How can I grasp her sense of waterborne freedom and grace? My own mother taught me fear, self-hatred, and “thin at any cost.” I’m still learning to love all the curves and angles of my body.
“You wouldn’t believe how many fat people I saw in Hawaii wearing bikinis! These women should not wear that little clothing in public,” said my sister’s friend Kara.
It was a 4th of July barbecue at my sister Lisa’s house. The conversation around the kitchen island meandered to swimsuits after I asked Kara about her recent trip to Hawaii. I’d been nodding along, using my therapist active listening skills. At Kara’s words my breath caught in my chest. I went silent. Not politely encouraging her to continue silent, lump in my throat stunned silent.
You see I’m a fat woman.
Kara could be considered fat, although I doubt that’s an identity that she claims. And while it’s true that I haven’t worn a bikini in public in 30 years, that’s more about my unwillingness to tame my pubic hair than about the size of my body.
My first thought was to push back with a comment about the courage it takes to show up in the bodies we have, to refuse to hide the reality of fat bodies. But I didn’t want to seem rude or make a scene at my sister’s party. Instead, I grabbed a handful of potato chips and went outside, hoping for conversation that didn’t steal my words.
Kai intercepted me, winded from running around with cousins. “Momo! Is it time for fireworks yet?”
I shook my head. “Not yet, kiddo.” She didn’t know I’d decided to skip the neighborhood pyrotechnics. She hates loud noises and surprises. And what else are fireworks but unpredictable loud sounds? Besides, they wouldn’t start until after her bedtime.
Kara’s comments kept eating at me. If I hadn’t gone numb, I might have said, When you talk about fat bodies, I feel sad and angry because I have needs for safety and respect. And follow it with, Statements like yours contributed to my sister Tracey’s suicide. She believed she had to be a certain size to be loved or attractive. Tracey lost over a hundred pounds more than once in her life, was so thin she looked emaciated, and she still didn’t find acceptance – even when her body was fit for public bikini wearing.
I didn’t say those words to Kara because I was scared. I felt unsafe and didn’t want to make trouble.
I let Kara’s words stand because I didn’t have an ally in the room the way I might have if Tracey was still alive.
I watch her, nine years old and stretched taut between her desire to be a baby again and a longing to be a grown-up who does whatever she wants. Today Kai is a mermaid in the pool, wearing her bright rainbow fin and tail with a purple bikini top; she speeds through the water, fearless.
Swimming wasn’t our best choice after a morning at the hair salon. Her curly brown hair got a trim before the stylist braided blond and burgundy extensions in cornrows three sizes smaller than I can manage. But the water is Kai’s favorite place, and sometimes I need to be the parent who says yes.
After forty-five minutes in the pool with my extra-long-haired mermaid, the whistle blows to end open swim. I love when a lifeguard is the bad guy, not me. As we walk back to the locker room, Kai uses one arm to cover her belly and my heart tumbles.
I’ve spent most of my life hating my belly.
I don’t want that for her.
I was taught younger than her that my body was too big, not feminine enough, unacceptable, and undesirable. I watch Kai with her long limbs, her light brown skin, and I want her to love herself.
Both of Kai’s parents are fat — we’re two white women raising a tall, thin, biracial mermaid. Kai came to us through domestic open adoption; her story began from the loss of her birth family. Our divorce when she was six added extra layers of challenge for her. In the water Kai is whole, fearless, and alive. How do I help her wear that on land?
How can I grasp her sense of waterborne freedom and grace? My own mother taught me fear, self-hatred, and “thin at any cost.”
I’m still learning to love all the curves and angles of my body.
A few weeks after the barbecue, I spent two nights on the coast with my siblings, my dad, and his fifteen grandchildren. Kai begged me to jump ocean waves with her and I said yes, unable to resist her enthusiasm. I hadn’t anticipated swimming in the frigid Pacific, so I improvised a swimsuit of black leggings and a plain black t-shirt.
Kai and I headed to the water’s edge. We were in up to our calves when I noticed my sister-in-law and her fancy new camera. Her kids were in the water too and I imagined she was mostly snapping photos of them. Maybe she’d catch one or two of us; only then was I self-conscious of my body.
When an email arrived the next week with a link to my sister-in-law’s photos, I took a deep breath before looking. There I was in the ocean, holding hands with Kai, with most of my body covered. There’s my big belly, my mostly flat ass, my big breasts tucked against my chest in a full-coverage, underwire bra. I’m fat. And soaking wet. And having a fantastic time.
I wondered if Kara saw those photos would she think I took her suggestion?
The night those photos showed up in my email, I was shopping at the fat lady clothes store. I’d ordered some sexy, black lace lingerie online and had it shipped to my local shop. The last thing I felt in the moment was sexy enough for lingerie. But I needed to see how these things fit.
In the dressing room I liked every single thing I’d purchased online.
All that black lace clung to my curves and accentuated my cleavage; I felt attractive and desirable.
My eagerness to wear this skimpy lingerie with my lovers was a sharp contrast to the photos my sister-in-law took. I know my family assumed I was ashamed of my fat body. They’d created that shame in subtle (and overt) ways my entire life.
My sister Tracey breathed that shame into the essence of her being until her size became just one more thing she couldn’t rise above, one more reason she chose suicide. I’m not immune to the body hatred that plagued my sister. My willingness to wear sexy underwear, to show up in this fat body without apology, is new. There are plenty of days when all I can do is buckle myself into my favorite jeans with a t-shirt and my ubiquitous grey hoodie. But those aren’t the only days I experience, and that’s hard won. Maybe if I can learn to really love my body I can keep this shame from consuming my daughter.
“Momo, are you going to bed, too?”
“No, baby, I have work to do.” Writing projects buzz in my brain during bedtime.
“What work, Momo?”
“I’m writing a story, sweet one.”
“Is it about your sister? Is it sad?”
“It’s a little bit about her, and yes, it’s sometimes sad.”
I sing the song about the river for my mermaid daughter and sneak a kiss to her forehead. As I pull the covers over her lanky body, she snuggles into the squish of my belly for one more hug. I send up a whisper of hope that the respect I’ve claimed for my body will also be conferred on her.
“Sleep well, beautiful mermaid.”
“Write well, beautiful Momo.”
Meg Weber writes memoir and creative nonfiction, crafting true stories from the pages of her days. She writes about transgression, about parenting, and about finding her way back into connection with her family through tragedy. Read more at megweberwriter.com