Wednesday, October 31, 2012

skinny--by Kate Savage

“Nobody loves the head of a dandelion. Maybe because they are so many, strong, and soon.” - Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

My jaws don’t shut. It’s Grandma Virginia’s jaw, chin skewed to the side and teeth gaping, no corn on the cob for this one. The dentist assistants saying ‘Okay, now you can close your mouth. Close your mouth. No, like this.’ When they brought the problem to the attention of my parents it became a family joke. ‘We knew you couldn’t shut your mouth!’

They tried to fix it when I was eighteen, a clean double-jaw-break. The surgeon botched it, left me shatter-jawed and wired-shut for three months. 

While my face puffed up blue and purple, the rest of me melted away. You can only drink so many Ensures in a day: my weight dipped into the double-digits.

I have always been small. Always worn the clothes that friends have grown out of, like I’m a five-years-back echo of their current, full-bodied selves. But with a mouth finally forced shut, I became less than skinny. I became a ghost. I would look at my hollowed-out face in the mirror, my flat chest and the sharp lines of the bicep on my sharp arms, and up would clamor two voices: one saying ‘oh no oh no oh no what have they done to me’; and the other saying ‘Whew. Finally.’

This is what I never wanted to confess: that there is something delicious about being a ghost. About being hardly there. About being so thin that you know nobody could ever think you ought to be just a bit thinner, not even in your upper thighs, not even in the pocket of skin between your boobs and your armpits. 

Becoming a ghost taught me to hear this background noise of disapproval: an ear-ringing of body-hate, woman-body-hate, which I didn’t know existed until I caught a kind of silence. 

But even 90 pounds and mute I knew it would be back, I’d be shamed again by some new tactic to make me hunch up under my old embarrassment just to be here bodily, to be taking up space that could probably be better used with somebody -- something else -- anything -- I’m sorry.

It took my body a time to reassert itself, even once I could chew. I went to the ocean with my boyfriend at the time, and started turning blue instantly, the waves pushing me around when everyone else could hold their ground. He said it was cute.


“Mothers visiting a class at the Seminary in the early thirties were so shocked at the sight of a pupil drawing a heart, arteries and veins on a blackboard to explain the circulation of the blood, that they left the room in shame and dismay. To preserve the modesty of the girls, and spare them too frequent agitation, heavy paper was pasted over the pages in their textbooks which depicted the human body.”

-Emma Willard, founder of Troy Female Seminary

I first noticed the sex workers of Chimaltenango, Guatemala, from a tourist van with an all-female troupe of undergraduate students. They had heard this place was infamous for prostitutes, and, stuck in traffic on the winding streets, the girls in the van fought off boredom with a game: pick out the whore. 

And there they were, women in tube-tops, mini-skirts, heels, leaning against dusty stone walls, flirting with men, pushed up against old cars in the hot and dizzy streets. With each new finger-pointing--that one!--the van rocked with laughter. Especially over the women whose bellies extended over the front of their jean mini-skirts, who had wide arms and full faces. Those were the ones that really cracked up the well-manicured, first-world girls in the van. The edge of blame in their laughter at fat prostitutes: Lord, all those tortillas. 

In that hot laughter, you could almost forget that all the sex workers of Chimaltenango, thin and thick, had been screwed over. You could forget that, statistically speaking, the majority of the white women in the van had surely themselves been screwed over. That we could have struck up our own giggling bets about who among us was most likely to have been just as desperate, and just as used, as the cheapest whores of Chimaltenango.

At the time of that terrible ride, I was just the sputtering feminist-who-doesn’t-get-the-joke. I still haven’t drummed up a good retort, some pitch to win the van over to solidarity with the prostitutes and against the forces of commodification, alienation, patriarchy and poverty that create the modern sex industry.

All I have, even now, is the question: what makes the women so laughable? 

The laughter in the van feels like a kind of prudery. As though maybe my culture, the culture of billboards and magazines, is the height of puritanism. We only stop mocking when all the real bodies are covered up and shut out of the way. A Victorian lady couldn’t show her legs: a modern woman can only show legs that have been lasered to have all the hair and veins removed. Surrounded by silicon sacks, a carbon-based breast isn’t worth the adspace. Don’t even get started on <shudder> aging. Worse than simply ugly: the nonconforming female body is ridiculous. That one!

Maybe the best way to finally outlaw real, human, sexual bodies is to replace them with purified simulations. We’ve got our own heavy paper to paste over the indecent materiality of flesh: only ours are printed with porn. Behind that heavy paper, the punishment and shaming of women’s bodies -- of our breasts, our thighs, our asses -- hasn’t let up, in all these centuries, for a second. 

And that’s also the odd truth of even bodies that meet the specifications: of course fat-shaming is real, and its cruelty saturates everything. But it’s just one, particularly-vicious head of a woman-hating hydra. Here's the testimony of the skinny kid: the message to be ‘smaller’ won't end with love-handles. We're supposed to keep starving ourselves clear out of particularities, out of our own loud noises and awkward, irreducible ideas.


In the decade since the surgery, my jaw has reverted. Open again, uncloseable. I stay up late talking to my roommate about how black southern culture admires “thick” women, and being skinny is like needing glasses: too bad, but some people can make it work. Sheri Parks, writing about the cultural construct of Strong Black Women, asserts “Ferocity was not imposed on the black woman; it was taken away from white women.” It hits me because I’m that white woman, the Little White Woman. Little White Women have bigger houses than women of color, and all we had to do was cashier our strength, and try to look skinny.

Sojourner Truth talks over my shoulder, no matter which way I turn my head: “Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman?” 

I think: They took everything from her, and then they took her from me. Me and the women like me, trained to be the good, nice women who don’t disobey and don’t take up space. Bodiless, as much as possible. Purified out of the arms that can plough and plant.

I don’t want to flip over dichotomies, draw a new, reversed rubric for passing as a non-ugly woman. Instead I want ferocity, a sisterhood of the ferocious. Where we love the bejesus out of each other, out of the stubborn bodies we bear without coercion. And where the first Rite is taking up space. Look at me! Look at my arm!


  1. Katy it's too early for me to even contemplate attempting to add anything to this but suffice to say that this post is brilliant and just really wonderful/comforting to read.

  2. I always love Katy's writing. They always seem perfectly woven and make me stop and chew on passages. This one was wonderful. Thank you!

  3. Xena, Warrior ScientistOctober 31, 2012 at 6:15 PM

    Fate dropped me into two things that give you a whole different relationship with your body. Martial arts and hula. Martial arts, obviously, because when your body is a self-protection, you have a whole different relationship with the world around you and with yourself with it than if your best way to be safe is to allure. Also, it gives you scenarios in your life when being large is an unmitigated win.

    Hula because you need HIPS and a BUTT to make it work. It's true that hula is storytelling. Your body is your voice. The bigger your body, the louder you talk. (And they don't do the Anglo quiet ladylike thing so much in the Pacific either.) Sometimes we'd have a show coming up and I'd think "You know, I'd better have that third donut...."

    Obviously body image is very complicated; but if you're struggling and really want out, maybe trying out something like these things can be part of healing. It's hard to come to a new mindset in a vacuum.

  4. Kate (formerly known as Katy), this post is beautiful, but more importantly, it is powerful.

    One of my best friends would tell me how she wanted to be like a mama bear, because mama bears are both fierce and tender. She thought it was the perfect way to be a woman, and I agree.

    I have also been reading a bit of Sojourner Truth and others like her. Phenomenal.

    Thank you. Thank you.

  5. "Becoming a ghost taught me to hear this background noise of disapproval: an ear-ringing of body-hate, woman-body-hate, which I didn’t know existed until I caught a kind of silence."

    This was like a revelation. Thank you for helping me name this. Before we can conquer any ill, we have to name it.