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my life as a number

July 22, 2011

I can still remember the first time I was embarrassed by my weight.

I was eight years old.

It was at a friend’s house; I was playing on a rope swing. My older friend made a joke about how I might break it, and encouraged by the laughter it got from the other children, went on to ask me how much I weighed.

I can still remember the names of each of the four children who looked at me and waited for me to tell. I’m sure they don’t remember it. I’m sure I shouldn’t. But I do.

I had only just left the age when a few pounds meant the difference between a booster seat and the front seat. When is was something, like my height, to be noted and congratulated for at the doctor’s office. I was always small, shrimpy even; always at the bottom of the growth chart, always undersized. Always grateful for every pound or inch I could claim as my own. It was something I had never found shameful.

But suddenly, it mattered, and I looked around at the other girls as I confessed my weight, and for the first time, measured myself by a number, wondered how I compared.

It never let up after that, the numbering that we put ourselves through. Always with us, always aware of it, like an unshed caul, a phantom limb that we cannot shake. Our weight. Our dress size. Our every measurement.

In a recent Doctor Who episode, the TARDIS, which has been put into the body of a woman, is experiencing what it’s like to be human for the first time. “Are they all like this?” she gasped. “Bigger on the inside?”

And aren’t we, really? Aren’t we more than the shells that contain the strange elements that make us individuals? Anyone, literally anyone, could have been poured into this little, imperfect, tow-headed body. But it wasn’t just anyone. It was me.

Me, with my quirky sense of humor that next to no one gets. With my activism and passion and tendency to alienate normal people. With my messiness and magpie mind and inability to focus on anything that doesn’t interest me. With my dirty fingernails and handfuls of frogs and dreams of Middle Earth. With my impossible perfectionism and determination to be the smartest girl around, even though I’m not.

With my dreams and my desires that are stunted and forgotten every time I look in the mirror and don’t see perfection. When I see a number.

I think it’s time I stop it.

I’ve got two daughters who will have to make their way in this skinny-obsessed world, and it worries me, because I don’t want them to be empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones; I’d rather they were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny – a thousand things, before ‘thin’…Let my girls be Hermiones, rather than Pansy Parkinsons. Let them never be Stupid Girls.

-J.K. Rowling

10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2011 10:22 pm

    You have captured, perfectly, what it feels like to be stuck in this skinny-obsessed society. Now, how do we go about fixing it for ourselves, and our children, and our grandchildren?

    • July 27, 2011 7:10 am

      I have been honestly overwhelmed with the thought-provoking comments this post has gotten. While it certainly hasn’t been my most popular, its comments have clearly been the most heart-felt. Margie, I honestly don’t know how to fix it. Turn off the television? Stop looking at ads? Would that even help, since all the negative messages and images on TV are constantly paraded in front of us in every grocery store? I think that the biggest thing is a true change in focus. It’s deliberate, mentally (or physically!) complimently a woman who is not the stereotypical “ideal beauty”. It’s changing my thought process: instead of thinking of my outward appearance, think about a book I’m reading, something I’d like to make. It’s looking away from the mirror and out at the world. If I’m engaged in helping another person, whether it’s in a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter or a class of children, my mind is off myself and where it is supposed to be: outward.

  2. sophie king permalink
    July 23, 2011 4:36 am

    I love this post.
    It’s not just a skinny-obsessed society either, it is one that glorifies shallowness. We witness these people who think of themselves as celebrities on these reality tv shows, getting drunk, and arguing over nothing, and the audience love it; personally I think it is pathetic. People should be in awe of real talent, brains and a decent personality. It is so sad that they are not.

    I like to think I possess the traits that J. K. Rowling describes for her daughters; at the very least I’m attempting them. Which traits do you think you have?

    • July 27, 2011 7:18 am

      Sophie: thank you for your wonderful comment! You really made me think about a whole new aspect of the problem. I agree: intelligence and talent mean next to nothing anymore. A decent personality is actually considered unpleasantly wholesome and naive. It’s all about attention, flaunting “what you’ve got” and obsessively hiding what you don’t.

      I know I’m trying to work on the entire list of traits. I think I need to tape it on my bathroom mirror so I can be reminded of them every time I look at myself! I do know that I’m very idealistic and original (I never fit in with the “in” crowd, so stubborn little blighter that I was, I went about to be the “in” crowd’s polar opposite). I’m also awfully opionated and very soft hearted. It’s the interesting and funny I’m still not sure about!

      I can tell from your comment that you truly exhibit many of those qualities just in one snippet of writing, and it made it a real pleasure to hear from you!

  3. July 25, 2011 12:37 am

    Ugh, yes, all of this.

    There’s been a recent trend on the internet (tumblr) where we all call each other “beautiful” and post whimsical images with overlaid text reading “And you are beautiful,” “everyone is beautiful,” and it kind of ticks me off, because there are so many other things to be than beautiful. What they mean is that everyone is of worth, but its semantically evident that the culture only values a few things, one of the most prominent being outward beauty.

    We read books like Mansfield Park or Vanity Fair or War and Peace, beauty is a part of the society and the culture, and is valued but it isn’t the end-all-be-all of attraction. There were, at least in literature, other qualities that mattered, perhaps more. People were clever or funny or intelligent and that was a good enough reason to like them. They didn’t have to be beautiful, it wasn’t required. People were okay with not being beautiful because they knew they had other things to offer.

    Blahh, that was long and ridiculously self-indulgent. End rant.


    • July 27, 2011 7:40 am

      I have never seen this “you are beautiful” thing, now I really will have to watch for it! I see exactly why it annoys you. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane is beautiful and Elizabeth is clever, and both are incredibly attractive to society and their future mates. Looks should be so far from the sum total of our existence, but unfortunately, other qualities have faded and shrunk until beauty is the only noteworthy characteristic.

      I’m just so glad someone else is bothered by this. We need to form a society around it, and be clever and kind and intelligent and creative and tell beauty to go boil her head.

      By the way, you were not remotely self-indulgent. It needed to be said, and it made my day far better for being said. Rant on, my friend, rant on.

  4. September 8, 2011 12:18 pm

    great post


  1. A Skinny-Obsessed World « A Lighter Shade of Grey

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