She stood in front of me in her black cotton panties and reached down and behind her pulling the flesh of her inner thighs taut revealing the gap she wanted to achieve. Her goal. Her Mt. Everest. This was 1994, before Instagram, Facebook, thinspo and proana, before cellphones were a thing everyone carried around in their pocket and the internet was a weird thing only the true nerds among us understood, she was all about the thigh gap.
“It looks better right?” she waited for my response, I stared at the skin where her fingers dug in, the blood temporarily drained away from the surface, blanched white.
I sat cross legged on the gouged and dirty hardwood floor of her living room, uncomfortably aware of my own much larger thighs. Thighs that would stubbornly refuse to be pulled apart from one another no matter how much I tugged them up and away should I be foolish enough to try, defiantly squishing together, puckered with cellulite, sweaty and raw red with chub rub.
“Your legs are fine the way they are.” I said.
Earlier in the evening I took off my size 16 jeans and demanded she put them on her slender size 4 body in an attempt to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was not, in fact, fat. She stood there, looking like a weight loss success story, her petite frame drowning in my jeans. I desperately wanted her to understand that by any objective measure, she was what she longed to be: thin, beautiful, in all ways the cultural ideal.
I could tell you about her mother who told her as a young girl that her only value was in being beautiful, finding a man, marrying well. I could tell you how 26 years later she is still obsessed but now it is cosmetic surgery, botox, fillers, and units of various poisons injected into her body. I am not immune to these toxic ideas and behaviors, in many ways her fears and my fears amount to the same thing.
Right around the same time I stopped eating. Just stopped. I often tell people I lived on 3 super big gulps of Diet Coke a day.
Most people laugh when I tell them this. I weigh 250 lbs. as I write this, and I see the sideways glances, the slight roll of the eyes, the easy way they dismiss my confession, after all I am too fat to have an eating disorder.
I lost 10 lbs. in 10 days and then another 5 lbs. a week later. 17 days and I had gone from 172 to 157. I became obsessed with numbers.
Number of days without a bite of food.
Number of hours spent at the gym.
Number of calories burnt on the Stairmaster.
Number of pounds on the scale.
Number on the tag of my jeans.
Every night I would lie in bed unable to sleep because of the burn of hunger gnawing at my gut. I would run my hand beneath the waistband of my underwear and feel my hip bone. A zing of pleasure would zip through my veins at the hard protrusion of my bone beneath my skin. I would lay in the darkness of my room staring into nothing and dream of disappearing completely. In the morning in front of my mirror naked I would reach behind me and pull at the skin of my jello like thighs, stubbornly thick, pressing around my fingers forming mounds of fat kissing one another in defiance.
My roommate at the time was serious, and beautiful, and broken, everything I wanted in a boy. We would sit up all night talking poetry, literature, movies, art. He told me about his mom using his little boy chest as target practice for her rage, and I told him some, never all, of my dad’s trespasses. We would lean in close to each other in the light provided by candle flames and the cherry of his cigarette and whisper our secrets. We played this game that anyone looking at us from the outside would have been baffled by. We’d take turns opening the dictionary at random and pick out words looking for prophecy and visions the way others do with Bibles, tarot cards, entrails, and tea leaves. Then, after living together for around 5 months he started dating this girl. This stupid vacuous waif of a girl who was everything I wasn’t: tall, heroin thin, thighs made of twigs, fragile, and in need saving. She never willingly opened a book in her life. He handed her Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, His favorite book of all time. A book he and I had spent nights digesting and discussing and drooling over. All she said about it was, “That was weird.”
I wanted to scream.
I knew, of course I knew the answer to my question. She of the doe eyes, and Disney princess hair. I just didn’t want to believe it. I decided I needed to be brave and tell him he was more than my best friend. We sat across from each other in an all-night diner, mounds of uneaten cheesy hash browns between us. He had many reasons we couldn’t be together:
He said, “I’m damaged.”
Yes, I thought, you are but I love you.
He said, “I will hurt you.”
Yes, I thought, you are/have/will but I love you.
He said, “You and I are like twin flames burning in the darkness, we burn so bright we suck all the oxygen out of the room.”
Pretty words dripped from his mouth about how he could never be with someone he loved but the one that stuck with me, what it boiled down to- A half joke about needing to be able to pick up a lover and toss her around-
I was too fat.
So… Diet Coke sustenance.
I could usually ignore the signals in my body screaming at me to eat for about five days. I learned that hunger pangs disappear after about 48 hours and an eerie calm sets in to mind and body. Emotions are blissfully numb, and everything begins to feel disconnected and unreal. I would usually find myself on day 4 or 5 without food squatting, thighs spreading to bursting like an overstuffed garbage bag, in front of the fridge in the middle of the night eating past the point of pain. After, disgusted with myself I would take laxatives and spend the next day feeling my intestines writhe as I sat on the toilet passing liquid fire. I lost another 30 lbs in two months.
I weighed 127. I could no longer sleep, there was no comfortable position. Every inch of skin felt like a conduit for pain but every morning I would slide my fingers beneath the waistband of my underwear and smile. I could feel the impossible hardness of my hipbone protruding against taut almost translucent skin. I would imagine the bone breaking free of the prison of my skin and still my thighs taunted me with their circumference.
My beautiful boy watched from his darkened corner of the living room, illuminated by the glow of MTV when he wasn’t out with waif girl, lost in his own pain surrounded by empty bottles of Henry Weinhard, full ashtrays, his guitar draped over his lap. He would run to the store anytime I said I had a craving for something to eat. He would bring the thing back, whatever it was, chili, macaroni and cheese, red vines, chocolate and present it to me and I would laugh and say I wasn’t hungry. It was shitty, petty, and cruel. It satisfied me.
When I was a kid I loved to run. My heart trying to pound its way free of my chest, my lungs on fire, my throat raw, legs turned to liquid, my whole body vibrating with life. I loved the feel of the cold air against my hot skin. I was a sprinter and my favorite event was the hundred-meter dash. The race would start and it was like I had left the thinking, feeling, sensing, part of my body in the blocks and in the moments after I crossed the finish line I would catch up with myself in a rush of breath and pulsing blood still unable to hold a coherent thought. On the track I was free. I was fast. I was strong. No one could touch me, no one could catch me and the only thing that mattered was the next step and the next step and the next step. People, mostly adults, would talk about my body, about my legs, words like “sturdy, substantial, powerful and thick,” were often tossed around to describe my muscular thighs. One woman said I had legs like tree trunks. These words made me uncomfortable and self-conscious. I knew these were bad words to describe a girl’s body. I knew girls weren’t supposed to be powerful like me.
I stopped running after my freshmen year in high school. I was too embarrassed by the way my breasts bounced regardless of the strength of my sports bra. I was painfully aware of the way my thick thighs rubbed together making my running shorts hike up to my crotch. Running no longer made me feel free instead I felt trapped in my flesh and there was no getting out of it or ahead of it or escaping it.
Now we come to it. The thing I have been avoiding saying and the thing that, as a good friend likes to say, is of the hard. The place I get stuck again and again. The place where words cease to make sense and I crash and burn. What to say? If I say to much will I hurt you, the reader? If I don’t say enough, will you say I am a cop out never going the distance, never naming the thing. And do I show or do I tell. I worry that showing will hurt, that I won’t be able to pull my punches that if I get to the bald truth of it I will leave you breathless or maybe it is me the writer I am worried about, maybe you will think I am weak and being melodramatic. Do I tell you the many, do I tell you the all, or do I let the one stand in for the all and the many? Maybe you will curl your lip into a tiny snarl of satisfaction and think I have only myself to blame. Maybe that is my secret belief, I am afraid you will agree. I think perhaps you have an inkling of what comes next. I think you know I am stalling for time.
I was a feral 12 year old, in a small town in Eastern Oregon. Both my parents worked and I was left to fend for myself. A list of things that happened that summer:
Everclear/ Vodka/ Pepperment Schnapps,
stolen from parents liquor cabinets.
Pot, so much pot,
Stolen from parents hidden stashes.
Make out sessions with high school boys,
In basements, and saunas and in the wooded area behind the public pool.
Rape, so much rape.
You may look at this list and think you understand the order of events the way that feral leads to, Everclear leads to pot, leads to making out, lead to rape. That misses the point. An alternate list of things that happened that summer:
Boys pulling my shorts up into the wedge of my vulva checking for pubic hair to see if I am, “Old enough to fuck.”
Adult men catcalling me and my friends on our way to the pool.
My dad’s near constant comments on my body, my butt, my breasts, my bra.
Males of all ages felt free to touch, grab, and comment on female bodies of all ages. It was the water we were all swimming in.
I was high, so very high the day J- pinned me beneath him and rammed the hardness of his knee into the soft flesh of my thighs over and over my thighs like tree trunks splintered, opening just enough to ram the hardness of his penis into the muscle clinched tightness of my vigina. I screamed that he was raping me.
A boy named T- watched from the bunkbed above us. He said, “Get over yourself. You want it.” And giggled. He liked to watch.
3 weeks later:
Another boy, B-, another room.
“I know what you did with J-, and now you’re gonna do it with me. You’re gonna do it and your gonna like it.”
B- locked me in the room so his friends could take turns. J- and T- were among them. When they were finished, they unlocked the door. They laughed, threw pringles potato chips at me as I left, my thighs rubbing together where the hem of my shorts stopped, the skin sticky with their cum. My thighs so strong, so powerful, so sturdy, built like tree trunks but powerless against 4 teenage boys.
If you have read this far and find yourself thinking there is a straight line between my behavior—drinking, drugs, making out—or you find yourself asking—where were her parents- Fuck off.
The only ones to blame for the multiple sexual assaults I experienced that summer—and there were more—are the boys who perpetrated them.
For a lifetime—37 years and counting since that summer—I blamed my body, I abandoned my body.
Recovery came in waves.
Some gentle, others tsunami sized. My thighs are the biggest they have ever been. My disgust of them has fueled their defiance. Two years ago, I spent $6000 to swallow three balloons inflated with helium. They sat in my stomach for 6 months. I lost 20lbs in the first two months then nothing. I lived in constant pain for the last 2 months but I refused to have them removed. I gained all the weight back plus an extra 18lbs.
I told no one I had done this thing.
Telling you feels like death.
Recovery comes in waves.
I will be 50 in less than a year and still I blame my body. I was 122 lbs when I started my first diet in the fall after being raped. I blamed my thighs, my breasts, the softness of my body, the cravings of my body, the desire of my body. I hated J-, T-, B-, and those other boys but I never really blamed them.
I continued getting high, drinking, making out with boys. The rumors spread, like they do in a small town, that I was a slut, that I was easy, and I obliged. I conformed to their vision of me thinking it was rebellion. I loved the pulsing heat that spread between my legs when I kissed a boy, when he pressed his body to mine and we tried to erase the cloths between us. When I was twelve I could kiss all day until my lips fell off and still want to kiss some more.
Of the many things taken from me that summer my body is the one I miss the most. More than trust or joy or safety I just want my body back.