Fitting In

By

 

“Of course I’ll have the wings,” I say.

I hate wings. They don’t have any meat on them. Just slimy sticks of skin that made my hands smell like shit for days.

I went for more wings, a few french fries. Whatever it took to make it all look natural. Like I didn’t give a shit. Tapping on the pointy, digital boobs of a poufy-haired porn star on the screen at the front of the bar.

The sports bar closest to our client site had ten-cent wings every Tuesday night and three-dollar drafts until midnight. The Naked Photo Hunt machine sat at the center of the bar. Each consulting team had its own bonding routine that inevitably involved staring at women’s bodies, but compared to the gentlemen’s clubs and Hooters in other cities, this child-like game was harmless, a joke.

The women on the screen were 80s pin-up models with gauche leopard patterns and Madonna-style bras, or no clothes at all, swept over velvet couches or layered in flower petals. You had to find the differences between two almost-identical photos of naked women. It wasn’t obvious. You really had to look.

Kevin stared into the screen helplessly and I tapped a purple lace crotch to help him out. We had the high score. A coworker behind me squeezed my arm in celebration, another grabbed my waist. One man threw an arm around my shoulder, let it hang. He laughed, making sure I knew we were just having fun. I laughed back so he knew I was in on it—the fun.

By this time of night it was only men. The few women who’d agreed to join had retired to bed, pragmatically anticipating our morning meetings. But I knew preparation had diminishing returns, could even backfire if you looked too scripted or, worse, high-strung. Anyway the real performance happened after work.

The partner stood at the bar with another consultant my age. I joined them, had what they were having, a bitter brown drink that set my throat on fire. I studied their moves like an anthropologist. The way they joked about the crazy perfectionism of our female clients, how they took a garish pride in their apathy to settling down, how their opinions and facts were nearly indecipherable. If a guy played a song on the jukebox, I remembered it. When a book was recommended—always nonfiction—I read it. I mimicked their style and repeated their thoughts until they were my thoughts, too.

I’d perfected a man’s energy in college, surrounded by Febreze-scented cotton in airless computer labs. It started with a Miller Lite habit and a Hanes t-shirt wardrobe—superficial camouflage that slowly shaped a real personality. Now I spoke with irony, and authority, my resting expression was calm indifference, never a gratuitous smile. Surviving, for me, relied on my ability to fit into their world.

“No way, New York pizza is way better than a Philly cheesesteak,” I argued. I didn’t care, I rarely let myself eat either one, but the art of debating was what these men loved most. Simply being right was no fun. They wanted a fight, no matter how arbitrary, before they could win.

Powerful men think they want powerful women, but all they really want is the illusion of one. They want a woman who can stand up to others, display power from afar, or in jest. I knew at the end of the day these men weren’t looking for new opinions, they didn’t actually want to change their patterns or perspective. They wanted a woman who appeared strong to confirm their own behavior so they could feel stronger. So to push against them in any real way, without eventually conceding, would make them think I didn’t get it; that we weren’t “connecting” as co-workers, as friends, as more than friends. And to stay silent would prove the same. If I showed too much or too little power we weren’t a “fit.”

I made sure we fit.

“Fine,” I conceded with a laugh, forcing down my twelfth wing. I’d spend the next night running them off, or maybe even later tonight if we ended before midnight. Running was my respite. I’d race back to whatever hotel I called home and jump on the treadmill in the tiny room they considered a gym, with a small pile of weights in the corner and a mirror on every wall to make it look larger than the storage room it was. Treadmills were my charging station. Charging, draining, same thing. I was making progress. To becoming smaller.

 

Back in college, I had taken myself off Cornell’s meal plan to save money, which the lady at the Bursar’s office was not happy about.

“How will you eat if you live on campus without a meal plan?” she asked.

“I’ll buy groceries, like normal people.”

“It doesn’t make sense, honey. You don’t have a car; it’s much easier to use the cafeteria.”

I didn’t want to get into it. I knew that if I did this innocent old woman would get a lot more than an explanation, but she pushed. So I told her that buying a meal plan from this pretentious school meant that I was paying $28 a meal, three times a day, every day of the year. I watched her eyes widen at the absurdity of a cost that apparently even she wasn’t aware of. It was my turn to offer advice.

I asked if she knew, after just one year, that I had already accrued almost twenty thousand dollars of debt, with financial aid. That I had been helping my mom pay the bills since I was fourteen and didn’t have an extra ten grand to spare on overpriced stir-fry. I asked why she would shame me for something that already felt terrible, make me feel guilty for not enjoying what other kids didn’t even know they had. I glared at her through the grey padded boards that made up her cubicle window in the grey-carpeted finance office and cried.

She cancelled my meal plan.

 

Intro to Computer Engineering was in one of Cornell’s theater-sized rooms. I wasn’t sure what computer engineering meant exactly, but I loved math, and my mom had assured me it was the clearest path to a good job with good money, which was all the information I’d needed to check the tiny box on the long application nine months earlier.

I got to class early, sat front and center. People flooded the room: tall skinny men, chubby hairy men, Asian men with buzzed hair, Asian men with long hair, smiling Indian men, well-dressed white men with gel in their hair, quiet somber Indian men, two small Indian women, and a crowd of very loud white men in hats.

My big, curly hair felt like a siren in the middle of the room, my flowery shirt a billboard. My brain was frozen. I forced myself to write down everything on the screen, if only to stop myself from looking up and seeing everyone staring at me. I jotted down equations like I was drawing a still life, copying their form, without any real reason other than the act of replication itself. Eyes to the blurry screen with fuzzy numbers, eyes to the paper. Screen. Paper.

When the class ended, I packed my bag before the plank of a boy next to me had even closed his notebook and tried to slip out of my row, but the crowds were too dense and I had stupidly picked the center and the front. Now I had to make my way to the side and to the back, and why had I worn this bright yellow and green tank top when everyone else was in simple solid t-shirts?

Head down. But then maybe I was the unfriendly one. When I looked up, glances were everywhere and then nowhere. Quick stares from the side, eyes there and then gone, back down to their shoes, or another boy nearby. My eyes narrowed before looking back down at my silly shiny flats.

Once I was free from the room, I nearly jogged to my next class—Engineering Math—so I could be sure to get a seat in the back.

Within a week it was clear that not everyone had no idea what their major meant. Many of them had been doing it for years, with help from their engineering parents, a special program in school, or some inexplicable gift that made writing code and soldering wires as natural to them as going for a walk.

 

I nibbled on a pop-tart in the corner of the computer lab. I would let myself eat one strawberry pop-tart from the basement vending machine each night for dinner. If I planned my nibbles right, for only $1.50, the small blue package of sugar could last me up to two hours. Starting with the edges, the crunchiest parts, the parts that lasted the longest, breaking piece by tiny piece as I scrolled through the foreign language in white characters on my black screen. I cherished the ritual each night, of the predictable gooey center and hard, dry edges. Something to look forward to.

At first it felt responsible, financially, being specific and sparse with food. Each dollar I saved was its own thrill. I tracked and counted it obsessively. And then, slowly, the performance triggered something deeper. As if the act of restraint awakened something that was lurking in me all along. It wasn’t just money I could control, it was consumption, everything about it. It came so naturally it went unnoticed, like a deep-sea monster, at home but aroused. The feeling gave me something to win at, something clear and within my control that I could perfect: a woman’s body, my body. According to any image anywhere thinness was perfection, so I latched on—a clear goal I could cling to. Each crevice and corner of my mind filled with its gooey tentacles, until without even noticing, it was everywhere. I was it and it was me. Its—my—our—mission was simple: the smaller the better.

But the reason why someone starves themselves is never simple. My anorexia was borne from something deeper; the seeds of the monster more firmly rooted but less clear, even now. I think I resented my body. Surrounded by men with functional bodies in thoughtless, functional clothes, the more it seemed that a woman’s body existed for others. I had no use for my breasts or my curves; my period was unbearable. It was a relief when it stopped. Maybe, I didn’t need my body as a woman, I thought. Maybe, I was better off without it.

I forced my body back, away from the woman it had grown into and reversed it into a pile of sharp, sexless edges. I lost my period and much of my hair, neither of which ever returned. My veins were visible on every part of me, but hidden under oversized Old Navy fleeces and baggy, boyfriend jeans. I was unburdened by size or shape. I faded into the background. It was easier to be less different than be treated differently.

 

I’m thirty-five now. It feels like a lifetime since that time. Every morning I go to my favorite café, down the block from my Brooklyn apartment, and I ask for a croissant. I feel like a child at a recital, beaming with pride. I’m grateful to finally be someone who can order normal food at a normal place and not hunt for something that gaudily screams “low fat” or “sugar free” before I allow myself to touch it. It has taken me over ten years to order this croissant. But then I watch the barista carefully as she selects it. I don’t want the one to the right, greasier than the others, or the one in the back, all burnt and hardened. Maybe I don’t want the croissant at all. I wonder if the parfait would be better. My mind starts to spin with ruthless calculations and assumptions comparing the two. I remind myself I’m here for a croissant and I turn off the calculations like a light. I can do that now.

My body and I are still in a troubled relationship. When I read stories from people with eating disorders the first thing I do is google them. I’m embarrassed and disgusted by my need to compare even now, when I’m not even competing, just a spectator, like a little kid looking in on the big leagues. I look like a cured anorexic, but still, too often, I feel like a failed one. It’s impossible to stop my mind from going there, jumping to shame, a trained wedged reflex, the best I can do is learn to ignore it.

I wish I could say that my recovery came from a place of power, but defeat came first; power took time. Despite my mirroring men’s every move—their tastes, desires, their strength—and more likely, because of it, they left. Each year, I got hurt a little more by the men I gave up everything to please.

I quit my job, left the world of suited partners and slimy wings, and moved back to New York, closer to home, three thousand miles from the city where every step outside was a potential run-in with a new acquaintance or an old fling, to a city where no one knew me except the ones who really knew me. My mom and I sit on opposite corners of the couch, her little dog between us. My sister is in the other room, preparing food we’ll all eat until we can no longer move, shitty television—TLC, probably—playing in the background.

Single and childless, in a sweatsuit on my mother’s couch, I’m moving fast in the opposite direction from my fellow thirty-somethings, real adults with houses and families, hitting all the life milestones. And yet I know that, for me, moving backwards is the only way I’ll ever really move forward.

I stopped dating. I spent most of my free time alone. I created a world where I had no choice but to operate on my own terms; I removed all temptation to consider anyone else. Some people found this selfish. Generally, these were people who didn’t understand the out-of-body urge to appear pleasant at all costs, who couldn’t imagine a life rewarded for its invisibility, people whose sense of authority would elicit praise from others, not blind contempt. Mostly, these people were men.

In this world, I tossed away the authors and musicians I clung to in my twenties, the recommendations I’d studied for years—all men, always men. Instead, in the silence of my solitude, I consumed art by women—the Ferrante novels, Rebecca Solnit, Joan Didion, bell hooks. The voices so many women grow up knowing, but I’d barely heard of. These were writers who gripped me to the point of breathlessness, knew me better than I knew myself, allowed me to understand what art meant. Without men around to impress, I discovered my own taste—what desire meant beyond the desire to be desirable.

Now, far into my thirties, I can spot them easily—the women who are unapologetically themselves, succeeding on their own terms, women overflowing with their own identities. We see each other from across the room, find one another at parties, at work—our voices louder than expected, our conversations lacking hollow laughter, our aesthetic our own, whatever that may be. Despite the notion that it’s hard to make friends as adults, we connect with ease. Suddenly they’re everywhere, some across the room at a party, others on the public stage, and now many around my dinner table, on my couch, friends who have become family. I watch these women with admiration and learn from them, slowly. And I see other women watching me. I see the young women on my team watch me, openly contesting men in meetings who are shouting uninformed conclusions with confidence, describing my weekends proudly with an “I” not a “we,” my hair wild, my lips bare.

I approach a woman jogging in the opposite direction on the Prospect Park path I run everyday. She looks wise and in charge, enjoying the strain and exactly where she wants to be. I offer an admiring smile, appreciative even, of her confidence and stride, add her to the list—it doesn’t take much. I realize we’re probably the same age.

I almost pause mid-stride. I am so unlike the other woman my age, so distanced from my married friends, far behind the women with children and houses, milestone achievements I scroll through on Facebook until I’m layers deep in tinted stories I barely recognize.

But up close, I realize, what I admire more than anything is a woman who lives on her own terms, with priorities other than the ones society presents her with. More than anything I want to contribute—as proof—to the unpopular notion that women can push against what’s expected of us, that there is no single version of success to fit into.

Maybe this distance is my success, I think as I spring one foot in front of the other, a splinter of clarity—the kind only possible with the soothing distraction of repetitive motion. Maybe I am finally finding my own shape to fit into. We pass each other, the woman and I, with quiet nods and knowing smiles.

***

Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.


Emily J. Smith is a writer and tech professional based in Brooklyn. Her work has been published in Catapult, Broadly, Salon, and The Establishment. She's currently at work on her first novel novel. Find more from her on Twitter at @emjsmith. More from this author →