Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Three Little Words

I left the house feeling sassy. Cute lil’ dress (color-blocked, as they say on Project Runway), necklace, cutey-cute shoes. Great fall toenail polish color (wine). Hair? So-so, still looking a little dark and stringy for my taste, but all in all, okay.  Happy to head to my friend’s house for a rare afternoon tea with friends . . . and with a local candidate. Looking pretty good, feeling pretty good. Even as though I could hold my own in a political conversation if 1) my legitimacy were to be based on cute outfit alone and 2) I kept my mouth shut, unless eating a bite of cheese dip or laughing approvingly at the candidate’s jokes.
So yes, I felt good.
At the soiree, I mingled, hugged my dear friend, the hostess with the mostest, and talked to other familiar friends. I introduced myself to the candidate, listened to her positions on all sorts of things, and liked her a lot. Beautiful, autumn Sunday afternoon? Check. A nice party with friends? Yep. A good day all around.
As I was leaving, I was introduced by a good friend to another woman, somewhat older than myself, whom I had not yet met. Within moments of meeting me, instead of wasting time with chit chat about celebrity gossip or the candidate’s stances on stuff, she got right down to business, looking me enthusiastically as she spoke, smiling:
“When are you due?”
Such was my ignorance (I’d like to call it humble naiveté) that I was genuinely confused.
“I’m sorry,” I said, smiling, happy because she was happy, briefly thinking to myself Dammit, what deadline did I miss now?, “Due with . . . ?” I grinned foolishly, leaning in, waiting for her to fill in the blank.
“Um,” she leaned in herself, obviously thinking that I was so adorable with my pregnancy-addled forgetful brain. Smiling broadly, she spelled it out slowly, as if to an absent-minded foreigner who doesn’t know the language: “Your baaabyyyy???”
Anyone who’s ever falsely been accused of carrying fruit in her womb can tell you the odd way that time stands still while your brain processes what you have just been told: I look so fat that this person thinks I am somewhere more than 16, but less than 40, weeks pregnant. While time is still standing still, the nonfruitbearer does two things instinctively: suck in her stomach with every abdominal muscle she’s ever dreamed of possessing and stand up straight. Oh, and a third, less noticeable thing: try not to cry.
"Me?!" I answered, my shock clear, “I’m not.” For clarity, and to talk through my surprise, I added a second, “I”m not,” followed by a bewildered and somewhat crazy sounding, “I’m not DUE with anything.” I couldn’t bring myself to say, “Pregnant.” Perhaps they removed my ability to even consider myself pregnant when they removed my uterus four years ago, but I found I couldn’t even form the word.
What fascinates me most about this whole experience, two weeks later, is my reaction. I did, indeed, struggle to keep myself from crying. Time did seem to stand still as I felt both embarrassed and sorry for the woman who asked, as though it was my responsibility to reassure her. It was work to stay smiling as I hugged folks goodbye, thanked my friend for her wonderful food and hospitality, and made my way to the door. If I were forced to make a video re-creation of the experience, I would hire a (thin) wide-eyed, befuddled-looking actress, making her way through the grass toward her car using that camera technique that makes everything look swaying and dizzy. There would be melodramatic, soap operaesque music playing as the victim climbs in her minivan and, crying steadily, turns the key. The actress would then bang her palms on the steering wheel, pleading to the heavens, WHY??!!! WHY??!!
Then all of that stuff would end up on the cutting room floor, because it wouldn’t be real. That’s not what really happened. The self-bashing, the drama, was all inside. Not visible to viewers. For it is inside of me where the memories lie, and I am both my harshest critic and biggest bully.
In the short drive home, I was a EKG report of emotions: up, down, down, up, up, down, up, down, down . . . down. Those three little words (“Um, your baby?”) were all the black magic necessary to zoom me back through years (nay, decades) of wishing for the dedication to have better eating habits. For the wanting to want to work out more. Back through the thousands of times I’ve made faces at myself in the mirror or thrown clothes off in disgust. Of memories of looking around and always being one of the largest people, if not THE largest person, in every room. They brought back memories of a freshman girl hanging a sign on her door that said, “DO NOT EAT, TRACY. YOU ARE FAT.” Of flipping through magazines knowing that none of the styles would work on my body. Of countless years of Weight Watchers, of losing 68 pounds, of gaining 20 back. Of watching my body go from young to older to older in the mirror, wishing I had the tenacity to be more fit.  Of the life-long struggle to practice what I preach: caring about the beauty inside a person, not outside. I would never care about or judge someone based on their appearance. Why couldn’t I spare myself the same abuse?

I never have. It’s a quiet little secret that I carry around within me, silently yelling at myself on the sly, and I know too many women (and men, and girls, and boys) do the same. 
Maybe it was losing my breasts, for many women the very definition of their physical appearance, that caused me to change. Maybe it’s age, wisdom, or being too tired to care. For you see, if the “UmYourBaby” experience had happened five or ten years ago, I would not have bounced back in the five minutes it takes to drive to my house from my friend’s. But a few Sundays ago, that’s exactly what I did.
Here’s the thing: I know that I’m not anywhere close to being obese. I’m a good ole’ size 12. I know that. So, why was it bothering me so much? More to the point: why has it consumed me for so many years?
I’m not sure I’ll ever know the answer. I’m blessed that my image struggles have never turned physically unhealthy or led me to harm myself. But sitting behind the steering wheel, driving with tears in my eyes, the disappointment in myself suddenly became entirely too ridiculous for me. Thinking I’m overweight, calling myself names, worrying about every last crumb I put in my mouth became, in one split second on my ride home, tremendously, tremendously exhausting. And stupid, pointless. I’ve worked hard to have the body I have today, and I’ve wasted way too much time in my life being too mean to it, physically and emotionally. I was finished.
Sure, I’ll struggle to accept myself and my not-perfect bod.  But it’s clear to me now that I’ve wasted too many good moments that would probably add up to too many good hours, days, even weeks of beating myself up for the way I look, for not being able to fit in a pair of pants with single-digit size. I’ve lost my breasts and, thanks to my quick-and-painful shove into early menopause, gained a lot of hips and stomach in the process. My body may not be a temple, but in it, I’ve done a whole lot of worshipping and have come to see that the old cliche about life being too short is not at all cliche. I’ll constantly strive to eat healthier and to exercise more, not because someone thinks I look a little pudgy or because I am literally afraid of the cellulite that is creeping up and down my legs like kudzu (Seriously. I’m afraid of it.), but because it’s good for me and I like it. My body’s not modelicious. It never will be, and I’m closer to being okay with that than I ever have been before.

What did the woman do, many of you are probably wondering, once she realized her gaffe? She just grinned and said, “Oops. I promised myself I would never do that to any woman.” But she didn’t apologize. Maybe she thought it was my it was my girth’s fault, not her own. And truly, I am laughing about it now. 
I find that this is a much less exhausting place to be. And I like myself more, which is super groovy. Plus, there’s a big upside: I still look fertile AND young enough to bear a child. 
I’ll take it.