I was browsing Twitter the other night on the train ride home because I couldn’t muster up enough strength in my eyelids to read actual literature–which I carry as an accessory in case I do manage to summon the required inner strength or if I need a conversation starter–and I landed on a headline that was very obviously designed to be clickbait, but I clicked anyway. The (very brief) article was about a woman named Brooke Birmingham, who you may have heard of already since she’s a member of the female triad popping up all over the digital space (sorry) this week. (The other two are Monica Lewinsky, because she’s “breaking her silence,” which I don’t think is as much silence as it is irrelevance, and Shailene Woodley, who everyone’s mad at for saying she’s not a feminist, at the same time overlooking the fact that she was born in the 1990s.)
Anyway, of the three, the only one I even slightly care two clicks about is Brooke Birmingham. Brooke lost a buttload of weight, which in more precise technical terms is about as much as the body weight of your average male barista. She’s blogged about her weight-loss journey for all 170 pounds of it–as suggested by the hyperlinked word “blogged” in the article I was reading–and was contacted by Shape magazine to be featured in a story because they, like most people and institutions in this country, just go crazy over people getting thin–almost as much as they go crazy over people getting engaged, married, pregnant, or a new job title. I’m looking at you, LinkedIn.
If you’re into looking good, but more in a fitnessy-type way than a makeupy-fashiony way (a la Glamour, let’s say), then you probably have read or at least opened an issue of Shape, and are therefore plenty familiar with its contents. (Opening it once, even briefly, is all it takes to intimately know and understand it.) But if you aren’t into that sort of thing–snacks involving almond butter and arm exercises you can do at your desk with a pair of light weights, for example–I commend you but will not let you go through life any longer without knowing what Shape is all about:
Shape is a magazine that tells you what snacks (involving almond butter) to eat and what kind of arm exercises to do (at your desk) with a pair of light weights.
I know this because I once subscribed to Shape during a period in my life when I was both super into fitness and (presumably) super into throwing money away on something that takes two minutes to read and contains nothing that can’t be Googled during a slow day at work for free.
But back to Brooke. Brooke loses 170 pounds, is all set to be featured in this irrelevant but somewhat successful magazine, and as one of the final stages in the editorial process, the writer of the story asks her to send in an “After” photo to show off her new slim and trim figure. Brooke sends one of herself in a bikini because that’s what After photos look like–we’ve seen the Hydroxy Cut commercials. The writer, however, rejects it and asks that she send another of herself with more clothes on, citing Shape’s editorial policy to use only photos of the Weight-Loss Story women in short-sleeved tees. (I’m paraphrasing, but I call bullshit on that. Shape has since attempted to distance itself from this writer, making it clear that she’s freelance–a kind of dirty term in the publishing world that often implies shame, inferiority, at least three roommates, and ramen–and spouted off things that are not in line with Shape’s actual policies or editorial decisions. I’m paraphrasing, but I also call bullshit on that.)
So then this picture of Brooke in her fairly modest two-piece (as far as two-piece bathing suits go) is leaked or, more likely, just purposefully sent out into the digi-sphere, and right away all is made clear. If you were already aware of everything I’ve been going on about this entire time, then you probably already know this part too: Brooke, 170 pounds thinner Brooke, has a lot of excess skin–because that’s what happens when you lose a lot of weight. Some of your skin simply has nowhere to go; it becomes orphan skin. Because of this, Brooke’s stomach is not taut and chiseled neatly into six sections. It is sagging, wrinkled, and laced with stretch marks. It is not the picture of weight loss that we’re used to seeing, and it does not tell the story that we like to hear and believe and tell ourselves about losing lots of weight–not because it’s not accurate, but for the very reason it is. I know this firsthand, and this is the part where things get personal and maybe a little deep.
When I was 17, I made the courageous decision to stop eating ice cream on graham crackers every night. (I’m making light of it, but really, that happened.) I was a chub and had been for most of my life, but with college looming in the not-so-distant future, a future abundant with possibility and adventure, I knew somewhere in my adolescent psyche that I wouldn’t do half of the things I wanted to do with my life if I remained as fat as I was. (For the record, I still feel the sting of the word “fat,” but I don’t think there’s an adequate synonym to use in its place, which will be a talking point at the next party I go to, surely). I don’t mean that being fat prevents a person from living a fulfilling life; that isn’t and will never be true. But it would have prevented me. I’m not saying that’s something to be proud of, because it probably isn’t (though recognizing it might be). But that’s how it was and, if I’m being honest, still is.
In any case, I cooled it with the ice cream/graham cracker combo (clean since ’03!) and started doing my mom’s step aerobics VHS after school. The step aerobics were led by a man with a blonde mullet in shiny nylon spandex; I persevered in spite of it. When I went away to college, I upgraded to the campus gym, which remains to this day one of the scariest places I’ve ever been but also one of the most empowering. It became a kind of after-school hangout, especially since my roommate made our tiny dorm smell like feet and spent a lot of time talking loudly on the phone to someone named Jared. Also, there was a guy that I saw in the gym every day (except Sunday–hungover prob) who became known among my friends as Gym Guy.
Gym Guy was not like how you’re imagining him. He was not meaty or muscly. He didn’t even really look like an athlete. He was just a tall, thin, regular-looking guy with glasses who always wore a navy blue t-shirt and long black shorts and would run at a leisurely pace on the treadmill for, by my calculation (via peripheral vision), no fewer than 8 miles. Every day. He made it look so easy and relaxing, and I found myself choosing the treadmill next to him or behind him so that I could watch–not in a sexual way (not even vaguely), but in an inspirational, Olympic athlete way. He became my unknowing informal trainer. I wanted to be able to run as far and for as long as Gym Guy and then, like him, look totally chillax afterwards and strut away like nothing happened.
January 1, 2006 was the first day I ran on the treadmill. It was probably only for a mile or two but it felt like 1,000 and made me feel like a million-plus bucks. Six-and-a-half years later, I ran my first (and currently only) half-marathon. I was also about 115 pounds lighter than I had been when I started back in the step aerobics era. But since that loss happened pretty slowly over the course of a half-decade or more, it never felt that monumental to me. It also happened during some of the most formative years of my life, so it was very much central to who I was–and am. I didn’t much think about it; it just was.
And there’s another side to this too. Even though I had lost over 100 pounds (at my thinnest I was 120 pounds down, but things happen–desk jobs, nachos, etc.), I still didn’t feel great about myself. Outwardly I looked good, even better than good, especially to people who had known me at my heaviest. But my body wasn’t pretty; at least I didn’t think so. I had “orphan” excess skin–not too much, but enough to stand in the way of some of my more shallow desires like, oh, wearing a bikini, just to pull one out of the air. To this day, the last time I wore a stomach-bearing swimsuit was the summer of 1992, and even then I felt like I didn’t quite have the physique to pull it off.
After the joy of each milestone–fitting into a single-digit size, watching my prom dress billow around me like an oversized Snuggie when I tried it on several years later, running a 9-minute mile–the same old feeling of grossness and shame would set in after awhile and feed like a parasite on my self-esteem. I was frustrated with myself and occasionally–more often than I’d like to admit–disgusted. On paper, I had done everything right; I ate kale and similarly obnoxious healthy stuff, I cut out most of the bad, I exercised in an often overly devoted manner, combining cardio and strength-training like all the gurus said. And yet I hadn’t won. I didn’t have the perfect body. I didn’t have a beautiful body. I didn’t even have a just-okay body. I was a failure. I was ugly.
I wish I could write here that those feelings are behind me now. They aren’t, and I feel a little ashamed about that because the more self-aware and emotionally intelligent part of me knows that there’s nothing ugly about me. And besides that, “ugly” is an entirely made-up concept. Nothing can be ugly on its own. And yet it’s one thing to understand this on an intellectual level, and quite another to live and think as though I know it’s true, to apply it to my everyday life–particularly when that everyday life exists within a culture that is so hyperconscious of bodies and so obsessed with ideas about beauty and non-beauty.
Which brings me back to Brooke Birmingham and the now infamous rejected-by-Shape photo. When I saw her picture the other day, my inner voice shouted something at me that I’ve always known but never really took to heart. Seeing her standing there smiling proudly made me realize what I, no one else–not magazines like Shape, not Victoria’s Secret billboards, not society at large (though they probably didn’t help)–have been depriving myself of all these years. I’ve never celebrated or even lightly patted myself on the back for what I did for myself. I’ve never taken time to appreciate the fact that I’ve probably warded off a handful of health problems (at least for now) that I may have gotten sooner had I stayed on the ice cream/graham cracker path. I’ve never allowed myself to see Pretty (of the Unassuming Sort) Me, because I’ve always been so fixated on what I saw as the ugly parts, even when it was–and is–those imperfections that tell a story that is actually kind of wonderful, and also important, integral to who I am. All these years I’ve been depriving myself of peace and the freedom to truly enjoy my life. To like myself.
These are all things I should probably be spouting off to a therapist instead of a blog. But I wanted to talk about Brooke Birmingham in a way that seemed right and honest to me. Really, I don’t care all that much about the Shape (freelance) writer (initially) rejecting her picture. We know why that happened, and it sucks. People suck and society sucks and notions of beauty suck and that probably won’t ever change. But I do care about Brooke’s pride and positivity, her confidence and disregard for everything women have been told about what they should look like, and the guts it took to send in that photo, even if she doesn’t realize it. This might be something that only someone who has dealt or is dealing with significant weight issues can truly understand, but it was really important for me to see that picture.
That’s not to say I feel “beautiful” now. I don’t, and I probably won’t tomorrow or the next day or even a few months from now. But I know now that I need to try to get there. After seeing Brooke, I looked down at my own self and thought, for the first time in maybe ever, “So what? It’s just skin.” And it’s mine.