Last year I was having dinner at Burma Superstar when I overheard a conversation between the couple at a neighboring table. The woman was complaining because she got a piece of meat with fat on it, and the man replied, “I see fat, too!” He started cackling while she shushed him, and I realized they were both staring at me. I looked down and, sure enough, my shirt had ridden up and a fistful of flesh was exposed over the waistband of my jeans. It was humiliating. I spent the subsequent two months starving and biking and running off 15 pounds.
Like many women’s bodies, my form has been a public subject of discussion, concern, and dissection. When I was a chubby kid my parents would exclaim loudly about my pants size in retail dressing rooms. Once I developed hips and breasts they became fodder for classroom boys, who alternated between mocking my tits and trying to grab them when they thought nobody was looking.
All of this negative attention made a lasting impression. I grew to hate my body.
When I was 18, I had a surgical breast reduction, adding “scars” to my list of body shame sources. They’re lumpy, and they pucker at each end like an old woman’s smile.
I rarely talk about this self-hate because I’m ashamed that I’m ashamed – after all, there are many, many more important things going on in the world. But I’m exhausted from telling myself again and again that if I could just lose weight or wear clothes that hide my curves or find something else to be proud of or comfortable with, then maybe I’d be able to look at my naked reflection without wincing.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
I’ve only grown more uncomfortable in my own skin as I’ve aged, even though I run races and I eat healthfully and I’m in a happy, stable marriage. Is this a widespread phenomenon or am I just an extremely insecure narcissist? Can I blame TV and magazines, or can I blame only myself? I want the answer to these questions. I want to begin what I assume is a long and painful process of body acceptance, because I’m tired of being preoccupied by shame. Also, I’m pretty fucking sick of women being picked apart for their body “flaws,” but I guess that’s a whole other essay.
Body-related resolutions are a common start to a new year. Lose weight, work out more, become X size in Y amount of time. Fuck that. I want to be happy with my body, for what it is and for what it can become, if I choose to change it.
If some asshole in a restaurant dares to say something about the strip of skin and, yes, fat that’s hanging out over my pants, I want to have the courage to stare him in the eye and calmly will him to choke on his Rainbow Salad.
But how do I do that?
Moving to the Bay Area three years ago was a huge step for me, in terms of body acceptance. There’s this general “be who you are” air about the city that makes me feel less self-conscious. People here have healthier attitudes and healthier lifestyles, or maybe it just seems that way to someone who left her smoking and calzone habits back in Boston. Still, when you hang with San Franciscans, it’s hard not to adopt a love of outdoor activity, and of kale.
There seem to be two types of people who love their own bodies: Those who have attained some kind of corporal peace as a result of a physical or emotional transformation; and those lucky ducks who never thought not to love their bodies. I’m jealous of all of them.
Perhaps the most comfortable I’ve ever felt in my own skin was when I was half naked in front of an audience of strangers. Way back several relationships ago, I’d been freshly dumped by a guy who thought board games were more interesting than sex. When he broke up with me and then slithered off to a Settlers of Catan party, I knew that I had to do something to fish my ego out of the sewer. So I signed up for a burlesque class. I learned how to grind my hips and how to make nipple tassels spin in two different directions. There were a million body types in the class – different from the childhood ballet classes I eventually quit when I developed breasts because the teacher kept pointedly placing me in the back, away from the mirrors.
Burlesque class gave me some body power, so I entered an amateur contest. And came in second. The crowd loved my curves! Loved my terrible dance routine with its cliché striptease behind an umbrella. I did a few burlesque shows after that, and through them I met some incredible women of all shapes and sizes. And when I moved to San Francisco, they put me in touch with Dottie Lux.
Dottie is the creator of Red Hots Burlesque, a twice-weekly revue that features satirical performance pieces that are as funny and culturally on point as they are glamorous. Before I decided to write this piece I’d never actually met her in person – just gone to her show. It’s a little unnerving to sit down for whiskey with someone you’ve already seen nekkid. It feels backwards, actually. But I wanted her opinion on my “journey” because she’s passionate about preaching body acceptance through her performances and via the educational branch of Red Hots, the School of Shimmy. Plus, Dottie might be the perfect role model for someone like me: She’s loved breasts since before she had them and she cherishes her rack. She has gorgeous curves and food tattoos and she doesn’t really give a fuck what anyone else thinks of any of it.
In fact, Dottie tells me, nobody has the right to give a fuck about anyone else’s body, or to make comments about it, or to equate success or failure with weight fluctuation. I didn’t tell her about the Burma Superstar guy because I’m embarrassed that I gave him so much power.
Part of my body hatred is definitely related to discomfort with my sexuality. Being sexually harassed in the classroom before you even really know what sex is can leave you feeling pretty pissed off at your own breasts. It’s the feminine parts of me that have always caused the most angst. Pants never fit my hips correctly. I’m unnerved by my own cleavage. I can’t have sex unless I feel perfectly clean and groomed. I couldn’t even use the word “vagina” in that last sentence.
It never even occurred to me that I might be uncomfortable with my gender until I met Dana Morrigan, a writer, performer, and transgender woman who spent decades feeling like her feminine brain mismatched her male body, until she discovered the term “genderqueer” and it all began to click. I don’t feel male, per se, but I definitely don’t want to look female. Looking female means that I have these curvy parts that make it hard to shop for clothes and hard to go unnoticed.
As an overweight teenager, Dana loved wearing tank tops but stopped because they caused men to sexualize her as a girl – before she’d begun to identify as one. Years later, on the day she was ready to begin exploring her gender, she went to Old Navy and bought her first piece of women’s clothing – a purple tank top. She went home, put it on, and … didn’t arrive, exactly. But embarked. At our meeting she’s wearing a custom made tie-dyed halter top, and she looks beautiful in it.
Dana’s purple tank top has become, for me, the personification of self-acceptance. I want to find my own purple tank top, a symbolic, inaugural moment of “This is who I am and the world can fucking deal with it.”
I’m still looking. But I feel armed with encouragement. Both Dana and Dottie hugged me at the end of our meetings, both wished me luck with this internal struggle. Do you know how strange that is, how lucky you are, people of San Francisco? Most of the world isn’t like this.
If, in Boston, I’d tried to hug a stranger after rambling to them about my body for a few hours, I’d have gotten a coffee spilled over my head. East Coasters think that talking about feelings should be limited to “I’m feeling tired” or “I’m feeling uncomfortable with this conversation about feelings,” and that “journey” should be used only in the context of “That’s a wicked good Journey song.”
Living in San Francisco is slowly teaching me that I don’t have to be afraid of what I feel or how I look. Although one thing became clear pretty quickly since I’ve begun this introspection: My body isn’t the villain. That guy in Burma Superstar is.