unwanted attention

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I don’t go places alone at night. I haven’t for a few decades. I live in a quiet, safe neighborhood where women sometimes walk their dogs or go running alone at night. Even here it’s hard for me to understand how they don’t feel fear… aloneat night. The only time I feel safe and at ease out in the world at night is when I’m with my husband. Because I know he could – and would – beat the shit out of anyone who might try to hurt us, to hurt me. Because he is fearless in a way I could never be. I’d love to live in a world where women feel safe, but that isn’t the world I live in.

In my early twenties I was more fearless. Or maybe just more stupid. During a college semester in Paris, I rode the subway alone at night and then walked home the few blocks from my stop, through my quiet neighborhood, to my apartment. Once I made the mistake of barely smiling politely at the middle aged man in a business suit who opened the door for me that led out of my stop to the street. The middle aged man who… What? Misread my signals? The middle aged man who started following me home, a short distance behind me, and who didn’t stop following me until I spun around suddenly, looked him in the eye and yelled, “Go fuck yourself, asshole!” I yelled in French, unaware until that moment that I knew how to swear with such vulgarity in another language.

Unwanted attention.

That same semester, a decade before cell phones and internet, I would walk the block from my apartment to make a calling card call to the U.S. on a pay phone in a phone booth that was missing its door. I called at night, Paris time, when I knew I would reach my best friend between her classes in California. One night as I was telling her a story, I saw a man walking toward me. He stopped two feet away from the open booth where I stood and just stared at me – a quizzical look on his face – for what felt like an eternity. I told my friend that I might have to drop the phone and make a run for it, trying to summon up my courage while paralyzed with fear. The worst possible scenario, my greatest fear, flashing through my mind. I could almost swallow my racing heart in my throat. Then he turned around and walked away, and I ran home still trembling, imagining how things could have gone, how trapped and helpless I would have been. I comforted myself – barely – thinking that he must have not been 100% well in the head; as if a mentally fragile man could be any less terrifying than one with a plan to actually pursue me.

Unwanted attention.

When I was in first grade I was terrified of the moment each morning and afternoon when recess would end and we would have to line up to go back into class. That was when two little boys would rush me, one on either side, and kiss me on each cheek before running away laughing to the end of the line. Twice a day they would make me cry. I don’t remember how or when it stopped, or if my teacher took it seriously. I think my parents did.

Unwanted attention.

In my early thirties I spent a night comforting a friend as she took the morning after pill. She had been raped by a man she knew while another man laughed and helped to hold her down. I held her hand as her uterus contracted and she relived the experience, doubting and questioning herself at every turn, wondering if she had led them on, if she had asked for it. As if she could have changed the story if she’d done something, anything, different. “Please don’t blame yourself for what those fuckers did to you,” I said over and over to her.

Unwanted attention.

The summer I turned 20, I went to Club Med on vacation with my family. The hyper Brazilian activities director with the bad perm went by the name of Doodoo. Doodoo wouldn’t leave me alone, kept nagging me to come do water aerobics or some other activity with him and a bunch of middle aged women; I think he thought we were lonely. I kept asking him to just let me read in peace under my umbrella on the beach. One night at the bar, where I could get virgin (and sometimes real) pina coladas with the payment beads I kept around my wrist, Doodoo sat himself down next to me and told me that I should lose weight. Because then I would meet some feminine standard he’d decided he was the arbiter of. Because I should give a shit what he thought of my body. I told him to fuck off. In English.

Unwanted attention.

I spent a good part of high school and college carrying more weight than I felt comfortable with. It was hard to feel good in my body when I didn’t meet the standards of beauty ascribed to me by whom… Men? Society? The media? I craved attention that I didn’t get. I was every guy’s friend, but never anything more. In a crowd of skinny California blondes, nobody notices a chubby brunette.

What does that mean, to want the attention and not get it?

Then to start getting it,

but it’s not me who’s in charge of

when and

why and

from whom,

but someone else?

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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.