This essay is part of Motherwell’s new Parenting and Food column.
By Amye Archer
2 healthy parents
1 naturally skinny sister
1 apathetic gym teacher
20 teenage boys
1 boy named Aaron
2 twin daughters
1 black dress: size 13/14
Step One: Roll out 1 black dress size 13/14.
You are 14 and your grandfather has died. He drops dead while playing his drums. There is commotion, a frantic phone call, a calm, reserved decision to pull life support. You buy a black dress in the Junior’s section at JCPenney’s. It’s a size children’s 13/14. There is a photograph of you wearing it. You are outside [of] the funeral home. You have long, black hair that shimmers in the glow from a nearby overhead street light. Your hands are folded in front of you.
You don’t need to see the picture to remember every stitch and hem of that dress because it was the last time you visited the Junior’s section of any store. And in case you forget, your mother will remind you.
Step Two: Combine 20 teenage boys with 1 apathetic gym teacher.
You develop faster than the rest of the seventh grade. At 13, you are a C- cup, at least. You don’t know it then, but your oversized breasts will become a type of currency you learn to manipulate in your 20s . But at 13, they are a true burden you must carry through middle school. Other parts of you begin to develop with equal fervor. Your thighs begin to reach for one another, your chin finds its shadow, and you learn from your mother’s latest issue of Cosmo how to best minimize a muffin top.
This new breast development causes a stir in your co-ed gym class. In spring, when you move outside to run the mile, the boys line up like it’s the world series. All eyes are on you as you bounce and jiggle across the dirt track. They cat-call, whistle, yell out “Nice tits!” You pull your elbows tight against your body to anchor yourself, but the buoyancy is too powerful. Your face flushes with humiliation. You beg the gym teacher, a sixty-year-old former swimmer, to be excused. You have your period, you have a stomach virus, your house is on fire, anything to avoid this blatant display of objectification. She refuses. The way those boys look at you is baked in.
Step Three: Layer 2 healthy parents and 1 naturally skinny sister.
As the weight creeps onto your bones, your place in the family becomes distorted. Your parents are both runners, weight lifters, thin, lean, at peace with food. Your sister is naturally skinny. She wears a size 0 jeans and teases her bangs to the ceiling. The boys flock to her. You are a problem, an anomaly placed in front of them. Your father drags you to the gym with him three nights a week where you walk on a rotating belt as he runs laps around the indoor track. You turn the speed of the treadmill to 3.5 when he’s watching. 2.5 when he’s not. Walking is easy, running is impossible. You wear the biggest sports bra you can find. The 20 boys from gym class live in the walls of every fitness center you will ever visit. Their taunts will forever comprise your workout playlist.
Your mother declares the kitchen closed at 6pm. After a healthy, unseasoned and overbaked dinner, you are left to water and an occasional iced tea. You go to your friend’s house where you eat with ease after dark. Her mother offers you homemade chocolate chip cookies. Your heft drifts towards the sky. You feel accepted. Weightless.
Step Four: Mix in 1 ex-husband who reads Robert Frost and loves Kurt Cobain.
There is another dress. It’s a women’s size 18. It’s red with a deep V-neck and an empire waistline. It feels like a warm summer night against your skin. The curves of your body fall into place. You wear it to your boyfriend’s semi-formal. You are 16, he is 18. You will marry him in eight years and divorce him in nine. But that night, you in the bend of his arm, his breath against your neck, you fall hopelessly in love. That night became the night against which your beauty would always be measured. Years later, as your weight climbed and the love drained from your marriage, he would ask—Remember how beautiful you looked in that dress on that night? It was as if that version of you—young, beautiful, thin, and sexy—was an island you could never again reach, not by swimming, by boat, by rocketship.
Step Five: Add separately 1 boy named Aaron.
You are 27 and divorced. You have spent the last eighteen months starving yourself to lose 100 pounds. When you reach your goal weight, you cry. You buy a million short dresses and skirts. Seventy bathing suits. Thirty pairs of shoes with heels. You walk like you’ve been inflated with helium.
You meet a boy who likes poetry. You tell him you’re a writer, maybe a good one. He smiles and asks you to get on your knees and look at the ceiling. I want to see what you’d look like giving me a blow job. You meet another who offers to teach you to play guitar. One night, as you’re working on Behind Blue Eyes by The Who, he suggests you start tanning. It will thin out your legs. Another night, after you disclose your weight loss, a boy you think you’ve been dating furrows his brow and says, If you lost another twenty-five pounds, you’d be unstoppable. I would date you in a heartbeat.
You reconnect with a boy from kindergarten. He doesn’t know the gym class boys. He doesn’t care about the dresses. He listens to your poems with open palms. You marry him and carry his babies. Your wedding dress is a maternity skirt and blouse. The only thing abnormally large about you on that day is your smile.
Step Six: Fold in twin daughters and hope for the best.
Your daughters become teenagers. You inspect them for signs of abnormal growth. You clench your fists and listen for the gym class boys. You hide your scale from them, don’t let them see your daily weigh-in. You keep the kitchen open after dinner. For their sake, you fake a love for your body long enough that by your 40th birthday, you even start to believe it.
Amye Archer is the author of Fat Girl, Skinny: A Memoir, and the co-editor of If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings. She co-hosts the podcast Gen X, This is Why. She is mom to thirteen-year-old twin girls, her biggest production yet.
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