The struggle of being perceived

In a few short weeks I will bind myself in holy matrimony, and I cannot stop thinking about my body.

In basically every photo I’ve ever seen of myself, my first thought has been: “wow, I’m large.” Even when I was much smaller than I am now. Here are some examples:

  • That time I went on an amazing hike with a good friend and we rested our weary bare feet in the cold alpine waters of a lake in the Cascades. I turned back to smile at the camera. The skin and fat on my back stuck out around my tank top.
  • That time I dressed up as a ghost, or witch, or something, for Halloween in eighth grade. I smiled with every braces-locked tooth. Later I could see the curve of my stomach under my black shirt.
  • When I reunited with two good friends after a long absence. One was expecting her first baby. We posed to smile by the waterfront after a delicious meal, and before a wild afternoon involving a long drive and a trip to urgent care that would make us laugh soon after. My hips looked wide in my flowing shirt.
  • This weekend I posed with my fiancé on top of a mountain. He put his arm around me. We looked out over the land flowing away from us, red and yellow and green and blue. I looked unrecognizably thick; it ruined the next hour when I looked at it.

Ad nauseam. All these times I’d been in joyful times with people I loved, and what stuck out to me was the horrendous shape of my body.

(With the short exception of that time when I was the smallest I ever was. It was not to last, and I was miserable, but I was relatively small, and I didn’t hate those photos. It was a brief temporal window of almost-approval built on an unsustainable frustration. I still wasn’t thin enough—I was still ten pounds from perfect when my body started aggressively fighting back and I dove headfirst into butter—but I was close enough that I felt pride in those photos, even if I was actually depressed and furious. That’s diet culture, baby.)

So now when I should be—when I am—preparing to engage in a literal sacrament about how much I love this other person, I’m distracted, and I’m ashamed to say I’m distracted, by fears of what I will think when I see photos of myself in that white dress. I tried it on and I didn’t look anything like the model. She was long and willowy. I was something more like dumpy, frumpy, one of the -umpies. I lay awake for several hours one night worrying about this.

And here’s the thing: I don’t agree with these feelings. I feel passionately bored by the culture’s demands that all of our bodies look the same. I know better than to think our bodies all can look the same. I admire all varieties of human shape and form. I see women who look like me and I think, wow, what a babe. I am at my healthiest, in terms of what I eat and how I move and how balanced and sane I am, having abandoned my years-long quest to shrink myself.

And yet.

Despite all this, I do have these feelings. I see these pictures, and a cold hand of shame seizes my windpipe, and I know this has not happened to me for the last time. I cannot think my way out of this shame. Not yet, at least.

But I know something now. I know that when I wait one month, or six, and I look back at a photo that I hated to begin with, suddenly I can see it with eyes of love. Someone else’s eyes. Instead of seeing a roll or a bulge or an incorrect amount of mass, I see, wow, that woman was happy. That woman had a great day.

It’s whiplash.

I know I’m not alone here. In this earthly plane, at least in my corner of it, if you’re a woman you can never get thin enough, even if you get too thin. At that point, you either permanently damage your brain and your organs, or you throw up your hands because life is not worth living this way, and you regain the weight as your body helpfully prepares you for the next self-imposed famine, and then you wish you were that thin again. We spend decades this way. We waste whole lives this way. We miss many moments this way.

There has to be another way, and there is. Part of it is learning to stop focusing on whether you look fat in photos and to actually experience your life.

I’m not there yet. But I’m trying.


Quite apart from this neglected space, I’m writing a very long story. It’s taking me a long time. Let me tell you some short stories here tonight.

  1. There is a strange briny smell in the woods this morning, as though it’s not just the forest and the cicadas and the river but the ocean that stands behind the veil. 
  2. One view of a bike-squashed frog with his guts upchucked across the trail, flies swarming, well, that can ruin my whole afternoon. One view of a fat woodchuck hop hop hopping through the forest floor, well, that can delight my entire day. And time passes. Bright white beach light streaks across your ceiling. Then by the time we are done talking it’s shrunken to a point of light. The dark I’m in is racing for you. 
  3. You have nothing to be ashamed of, I tell myself, quivering and raw with your presence. You’ve done nothing wrong. No one can prove anything. Because there’s nothing to prove. A sense of longing that chokes me up and then I clear it and it passes. Being sure of a person is one thing. 
  4. Who wrote this? You asked after I opened my veins into your inbox. I did, I said, feeling a painless pleasure for the first time in days, because you would not have complimented me if you knew it was me you complimented, and this is how I knew you meant it. 
  5. I went out one night with a friend who fancied himself very cool. That’s what we saw eye to eye on the best. I didn’t know the first thing about socialism, or about silencing my new cell phone, which made that fluorescent meeting room in the basement of Wheeler Hall very awkward for everyone involved. Afterward we walked north and ate burritos.
  6. First sex? The cabbie asked. I was squished right in behind his driver’s seat, which was cranked back as far as it would go. He seemed to know something. “I wish,” you laughed, and I didn’t know whether you meant it or not, but that night I came down to your bed and you held me and then we didn’t talk about it for months. 
  7. We’re in a car that’s ours for the weekend. You took the time to go through the manual and turn its extra alarms off, because you love me. We’re driving through the countryside as fall sets in. Winding roads. Yellow corn, brown grass, blue sky, green trees. Quiet places. We play music for each other. Michigan’s in the rearview now. I feel melancholy and nostalgic even in that moment even with you driving right next to me. I love you in a way that makes me sad that time even passes with you. Time passing with you is my favorite thing to happen. Being alone in a car, it’s just the two of us in our little hunk of metal, going anywhere we please. Accountable to ourselves. I want to pull over and kiss you stupid.