It happened overnight. One day, my thighs were just there, just part of my legs, completely value-neutral. The next, I looked down at them, the way they spread out when I sat down, and I was disgusted at their pink pale flabbiness. I hated them. I couldn’t believe they were part of my body. I just wanted them to go away. I was 9.
More than 20 years later, not much has changed. High school was a blur of hating my body, showing it off and skipping lunch. Of bingeing on a can of vanilla frosting with my best friend and then vowing we wouldn’t eat for two days. Of skim milk-laced coffee for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was never any good at counting calories, but back then, I was entirely too good at fasting, and I went off to college weighing 90 pounds.
The Freshman 15 put me back to a healthy weight, and I stayed there, pretty happily, until my 24th birthday in September. I had just started my first desk job that July, and a combination of stress-eating, inactivity and takeout lunches had caused me to gain more weight than I was comfortable with. It all came to a head the night of my birthday when my mom started passing around old pictures of me: baby pictures; my first day of kindergarten; several from my awkward junior high years that I just wish could be burned; and a few of me in high school, 16 and sassy and painfully pin thin.
“Wow,” said one of my friends. “You used to be scary skinny.”
Now he meant this as a compliment, as in, “You look much better now.” But I heard it the way most women, I think, would have heard it: “Wow. You used to be skinny. Now you’re not.”
An hour later, when slices of my birthday cake were passed around with delicious melty homemade ice cream ladled on top, I didn’t take any. I irrationally kind of expected such a sacrifice on its own to cause the pounds to fall off – I mean, skipping my own birthday cake?!
Shockingly, though, when I looked in the mirror later that night, I realized that it was going to take more than passing up one slice of cake. With relative ease, I tapped back into my high school mentality and began skipping meals. Because I was no longer 16, though, it took more than that to get the scale to budge, and soon I was going to the gym every day, sometimes more than once. I was hungry and cranky all the time and not much fun to be around – but I did lose a bunch of weight. And then one of my coworkers offered me a peanut butter cup right after Halloween, and I, in a low blood sugar temper tantrum, screamed at her. Two days later, I started crying at another coworker’s baby shower at the Olive Garden because I couldn’t find anything low-carb on the menu and there was too much dressing on the salad. Those two incidents made me realize how bad I’d let it get, and although it wasn’t exactly easy, I was able to slowly develop a healthy relationship with food again.
Pregnancy, a fraught time weight-wise for many women, was kind of a wash for me: I lost weight during the first trimester because I threw up approximately 200 times a day, I gained a bit too much during the second trimester because I was so grateful to be able to eat again, and then I got sick again during the last trimester and it leveled off. But thanks to the magic of breastfeeding, I was back in normal pants again by the time I went back to work 12 weeks later.
I attempted to start Ruby on solids at 6 months, but to say she was not a fan is a gross understatement. Rice cereal, purées, avocado, cheese: Whatever it was, she would give me this betrayed look like, “Are you trying to poison me?!” and then spit the food out and cry until I nursed her. Her pediatrician told me breastmilk was sufficient until she was a year old, and after a full year of being her sole source of nutrition, I was scary skinny again, fitting into clothes I hadn’t fit into since high school (and yes, kept anyway).
Then two things happened at once. I weaned Ruby, and we moved to New Orleans.
And since then, it has been a constant struggle. Columbia, Mo., for all of its faults (most notably, not being New Orleans), was a very walkable city, and although I didn’t go out much during the winters, I kept fairly active the rest of the year. And the food there, though fattening, wasn’t all that tempting to me. I don’t like sausage gravy. I don’t like bratwurst. I don’t even particularly like frozen custard.
Oh, but here … here, there are oyster poor boys, King Cake, grits and grillades, snowballs dripping with condensed milk, rich sauces aplenty, beignets, pancetta mac and cheese, buttermilk drops, fried … well, fried everything – to say nothing of mimosas, Bloody Marys, strawberry Abita and drive-thru daiquiris.
In the three-plus years I’ve been here, I’ve easily put on 20 pounds – and when you’re 5 feet even, that does not go unnoticed.
There are days I am fine with this, when I say to myself: “It’s not worth depriving myself. I would rather have a little roundness in my face, a little softness in my stomach, than give up bread or pasta or ice cream. This is why God invented the empire waist.” There are days when I find a happy middle ground: “I will just eat until I am full and then stop. I can certainly have the occasional treat, but it needs to be truly, truly worth it.” And then, sadly, there are days when I am repulsed by my body, disgusted by my lack of willpower, frustrated that my pants don’t button, embarrassed by the snugness of my skirt, days when I swear I will never eat another dessert or drink another glass of wine until I drop at least a dress size.
And every day, whether it’s a good one or a bad one, I worry about what effect this will have on Ruby. In an era when both anorexia and obesity are running rampant among young girls, my own inconsistent body image just further muddies the waters. Right now, Ruby is a skinny kid, maybe even too skinny. Once I weaned her, she started eating because it beat starving, but she has never been a particularly voracious eater. I don’t want to pat myself on the back too much – the kid has eaten her share of McNuggets and Lunchables – but I do provide her with mostly healthy food options. I just wish it was as easy to provide her with a healthy body image.
Because right now, as far as she’s concerned, her thighs are just there, just part of her legs, completely value-neutral. I wish they could stay that way for her forever.