The Thread: All in My Head

By

Standing in front of a closet full of beautiful clothes that don’t fit me anymore, I am crying. Some of it is sleep deprivation; some of it is postpartum hormones. Some of it is frustration. This is not the first morning I’ve spent wailing in thick, salty sobs.

Everything about me feels wrong. Wrong size is just part of it. But it’s a major part. I kept my clothes—curated lovingly over the prior two-and-a-half years of low weight—hanging in my closet throughout my pregnancy, expecting to step back into them after a few months of moderate eating and exercise. I had such high hopes for my breastfeeding metabolism. I had such high hopes for my body. I had such high hopes for my birth, for my baby, for bouncing back. All the gentle self-care, the admonishment of midwives, the sweet voices of friends, all of it has done nothing to gentle this sadness. This fear that I am disgusting.

I am in a war, and some of the toughest battles happen in my head.

When I look in the mirror, I can almost see the skinny me, the real me, peeking out from under my rounded belly. Her hip lines carved into the butterfat of my hips. Her smaller C cup in the hang and the heft of my nursing breasts, which have ballooned multiple cup sizes.

I can see her shape so clearly that, for a moment, I want to take a knife to my skin, sawing out the inner skinny girl. I want to free her from this fleshy, spreading body. I want her back. I ask myself what I’m willing to do to get her back.

Will I ever stop doing this? Will I ever feel normal?

Sadly, even the 140-pound version of me was unsatisfied with herself. In my head, I was supposed to weigh 125. I couldn’t be happy, couldn’t celebrate, wasn’t successful until I was 125. I spent three years trying to make it to 125, and the closest I got was 132, and that was with running and barre and yoga and Weight Watchers, and a part-time job—and no child. Essentially, I made it my other job to drop weight. I was that woman obsessed and stressed over losing less than ten pounds. It’s not realistic for me to expect myself to weigh that little now, considering I work full-time and have a child. But reality doesn’t stop the longing. I still see her in the mirror.

I am still hoping for my Winnie Cooper moment.

Winnie Cooper, for those of you younger than thirty-five, was the love interest/ female lead on The Wonder Years, a family drama from the late 1980s/early 1990s. The show was set twenty years before, in the late 1960s, and based on a young boy’s suburban life. Kevin Arnold, played by Fred Savage, was the boy. Winnie Cooper, played by Danica McKellar, was the girl who lived across the street from him. When the show begins, Winnie and Kevin are pre-high school, awkward guy/girl neighborhood friends. But Winnie Cooper went away for the summer. She got her braces off. She got contacts. She grew boobs. She unbraided the pigtails, and let down her hair. I can still hear the music that played when she walked out (a picky, folksy guitar instrumental called, “Winnie’s Theme”). She looks hot all of a sudden, and her sudden beauty throws Kevin into a series-long tizzy. One of the primary storylines of The Wonder Years was whether and how Winnie and Kevin would end up together.

Insatiable, a new show on Netflix, is premised on a Winnie Cooper moment, too, even though it takes place in a contemporary high school. Even though the current crop of teenage girls and I have many differences in our high school experience (and they have no idea who Winnie Cooper is), some things never change.

The Winnie Cooper moment is a trope: undesirable girl gets makeover, comes out sexy, slays local boys. See: She’s All ThatPretty Woman, and, going back even farther, My Fair Lady. It’s a fantasy, that something will happen—magic, weight loss, a summer away, losing our braces—and we’ll metamorphosize from the overlooked girls into these desired butterflies with options of who to date and multiple offers to go to prom.

Each school year, as I geared up with supplies and back-to-school shopping, I would stand in front of the full-length mirror wondering if this would be my year. Had I changed? Was it noticeable enough that I, too, could have a Winnie Cooper moment? I didn’t wear braces or glasses. I was average-sized (though I was obsessed with losing weight in the standard American white, middle-class teenage girl way). I never had a Winnie Cooper moment. But I longed for one.

I long for it now, as a thirty-seven-year-old mom. I imagine the new me when I go to the gym at five in the morning. Why else do I think about what I eat? I don’t look like a teenager, but I carry one inside me, one who continues to long for her big reveal, and then her big revenge.

Insatiable picks up on that sadistic longing. “Fatty” Patty gets punched in the face by a homeless man who is trying to steal her candy bar. With a broken jaw wired shut all summer, she loses seventy pounds and is transformed into an unrecognizable, hot version of herself. And rather than binge on comfort food, skinny Patty binges on payback, starting with that homeless man who punched her. I’ve only seen the first three episodes.

There’s been a ton of criticism of the show, and I found myself skeptical throughout the pilot as some of the ugliest stereotypes about teenagers, girls, and fatness were displayed. Insatiable is a dark comedy. Underneath the jokes, there’s a deep critique of our cult of beauty: skinny, pretty, white girls are assumed to be so incapable of darkness, they can get away with literal murder.

 

As a young woman, what I wanted was the hypervisibility of objectification. Of course, once I got to that place (where men and boys desired me as a sexual object instead of as a friend) I didn’t believe it. The boys who wanted me must be crazy, I thought. There must be something wrong with their assessment. I still looked wrong. When I met the bar, I moved the bar. I have never lived up to my own constantly moving expectations.

Since I became a mother, I’ve been working on my self-image issues. It’s a long process, and considering I spent over twenty years hating the way I look, making peace with my body will take some time. But no matter how far I come, I keep expecting what Virgie Tovar calls “someone else in the mirror.”

I mentally compare the me I see to the me I hoped would be there. If I go looking for that other girl, I am always disappointed. My hips are too wide and my belly is too soft. But what if I go looking for me exactly as I am? If I can get myself to expect myself the way I look today, the way I looked last year, and pretty much every one of the last four years since giving birth, what then? I have a moment’s peace.

Last week I watched I Feel Pretty, the Amy Schumer movie that I heard was great and terrible, inspiring and problematic. It was all of those things, but I laughed and was entertained. It’s a comedy in the vein of the 1980s films like Big (which is referenced) where some magic (in Schumer’s character, Renee’s case, a fall from a SoulCycle bike) allows the main character to experience a different life. In I Feel Pretty, this “magic” is simply confidence. Renee believes, after bumping her head, that she’s become beautiful (though cleverly, they never show us what Renee sees when she looks at herself). To the outside world (and the viewer) she is exactly the same as the girl who felt so fat and ugly in the first third of the movie. But her self-image has changed, and so does her whole life. Confidence is the only difference between the Renee that everyone loves and the Renee that everyone overlooks.

On the one hand, it’s a nice message that we hold the key inside ourselves to be happier, without changing anything but our confidence. There’s a comfort in imagining that so much is reliant on our attitude about ourselves. After all, what could be easier than changing one’s outlook? On the other hand, I’ve struggled with body acceptance over the last four years, and I am frustrated by the narrative. Yes, it helps to rock what you’ve got and be yourself, and confidence is undeniably sexy. But it also helps to look like Amy Schumer, who for all her posturing as a “chubby outcast” is still a relatively slim movie star. And yes, I know Schumer is “practically plus sized” by Hollywood standards, but it isn’t exactly inspiring to me that a size 8 or 10 woman’s body is considered comedically, grotesquely fat. In real life, tall, blonde Amy Schumer actually gets plenty of positive attention for the way she looks. At the very least, nobody is going to hold it against her, at least not the way they hold looks against women who are much farther outside the Hollywood beauty norm. Women who are, in fact, the real-life norm. The average American woman is five-feet, four-inches tall, and weighs about 168 pounds. She wears a size 16-18, which makes the success of Christian Siriano, who is famously size-inclusive, seem like an obvious business strategy. Create clothes more women can wear, and more women will buy your clothes.

In some ways, the plot of I Feel Pretty is telling women like me (who struggle with body acceptance, let alone body love) that the problem lies in our own heads. The truth is that the problem is the standard, which shouldn’t exist at all, and the racist, ableist, patriarchal norms these standards uphold.

I used to feel like I could be ugly and nice, or pretty and mean, but I couldn’t be both ugly and mean. Of course, being pretty and nice was the jackpot; very few got dealt that hand. Since I believed that I was plain and awkward, I tried to work on kindness. Also, my personality, my thoughts, the way I treated people and moved through the world, seemed to be the part in my control. That was the part that was all in my head. But nothing is as simple as simply deciding to love yourself.

Roxane Gay’s 2017 memoir, Hunger, sheds light on the how the world feels for the “super fat.” Not “Lane Bryant fat,” not Amy Schumer fat, not me. Gay examines her body that is too large to comfortably exist in public, or even in private. The constant anxiety and navigation of walking versus driving in a car, of eating in a restaurant with chairs that may or may not break or be comfortable for her to sit in. Reading Gay’s memoir is an eye-opening experience, particularly for anyone who has struggled with their own internalized fat shame. I am not disabled by my fatness, and yet it occupies an embarrassingly large part of my anxiety. I appreciated how much Gay pushed back on the idea that self-acceptance and body love are really all that’s wrong with her, that it’s all in her head. The world itself is violent toward fat people; furious, degrading, humiliating, shaming.

The body-positive movement fails to account for the disgust for and violence against fat bodies, differently abled bodies, brown and black bodies. Yes, we should love ourselves, and yes, it is the one part of the equation we can control, but it’s like plugging our ears and trying to drown out the constant chorus with our own lalalalas. Yes, it’s better than hating ourselves, when we ask fat women, brown and black women, disabled women, or really, any woman (because thin women hate their bodies, too) to love herself in the face of the constant objectification, humiliation and dehumanization that our culture serves into her face, aren’t we also shifting the burden of the blame from the system to the individual? And isn’t that sort of unfair?

When I look in the mirror, I see everything wrong with me. I expect something better than I am, and am endlessly disappointed in my own lack. But when I look at pictures from two years ago, I can see my own beauty. I didn’t look half bad for a mom of a two-year-old, I think. Why was I so hard on myself? What is that about? It takes me two years to like what I looked like *then* even if I weigh the same, look the same now.

Two years is actually an improvement; it used to take me five.

Even knowing that in two years, I’ll look at pictures of myself now and see what’s beautiful, I still can’t always find things to love about my appearance. I can only tell my inner critic to shush. On the best days, I can look in the mirror and see myself with neutrality or sometimes even kindness. On the worst days, I wish to slice the fat off myself with the sharpest knife I can find.

But what if I look elsewhere? Lindy West talks about this in Shrill. She says to gain body confidence, you need to look at pictures of fat women on the Internet “until they don’t make you uncomfortable.” I have curated my Instagram, unfollowing thin celebrities that only promote diet tea, and adding plus-sized models to my real-life friends. What I see is a lot of women who look different than me, but none of whom look the same. If I look long enough, I might begin to see what I cannot believe: that I am normal.

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Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.

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The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.


Marissa Korbel’s award-winning essays have appeared in The Manifest Station, Under the Gum Tree, Nailed Magazine, and others. She is seeking an agent and publisher for her first book, Played, a memoir of precocity. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler, and writes with Lidia Yuknavitch at Corporeal Writing. More from this author →