Congratulations, and I’m sorry: An imaginary time-travel instant-message conversation with my 16-year-old self

Phona39: Hi

phona16: hi

Phona39: How are you?

phona16: fat. everyone knows you’re supposed to see three diamonds between your legs when you stand with your feet together in front of a full-length mirror. how much do you weigh?

Phona39: About a hundred and twelve pounds.

phona16: gross. why did you let yourself go? is it because you’re old and like it doesn’t matter anymore?

Phona39: Let me tell you something about your body, little P; and about the bodies of all the women in our family: You are on something of a time delay, with a rockin’ behind –

phona16; hee hee ew “behind” stop so lame

Phona39: – which will not even begin to reach its full potential until your mid-to-late twenties. You also have a predisposition for putting on muscle, and you are very strong. It turns out you find a lot of joy in movement.

phona16: i hate exercise

Phona39: No, you don’t. What you hate – and I don’t blame you – is second-period P.E. class at Gila Javelina High School in Tucson, Arizona. You hate running around in a field of sunburnt grass, being made fun of by the teacher and that little asshole Jason Collier, who, by the way, will serve six years in prison on drug-related conspiracy charges in the mid-90’s. Any sensible person would hate this. You hate the heat and you hate running and you’re basically a hologram before ten o’clock in the morning, and none of this will change, but there’s a lot you’re going to love, too.

phona16: like, i’ll love my family, right? do you have a lawyer husband?

Phona39: Not anymore.

phona16: WHY NOT. THAT WAS THE PLAN. don’t you have three children?

phona39:  No.

Phona16: oh, my god. you’re all alone?!????

Phona39: It’s really not that simple.

phona16: why did we even set this thing up

Phona39: What?

phona16: this wack talking thing

Phona39: Here’s the only way I can phrase it that you’ll sort of understand: Plans don’t always work out. Some things happen, and other things don’t happen. Sometimes we make deliberate choices; other times we get dramatic surprises. Sometimes we get our hearts broken in very important ways. Sometimes we realize we don’t want the things we thought we wanted – and actually, it turns out we actually want the things we were afraid of and trying to avoid.

phona16: well great, because for a minute i thought you were gonna be VAGUE about this

Phona39: It’s like – well, you know how you love Nestle Crunch bars? Milk chocolate with little bits of rice in it you get for 35 cents from the school vending machine? How that’s all you want sometimes, even though you try so hard not to?

phona16: um yeah

Phona39: It’s like that on a grand scale. A dozen years from now, you won’t want those at all.  They’ll taste like wax, because you’ll know better treats – raw cacao paired with a lush red wine in a basement club in Prague; a transcendent aged cheese plate with a group of smart, funny friends in Toronto; a cracking bowl of impromptu pasta and fresh veggies your girlfriend makes for the two of you share in bed.

phona 16: ???

Phona39: There are…circumstances. There are conditions at play that, were you living in a different culture, nation, or time, you would understand as fate, justice, or the will of the gods. Right now, you live in black and white, but the grays are coming and they’re coming for you. Congratulations, and I’m sorry.

phona16: what wait what

Phona39: Anyway. What happens is, you end up having a huge capacity for love of varying stripes, not just the kinds you believe right now are worthwhile and acceptable. You find a lot of people, things, and ideas to fall in love with, and the only thing you wish you could go back and do differently – besides moving to Canada to marry a pre-op transsexual you’d never seen in direct sunlight –

phona16: what’s a

Phona39: – are the hours you’ve spent, and will spend between the you that is you and the you that is me, hating your body and finding it disgusting. Plus, you’ll also wish you’d taken up weight training early. Everything else is a learning experience.

phona16: weights are for boys

Phona39: Oh, honey.

phona16: whatever. is our hair grown out to our waist, at least?

Phona39: Um

phona16: never mind. i don’t actually want to know anymore. it’s ok

Phona39: It is OK. It’s really all OK. Better, even. I promise.

phona16: mmmhm. see you

Phona39: See you.

 

Today, on the tippy-top of Bullshit Mountain, you will find Jillian Michaels’ Facebook post

Ready to climb Bullshit Mountain with me? Let’s go!

headless fatty on a bike

 

So. Fitness-celeb Jillian Michaels assumes that women of size feel shame when working out at the gym, in public, amongst the Thins. I call that condescending presumption dressed up to look like encouragement, inspiration, and tough-love truth. It’s a fitness neg, like when some rando approaches you at a party and says, “You’re really pretty…have you ever thought of growing your hair out?”

SCAM! Don’t fuck that guy, and don’t internalize this headless-fatty meme either. See how the woman in the photo is cut off at the neck? She’s being depersonalized because her body is somehow so shameful they had to omit her face, yet told not to be ashamed for trying. Like, don’t be ashamed to go to the gym, Fatty McFatterson, even though your body is so objectionable we mercifully protected your identity!

Super neg! The triple twisting Yurchenko vault of emotional/marketing manipulation!

I don’t hate Jillian Michaels. I have all the damn DVD’s, and one or two are engaging enough (if you fast-forward past all the “Be your best you! Everybody else is taken!” pep talk at the end).

It’s hard to be your best you when someone “cheers you on” by judging your start as a weak one before you’re hardly on the goddamn bike, or trail, or weight rack – because you don’t look like they think you’re supposed to.

It hurts when someone posts an image online to inspire you…to NOT look like the woman in the image; the woman you actually do look like today, at this very moment, except that you have a face.

It sucks to feel good about yourself for a while, then feel bad again when someone reminds you how very deficient and lacking you are.

This is the mental soundtrack for the binge, the purge, the cravings, the vomiting, the laxatives, the endless hours on some Sisyphus machine, “paying” for the binge you had when you felt like shit about yourself, or the meal you enjoyed when you felt good. The fitspo industry party line officially disowns all of the above, of course, but let me direct you to that cute little sign in every head shop: For tobacco products only.

I like your boxing workout, Jillian. But I thought your post was super-ugly. Ugly on the inside. Right where it counts.

 

 

here’s how it ends

In a hospital cafeteria last week, an old man stood ahead of me in line for oatmeal. He reminded me of my dad, except he couldn’t use his hands very well. Oatmeal was getting everywhere and he looked embarrassed yet friendly, so I asked if he was at the hospital for physical therapy.

He said no. His daughter had died upstairs that morning of anorexia.

He was alone and so was I, so we ate together. Straightening his sugar packets in a careful pile, he told me about his daughter, who’d been my age – such a happy baby; such a bright girl – but when she was 15 she got funny about food and exercise; her weight; they spent a small fortune on rehab and counselors and some days she seemed better but other days worse.

Days became years. She wore people out.  He finally let her go, to do what she was going to do. He was sad but not surprised. He needed to go back to her apartment and go through her things for Goodwill.

“When she died,” he said, “it was like watching a fish drown in air.”

This is why I use my small sphere to fight what I fight: Because it really could have gone either way for me. You think thigh gap is some new thing the Internet invented? Thigh gap is ancient; thigh gap and bikini bridges and drink this chalky shit instead of food and here is what a woman must do to please The Great Eye are eternal because woman-hating is eternal. Thigh gap is a spot of necrotizing fasciitis in my psychic tissue where the blood supply got cut off in 1987 like it did for this old man’s daughter and the only difference is mine happens to be contained.

I want us to be clear on what the current culture does to women – even if we don’t read the magazines or watch the shows or visit the sites. It’s like secondhand smoke. It clings.

It’s why I don’t play the game, but I watch it every day. It’s a lucrative game for a lot of people, and it comes to us in friendly guises like “health” and “fitspiration” to encourage us to play; to mentally buy in. The game can be hot and compelling – can feel like you’re winning, even – but here’s how it ends: A sad old man eats a bowl of oatmeal in a hospital cafeteria and tells a stranger how he used to carry you on his shoulders in the swimming pool; how you used to laugh so easy.

cut on the bias

Ever seen a cat walk around with a piece of tape stuck on the bottom of its foot, all kerflummoxed and sad? That was me at the Ann Taylor store this weekend; also Talbot’s, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers Women, J. Jill, J. Crew. Oh, and the Armani Exchange. They sell giant crosses and Italian horns.

Normally, I avoid Ann Taylor — I am cognitive dissonance itself in a cardigan twin set — but needed a size-0 Grown-Up Lady Costume (GULC) for a professional event. So I betook myself to the fancy-person outdoor mall in Scottsdale, where all the late-middle-aged women had beautiful, terrifying faces that forcibly reminded me of a baby’s butt: Two smooth, round cheeks waaay up high. The “vampire facial” is a thing in Scottsdale. A doctor INJECTS YOUR OWN GELLED BLOOD INTO YOUR FACE.

Kohlrabi smoothies are big there, too.

Teachers generally wear jeans in case they have to flush a pack of stoners out of the heating ducts, so I always just try on four pairs at Lucky, pick the ones that aren’t too tight on my CrossFit thighs, and have them hemmed because who the hell has a 36-inch inseam? Casual clothes shopping in my late thirties is easy because my body has taken on a shape and a horizon. It’s basically what it’s going to be. The cement has set here. Barring some freak metabolic illness, I’ll never again put on or drop 20 pounds in three weeks.

But I haven’t needed dress-ups in years, which is why, if you were at the outdoor Scottsdale mall this weekend, you saw me weeping on a bench outside Ann Taylor’s. I needed a suit and a shell to wear under the suit that wasn’t a tank top and also “neutral pumps” and nylons to go with them. It reminded me of doing a Rubik’s Cube as a kid, where I’d get one side all lined up and then realize that, in doing so, I’d screwed up the other side. Every GULC I tried on was either:

tight, frilly, patterned, itchy, like I was about to sing Gloria Gaynor onstage in bad drag

OR

gray, boxy Shamewear for women who’ve had the audacity to age and still appear in public.

I felt hideous and greasy and bloated. In the World’s Most Facile Metaphor, I got stuck with a dress over my head and panicked. My short haircut, which I love, was suddenly wrong for every outfit. In the feminine stuff, it just looked mismatched; in the Shamewear I became a Pocket Bulldyke.  (I love bulldykes, but I’m not one).

There’s something wrong with my body, I thought. The gym isn’t working. I eat too many carbs. The florescent light showed every little dimple, every rolling hill-ette. What looked so strong and powerful doing box jumps and power cleans the day before was suddenly all wrong wrong wrong. I was 15 again.

I am fat fuck, I texted my girlfriend. I go on big big diet. 

She was, as always, the best — You have a beautiful body. You just need to find a style that works for you — and sent me a dozen links to non-shame-spirally things.  I sat down and drank a mineral water. A shoe saleslady hit on me (“You should…come back after your event and tell me how it goes”). I re-achieved equilibrium and thanked God I didn’t have to shop more often, because apparently, I still feel despair about my body given the right set of culturo-retail circumstances. And I’m a size 0 who owns every book Andrea Dworkin ever wrote.

Shit. No wonder we’re all going nuts.

You might not want to hear about my labia.

You might not want to hear about my labia. My iPhone definitely doesn’t want to hear about it (them?); keeps autocorrecting “labia” to “Kanis,” which as we all know is a picturesque town in the Dutch province of Utrecht:

Kanis!JPG

…but that’s not what I’m going to tell you about right now. I’m going to tell you about my labia, if you’re up for that, which of course maybe you’re not. While I received a lovely compliment on it (them?) just the other night, some people, historically, haven’t been up for hearing about my labia and you might be one of them. I don’t know. I can’t make that decision for you.

Anyway! I never really thought much about my labia until earlier this year, when it dawned on me that it’s the sort of labia doctors want to fix; to streamline; to endow with a “comfortable, athletic, petite look.” No matter how much weight I lift or how fast I run, my labia can never be sporty without violent surgical intervention. In order to keep her from being picked last for every team, I could choose to get a “Barbie,” a “clamshell,” a “wedge” or a “hybrid.” (That last one has a “petite hint of a rim around the vaginal opening.” Like a Prius!)

My labia is what I would call “visually striking,” even from noncommittal locker-room distance. It looks capable of independent flight. Come a little closer and it looks like a rakish little face blowing a petulant raspberry, but I didn’t know it was such an outlier until I encountered labiaplasty in the mainstream media. The conversation there is about choice: If a lady chooses to have her ladywings restructured/rejuvenated/beautified/amputated, it’s her choice and we must respect it as we would any other choice, just like the choice to go to graduate school or start an artisanal cupcake business! 

I guess there are more important things to care about besides women with burnable disposable income using it for labia-mutilating purposes. It’s not FGM; it’s not holding a little girl down and excising her clitoris with a shard of broken glass, but the underlying motivations snuggle up pretty closely, yes? Both FGM and labiaplasty:

  • Are performed to conform a woman’s genitals to a specific cultural definition of acceptability.  In Burkina Faso, female genitals in their natural state make a woman sexually insatiable (offensive!) in Los Angeles they make her sexually undesirable (offensive!)
  • Result in an infantilized labia because many men find that appealing (please see also “Brazilian wax”).
  • Are supposed to make a woman look, smell, feel, and be “tidy” or “clean” — in fact, some popular terms for mutilation are synonymous with purification (“tahara” in Egypt and “tahur” in Sudan).
  • Damage the healthy nerve endings of a healthy sexual organ.
  • Are usually elected by women themselves — or mothers and grandmothers in the case of FGM — in response to sociocultural pressure. In the developing world, that has to do with purity and marriageability; for us, it has to do with p0rn. (Simplistic but accurate).

At core, FGM and labiaplasty are are about the proper sexual use of women. Use, not even behavior. Both are a surgical intervention to make women more…well, more of what we’re supposed to be for.

Which is all terribly depressing, so tonight I’m searching the Internet for small pockets of labia pride like the Large Labia Project on tumblr. Naked labia on the internet is problematic — and y’all know how much internet feminists love that word; we need a drinking game for it — but this site could be very enlightening to women whose only exposure to female genitalia has been via p0rn (please, God, may labiaplasty doctors never get one lesbian dollar). I kind of want to start a movement called Leave Your Pussy Alone! (LYPA!)

But I’m torn vis a vis the whole Labia Pride thing because, let’s face it, anything we have to imbue with Pride comes with a not-insignificant amount of Shame; there’s no Pinky Toe Pride although a subset of women are having theirs amputated in order to fit into high-heel stilettos.  They call that “cosmetic surgery,” too. Because it sounds so much better than “mutilation.”

I’m 40% muscle; the rest is words

So, I bought a scale  — an event worthy of remark because it took YEARS before I could be trusted to own a scale and not freak the fuck out at its mere presence in my home. After I put my foot through the digital screen in fury at breaking 100 pounds, I thought: Perhaps this household item is more trouble than it’s worth and jettisoned it at a yard sale. I declined to be weighed at the doctor’s office until I was 30, and for years after that insisted on standing backwards so I couldn’t see the readout. I was at a normal weight and I wasn’t throwing up anymore, but those are fairly low mental-health standards even in America.

What stopped the madness was weight training. Not therapy, not meds, not the threat of heart failure or osteoporosis. I started to think about what my body could do, rather that what it looked like or who might want to see it naked. I wanted it thick with muscle and sinew; energy and force. Which is why I bought this particular scale — not only does it tell me my body fat percentage, but my muscle/water/bone mass percentages. God only knows how it does this. There’s an infrared scanner and a remote control; that’s all I can tell you. It probably doesn’t cause that much cancer.

You know what would be even cooler? An emotional-percentages scale. You’d get on it in the morning to see what you had to work with that day: 16% patience; 40% melancholy; 24% suspicion; 11% motivation; 7% sociopathy; 2% joy — whatever.  You’d put your spouse and kids on it and adjust your behavior accordingly. You’d see what a potential romantic interest was made of before you signed on for life. Like, I could do 11% asshole, but that’s my upper limit.

Data. That’s what this is about. I want more hard data,* instead of casting about in the dark with a fuzzy headlamp of intuition.

 

*That’s what she said.

strong.

Womyn, please permit me a Sunday-morning brag: I just walked by a full-length mirror, naked,* and realized that people might actually buy a workout DVD** if I was on the cover. All I need is a spray tan.

Here’s what I’ve spent the last three years developing: Thick, powerful quadriceps muscles. Veins running upwards from my pelvis, fanning out towards my obliques. Matching veins in my biceps. Fourteen-inch calves that can raise over 300 pounds. Knotty forearms.

Here’s what that requires: Good genetics. Five to eight focused hours a week in the gym. Four to five small meals a day, all of which include high-quality protein. Never having given birth.

Here’s what that requires: A sizable dollop of socioeconomic privilege.

I don’t make much money. But I do have an education (partly underwritten by my family) and a racial/class background that lets me go into Whole Foods or CrossFit and feel I belong. Even if I have to use a credit card to cover my organic salmon or my $120/month membership fee, those things are still accessible. I don’t live in a food desert, and things will improve financially if I can keep working hard. I don’t share the lifestyle of the lawyers and dentists I do flying burpees and toes-to-bar with, but I feel equal to them because I had opportunities to go to school; to read; to travel.

And, as for never having given birth? That’s the result of good sex education; access to safe, affordable birth control back when I was having sex with men; and the fact that I never had to rely on a man for financial support. No one was able to coercively impregnate me, or force me to bear a child against my will. When I didn’t want to be married any longer, I could get out.

Privilege. Luck. So much luck.

If my life had been different, my body wouldn’t look this way. And my body is a constant visual message from me, to me, that I’m strong. That — barring an accident or illness — I can take care of myself and the womyn I love. I don’t need to be afraid of any man unless he’s got a gun. I can bring in my own groceries in from the car and yours, too. My stepmother doesn’t have to worry about making it up a flight of stairs, because I can carry her. And, if I keep up this level of fitness and luck, I won’t have to depend on anyone in my old age. Dependency frightens me much more than death. And, for now, I get to walk through the world taking up muscular, confident space, thankful that my body can do what it needs to do.

I’m starting to turn a career possibility over in my mind: What if I were to get personal training certification and open up a womyn-only practice? What if I focused on womyn over 40 — the clients most trainers ignore, or simply put up with, because they’re not hawt enough to really invest in? What if I helped create a powerful, strong, Older Womyn’s Army, so that fewer of us have to face dependency and vulnerability as the years go by?

 

*Don’t worry, the mirror is in my house. Not at the mall or anything.

**But not a beauty magazine. Measured against that particular slender aesthetic standard, I look like a monster. Good.