Monday, May 14, 2012

the skinny on skinny #4: "In the Flesh"--by Karin Anderson

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In the Flesh

            I was a runty kid—one of the very smallest in every grade, always placed at the far end of the front row in class photos. When the girls my age stretched tall, grew breasts and hips, and waxed dramatic, I was left stranded in the contours of a fourth-grade boy. For a while I didn’t mind, but by the time ninth grade had come and gone with no measurable improvements, I feared eternal childhood. All the good boyfriends were taken. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to see over the dashboard in Driver Ed. I had goals that didn’t include carrying a hall pass.
            I entered tenth grade at ninety pounds. I finished the year at 135. Didn’t grow even a fraction taller. Fine boned, not quite 5’2”, I wasn’t exactly obese, but for me the shock was staggering—my body outstripped my psyche so violently that I remember those years as if I were wrapped in heavy blankets, my “true” self lost somewhere deep in the alien layers. And I gained ten more pounds before my senior year. I couldn’t make sense of the huge breasts (really—if you know me: D cup! Where did that go?), the sagging stomach and stretch marks on my ample thighs. My dad thought it was hilarious to tell people that I was “losing the war on puberty.” Now it’s funny. Kind of. But not then.
            Awful as it all was, some really good things happened between sixteen and twenty-three. Utah Valley girls, at least in my generation, married young. A high school diploma without a promised ring seemed a bitter harbinger of spinsterhood. I wanted a man, I wanted children, I wanted to be seen as beautiful and desirable—I’m not sure I wouldn’t have jumped at the first chance to sign up had almost any one of the guys in my class provided opportunity. And I’m not saying that anyone in my class who took that route made a terrible mistake. But because I didn’t meet American Fork standards of teen beauty, my life went somewhere else, and for me it was a better destination. Living in a body that felt so out of sync with my own imago launched an increasingly conscious quest for integration. I found literature. I accessed my best personal talents and intelligence, and I learned to value them. I’m not saying that my inability to look at myself in a mirror and see something beautiful, that my stark refusal to enjoy the sensuousness of living in my own body, didn’t leave terrible scars. The damage is real. I have always lived in a world that violently constrains the inner and outer lives of women who do not meet the pornographic and arbitrary standards of social beauty. So has anyone reading this. We are all—women and men—hurt by these standards in multiple ways, and it matters.
            It would be cheap and easy to call the sudden physical shift in my protracted “war on puberty” a happy ending to a painful season. I turned twenty-three, realized I had been gradually dropping pounds for months, and watched the mirror as my features sculpted, within a matter of weeks, into their apparently final adult forms. My natural weight seems to be between 106 and 113; I’ll be fifty years old this summer, and I’ve lived (gratefully) in a body that stays, all by itself, within these narrow brackets.

            From my own very idiosyncratic experiences, then, some maxims and caveats:
1) Body issues are profound for all of us, and they don’t go away easily. I’m still under 5’2” and I’m still overcompensatorily anxious about being taken seriously as an adult. My hatred of “cute” is dire and surly. The good part? Like few other women, I can admire and appreciate the full statures of women who pack real physical presence. Our cultural insistence that women be physically small –shorter than our men, thinner than we ought to be—is a metaphor. Physically small means influentially small. Cultural viciousness toward “large” women—which usually means real, grown-up women—is a sign of how profoundly we know that feminine irrelevance is an anxious lie.
2) I had a hard time—sometimes still do—seeing myself as a fully sexual adult woman. My protracted physical childhood—followed by a dramatic physical shift that the boys my age felt free to critique in very public places—            folded me into my own psyche and made it tough to come back out. American culture tends to divide intellect and sensuality, especially in women. My small stature still makes it hard, sometimes, to release myself to intimacy. It’s hard to believe I’m sexually attractive. I get lost in the academic brain I learned to cherish in a formative season. I still work to integrate these parts of my self.
3) I have been so grateful, since my twenties, for the gratuitous gift of a youthful figure and persona that I haven’t really armed myself against the panic of aging. Again:             fifty (50) (Fifty!) this summer. What the hell? I was stunned last winter, at a gathering of high school friends I hadn’t seen in thirty-five years, to realize that I had not walked into the wrong room to be greeted by strangers who bore scant resemblance to their familiar names. They were beautiful, especially once my face-recognition software booted up, but it occurred to me that most of the people my age had once again pioneered an important physical rite-of-passage—this time, cowboy guts, gray hair, grandparenthood—while I was still lolling in arrested development. I’m serious: spiritual health is very much about living in the funny physical permutations that comprise a lifespan. I’m not a big believer in the body/soul binary; I don’t buy the idea that some magical ideal spirit self transcends the mortal coil. The mortal coil is us. And it’s miraculous. Beautiful beyond all Platonic pretension.  
4) I think the Epicureans were on to something. The sensual joys of physical life are access to the ‘spiritual.’ We are a hungry nation because we are fed cheap lifeless crap. Vending machines and national chains dispense systematic malnutrition—the ingredients of soul hunger. One of the best accomplishments of my Mommy career has been an increasingly lush understanding of real cooking. Even a window box is enough to shore up a shriveling soul: basil and oregano, rosemary, Italian parsley, fennel. Coriander. Ginger and garlic! Good cooking isn’t that difficult or time consuming. It takes time to learn, but we have to eat every day anyway. Again, I grew up in Utah Valley in the 1970s, the high point for tortilla chip casseroles. Black pepper was exotic. As a mom, I learned one herb at a time. One new skill, one new ingredient. Good food, real flavors, are a total being-ness thing. The body answers.

5) And the body matters. I look across the rows of students in my college classes, year after year, and I’m dazzled by their utterly unaccountable beauty. Every one of them. They think and wish and hope and hurt. They run their fingers across their keyboards, absently caress the books I make them read. They reach across the chasms. They comb their hair. They blink and ponder and stare. What could possibly mean more than this? I wish they could see how glorious they are. I wish I could remind them how sweetly they part the air, how tenuously they breathe it in. I know this about them, even while I don’t always know it about myself. We’re here to tell each other.


  1. Wow. She is an amazing writer. This was a beautiful post! I'd love to sit and talk to this woman about life. Seems like it would be a very positive conversation.

  2. She is pretty amazing, Lana. As are you.