The first time it occurred to me that something was wrong with my body, I was in the fifth grade. Where my breasts were sprouting, my hips were rounding out and my thighs growing thicker my fellow classmates, being of the mostly thin, WASP-y variety did not have the same problems. Or shape, for that matter.
First, I noticed a disturbing pattern among all the 90s era waif models while flipping through magazines with my friends; none of their thighs touched. Initially I told myself that it must be some trick of the camera or computer. But then I started looking around and realized with horror that none of my friends’ thighs touched either. If they were standing flat footed I could read that same magazine on the other side of them clearly through the space between their tiny thighs. I spent the rest of that spring semester (which was historically considered the best time of year at our parochial school as our uniform got to consist of shorts for the warmer weather) never comfortable in my favorite uniform again. I was far too aware of the way the cuff of my shorts left indentations on my abundant thighs, rather than hanging effortlessly from slim hips I did not possess. I developed some odd way of walking around my thighs that had to look every bit as strange it sounds, but seemed better at the time than allowing people to see my thighs rub together when I walked.
The following year, having graduated from the “kiddie” Catholic school uniform of plaid rompers to a button down shirt and khaki skirt, I’d started to grow to appreciate my thick legs, which were becoming more shapely thanks to cheerleading and gymnastics and basketball. The focus of my physical ire became everything happening south of my collarbone and north of my belly button. In just a short year, puberty had hit me full force and I was a five foot tall sixth grader with full C cups. One day in particular a teacher, while walking around the classroom during a lecture, stopped abruptly at my desk, looking at me disapprovingly. In front of the class she said, “La, it would behoove you to get a larger shirt. The buttons on that one can barely contain you.” At that moment, nineteen sets of eyes turned to stare at the offending clothing. Later, in the bathroom by myself, I remember pressing my chest so hard in an effort to flatten my breasts that I left faint marks. But I figured it was a small price to pay for never having to feel again the searing humiliation of someone dissecting my parts like a science experiment. It didn’t work, of course. And from that point forward I had to pretend like I didn’t hear the boys calling me a whore behind my back because my breasts were bigger than everyone else.
It strikes me now that much of my insecurities were handed to me from other places. From the pages of magazines where I didn’t find myself reflected. From a disapproving teacher in a conservative school, who likely thought she was saving me from a lifetime of harlotry. From boys reared in the deeply patriarchal confines of Catholic faith, who didn’t know not to judge a girl’s sexual proclivities based on the shape of her body because they were taught by other people who didn’t know better.
It was around the seventh grade that my feelings about my body went from insecurity to fear. I started to notice the leering from my peers and strange men far older than should have been looking at a teenager. Despite being too young to pick up the sexual undertones of their comments about my body, I was old enough to know to feel the threat of sexual violence. I’d been told what happened to girls who looked like me, heard the stories of men so insatiable, so uncontrollably sexually charged that they just couldn’t help themselves. And I was terrified. Suddenly, it seemed that my body was not my own, but rather some irresistible magnet of sexual exploit, open to gropes and bumps feigned to seem accidental, that often left me feeling my skin flash hot under where some unwanted hand or other body part had touched me. Uncomfortable with this invasion of sexual energy into a life that had barely aged a year past its first kiss, I took to wearing baggy clothes and not doing my hair in hopes that I could be in the world without some stranger leering at me.
When that didn’t work I, like many other young girls having been misguided about sexuality and ill-equipped to deal with a world that would sexualize this new body I possessed despite my still being a child, figured this sort of treatment was inevitable and that this was just how women were to be treated. I started playing into the heightened sexual energy surrounding me. My skirts got shorter, riding higher up my thighs than they were when I left home, thanks to a trick I learned in Catholic school of rolling the waistband up. I found jeans and pants that were tighter, that slid over my hips and hugged them like an embrace. I taught myself to walk in heels, liking the way they made my legs burn with exertion and my ass sway with each step. I found myself both exhilarated and terrified of the attention my shape and the way I dressed it got me. I felt, misguidedly, like I was somehow in control.
I didn’t realize I had a real issue with my body until high school. By then, I was a dancer, spending hours and hours at a ballet barre and incredibly aware that I was not shaped like I “should” have been. What started as trying to eat better to hopefully shave some inches off my much loathed thighs, quickly slid into stuffing the money my mom gave me for lunch deep into the caverns of my dance bag, and skipping that meal to go take an extra dance class. I’d dance, sometimes upwards of 4-6 hours of classes a day, during school, after school, at a local dance studio after that. I didn’t realize as a teenager, smack dab in the middle of puberty weight fluctuations and birthed of a long line of hour glass shaped black women, I wasn’t made to be tiny. So despite the fact that I could feel my hip bones jutting out from underneath my flesh (a feeling I relished and was insanely proud of), and that my collarbones were so sharp they could have sliced blocks of cheese, my hips weren’t going anywhere. My thighs were only getting more toned and defined with every leap and turn. My calves weren’t doing anything by growing wide and flat with densely packed, well-articulated muscles. And my breasts grew fuller and heavier, no matter how much weight I dropped. When I stood in front of classes to dance or to sing, and found myself chided for being too sexy when I wasn’t trying to be simply because of my shape, I couldn’t help but feel that changing my body would fix all my problems. I knew I needed to be lighter, thinner, better. So skipping lunch quickly morphed into sneaking diet pills and laxatives when no one was watching. Or conversely, being so starving, I would eat and eat and eat until I felt so full and stuffed to the gills I would pass out. And I’d wake up crushed under the weight of intense guilt.
As I got older, my relationship with my body changed. I came to accept how I was meant to be shaped, and even started to relish it, feeling feminine and womanly as I embraced my curves and found my own sense of style. Though there was no shortage of inappropriate yelling about some part of my body on the street, balance came from the compliments I received from my peers; where once were inappropriate gropes and leering from strangers, were instead appreciative glances over my frame and mutual crushes with people I was actually interested in. And though certainly my female, human desire to lose weight never went away, that voice slowly became quieter than the voice that could say clearly and reasonably, you are who you are.
Now, as an adult, I am far more comfortable in my skin than I was as a young girl, though my issues with myself aren’t totally gone. I’ve not grown out of emotional eating, and I have the added weight to show for it. And more often than not when I diet, I easily find myself sliding back into the same extreme habits I have not outgrown either, and, I am ashamed to admit, still make me feel accomplished. But for the most part, my body is not a daily struggle for me anymore. I try to be more cognizant of how I am treating myself. Sometimes I do well, sometimes I don’t. But all of the time I try to be kind to myself and hope that healthiness will follow.
Nothing will make you throw all of that out the window like the prospect of going to a nude beach. Which is where I found myself a week ago, in Florida with my girls.
Being a lifelong expert in what is wrong with my body, I’d be lying if I said the plans, made weeks before I ever stepped off the plane, didn’t fill me with dread. And not because I am so vain that I think everyone on the beach would look at me and think I’m in desperate need of a hamster wheel to run on 24 hours a day. But because I know that despite being older, wiser, and more objective about the fact that my perception of my body is askew, I still find myself beholden to my physical demons. Because I know that any situation that I find to be overwhelming sends me right over the edge of healthy lifestyle and lands me smack dab in the middle of self-punishment.
It didn’t help that I went with two of the most gorgeous bitches on the planet.
No sooner than we had set up our blanket and umbrella, I went into the water, where despite not being a fish, I feel most at home. For the longest I swam and floated, jumping over and diving under the warm waves. Once I got out, I started to look around. All around me were people not nearly as self-conscious as I, all of varying degrees of physical perfection. There were couples and gay guys and people reading alone. Some people were overweight and old and some were young and fit. Some pale, some tan, some hairless or everything but. But overall they all seemed to wear one thing that I have never been able to don; freedom.
For as long as I knew to be ashamed, I have never felt that sort of physical freedom. I have been, for as many years as I can remember, enslaved to the idea of what I needed my body to do for me; to protect me or to articulate my desires, to dance or grow smaller, without ever giving as much thought to what I needed to do for my body.
Before I could convince myself not to, I slipped the straps of my bathing suit from my shoulders, sliding the wet fabric down low on my hips. I walked out into the waves up to my chin, feeling myself become more weightless and less in control with each step. And when I couldn’t comfortably walk anymore, I floated, letting the sun warm my breasts and my face, my hair floating up around my head. I stayed there for a long while, until I was comfortable, before making my way back to the shore. For a split second I instinctively grabbed for the straps of my suit to pull them back up over my shoulders, but decided against it. I couldn’t come up with a single reason, not a pound or a scar or a birthmark or hair out of place, why I couldn’t be as comfortable as everyone else around me seemed to be in their skin. So my suit stayed firmly in place. Until of course, I took it completely off.
And for the first time, I felt unshackled. I felt free.