Songs of a Fat Mormon Woman
When I was little — two, maybe three years old — my mother used to get me out of the bath and wrap me in one of her peach-colored towels. She would hang the towel around me like a cloak and hoist me onto the counter so I could see myself in the mirror. My face was the only visible part of me — a downy tuft of my curly black hair peeking out over my forehead. My mother wrapped my sister in a second towel and lifted her up beside me, pointing to our reflections in the mirror. “Look at you,” she said. “All clean! My little princesses.”
I didn’t just beam when she said this, I glowed.
Back then, I was not ashamed of my body. I loved the softness of my clean skin, the cool touch of my wet hair draped over my back. I remember my mother standing over me in the bathroom, tugging my hair into a long braid so I could run and swim and bike without it getting tangled. I kicked and threw and hung tumble-down from belly bars and jungle gyms. On the swings I pumped my legs so hard that my stomach leapt and my shoes painted the clouds. I loved every feeling, every touch, every sensation.
I remember how my dad used to make lemonade from the lemons that grew on the tree in our back yard. We dumped cups and cups of sugar into the fresh-squeezed lemon juice and watched as the thick slurry disappeared in the bottom of the pitcher. I remember the exact taste of it — the cool, sweet tang — how it hit my belly like a popped water balloon.
I remember, too, how I used to sneak into the kitchen early in the morning and fish marshmallows from the Lucky Charms box. I remember how the crunchy sugar dissolved on my tongue, how I could eat and eat and never be filled.
I think I was born hungry. There’s no other explanation for my appetite, my size. I suffered no abuse, experienced no trauma. I simply had to eat. There was too much to feel — a roiling in my belly that was only quiet when I ate.
So I grew. I grew and grew and people around me noticed. Sometimes they were cruel. Mostly they were indifferent, which is another form of cruelty. For being so large, I often wondered how I could be so very invisible.
When I was thirteen I sat beside two boys in math class. I didn’t talk to them. I barely breathed in their direction. At that point I knew better than to open my huge, fat, food-eating mouth.
One day the boys were talking about girls, about who they would make out with, who they would pick as their girlfriends. This was not unusual. They often talked to each other like I wasn’t there.
Then, in the middle of it, the boy next to me slipped his arm around my shoulders.
“I’d pick Becca as my girlfriend,” he said.
And then they laughed. I sank down into my body, burning up from the inside.
I remember thinking: “I’m in here, you know. There’s a me inside all of this body. Do you think I can’t see you? Do you think I can’t hear you? I’m in here.”
When I was in Primary, we had a lesson about our spirits and our bodies. My teacher picked up a glove, slid her hand inside and said: this is us. The hand is our spirit, the glove is our body. Then she took the glove off, dropping it limp in her lap.
Years later, as an adult, I came across a quote by Carrie Fisher. “My body is my brain bag,” she said, “it hauls me around to those places and in front of faces where there’s something to say or see.”
When I was ten I used to sit on the toilet holding my belly in my hands. I grabbed fistfuls of myself, measuring the folds of my flesh that were too much, too big, too there. I cried. I yanked at my fat and imagined chopping off these parts of me with a knife, carving myself down to a girl who was finally small enough to be allowed to exist.
When I was eleven I started measuring my salad dressing.
Back then my school lunch was this: A quart-size Rubbermaid full of lettuce, one tablespoon of dressing, one teaspoon of sunflower seeds. I was so, so hungry, but I told myself I didn’t need to eat. I told myself I was weak for even wanting to.
And despite my teaspoons and tablespoons, I was still not thin.
I was never thin.
When I was in high school I stopped eating breakfast and lunch altogether. I learned to distrust my body. It was, after all, the seat of sin. It was the natural man, full of cravings and impulses that could ruin my life.
I remember how people talked — to me and about me. They said I looked so fit, so healthy. For the most part people didn’t know that I wasn’t eating, they just watched as my flesh melted away.
All the while, huge, thick clumps of my hair came out in the shower every morning. I was cold, so cold. My eyes drew back in their sockets and my skin was so, so pale.
The first time I felt I had permission to take up space was when I was pregnant. My size finally had a purpose, a motive beyond my boundless, selfish hunger.
After my first baby, I lost my next baby. To people around me, I got fatter and disappeared from church for a while. Only my family and closest friends knew why I had become so big, so full, and then at once so empty.
I bled and bled so much I felt my heart would bleed right through my chest.
After that I took up long distance running. I needed a distraction from the big, huge emptiness inside me. I had to grow thinner, to erase what lost, to make it seem like she was never there. I pounded out my pain in miles, hammered them into the earth in sweat and solitude.
As I ran, I talked to my body.
You are my enemy, I said. You have always been my enemy.
Last year, my body began its revolt.
It started with my lungs. Each time I went out on the trail, I felt so short of breath I could hardly run a mile, much less ten or twenty. I came back wheezing, clutching my chest and my throat as though they were trying to strangle me.
Next it moved on to my joints, my muscles. Each time I ran, I grew so tired I felt like I had a dozen bodies stacked on my shoulders.
Then it moved on to my mind, my feelings. It slid between my thoughts and began scorching the earth of my mental landscape. I felt equal parts rage, depression, panic and apathy. I’d felt these things individually at different points in my life, but now they appeared like the four horsemen, spreading their banners above all my better parts.
I felt like I was drowning inside myself.
I gained weight. One day I pulled on my pants and grabbed the folds that spilled over the top. It made me exhausted. I was physically too tired to hate my body.
We’re sick, I realized. Both of us are sick.
Most women can sing you their own version of this story. We’re full-fleshed and thick as trees. We measure endlessly, assigning ourselves numbers and sizes and points and calories. That is the song of womanhood, the crack we make when we outgrow our girl-sized containers. For many of us, it’s not a joyful sound. For me it has sometimes been a sob—at other times a great, gutsy wail.
I’m thirty-one years old. I can truly say that this is the first time in my life that I’ve tried to love myself. It’s an awkward love — a new, young puppyish love. I find I’m not good at it, but I’m trying.
I nourish myself. I read and run and sit still in my room, just listening to inner tickings of my body. When I exercise, I do it slowly, methodically — marveling at my growing strength. The depression and anger and fear and apathy have begun their retreat. I feel like myself, my whole self, finding my voice in the stillness they left behind.
My body has begun to shed, like wax melting from a candle wick. I don’t feel victorious as this happens. This is because I’m no longer fighting a battle against my flesh. I mourn what is gone, and give gratitude for the way my body held me in and protected me.
We women know that we should not feel ashamed for being big. We hold space for each other, and we tell each other over and over not to back down, not to become so small that we become invisible. We constantly extend permission to each other: Be big, be loud, we say. Do what you need to do in a world that would seek to shrink you.
And yet, even the best of us make rules for how we can take up space. Roxane Gay recently wrote in her memoir Hunger: “As a woman, as a fat woman, I am not supposed to take up space. And yet, as a feminist, I am encouraged to believe I can take up space. I live in a contradictory space where I should try to take up space but not too much of it, and not in the wrong way, where the wrong way is any way where my body is concerned.”
Even as feminists we disconnect ourselves from our bodies. We unplug when we should tune in. It’s a bizarre contradiction: we give ourselves room to grow our ideas, our voices, but not our bodies. And as Mormon women, we’ve been taught to bind up our worth in our attractiveness to men. We are the gatekeepers of male pleasure, we exist to be seen and beloved.
But what happens when we truly begin to feel our bodies? What happens when we treat our spirit and our bodies as the same entity? What happens when we sit inside ourselves and listen to the deepest folds of our history?
What secret songs lie buried in our flesh?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think one answer is this: as we become our bodies, we will unlock something as big and as vast as the sky. We will be boundless. And we will not be ashamed.