“Have you found a dress yet?” asks the voice on the other end of my phone. My son is getting married in a few months, so I’m not surprised by the question. But I am surprised I’m hearing it from my dad, who never talks about my clothing. His inquiry knocks me off balance; my stomach lurches. Well, this is weird.
I force a chuckle, and tell him I haven’t started to look yet. “Plenty of time!” I say, or something like that. His voice turns commanding.
“You need to start looking. Right now,” he says. “You don’t have much time left. What if you need to get something altered?”
What? My dad is thinking about whether I may need to have a dress altered? I instantly suspect my mom’s been whispering in his ear. I’m unsure how to respond, I don’t know what this call is about. I’m a grown woman, for heaven’s sake. I know I need a dress for the wedding.
Frustratingly, my dad is still a formidable force in my life, even though I’m middle-aged. So I chew a cuticle as my stomach-lurch blossoms into a knot.
While I try to figure out why he’s concerned about my clothing, he pivots:
“Are you bringing anyone with you?”
Oh, man. My chest tightens; I start to see where this conversation is going. He’s just lobbed an anvil at my heart.
“No,” I whisper, “not bringing anyone.” I am acutely aware that my dad knows my ex-husband will bring his new fiancée. I feel his disapproval crash over me, in waves.
My dad is upset that I don’t have a date because my marriage over. I have no new partner.
“Well, you better go get a great dress. Do whatever it takes,” he urges. “Your mother says she’ll take you to a spa. Get your hair and makeup done, whatever.”
My parents teamed up to manage my appearance. I open and shut my mouth like a beached fish, but I can’t get a sound out. So he keeps talking.
“Make him eat his heart out for leaving you,” he instructs. “You need to make sure you can hold your head up. His whole side of the family’s going to be there, right?”
I don’t answer; I can’t answer. My phone slips in my hand, his words echo in my head, bounce off the sides of my skull, reverberate. Childhood anxieties roar through my veins, pulsing, throbbing, leaving me lightheaded and panicked. I stutter off the phone, collapse into a chair.
All I can now think of is my extended lower belly, pressing on my upper thighs, two rolls of fat folding in on top of each other.
I am deeply, utterly certain about what’s driving his anxiety. I know exactly why my 80-year-old dad is worried that I will not look good enough.
Because for the first time in my life, I am “tubby.”
You see, throughout my childhood, adding weight was — in my parents’ eyes — a failure. A personal disappointment, somehow done just to embarrass them. Constantly implied, occasionally explicit, their messages were powerful and relentless:
And throughout my adulthood:
And in the past few years — yes, since the divorce — for the first time in my life, I let the number on the scale increase.
I’ve written that sentence in a way that makes it seem like I’d made a conscious decision to do so, but that’s not at all what happened. In fact, despite the changing fit of my clothes, despite the unexpected reflection I caught in a full-length mirror, I was in pretty deep denial. This new body wasn’t me.
Except that it was indeed me.
And in my 12-pound weight gain, I’d raised the questions I’ve always been afraid to ask: What will happen if I’m not thin? What will people think? Will they still like me? Love me? Now my parents left me terrified of finally learning those answers at my son’s wedding.
A mere week before the event, I marched into Bloomingdales with a credit card in my bag and anxiety in my heart. I did not want to see myself in any mirror, much less a three-way-one. Yet I walked out, an hour later, with a lovely new dress. I actually felt good wearing it.
I was still stung by my parents’ previous implication that I look bad as I am now, and that my former in-law-family would see it, too. You might be wondering why I didn’t just tell my parents to back off; I assure you, were I more emotionally capable, I would have done so. Ending the discussion was the best I could manage, so I declined to report on my purchase to my dad. I told my mother I couldn’t make the spa, too much to do for the wedding, you know how it is. (Their corresponding silences felt ominous.)
Well, the wedding the following weekend was spectacular.
My anxieties melted instantly in the warmth that suffused me, as I reunited with folks who’d been my family, for decades. My son’s joy was palpable and my happiness for him overwhelmed me.
I had fun.
In retrospect, I didn’t think once about how I looked, not when I toasted the bride and groom, when I embraced my ex’s fiancée, or while I danced the night away. Honestly, I had one of the most wonderful weekends of my life.
Two weeks later, I was sitting at my laptop, one hand idly pinching at my abdomen, preparing myself to look at the wedding pictures that had been emailed to me. I was troubled by the discord I felt. I’d had a great time, “tubby.” People had loved me, “tubby.” Maybe I actually look great, I thought to myself.
Deeply buried under the weight of my parents’ expectations, burdened by the pressure all women feel in this society, it had not yet occurred to me that gaining weight does not equal happy or unhappy, loved or unloved.
I stared at the link, hesitating. The camera wouldn’t lie. Maybe I looked okay. I’d had such a wonderful time, so I must have looked great, right?
I opened the link. The first image was of me, standing, my spine curved as I hunched over a place setting. My stomach curved toward the ground. My chin attached directly to my collar bone. I felt awful, ashamed. I did not think I looked great. I raced through the rest of the shots, and saw my gut poking over my waistband in each one.
I began spiraling: Everyone saw me chubby. My parents, my former in-laws, my ex-husband, his fiancée. Of course I didn’t have a date. I put on weight and I’m too old to take it off again. No man will want this body.
I couldn’t stop the angry, ugly words looping through my brain. But a small part of me insisted that the loop didn’t make sense, that it clashed against something else: reality.
I went through the pictures again — but this time, I wanted to see the ones of me with other people. I wanted to catch them as they approached me or glimpsed at me from afar.
All I saw were happy faces. Smiles. Joy. Love. All around me. In every single shot.
I leaned back in my chair, shut my eyes, tried to clear my thoughts. In the silence I created, I heard a voice I hadn’t heard before, as a new line of thinking opened up for me:
Do I really think the way my parents do? Are their values even mine? What if I learn to look at myself through my own eyes?
My eyes snapped open. I allowed myself a very small smile. I’d held my parents’ beliefs so close to my heart, for roughly half a century. What if I spend the next half discovering mine?