I’ve spent much of my life feeling invisible and dealing with body image issues. If I were to tell anyone who knows me that truth, they would most likely cock their head to one side and raise their eyebrows in surprise, as if to say, Are you kidding me?
But that doesn’t make it any less true. I don’t necessarily remember the first time I felt invisible or when I began to suffer from low self-esteem, but these 2 early incidents are burned into my brain.
Memory #1: I’m 14 and my family has just moved back to our hometown of Bozeman, Montana after having spent the last 6 years overseas where my parents taught at an international school in Saudi Arabia. It’s my first day of 8th grade. As the teacher calls roll, I hear names I recognize from my 1st-grade class — before we went overseas. When she calls a name I recognize, I casually glance at the person who answers and have a bizarre flash of who they were at 7, and who they’ve become at 14. I remember them all. But, as I embarrassingly find out in the weeks to come, they don’t remember me.
At 7 — the last time my peers saw or knew me — I was an overweight little girl. “Such a pretty face” my mom and other well-meaning adults would comment. But by telling a big girl she has a pretty face, it left me with the early impression that while my pretty face had value, my big body had no worth.
At 14, I am startlingly thin. My once “pretty face” is now gaunt and tired looking. It’s no wonder no one recognizes or remembers me. I am a shadow of my former self. On the brink of disappearing altogether. Only I’m “skinny” now. Which, in junior high terms, qualifies me to be popular. I try “skinny” and “popular” on for size, but find the labels don’t fit. I may look the part in my size zero Espirit-everything wardrobe, but I don’t feel the part.
At some point during junior high, my home economics teacher calls my mom to express her concern that I might be anorexic. My mother, always image-conscious and battling her own lifelong struggle with weight, insists her Pretty Thin Girl is just right. Pretty and thin.
She is wrong. I am silently terrified of food and weight gain. I calorie count and binge-exercise daily, celebrating the days I can see my hip bones jutting out in the mirror. Many nights I go to bed at night hungry and fantasizing about the food I don’t allow myself to eat.
When I go clothes shopping with my older sister and look in the dressing room mirror with disgust, bemoaning my “hideous thighs,” her return expression is just like the look I’m expecting from people today if I were to confess I feel invisible.
It dawns on me that I might need help. But when I go to my mom for help, she tells me I’m fine. And so I turn to my former bestie for comfort and reassurance: food. And soon, Pretty Thin Girl disappears altogether.
Memory #2: I’m 18 and I’ve just returned to Montana from California where I finished high school. I’m spending the summer living with my best friend before we go off to college on opposite coasts.
At 18, I’m back to being Pretty Big Girl. I’m at least 40 pounds heavier, my pretty round face covered in dramatic makeup — pale face, dark lips, black-lined eyes — part of my late 80s new wave costume to cover up my inner shame that I am overweight and feel unlovable.
With little work experience, I land an unusual summer job: delivering concert tickets to people’s offices and homes, collecting money for the tickets to a police fundraiser. I’ve just rung the doorbell of a house down the street from my childhood home.
I’ve got a big smile plastered on my face as my former neighbor, a woman whose home I spent summers playing Barbie with her daughter in, answers.
“Hi!” I say brightly, as the familiar scent of cherry air freshener wafts over me from inside the house. My former neighbor smiles blankly at me. She doesn’t recognize me. I am crushed. And I once again feel invisible, walking into her foyer like I did so many summers during childhood, waiting patiently while she finds her checkbook and writes out the check to the police fundraiser. She makes polite chit chat. The chit chat of strangers. Part of me wants to scream, “Don’t you remember me? You know me!” But there’s a bigger part of me — Pretty Big Girl — who’s so ashamed she doesn’t dare speak.
This happens numerous times that summer. With a girl I went to junior high with. A woman from my church. A former colleague of my father’s. It’s official. Pretty Big Girl is once again invisible.
In the fall, I go off to college, losing myself in the party scene. Drunk is the only time I feel more Pretty than Big.
After college, I move to Arizona to “find myself,” ultimately losing in an abusive relationship with Pretty Big Man, a former professional bodybuilder. I’m convinced I deserve his abuse because he is Pretty. And I am Big. I lose my college friends and my identity in Pretty Big Man. I tell myself he’s exactly what I need because Pretty Big Man is training me to be Pretty Thin Girl.
Eventually — through his daily discipline and spiritual, psychological, and physical abuse — I become Pretty Thin Girl again. I am also on the brink of disappearing altogether, this time at the hands of my abuser.
Underneath the shame, the fear, the lack of self-worth, I find a small space inside that still believes in me. She is my artist. And while I’ve let Pretty Big Man beat my self-esteem to a pulp, she will not be denied a voice.
She starts writing. Ideas, screenplays, song lyrics, stories. She is fierce in her need to be heard. Her voice and value are Pretty Big.
Pretty Big Man finds my art, reads it, and rips it to shreds. Then — and only then — do I pick up the pieces of my tattered self and walk away. For good.
I am lucky. Many women walk away and go back to their abusers over and over again. I did that once or twice. But my Pretty Big Girl Artist won’t let the rest of me return.
And I’m lucky once more because Pretty Big Man has a prison record and he’d rather stay out of jail than stalk me.
I return to Los Angeles to find myself… again. I become a professional writer. A speaker. A storyteller. I write and publish books. Speak on stages around the world. Even appear on TV dozens of times. My livelihood depends on me not being invisible.
And yet, because I have yet to resolve my issues with emotional eating, I once again become Pretty Big Girl.
This time, I’m what society refers to as Pretty For A Plus-Size Girl. J Lo sets the bar for booty appreciation long before the Kardashians. I am now A Pretty Big Girl With A Butt. To run the risk of pulling a Blake Lively, I’m LA Face With An Oakland Booty.
Throughout my 20s and 30s, each and every time I get into a relationship with a man, I secretly wonder if he’s noticed my Big body or ignored the size of my thighs while firmly focused on my Pretty face. Lucky for me, they all love me as Pretty Big Girl.
In my 30s, I meet and marry an amazing man who sees me for who I really am and celebrates all of me. My shape, size, face, thighs, heart, and art. I give thanks that I shifted enough of my self-worth beliefs to allow good love into my life.
On my second date with my husband, I tell him I don’t want children. My reasons are many — my core values include personal, creative, and financial freedom, and having a child doesn’t align with those values.
If I’m completely honest with myself, part of the reason I don’t want children is because I’m afraid of what being pregnant will do to my ever-fluctuating body. I’m scared to be Pretty Big Pregnant Girl or Pretty Big Mom.
I’ve heard it said that life is what happens when you’re making other plans. And true to the adage, a few years into our marriage, my husband and I become instant foster parents to his sister’s then-1-year-old daughter. While most parents-to-be have nine months to get ready for baby, we had nine days to shift from being DINKs by Design to DINKs with Diapers.
I soon discover that pregnancy isn’t the only body issue a child forces you to face. The idea of being comfortably naked in front of a child? This is something I am not prepared for.
And yet, fully aware of how my own mother’s body image and food issues negatively impacted my own sense of self, I will be damned if I pass that experience on to this little girl. Even if she’s not my own flesh and blood.
So there I am on the beach, a forty-something woman with thigh chunk and a 2-year-old with thigh chunk, running with glee while my lower half shakes and my cheeks hurt from smiling and laughing.
I know I’m no Baywatch Babe. But I’d rather have strangers silently judge me than teach this child to feel uncomfortable in her own skin.
Raising and loving a child has a surprising effect on me and my life— I soften. I finally deal with my childhood issues. I heal much of my pain about how my own mother abandoned me when I needed her most — in the throes of my battle with anorexia. But I recognize that she did her best. And I work on forgiving her.
During this time, I recognize that I may finally be ready to make peace with my emotional eating issues. I hire a trainer. Try different diets. I lose weight here and there.
What’s more meaningful, though, is the inner strength I feel from reconnecting to my body through working out with my trainer. After years of disconnection, my body and I are once again on the same team, working together. My belly flattens and my biceps bulge. My body shrinks. Finally my breasts become their own body part (If you’re a woman with a big belly, you know what I’m talking about!). But my journey isn’t quick. It takes years. And that’s okay.
Finally, in January of 2016, I decide I’m ready to take myself and my body to the next level. I enroll in Lindora’s Lean For Life Program and slowly but surely lose the 20 pounds that stood between Pretty Big Girl and Pretty Girl.
While I love the fact that I look and feel better, I experience two rude awakenings that rock my world.
The first happens on a random day, mid-week. I’m at the mall shopping for clothes for an upcoming photoshoot. Part of my business is now helping women in business step into their own spotlight through branded photoshoots.
Somewhere between fitting into my first Versace dress (and loving it!) and finding the perfect pair of booty-loving size 31 jeans, it hit me. The sales associates at Bloomingdales are treating me nicely. Actually, they’re fawning over me.
I leave Bloomies and window shop my way through the rest of the mall, getting stopped three times by strangers: A cute twenty-something guy who tells me I’m a total MILF, a middle-aged woman who offers me free passes to her day spa because I “look like her dream clientele,” and an East Indian man who wants to tell me my future — for free.
At first, I’m flattered. Then startled. Then incensed. I may be Pretty Girl to them, but just like when I was 14 and suddenly popular while anorexic, I haven’t changed. So why has the world around me?
I’m the same woman I was when I was Pretty Big Girl. The fact that society suddenly values me more affects me deeply. I love how I look in the mirror. And I know I’m still the same woman I was before. So why does society suddenly place a higher value on me?
While I’m wrestling with this particular mind warp, my second rude awakening brings me to my knees.
It happens a month later when my mother — after a 30-year battle with diabetes — falls into a diabetic coma, only to wake up to learn she has stage 4 lung cancer. Within a month of going into the hospital, my beautiful mother passes away. While my family and I are relieved she didn’t suffer long, we each find ourselves thrust into the unexpected journey of grieving.
For me, grief is overwhelming at times. It’s not so much a tidal wave of emotions as it is Angry While Female, a woman done wrong and showing up unexpectedly, demanding I get down on the ground, cheek to the floor, and feel her wrath.
If ever there was a time for me to turn to my ultimate source of comfort — food — it would be now. But unlike all the other times in my life when, as soon as life got hard or my feelings became overwhelming, I turned to food for comfort, this time I’m feeling my feelings instead.
And that’s the gift of my grief. The recognition that while there was never anything wrong with me being Pretty Big Girl, I’m finally finding a way to be me — minus all the body and food drama. I’m finally finding healthy ways to comfort and soothe myself.
And I’ve finally found that the me I want to be is a woman who feels her feelings and allows herself to look and feel her best, even on the days when her best is an emotional puddle on the bedroom floor crying that her mother has died.
At 44, I am finally a grown-up girl. And I wouldn’t change a thing.