After the audition, the artistic director of the Boston Ballet told me I was too fat to be considered for his summer program. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. Instead, he waved my score card from the audition in my face. “See,” he said. “It says ‘O.W.’ That stands for ‘overweight.’ We didn’t even process your application.” My brave front gave way to heaving, snotty sobs back in the dressing room as I peeled my sweaty tights off and loosened the ribbons of my pointe shoes.
He’d told me to lose 20 pounds and try again next year. I was thirteen.
By senior year, I perfected my Weight Watchers program and lost those twenty pounds. I was no longer dancing, but of course it wasn’t just ballet directors who liked female bodies that were taut, pre-adolescent, and half-starved. My boyfriend—losing weight brought many new gifts, including him—didn’t want me to lose any more weight because he was worried my breasts would disappear altogether. I drank eight Diet Cokes every day and chewed one piece of gum from eight in the morning until midnight. Extra Wintergreen gum. It had four calories. If I swallowed my gum during the day, I wouldn’t chew another piece until the next day. It wasn’t worth the extra four calories. The best was when I remembered to stick the gum on my bedpost when I went to sleep. The next morning I could pop it in my mouth and start the day ahead of the game.
My dad got mad when I came home from my sophomore year in college. Why are you so thin? He was scared but it came out as anger. Hell, maybe he was angry, but I want to rewrite him as scared. Either way, I wasn’t in the mood to carry fear or anger for him. So it lay quivering on the table between us at Souper Salads, where he’d taken me to lunch. (Souper Salads is a restaurant comprised of a salad bar as long as a football field. Interesting choice for a parent trying to fatten a child.) I thought he was going to praise me for earning a 4.0 and for getting a scholarship. Instead, he glared at my clavicle, exposed by my sleeveless chambray shirt, as he buttered his cornbread. While we waited for the bill, he suggested I get a job the following semester.
I found a job, but not until summer, where I was hired to be a counselor at a Christian youth camp in the Texas Hill Country. I’d been to camp once, hadn’t spent much time in the Hill Country, and was pretty sure that because I fucked my pothead boyfriend on the regular, I didn’t fit the description of “model Christian.” But I liked fresh air and working with kids. I also liked the twenty foot cliffs that rose over a pool of spring-fed blue water that I hoped would take the edge off the summer heat. The program director liked Jim Beam, Bob Dylan, and sleeping with anorexic young women he could later ignore in front of the campers. Our dynamic reminded me marriage—someone always ignoring someone else. The Jim Beam was sweet on his lips, and I forgave him for not smiling at me during campfire time. But when he called me “Schindler’s Shoulders,” over the loud speaker one morning, I vowed never to speak to him again. I did though. All summer long. I never stopped chasing the cool breeze of his attention and that sweet, potent breath.
The first time I cursed my breasts was in ballet class. It was sixth grade. They were getting in my way. I wanted the front of my black leotard to be flat like Jennifer Healey’s, Melissa Zeist’s, and Adrienne O’Keefe’s. Unlike them, my breasts bulged and jiggled and made me look lumpy. They outed me as something other than girl. And what came after girl? Woman? What was so great about that? We were supposed to want breasts, according to Are You There, God, It’s Me Margaret, but I didn’t. I wanted bone—hard, solid, unbreakable plains across my chest.
Freshman year, my mother sunk into a deep depression. She would take her to bed on Friday nights, where she would remain through the weekend. Before heading out to a football game with friends one night, I tapped on the door to her darkened bedroom where she had rolled herself up in the edge of the comforter, maybe so she could be in bed under the covers, but not really “in bed.” I’m leaving, I told my burrito of a mother. The next day, she mustered the energy to knock on my door. Could you do your mother a favor and please not wear long sweaters that cover your hips and backside? she said. It’s not a flattering look.
Why she spoke of herself in the third person, I’ll never know. Why she chose that as her favor—also a mystery.
Sophomore year in high school Carley Ross lost so much weight that her mother had to buy her all new bras. She stuffed her old bras—a dozen of them—into a plastic grocery store bag and left them in my locker with a note bearing a smiley face. The bras had been custom made at some old lady store. I peered in the bag and saw that they were all the color of ace bandages or tongue depressors. The straps were wider than a ruler and the lace was scratchy bits of gravel in your shoe. I wore then, though. Most days I wore two at once. At night, there was a deep gouge below my breasts where the wire dug into my skin.
During the anorexic years that followed, my breasts didn’t bother me. I was either too hungry to fight them, or I’d starved them away. The test for whether I really liked a guy was if I let him touch my breasts. A relationship was over when I withdrew access to them. You had to deserve them. I didn’t just give them away to any old alcoholic playboy who deigned to let me chase him.
At age twenty seven, I jogged to therapy one spring morning. My therapist asked me why I was wearing three bras, the straps of which were sticking out from under my tank top. I gave a long explanation about how running required adequate support and a single sports bra wasn’t sufficient. You wouldn’t understand, I told him. During the conversation I let slip that I also slept in a bra and had since Carley Ross put that bag in my locker.
You’ve gone to such lengths to avoid having a relationship with your breasts, my therapist said. I could tell from his voice that he felt sad and that I should too. I didn’t though. I wanted to change the subject to talk about my job search.
At age thirty four, I wanted to let them out. I declared to my therapist: This is the year of the breast! My breasts. Let’s bring the girls out of hiding. Let’s not always button up to the second highest button. Let’s not always hunch, bind, hide.
I wasn’t deluded. I knew it would be hard. The exposure, the messages, the narrative I had to unwrite to undo a single button. To my fiancé I said: Watch out! Here they come!
What I didn’t account for was how sad I would feel once I let them out. The starving woman isn’t hungry until she takes her first bite. She’s not sad about hiding her breasts for two and a half decades, for forever, until she undoes the first button.
I wore a strapless wedding dress. Seven months later I began pulling out my breasts in restaurants, airplanes, park benches, and city buses to feed my baby daughter. The year of the breast lasted longer than I’d planned.
I was going to run a marathon—not the metaphorical kind like surviving an illness or graduating from PA school. A literal marathon. Twenty six point one miles on my own two feet. I was going to do whatever it took. Saturday morning training runs that lasted from six until lunchtime. Consume weird gels made of unnatural, likely toxic, chemicals. Buy hundreds of dollars of running shoes and a three foot foam roller for my stressed IT band. Keep a Costo-sized bottle of Advil in my desk at work.
The farthest I’d run before the kick-off meeting at the running store was 13.1 miles. I’d only run that far because my younger sister’s running partner bailed a week before the race, so I flew down to be her hero, having run no more than six miles at once before that. I hung in there with her until the last two tenths of a mile, when she had the energy to sprint to the finish. I had only enough to energy to watch her go.
The marathon goal, like too many others, sprouted in the ashes of a love affair I couldn’t seem to get over. He’d said I wasn’t The One. We lived in the same high rise building, and right after he dumped me out on the street, we’d walked into the lobby where he had the audacity to check his mail, while I waited for the elevator sobbing into my palms. He was a triathlete with washboard abs, sexual orientation issues, and perfect lips. While with him, I bought a bike with clip-in pedals and competed in a sprint distance triathlon. Half our dates involved some combination of running, biking, and swimming, followed by egg white omelets and exceedingly decent sex.
After he left me at the elevator bank to get his Visa bill, I couldn’t stop crying at work. I developed chronic diarrhea. One morning, I didn’t make it to the bathroom and shat in my favorite powder blue cotton pajamas. I saw him in the elevator with another woman. Then I saw him at a half marathon we signed up for together—he ran with yet another woman.
The marathon would prove that he didn’t own running, that he didn’t take it with him when he left. He of the mighty abs and 5:00 A.M. wake-up calls did not have sole custody of extreme exercise. He wasn’t the boss of my mileage. He wasn’t the only one who could train and earn a medal for four hours, thirteen minutes, and twenty seven seconds of running. He may have left me but my legs still worked, and the trail was still just half a mile from my house. My heart was shattered with grief, but it pumped me through one mile at a time, a hundred times over.
You grow up thinking that your body parts belong to other people. It’s like they can drive a stake into them and colonize them. Your breasts, your ass, your stomach, your shoulders—each is an expanse of land for someone else to plant their projections and cultivate their fantasies. You thought your hips and your ass belong to your mom, who worried you might never lose your baby fat, that maybe you were going to end up fat, like, for real. Your paternal grandmother owned your chins, your maternal grandmother owned your thighs. Your father, your lovers, your teachers—each owned a piece. Their flags, anchored to your body, waved and billowed in the wind. Your body parts as sovereign nations making uneasy peace, brokering deals, signing treaties while you tried to find a patch of grass all for yourself. A glade, a rib, a copse of trees, an elbow, a shoreline, a hairline.
You took on narratives about which bones should show and what it meant if they stuck out, what it meant if they were hidden by flesh. You saw two choices: Shame for being too big or sick for being too thin. You knew, like everyone woman does, which was one better.
But when is it yours, that body that houses your soul, your brain, your heart, your controversial bones and fat? When do you get to take it back from the parents, the lovers, the teachers, the directors, the therapists? When do you get to say this is mine and these are my feelings about it? When do you get to say: here is what I can do with or without you?
It comes after. After you shit your pants from grief. After the marathon, which made your toenails fall off and your nipples bleed. After the breast cancer scare, and the OB/GYN sliced across your body to pull out a baby. After the Year of the Breast and years of married sex. After you found a way to quiet all the other voices and block out of the sound of their flags flapping in the wind.
Then it is yours. You can take it as your own, as it most surely is. You can be the steward it always needed. You can fly your own flag. You can secure its borders, strengthen its defenses, and celebrate its hard-won victories.
You can claim your body.
Image credit: Swarm, oil on canvas, by Joyce Polance
Christie Tate is a lawyer and writer in Chicago, who is working on a memoir about her adventures in group therapy.