I shimmy the wedding dress over my hips, feeling the seam strain against my curves, while my mother looks disapprovingly at her dress on my form. The dress wasn’t exactly a family heirloom; my mother having married my stepdad only three years before.
With its sprinkling of rhinestones, corseting, lace up back closure, and lack of straps, my mother’s dress was just that—my mother’s. It was never meant to be and would never be mine. This I knew before she cajoled me into trying it on.
“You should really lose ten pounds and wear this dress,” she says.
My jaw twitches as I stop the rush of tears. “I’m not losing a damn thing.”
This kind of talk was commonplace in my mother’s house. Growing up as the only child of a single parent, she projected everything onto me. She doled out her hopes and insecurities in equal measure, thinking nothing of spewing a litany of vitriol against her body on a daily, or hourly basis.
She didn’t realize (or didn’t care) that she was subjecting me to unwanted criticism of my own developing anatomy.
Twenty-five years of self-hatred is deep-rooted damage; a vicegrip on the mind.
* * *
My best friend asks if I want the rest of the cheese sandwich his mother had packed him for lunch. “Thanks, but I can’t. I’m on a diet.” I was nine.
I come in from an eight mile run, panting and dehydrated. Before I can rest with my tall glass of ice tea in front of the box fan, I go to my room and yank up my tank top. I pull a tape measure around my stomach. No change. I groan and choke back tears. I was fifteen. The jeans in my closet have zeros on the tags.
My college boyfriend says I’d be so much sexier if I gained twenty or thirty pounds. Is not the reason I put effort into my appearance to attract a mate? I start binging on ice cream—the frozen Twix bars are my favorite—and fries. Cheese fries. I gain the weight, but he cheats on me anyway. I was twenty-two.
Will my next partner find me attractive? Will there even be a next partner?
I am, simultaneously, too much and not enough. I stand on scales that can never be balanced; they are tipped against me.
* * *
He proposed on a lonely stretch of beach in Kennebunkport, Maine. We were halfway through our New England road trip, the first vacation we’d taken as a couple that didn’t involve traversing the country to see friends or family.
With the Atlantic waves too chilly to submerge ourselves, this beach was not the sort of summer paradise that draws out shoe leather-tanned college students or families with raucous, splashing children. Besides the crabs teetering on their pointy legs and the lazily soaring gulls, we were more or less alone.
And I, in my one piece swimsuit, feel fat.
One knee dips into pearly sand. “Will you marry me?” he asks.
There need not be anyone to stare at my cellulite-riddled thighs or the visible outline of my stomach bulging under stretchy fabric.
“Yes,” I say, surprise choking my voice into a higher octave.
For a moment, I wonder if I deserve his love. Am I too much? Or not enough?
He is the only one looking at me, the only one I want looking at me. But, even in this moment of abounding joy, a lifetime of inhabiting a female body makes me feel eyes that aren’t there.
I was twenty-five and still haunted.
* * *
She offered me the dress on the day I announced my engagement. How do you tell your mother, in the politest possible terms, that the dress she adored on her wedding day is far too gaudy for your own? But my mother is not one for subtleties.
“I’m not losing a damn thing,” I repeat, my jaw tingling with the effort of holding it still.
“You don’t have to get ugly with me,” she says, her voice flaring into the deeper Southern drawl that signaled anger. “I’m just trying to help you get a free wedding dress.”
“It’s not about the dress” I tell her.
“What’s it about then?” she shouts, folding the dress back into it’s protective hanging bag.
She wouldn’t understand. She’s been haunted for half a century.
There are no other daughters to wear the dress. It will hang in her closet for decades, until she finally, with much sighing, will give it to the Goodwill.
I am too much, yet there is not enough of me.
* * *
When my fiancé asks how the visit to Alabama is going, I tell him.
“I didn’t want to try on her dress anyway. It’s ugly. And so not my style. She makes a comment about my weight every time I see her, but she did it when I was skinny, too. Right now I’m the fattest I’ve ever been and she made me feel like shit.”
“Don’t,” he says. “That’s the weight you were when I asked you to marry me.”
I count the months. Since moving in with him, hours away from my family, I hadn’t felt like I was under perpetual scrutiny and constantly found lacking. For the first time in my life I haven’t hated my body on a daily, or hourly basis, like my mother taught me to do.
Eight months. Eight months I had been free from criticism of my body.
How long will it take to undo twenty-five years of self-hatred?
* * *
After fighting with my mother I go to my favorite thrift store to take my mind off things. It’s soothing to shop for clothes in a store where every style, color, and size is welcome.
I’m not looking for wedding dresses, but one finds me. Lace with pearl beading on the bust of the empire waist, classy open back, and soft tulle falling in layers to the tops of my feet. It is everything my mother’s dress is not, and fits so perfectly that it doesn’t need altering.
I could gain ten pounds and still be a vision in this dress.
Returning home that night, I try it on for my mother, dreading her commentary.
“Yes, Honey, you’re right. That dress does look much better on you,” she says.
But in that moment I cannot be pleased I’ve found my wedding dress. I’m too busy wondering if she only likes this dress because it better accommodates my fat.
I wonder if she still wishes I would lose ten pounds and wear a dress I never wanted.
I am never simply enough.
Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though she calls Birmingham, Alabama, home. She writes personal essays, book news, and historical fiction. Her writing has been published in The Missing Slate, PANK Magazine, and Deep South Magazine. You can find more of her work at her website, offthebeatenshelf.com.