Most - if not all - women have a moment like this, an instant in their lives when their sense of self is rewritten and their self-image is forever changed. This is how it happened for me.
* * * * *
My cousin, Sharon, and me on the Thanksgiving of my fourth-grade year.
I felt endlessly chic in that plaid coat and the double strap Mary Janes. Was I already fat?
My nine-year-old self woke up on a cold winter Monday in Michigan. Weak and worn after a two-week bout of pneumonia, I still felt far too exhausted to face the day. But my mother pronounced me ready to return to school and cheerfully commanded me to get out of bed and dress.
I dragged myself upright, pulled on my favorite fourth-grade outfit: a long-sleeve mustard store-bought mock turtleneck, and a cranberry corduroy skirt. My mom had made the skirt, as she made most of my clothes, and I had picked the pattern featuring a single triangular pleat in front, and the corduroy fabric. I wore a lot of corduroy, but this was a special blend of wide wale and standard width wale alternating in thick and thin fuzzy stripes.
I loved that skirt.
My stylish ensemble usually filled me with confidence but on this morning it did not work its usual charm. I stumbled from my room, and drooped to the table where my mom was setting out breakfast. I still hoped she might take note of my listlessness and tuck me back into bed, rather than marching me off through the snow to the school bus. But she was all systems go.
"You'll be fine," she announced as she cleared away my dishes. I stood up to go get my snow clothes on, and she surveyed my outfit approvingly. "You look very nice."
Then, with unmistakable excitement in her voice, she added, "I think you've lost some weight! Your skirt looks so much better on you now."
And suddenly, I was very, very confused.
I knew I had been seriously sick. Besides missing two full weeks of school, I'd taken a lot of medicine, undergone multiple chest x-rays, and spent countless hours in bed, too weak to even haul myself to the couch for reruns of Andy Griffith and Bewitched. I'd heard the concern in my doctor's voice as he had quietly conferred with my mother, and I knew she had worried about me too.
Yet now, she seemed almost happy that I'd been sick. Whatever I had been through, however awful I still might feel, was I to understand that it had all worth it because I'd lost weight?
Did I need to lose weight?
Had I been fat? Was I still fat?
Why had I not known this about myself?
This was the day I began to feel shame about my body.
This was the day I began to worry about my weight.
This was the day I started feeling fat.
And this was the day I began to believe that suffering was the price I was required to pay in order to not be fat.
* * * * *
I don't blame my mother for this. I later learned that she and I come from a long line of body-shamers, strong German women who mistook their broad shoulders and strong hands for clumsy, unattractive girth. We are not pretty, dainty ladies, my maternal bloodlines subtly preached to me; we are big and fat.