on cankles and self love

ClavicleExcerpt from Shrill, the amazing book everyone should read, exploring our views about fatness, by the incredible Lindy West.

Dear 15-year-old French boy I had a crush on the year I was an exchange student,

I still remember your name, I probably always will. I can almost remember your face 30 years later. You were adorable and you had a nice smile. You wore v-neck sweaters and button down shirts and nice pressed jeans like French boys did then, in the eighties. You were popular, you made your friends laugh, you made me laugh as we all sat in cafes after school and drank coffee from small cups and shared cigarettes, like French teenagers do. You and that one other guy, you were like the ring leaders, but no one seemed to mind because you made us laugh.

I doubt you remember me. I was only there for one semester, visiting your school all the way from California. The American girl who spoke fluent French because she had lived in France as a little kid. The one who wanted so much to fit in, to be as French as she possibly could be, who bought her own v-neck sweaters and smoked her first cigarette and drank coffee along with you and all your friends. It was so exciting to feel like I could fit in, like I could belong, even for just a little while.

You were nice to your friends, you were nice to me. Until that day you weren’t. But I doubt it even registered. I doubt you even knew what you did was hurtful.

You don’t remember, but I do. 30 years later, an amazing life, an amazing partner, an amazing family and an amazing community of my own, and I still remember.

We were sitting in a cafe with our friends and I was sitting next to you. I’m sure I was beside myself with excitement that you had sat next to me that day. I’m sure my heart was beating really fast. I’m sure it was the moment I had written to my friends back in California about, the moment I had hoped for. When you would notice me. You looked down at my legs next to yours, and you put your hand on my thigh, and you looked at me. I can’t remember exactly what you said, but the look on your face said everything: Look at the way your thighs expand when you sit. 

I can’t remember what I said or did in response. I know I must’ve been stunned. I know my heart cracked into a million pieces. I’m sure my face turned red. Nobody noticed. Nobody said anything. I think I looked at you questioningly and you laughed it off, the cruelty already dissolving in your mind, I’m sure. Then you started to tell a story to the group, and I sat there, still next to you, invisible but stuck in that booth between you and the wall.

I should have fucking hated you. I should have slapped you and asked what your mother would do if she heard you talk to a girl that way. But I didn’t. Instead my heart cracked, and I looked at my thighs, and it stuck. For life. The way my thighs expand when I sit. As all thighs do, by the way, even your skinny little French boy thighs in your pressed jeans.

I hope you grew up and never hurt another person like that. Or if you did, I hope you got shit for it from some girl more confident, at 15, than I was.

****

Dear friend from freshman year in high school who invited me to your slumber party,

Some years ago I was watching 30 Rock for the first time, catching on to the Tina Fey craze a few years later than everyone else. There was an episode where Tina Fey made a comment about a part of the body I’d never heard of before: her cankles. I laughed so hard I cried. And I cried, too. That’s it! I yelled to my husband. That’s what I have! Cankles! 

I didn’t know whether to be happy, relieved, proud, or incredibly sad that I had cankles. But at least, in that moment, I didn’t feel alone. If there was a word for it, if Tina Fey had them too, clearly I wasn’t the only woman on earth with thick calves and not-very-defined ankles.

Did you know that word 30 years ago, even though your legs were the opposite of mine? Even though you had thin legs and thin calves and thin lovely ankles, and you could wear heels without feeling like a duck? Do you remember what you said to me at your slumber party, when all of us were lying on your bed and we had our legs up against the wall?

This is what you said: “Ohmygod! You don’t have ankles!” You probably don’t remember, and maybe you can’t believe you even said it. Maybe you would feel terrible now if I reminded you. I hope so. But I remember. And it stuck. I’ve held it for all those years. My ankles that are barely ankles. My fat calves that go right to my feet. My cankles.

I thought about my cankles when I took a walk this morning. I thought about the way they hold my legs up, help my feet move, allow me to be able to take my morning walks. They work well, as well as your thin ones, I’m sure. Sometimes I joke that in my next life I’m going to have kick-ass amazing ankles and thin lovely calves, maybe I might even wear 4-inch heels. But does it really matter? Do I really care, or was a seed just planted that night at your slumber party that no longer belongs there?

****

Dear cute guy I had a mad crush on my freshman year in college,

Somewhere on some ancient diskette somewhere I have a computer diary I kept during the year I knew you. Probably 90% of it is about you, and the insane all-consuming crush I had on you. I don’t think you had a clue how in love with you I was, partly because I was only one of probably a dozen girls – maybe more – who felt the same way that year. But also because you didn’t see me.

I don’t mean you didn’t know I existed because you did. We were friends. You were nice to me. You were nice to everyone. You shared your beautiful smile generously. You flirted generously, making all of us who adored you feel like maybe, if only…

But for me there was one problem with that: You didn’t see me. Not that year, when I carried 60 extra pounds on my body, more than I felt comfortable with. You didn’t see me that year, after I had spent the previous year emotionally eating Ben & Jerry’s after my parents’ divorce. You didn’t see me when I was fat. You didn’t see me because I was fat.

Then one day, during my junior year, I ran into you on campus. I had lost much of my extra weight by then and I wasn’t fat anymore. You noticed me as I walked by and you invited me to sit down. You asked me how I’d been and you gave me your undivided attention. You were still nice to me, but in a different way. Because for the first time, you could see me.

I was flattered. I probably ate it up. But it hurts now, when I think about it. Because nothing about me had changed in those few years except my exterior. Well, maybe one other thing had changed: I was more confident without those extra pounds. But should I have been? Could I have learned to be a big girl and also love myself unconditionally? Could I have been a confident fat girl? Would you have seen me, sooner, then?

****

I have been the fat girl. I have been the thin girl. I have been somewhere in between. Regardless of my weight, my thighs expand when I sit. My ankles aren’t fat and neither are my calves, but I am built a certain way and I didn’t get well defined ankles this time around, and my calves are thick. But the thing is, even when I was fat, when I wore a size 16 and not a size 4, I was still me. I was still beautifully perfectly me.

Here’s another part of my body I discovered I had as I got older, as the weight came off: clavicles. It’s true, well defined clavicles are for thin girls. When you’re fat, they hide. My clavicles now can hold oceans. I love them. I used to love them because they meant I was thin. Now I love them because they are part of me.

And I love my flabby thighs that expand when I sit, with the stretch marks that remind me, each morning when I get out of the shower, that I was once fat. They used to make me cringe, my stretch marks, and fill me with regret. If only I hadn’t eaten all that Ben & Jerry’s… If only. But they don’t make me cringe anymore. Because they’re mine, part of me, and they tell a story.

I used to tell this victory story about how I gained weight really fast because of what was going on emotionally in my life, and then lost the weight in a healthy way; how I refound the body that felt like me. But I don’t tell that story anymore, it no longer serves me. The only victory, I understand now, is that I learned to love myself.

I think 90% of why I was miserable when I was fat was because I felt invisible and unworthy of love in that body – ashamed, ugly, hidden. We are cruel about fatness in our society. I’ve been cruel about fatness – my own and others’. And we raise thinness way up next to holiness, that thing we should all aspire to be: Thin. And if we get there, all of a sudden we are seen.

Take a moment to question why that is. Take a moment to question whether we can do better. As women. As men. As a society. Toward ourselves and toward others.

****

Dear 15-year-old girl I used to be,

One day you will be 45 and you will be thin. You will have clavicles that can be seen and they will hold oceans. You will be seen. You will see yourself and know you are beautiful.

You will also wish your boobs were bigger, not smaller. You will wish you had more curves, not less. You will still joke that one day in your next life you will have kick-ass ankles and wear heels. You will still wish your thighs were more firm.

But you will love your body. And you will appreciate all that you can do in it. And you will find comfort in that. And you will feel gratitude for all that you are. Because you are amazing. Your body is amazing.

Trust me. I know. And I love you.

women’s bodies, women’s power

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I’ve watched Beyonce’s Formation video several times. It’s amazing. I’ve read the lyrics. I’ve followed along with the lyrics while watching the video, just to make sure I really heard what she was saying. I recommend watching it more than once to make sure you didn’t miss anything the first time(s). It’s challenging. It blows me away every time. It also makes me a little uncomfortable, which I experience as a good thing. I like getting out of my comfort zone, especially my white girl comfort zone.

I saw Beyonce own the Super Bowl halftime show, preaching black empowerment – on television – in front of millions of Americans. And was that a stadium full of rainbows at the end, in support of the freedom to love whoever you want? At the Super Bowl in the San Francisco Bay Area? Perfect.

I read discussions in my social media universe and in the larger media among women who were disturbed by how revealing Beyonce’s outfit was in the halftime show. These are intelligent, sensitive and feminist women, and they were understandably troubled that their children had to see a woman dressed in so little – showing so much skin, so much leg, so much ass, so much cleavage – while expressing her power. They wished out loud that we lived in a society where it was okay for women to be powerful while also fully clothed. I get that, I really do. And I agree – women should be able to be powerful and regarded and HEARD however they want to dress. I will never deny that our collective culture dishes out some messed up and contradictory messages to women and girls about our bodies and our voices.

But I wasn’t outraged because my 12 year old daughter was watching with me, seeing all that skin Beyonce was showing. To be honest, what actually came out of my mouth was, “Wow! Check out her strong-ass legs!” Followed by, “That woman is a total BAD ASS.” Followed by our own discussions in the week that followed about what the messages were in her performance, and why it’s a big deal that she is daring to and able to share those messages.

How often are women told it is beautiful to have real legs, thick legs, muscular legs, even short squat legs? When does it feel safe to show off those legs to the whole world – knowing the whole time that you will either be critiqued for your flaws, dismissed as the victim of a system that controls you and tells you what to wear and how to look, or condemned for being a slut?

Apparently it’s not that safe for a woman to be sexy and proud and loud and powerful. A Google search for “Beyonce post-Super Bowl backlash/commentary” shows that. Thankfully I’m not the only woman defending a woman’s right to be powerful and to make a statement in public – in whatever she wants to wear; the same Google search leads to some great commentary against the backlash. Commentary that also acknowledges and honors Beyonce’s blackness, rather than fears it.

****

The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue came in the mail this week, one out of 52 issues that is not about sports. Well, sort of not. They actually had real athletes in this issue – female athletes with strong bodies. No lengthy stories about them, but photos of athletic women in the same skimpy bathing suits worn by the issue’s other models, along with short blurbs and quotes. And they had “plus size” model Ashley Graham, who in her little blurb spoke about cellulite; even if said cellulite was airbrushed away in her photos. She may be proud of her body exactly as it is (as she should be), but clearly we’re not quite ready to communicate a larger message to the public that cellulite is actually okay. I would love to see us get there.

The SI swimsuit issue made it to the bottom of the recycling bin before my daughter could see it. And I thought to myself as I buried it underneath flattened cereal boxes, “Why am I hiding this from her? Is there a difference here between the messages conveyed in the magazine and what Beyonce was saying in her halftime show when she bared her skin? If so, what is the difference?”

There’s a lot of sex in the SI swinsuit issue. The message is sexual, tiny bikinis cover large breasts, women posing in a way that makes their boobs and booties stick out the most. Waists are Photoshopped to be extra narrow so that everything else looks extra wide. There is desire in their faces, girlish innocence mixed with come-hither looks. They are sweaty, their hair is wet. It’s sexual. It’s confusing. And it contributes to the ways in which boys and girls grow up confused about how to relate to each other and to their own and each other’s bodies. I don’t want my daughter to grow up afraid of sexuality; at the same time I want her sexuality to develop in its own right time, in a healthy way.

She is 12 years old, almost an adolescent. Do you remember adolescence? Am I the only one with such deep imprints from that time, still, 30 years later? That time when girls and boys start to notice each other – girls noticing boys noticing boys noticing girls noticing girls. Girls competing with other girls, boys competing with other boys. Insecurities. Bodies starting to change, many girls finding themselves suddenly a head taller than many of the boys around them. Flirting starts, shyness grows and is overcome, first crushes happen and happen hard. Young hearts break for the first time. Sexual identity starts to form, in all its complex layers.

I don’t envy my daughter that she has to go through adolescence with social media everywhere – and I’m postponing letting her have her own phone for as long as possible because I’m not ready to navigate that yet. But for some reason I’m still trying to understand completely in myself, I don’t worry about her sense of herself and her body and her self-confidence. Maybe I’m mistakenly not preparing myself enough – or her – for the years ahead, maybe there are things she thinks about herself that she doesn’t share with me. I doubt I’m missing the important things, though. She and I talk about things, these conversations began many years ago.

And my daughter is different than I was at her age.

She is confident – in her skin, in her sense of herself, at school, in the world. She is outgoing, friendly, and not remotely shy. She is loud and funny and full of energy. She is athletic and active. Basically, she’s totally cool. Cool to her core, from the inside out. She is unique, she has always had her own style. And she is whip smart, strong willed, opinionated. She questions what she sees.

She has understood since she was little that women don’t look like Barbie or Bratz dolls. She knows that models in magazines are airbrushed, that their bodies have been manipulated by Photoshop. She knows what eating disorders are, and calories for her are units of strength and energy, not things that need to be counted or measured or controlled.

I don’t speak around her about the parts of my body I don’t love – and being her mother makes me question why I feel that way about those parts in the first place. I am very aware that I was even younger than her when I started hating my thighs.

My daughter once asked me why I never wear shorts. My answer is always the same: I prefer skirts. Maybe when she’s older, or maybe soon, I will tell her the truth and we can talk about bodies and women and all the complexities of being a woman in a body. I will tell her honestly that I am constantly remembering to love and cherish my body exactly as it is. That I care for my body because of that self-love. I will tell her that if I had Beyonce’s legs, I probably would wear shorts.

It’s so confusing being a woman and a girl. The messages are constant contradictions:

Be feminine. Be sexy. Be smart and unafraid, speak out. Don’t be too loud or people will think you’re bossy or whiny.

You are flawed. You are imperfect. There is always something you could improve about yourself. Get fit. Get strong. Get thin. Get toned. Watch what you eat. Dress in a way that flatters your body type.

Love your body as it is. Accept yourself as you are. Natural is beautiful. And if you try to fix something about your body so that you feel better about yourself, you will be judged for being shallow, insecure, vain.

I’ve done it, I’ve judged. I confess. Women and girls are each other’s finest critics. And we are hardest on ourselves.

****

So I’m watching the Super Bowl with my family and out comes Beyonce and her shorts are shorter than her backup dancers’, and no one can deny that she is a beautiful woman who looks completely hot. She dances and she sings while the whole world watches – and her music has a message, a powerful message. Her costumes even have a message. And all I notice is her POWER. That this bad ass BLACK woman (with real, strong legs) has all eyes on her in that moment, and she is communicating something powerful, something that challenges the status quo. At the Super Bowl.

It’s been 25 years since I took Women’s Studies in college, even longer since I woke up to the concept of feminism. I was a photographer for the women’s newspaper in college, met female students who were putting themselves through school doing phone sex in the evenings. I learned about the first wave of feminism, the second, the third (my generation). I’m not sure what wave we’re in now. But feminism has changed, it has evolved, it is constantly evolving, and it cannot be just a movement of and for and directed by white women.

This is the thing I know now that I didn’t know in college: Nothing is black and white. You can’t say that women are always objectified if they are showing skin. I’d bet money that Beyonce felt amazing in that stadium a few weeks ago, or when she saw the final cut of her Formation video.

And then there is the race and color piece: White women or men – or the dominant white culture – don’t get to tell black women or men – or black culture – what they should or shouldn’t wear. Period. Bootie shorts or black hoodies. Skin or no skin. I don’t care how much of a feminist I have always considered myself to be: It will never be up to me as a white person to have an opinion about how Beyonce should dress or what’s appropriate for her. And I don’t want to dismiss or ignore her power because it is delivered in clothing that might make me blush or might feel inappropriate. The only female I’m in charge of besides myself is my daughter (until she is 18), who doesn’t wear short shorts because she is 12 years old.

I don’t see Beyonce as a victim of the messages she has been taking in all her life, thrown at her by our mysoginistic society. I see in her a powerful, successful, intelligent, iconic superstar who actually gets to decide – herself, for once – what she wants to wear when she shares her message of substance on the national stage. Maybe we can spend less time debating her clothing choices, and give more attention to HEARING what this empowered black woman is trying to tell us. Recognizing that her message is one we need to hear, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

In the very last line of Formation, Beyonce says, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.”

Think for a minute about the power and feminism in that statement…

notes from the mothership

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I had the most amazing dream this morning between 6:32 and 7:00 a.m. I won’t describe the vivid convoluted details; I know how boring it is to listen to the play-by-play of another person’s dream. Plus, after a few minutes of trying to hold on to the feeling it left me and capture the details on paper, it started to fade even for me. But I was left with this:

A woman in her twenties or thirties or forties. From a country with an oppressive fundamentalist government, one where women’s voices are silenced through violence. She is rebellious. She is a threat to them and wanted by them and she lives in hiding, somewhere in another country where she can be more free, or sometimes underground in her own country. She is followed the world over by fans and friends via social media. She creates videos that celebrate women’s voices, men’s voices, freedom and sexuality. People support and celebrate her courage by sharing their own videos, speaking out about things that are taboo, things that bring up fear, things that keep us down. I get lost down the rabbit hole of her social media universe, read her words, watch her videos and those of others who are drawn to connect with her. I follow the connections all over the internet and the world, realizing that there are so many people out there who are listening and sharing what she has to say. Social media is so powerful it cannot be silenced by governments. Her statement is about rebellion, but not mindless rebellion without a cause – rebellion that is about celebration. Celebrating freedom of expression and existence and diversity and sexuality. Celebrating the power of connection and love.

****

Once the house is quiet after the kids and the husband are off to school and work, I sit at the computer with my tea and let myself noodle around on the mothership (my laptop) around the universe (the internet) for a while as I wake up. Sometimes it’s boring – you know those days when your email inbox and your Facebook feed are just REPETITIVE and DULL. Other days, like this morning, I stumble onto some gems, the kind that launch a thousand thoughts and stories of my own.

A courageous young woman telling her very real story about the ways she has been degraded, threatened, controlled, and violated by boys and by men. I read her story and remember the two boys in first grade who would run up and kiss my cheeks as I waited to go back to class from recess, how I dreaded ending up at the end of the line, their easy target, and how their unwanted kisses would make me cry. We all have those stories. I won’t rewrite her post with my own stories, but I could. I’m pretty sure every woman I know could.

I sit with my tea and I think about what it means to me to be a woman. I think about how complicated it can be, the mixed messages, the struggle to find your own voice and the freedom and courage to use it. I think about bodies and food and fear, about weight gained and weight lost, about being unsure about what I see sometimes in the mirror. I think about sexuality and fertility and motherhood, things that as a girl I imagined would be easy, things that are actually complicated and wondrous at the same time. I think about grief and pain and depression, how we sometimes hold the weight of the world in our beautiful cracked hearts. I think about illness and health and fear. Again the fear. I think about connection and friendship and love.

I think about my adolescent daughter and all I want her to know and believe and trust about how amazing she is. I think about what stories I will tell her that I have lived, what the lessons are that I want to teach her about what it means to be female. I want her to know how to exist proudly and safely in the world as a woman, how to hold on to that incredible wealth of confidence she has always had as a girl. I want her to always allow herself to shine her bright light – powerfully – in the world. I want her to trust herself. The mama bear in me wants to shout out to her from the rooftops: Don’t ever let anyone push you down!

Then I find the video below. Another courageous young woman says everything that needs to be said about our allowing ourselves to be BIG in a culture that wants us to keep ourselves small. (Take the three and a half minutes to listen to her poetry, it’s worth it.)

And I think about my young son and all I want to teach him about being a man, about how to engage with women in a world that tries to dismiss and control us. I think about what I want him to know about being black, things I cannot know first hand as his white mama. But things I can try to understand. I think about everything I still have to learn about raising a son, about raising a black son. I think about the forces conspiring against black men today, here, and I worry for him. I think about how, like my daughter, he is all possibility. I see the greatness within him. And I shout out: No! You will not push down my black son.

****

It’s as if the protagonist came out of my dream this morning, and she’s really really real, because she is actually every woman. Every human. She is me. She is my children. She is every human drawn to connect, to share stories, to speak out. Drawn to rebel and to celebrate. I swear she’s out there somewhere. So many versions of her.