My Body Is Defying My Politics
This week I’ve been listening to all of the old stories from Stories We Don’t Tell, and I found myself strangely gutted by a piece I wrote back in 2015 about my relationship with my body. I wanted to share because so much has changed but so many of the feelings still ring true.
“Look how skinny you’ve gotten,” says my stepdad, reaching out to pinch my exposed upper arm.
I turn up the corners of my mouth in an imitation of a smile and tell him that I’ve lost 35 pounds now. The unanticipated consequence of a last ditch effort to fix something that was destroying my sleep and my sanity.
I bring my hands down and hold my forearms out in front of me to show him the scarred skin that was inflamed for months with an unidentified rash. My first prescription, allergy pills, did absolutely nothing. The steroid cream made me tear up at every sad news headline in a hormonal roller coaster that terminated when I broke down sobbing on the corner of Carleton and Yonge after a particularly frustrating encounter with the teenage employee of a cell phone store. The two scabies treatments I tried following a visit to a walk-in dermatology clinic led me to sleep on an empty mattress with a garbage bag around my pillow, but did nothing to stop my growing discomfort. Most days i couldn’t stop myself from scratching so much that I bled. I roll up my pant leg to peer at the small patch of red skin that remains.
I know he means it as a compliment, and I don’t know how to begin to tell him that his remark, his gesture, are eroding my hold on this body that I’ve only just begun to occupy.
I’ve had this body — long torso, small butt, big chest — since I hit puberty at age 11. It was the same year a boy would tell me that he loves me for the first time. On the last day of summer camp, he solicited a girl to bring me to him so he could say “I… I think I love you.”
A few nights earlier I’d been seated next to him at the campfire, and his hand slowly inched towards mine. Pinkies touching, fingertips touching, hands held. I took really small breaths and waited, my entire mind looping through the thought of he’stouchingmehe’stouchingmehe’stouchingme. I’m not sure if I liked it, or if I didn’t, or if I wanted him to, or if I didn’t. I didn’t want to call attention to myself because then I would be participating, and I didn’t know if I wanted to or not.
But we hadn’t really spoken much before that. And we didn’t really speak much afterwards. Except for when he mentioned holding my hand when he told me that he thought that he loved me. And I wondered, quietly, what it was about me that he loved?
I look at my newly skinny upper arm and I wonder how I can possibly explain the ways that my body stopped being my own.
When I went to the states for college, I tried on this persona who had blonde hair and pink miniskirts and a target weight. I made out with a lot of college athletes. Sophomore year I went to the gym every day, but never quite hit that target weight. One night I woke up from a blackout while one of those college athletes was hovering above my body, putting on a condom. I said no and he listened. And I wondered, a little louder this time, if I even needed to be there at all.
I began cataloguing women’s bodies, looking for a silhouette like mine. My body had become a list of reasons that my clothes didn’t fit and I wanted to see it the way men seemed to see it, I wanted to see it without the filter of myself.
Over time, I learned that I could silence that voice in my head. I could stop thinking about what my body looked like at all.
I added this to the list of silent pledges that I’ve made to myself over the years. Opt out of our disposable culture with reusable menstrual products. Opt out of vanity-based consumerism with a baking soda and apple cider vinegar regimen for your hair. Opt out of body shaming by deciding not to step on the scale. Remember that people can be healthy at any size and it is a broken system not individual weakness that is tearing our bodies apart. I don’t think of myself as an activist but I try really hard to embody my politics.
To distract us both from the subjective goodness of my weight loss, I start telling my stepdad about the ways my body is changing that are objectively good. The rash really is almost gone. My nose has stopped running and my sleep has improved tremendously. I go running or swimming almost every morning before work and my resting heart rate has dropped by 20 beats per minute.
I step on the scale before and after I go swimming at the Y, still in my bathing suit. I only record my weight when the number has gone down because I want to make sure that I never lose more than two pounds a week. It scares me that these things I’m doing to make sure I eat enough — recording my weight, my calorie intake, my daily exercise — are nearly indistinguishable from what my younger self would have done to hit her target weight if she’d had the tools.
As I turn around and step off the scale one morning, I catch my profile in the mirror. Slimmer. I feel a surge of pride at the hip bones I’m starting to see, the emerging gap between my thighs. A naked old woman walks by and I look away from my own reflection, chastened. I am ashamed that I’m letting the voice back in now that I like what it has to say.
I want to apologize to the women around me in the change room. I’m sorry that I’m weighing myself, and I’m sorry for the satisfaction that I sometimes feel when that number goes down. I’m sorry that I’m getting smaller, I’m sorry for assuming you might be trying to do the same. I’m sorry for that moment when the part of my brain I thought I’d cauterized tells me that small means healthy. I want to tell them that I know that small does not mean healthy. I want to ask them if they worry that if they start to get smaller they might just disappear.
Here in the car, I don’t have the words to tell my stepdad about the women in the change room and the bodies they’ve been charged with caring for. I don’t know how to tell him about the fickle voice, and the lists of what my body is doing right or wrong. About the boys and then men who have seen my body but looked right through me. In the face of his comment, I’m afraid he won’t understand if I try to explain the ways that my body is defying my politics.
When we arrive at the house for dinner, my aunt engulfs me in a hug. I haven’t seen her in almost a year. “Look at you Bri, you’ve lost so much weight. You look great!”
I smile and since I don’t know where else to start, I thank her.
My Body Is Defying My Politics
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