There is a truth about growing up poor that other people don’t understand. I’m not talking about “we only had basic cable” poor. I’m talking the kind of poor where no power or no running water was par for the course, where you sometimes had to take your bags of garbage to grandma’s house because they stopped picking it up from your place, where your mom skipped medicines because she didn’t want you to miss a field trip, where you wanted new crayons so bad but were afraid to use them, if you got them, because the next box of crayons was a long, long way off, where generic pop was luxury you can’t afford, where you didn’t have a phone at home for most of high school because it was too much money:
Everything takes more work than it should.
Everything requires more energy, whether it is mental or physical. The mental energy is the hardest. It’s survival, not only to have enough to eat and a safe environment, but the kind of survival that lets you feel as normal as possible. What shoes can I afford that don’t have a Kmart brand stamped on the side? If I go to the mall with my friends, how well can I pass off the I just don’t want to buy anything today act, when really, I see so many things I would like to have? Oh God, the teacher is asking about whether I’ve bought the book for AP English and I don’t want to tell the whole class that we can’t afford it because all the money is paying medical bills, so now what? Trying to feel normal despite being poor takes a shit ton of energy.
What energy wasn’t spent on managing poor was spent on being fat. Extracurricular sports and vegetables cost money, but genetics, depression, and starchy carbs from the food pantry were free. There are a million reasons I was (and am) fat, but not a damn one of them was because it was fun. I know that everyone else took a second piece of pizza, but if I take a second piece, will they judge me for eating it? If I was skinny, he wouldn’t keep me as his secret girlfriend and would finally hold my hand in public…. Oh god, how much will that chair creak when I sit on it? That space looks tiny and everyone else has walked through it, but I think I’m going to get stuck, but walking the long way around is so obvious, too…. Shit, I can’t get this damn shirt off in this stupid fitting room and I don’t think I can take it off without ripping it, and I can’t afford to pay for a ripped shirt.
This exhausting, endless questioning became how my brain works. As of two measly months ago, I make enough money to not feel poor for the first time in my life, but that is only until I remember my school loans, the payments I’m making on my eleven year old car, and the $1000 car repair that I financed three months ago. I have a ways to go, still.
Mike and I are being awfully frugal with wedding planning, which is great, because I certainly don’t want to take on any debt getting married. But I need a dress. And as frugal as I am, there is still are part of me that wants to feel like every other bride. I know that the day isn’t about the dress. I know my marriage isn’t about the day. But I want that chance to be the prettiest one in the room. To wear the lacey dress and rhinestones in my hair and be a goddamn princess. Just once.
Finding locations for dress shopping has been hell. I can’t afford almost any of it. I hate the thought of a used dress, but when I contacted the most reputable resale place around, I was told my size is pretty much a disqualifier. The whole while, this sick feeling just rots in my stomach: You’re too poor and too fat to be like everyone else. You better dial back what you want, because your best hope is to settle for what you can scrounge and tell people that this is actually what you want.
Well meaning people have suggested that I find a “nice dress,” and “not to worry about it because it won’t matter in the long run.” Most of these people have not been in my position. They either have the money or the figure that makes a lot more available to them. I don’t begrudge them their ignorance. I wish they would kindly shut the hell up, though.
If it came down to where the only thing I could wear to my wedding was two yards of burlap and an empty whiskey barrel, I would still get to marry the man I love. I have absolutely not lost sight of the fact that my goal for the day is to marry him.
But being poor, or fat, doesn’t exclude me, or millions other brides, from wanting a day of sparkles and magic and a ridiculous dress that will only be worn once. And it shouldn’t be this hard.
After dinner tonight, my dad was flipping channels and ended up on an episode of Extreme Weight Loss. I hadn’t seen it before, but the premise is familiar: take an obese person, give them a crap ton of personal training and resources and let us all live vicariously through their weight loss while we sit on our butts and shovel in the Oreos. We only caught part of the episode, but rather than inspire me to use the gym membership I’m paying for, it made me want to pull the blankets over my head and give up.
This week’s subject, at her heaviest, was only 34 pounds more than I am now. She was 40 pounds lighter than my heaviest weight.
They kept showing her initial photo: a sad expression on a puffy, droopy face, her stomach huge and far past the “muffin top” stage, her thighs stuck together… How tragic it is to look that way, they inferred. How grossly unfortunate that a person exists like this. Once she loses the weight, then she might be pretty.
I shifted in my chair. I kept watching, wanting to see how she turned out, regretting every bite I’ve eaten in six weeks. In the end, she beat her goal by a few pounds and everyone in her reveal audience cheered.
I wished that it hadn’t been so long since I’d eaten dinner because I wanted to throw it up (don’t freak, I haven’t thrown up in almost a decade). Instead, I messaged my bff.
My best friend since fifth grade, she is no newbie to handling my body image issues. She was there when I was a big-boobed size 7 in sixth grade, convinced I was enormous. She was there when I was a size 24, and every minute of every day as I’ve tried to shrink. She reminded me that people are stupid and told me I’m beautiful. We never agree on the latter, but she seems determined to be wrong.
“Be kind to yourself,” she told me last night.
I’m so exhausted of being told that to look like me is to look disgusting, ugly, and unfathomable. I’m so exhausted of having to try to drown out that persistent thrum of society that tells me in a million ways that the bigger I am, the less I am worth. I’m so tired of being told that if I want to be “normal,” or happy, or pretty, or desirable, I have to become half of what I am now.
I know that there are women who are confident in how they look, women who are anything but thin who work what they have, and do it well.
I am not one of those women. I am not a Melissa McCarthy, who boldly tells anyone who gives her crap about her size to kindly fuck off. I wish I was bold and brave like that, but I’m just not.
I’ve been seeing someone for a few weeks. It’s kind of casual and nothing official, but tomorrow is our fourth date. Near the end of our last date, he said something that very nearly got him slapped, had he not quickly explained himself: “You’re like a 70’s porn star; you see what you want and you go for it. That kind of confidence is fucking sexy.”
Me? Confident? Are you kidding me!? I am anything but confident. What I am is a decent actress with just enough pride and vanity to keep her from throwing up from nerves. If only he knew what was going through my head while I tried desperately to act like I was chill:
I like your arm around me. But please don’t squeeze too hard and realize how soft my hips are.
Your hand on my arm is nice, but please don’t notice how my batwings hang like drapery.
Kiss me again. But don’t open your eyes because I don’t want you to see how fat my chin is and how undefined my jaw is when my head is at this angle.
I won’t be the one to take your hand when we walk down the street, no matter how much I want to, because I worry you won’t want people to think we’re “together.” So please take mine.
I am not confident. I am tired.
I scrolled through Facebook as I walked to the bathroom to take a shower. Another friend posted another picture of her abs. I undressed in the bathroom and reached around to the back of my shoulder to scratch a mosquito bite and had the misfortune of seeing myself from the waist up in the reflection in the mirror.
I saw the stretch marks on the back of my arm, the result of my arms changing in composition as I built muscle faster than the skin shrank. I saw the roll where my boob pulled the flesh from my upper rib cage down, and the stomach that had a permanent muffin top shape, even when not wearing pants, and the way that my stomach protruded in the front, making me look about 6 months pregnant. I thought about how a picture of this hot mess would have such a different response than my friend’s did.
I saw the same things that made the TV audience feel pity. I tried to remember that I’ve made progress, but instead, all I could think is “this is the body I worked hard to get? Are you fucking kidding me? All that work, and this is it. Seventy goddamned pounds and this is it. I’m never going to lose enough to be anything other than fat. Gross.” And I felt tired. So tired. Tired of living in a body with an improperly working thyroid that makes weight loss damn near impossible. Tired of feeling like I won’t ever be small enough to be pretty. Tired of the looks I get as a fatty. Tired of feeling like I have to spend so much energy trying to ignore the messages society sends.
While in the shower, I thought about texting tomorrow’s date. I wanted to tell him that I hoped he’d be the first: the first (straight) guy to tell me I’m beautiful, or the first guy who didn’t lose interest after a few weeks, or the first guy to introduce me to his friends. I’m not confident that those things will ever happen. A little part of me hopes that they will, because I’m an eternal romantic, but if I’m honest, I’m really, really tired of hoping.
Brandon was trying to point out a guy who was behind me, just off the corner of the lit up dance floor. He spun me once, twice, and then whoosh, I had spun maybe half a dozen times, as fast as my feet could go. My pink skirt flared out and I’m sure more of my thighs were visible than have been in years. My eyes were shut tightly after the first spin and finally my glittery shoes found a place on the floor again, my arms flung around his neck as I laughed and tried to find a steadiness again. The strobe lights made his face look like a stop motion picture while he laughed.
And we kept dancing. One of my oldest and closest friends, he doesn’t care that I can’t dance. I mean really can’t dance.
I’ve mentioned a few (hundred) times that I feel weird about my body, having shrunk quite a lot in the last eighteen months. I’ve always been clumsy and uncoordinated, covered in bruises and Band-Aids and more than a few Ace bandages. It’s little surprise that I haven’t exactly spent a lifetime on the dance floor. I am uncertain, anxious, and almost unbearably self conscious about dancing in public.
Last night was a friend’s birthday party. We had dinner at the best pizza place in the world and then headed to the gay bar that he and his friends have gone to for years. While I know that gay bars aren’t exactly intended to host us straight people, no one has seemed to mind me tagging along. For a straight woman with anxiety, it is easier to be somewhere where I feel like I can totally be myself without worrying about impressing anyone. These friends are as unashamedly themselves as it comes, and they beg me to be as honest, too. There is no room for bullshit with them.
Admittedly, it takes me a drink or two before I let Brandon drag me onto the dance floor. The other guys we go with don’t dance, it seems, so it’s me and Brandon. While I think I can tally my lifetime of dancing hours on my fingers and toes, he has spent decades working on mastering how his body moves. A state-winning athlete as a kid, and then years dancing and in the gym and… Yeah, it’s safe to say that he doesn’t look like the fool I am on my two left feet.
He dances with me anyways. And I’m slowly getting to where I am not as terrified to go dance. I mean, I still am pretty awkward. I am still convinced that everyone else is judging me cruelly when I dance. I fear knowing how many people see my fat jiggle and the sweat start to collect at the roots of my hair, and how pink my cheeks get. I tense up and am certain that everyone else is wondering why on earth my hands are on his hips or his arms on my shoulders, given the fact that it’s a gay bar and we aren’t the most likely of couples on the floor.
There were a couple times last night when anxiety peaked and I thought, “Oh man, I have to stop. Someone find me a corner and a beer,” but then the song would change and he would be excited to keep dancing to the next one. Or I would check myself and remember that most people were ignoring me as much as I was ignoring them. Or, at least once, I thought “screw it, I’m having fun, even if I look like I’m seizing.”
Altogether, it was a really fun night. A few birthday shots, a few beers, a few kisses, a ton of laughter. It was precisely what I needed after a long and miserable week at work. It was another mark of progress, too, since there was a time when no amount of alcohol, or smiles from Brandon, or any promise of fame or fortune could have gotten me to dance.
I did dance, though, and had fun doing it. I was brave, in my own way. And if anyone was hating or judging, they can shove it up their heinies.