healthy dose of demerol at the hospital, I got out of bed to use the bathroom around the corner. In the plastic window of the nurse’s station I saw myself reflected – dark circles underneath my eyes, stringy hair, shaky hands trying to close the widening gap in my flimsy gown. Just then I heard a familiar voice. My friend, Karen, there with a sick relative, came from behind the curtain.
“Wow. Look at you! You’ve lost a ton of weight.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled. “I’ve been really sick.”
“Well,” she laughed, “Keep being sick. You look great.”
Karen is not a bad person. She’s smart and funny, warm and loving. She simply lives in the society that we all do – a society where women’s bodies are objectified, degraded and policed every second of every day. Karen’s self-loathing is so deep that she would hope her friend would continue to be sick if it means her dress size would continue to shrink.
And this is what we do – to our daughters, our friends, each other and most of all, to ourselves. I wish I knew the way to make it stop. I do know that teaching girls that their worth is equal to the way their bodies look is not.
And for the record, Factory Girl, your program sounds fantastic. If this was a fundraising event where the young women involved were rocking their handmade adornments, especially some of those awesome stilt pants, down a catwalk in all their glorious beauty in whatever colors and sizes and shapes they happen to be, my friends and I would be there, cash in hand, in a hot second. Maybe next year.