If there ever were such a thing as an Homeliness Pagent, I could have been a contender. I might even have been a semi-finalist. And if they had a bowl haircut competition, I could have been crowned the Homeliness Queen, with my coiffure in place of the tiara.
In middle school, I stood a good foot taller than most boys in my class. I have photos from my 6th grade birthday party, me "dancing" with my arms fully extended and resting on the shoulders of a scrawny blond boy named Stephen, who probably weighed about 30 pounds less and stood 18 inches shorter. My back hunched like Quasimodo, straining to shrink, straining to fit in. Coke bottle glasses resting on my oily nose. Hair that looked like I conditioned with bacon grease. No zits, thank goodness, but bushy eyebrows, flimsy K Mart t-shirt and no name jeans with some pair of nondescript shoes.
My parents downplayed the importance of looks when we were growing up. Initially, my dad refused to let us grow out our hair because he said it would "interfere" with our studying. We were prohibited from wearing make-up of any kind. And designer clothes? Out. No pierced ears. I don't remember wearing any jewelry. In 7th grade, I went to my friend Susan's house and was shocked to see her dresser covered with an assortment of little baskets overflowing with earrings, rings, bracelets, necklaces, sunglasses, and swatch covers. I hadn't realized before then that you could have more than one of each of those items.
I have always been awkward when it comes to looks. As a child, I was always the tallest for my age and rather chunky. I also reached puberty prematurely. One other girl and I were the only ones with boobs in fourth grade, and of course, she and I were friends, probably out of commiseration. Back then, I assumed I was chosen for this acclaim from some random luck of the draw, but now I wonder if our regular meals at Burger King didn't account for a surplus of hormones in my system.
Our diet only got worse when my parents started working long hours at the store. With limited time to grocery shop, they stocked the fridge with boxes and boxes of frozen food from their fast food joint. We ate eggrolls for breakfast. And for lunch. And for dinner. I don't remember eating much else. Oh, and Hungry Man meals and Banquet Fried Chicken with rice and ketchup, which we of course consumed in front of the TV. There was a spurt in my early teens when my speed of growth outpaced my caloric intake, and I slimmed out for a short stretch. But the fried food soon caught up to me.
It also didn't help that we rarely exercised. When we were little, we played an occasional game of tennis. And swam in the summer. But as we grew older and were left to our own, I rarely exercised, except to hit a tennis ball against the side of my school building when I was bored.
By the time I arrived in college, I had excess fat and a shortage of confidence. I always stood with my arms across my stomach to hide the bulge, and wore loose shirts and jackets to mask the crowning. I never thought guys would be interested in me. I only had secret crushes, although I gave myself away with my ogling, awkward stammering, and undisguisable blushing.
It wasn't until I was forced to take a PE class in college that I started exercising. Sure, we had PE classes when I was at Cardozo High School in Queens, but I don't remember doing anything resembling physical activity. A bunch of us girls just stood around chatting until it was time to change out of our t-shirt and shorts. I figured college would be pretty much the same. To fulfill my PE requirement, I signed up for jogging because 20 of the 40 minute class were reserved for changing. I expected to fill up the 20 minutes of class pretty much the same way I had spent my time in high school.
The first time in my jogging class, I just walked. Very slowly. Often, my PE teacher jogged in place alongside me, trying to encourage me to pick up my pace. No pressure, just a smile, a wink, and a little "why not"? I just smiled and kept walking. That's how I spent the rest of the quarter. Then, one evening, a couple of years later, in the middle of Chicago winter, with the wind chill factor hitting the teens, with land blanketed with snow as far as the eyes could see, I ran out of my dorm in a pair of sweatpants and two layers of long sleeved knit shirts. I don't know what came over me, but I started running. I ran north on S. Shore Drive, past the apartment buildings to my left, past the field of snow on my right, along the lake that undulated with blocks of ice as large as Toyota Tundras. Even though it was late in the evening, the snow lit up the landscape around me, as if I were in the glow of a giant angel. I felt safe even though I was alone on the streets, and all I could hear was the sound of my own breathing. Steam rose from my mouth, my teeth hurt from the cold, and my cheeks felt completely numb. I ran as far as I could and turned back when my sides started to ache.
When I returned to my dorm, I was sweating and breathing like a horse. The sleeves that I had extended to cover my gloveless hands were wrinkled and damp. I ran into a friend in the lobby, and he said, "What the hell are you doing?" He looked at me like I was crazy. I felt a little crazy. I don't know what got into me that day. Maybe it was one of those days in college when I had spent too much time alone reading Thucydides. Or mulling over my future and feeling utterly hopeless. Or pining over some boy who would never see me in that way. But whatever it was, it was one of the best days of my life.
That was the day when I first realized that I was in charge of my body. Well, not really completely in charge, but still, not its slave. When I understood that I didn't have to feel bad about the way I looked and could do nothing. That I could stop being that chubby kid. That I could just run off the fat. That I wasn't stuck.
I spent good chunks of my 20s and 30s running. All I did my third year of law school was run and throw pottery. I clocked about 35 to 40 miles a week, sometimes 45. The first few years I lived in San Francisco, I lived in the Marina, and I spent hours running along the trail in Crissy Field. I am never completely confident, and I always feel 10 pounds overweight. But I no longer feel like a walrus.
When I got pregnant, I stopped running. I let myself go. I was partly afraid of running, especially after all my miscarriages. But I was also tired all the time. I thought it was important to listen to my body telling me to nap, to rest for the baby. I gained a lot of weight during my pregnancies, about 40 pounds with each. I lost most of that weight through breast feeding, but I somehow managed to regain 10 pounds of it in the last few months, probably because I kept eating as if I were still breastfeeding. I also lost a lot of my muscle mass during the last few years.
When I'm unhappy with the way I look, I feel downright bad. I hate looking at photos of myself. I wear raggedy t-shirts from Target that I stocked up on while I was pregnant. I wear the same jeans over and over again because I'm afraid to put on newly washed pants that are no longer stretched to my comfort. I let my hair grow out with their split ends because I don't want to look at myself in the mirror at the hair dresser's.
Last month, I started running again. I signed up at 24 Hour Fitness and got on the treadmill. I barely made it to 3 miles. But I still went back the next day. I'm up to 5 miles now. And I started doing P90X videos that my friends have been doing. I'm determined to get myself back in shape. I want to feel good about the way I look again. I don't want to stand with my arms blocking my stomach, and I don't want to hide behind large t-shirts. I don't want to waste time trying to recover from feeling bad after seeing photos of my blubbery self, and I don't want to stand around straining to shrink. My time is better spent exercising.
There are people who say you should love yourself no matter what. I don't buy into that. It takes too much energy to recover from feeling bad, to work on my emotional landscape. It's easier to shed the weight.
I'm giving myself two months to lose 10 pounds. Anyone want to do it with me?