At a certain point, you were supposed to have a line across your back and this meant you were a mature female, and not a child or the elephant man. It also meant you were wearing a bra. Later you would strive to hide any evidence that you were, like most western women, wearing a bra, but in middle school, the line was critical evidence. If you were girded with the line, then undressing would be merely devastating, rather than lethal.
Joining a gym this year, I was happy to undress in front of strangers with mature carelessness. I have shaken off my modesty, at least in locker room settings. When I went to the gym on Monday, I was wiggling out of a sweaty t-shirt and underwear without a care in the world. There was an old lady getting dressed next to me. She had skin like a white rose, tulip red hair, and an intense, swooping Irish accent. I had chatted a little with her before. We said hello.
“Wow, you don’t have a spot of fat on you, do you?” she said.
“Uh, I guess not,” I said.
“And your face is so red.”
“Well, I just got finished running. You know, I’m pretty pale,” I said, hoping she would connect with this. “So my face gets red.”
She nodded amicably. And I thought, whoa, she just broke rule one of the locker room, which is Don’t talk about the way bodies look. You can talk about dog coats, Easter plans, cancer histories. But not how people look. There is too much nakedness already. A lot of people at my gym are elderly or doing rehab, so it’s no place to show off your hot physique.
I get a lot of this, “You’re so thin!” stuff. I guess people mean that as a compliment. Maybe it’s not so different from complimenting your eyes or shoes, but it does have this creepy “I have looked you up and down” vibe to it. And a little “I hate you.” And some possible “Ooh, are you an anorexic victim of our culture of unrealistic body images?” (Um, no.)
I zoomed up to my adult height in middle school. It was not a good look for me. Ninety percent of this height came in my legs, and I felt like a stork, a spider, or a scarecrow. Depending on the day. There were so many pairs of pants that got so short so fast. I frequently woke up at night with boa constrictor calf cramps.
In an anthropological tone, my mother explained to me that some men (men?!) think long legs are attractive. I was like, seriously? Why? I look like I’m on stilts. I look like Bambi. And I slide around like him, too. My feet are so far away from my brain.
In the middle of all the shame and worry, there could be a place where people can say stoically, yeah, this is my body. I look like this. That’s what I walk around in.
What you look like and your configuration is something people love about you, even people who aren’t romantic links. There’s a sweetness to the size and shape of people you trust. And there’s a familiarity to me now in having people ask me, “You’re so red, are you sunburned?” or “Whoa, you’re skinny. Do you eat?” That’s just the me I’m wearing.