I’d always been round. A chubby child. Pleasantly plump. Pink cheeks on fair skin. Dark, dark, wavy hair. A cherubic babe from a Renaissance painting born to a later era.
Mine is the least reliable memory about this; I can only say I felt awkward, bigger, slower, clumsier. I don’t remember anyone trying to dissuade me from this when I looked for reassurance. And when my grandmother made my clothes she played with the paper patterns, adjusted darts and seams so garments would fit me better.
But I didn’t fit.
When I hit middle school and slightly older, boys who could drive barked from passing car windows and their howls crystallized my perception that I wasn’t pretty. Didn’t weigh what I should. Was not good enough. Not desirable.
In reality, my weight probably bounced around and though I was never skinny, nobody’s string bean, I was average and sometimes ten pounds more. Now when I peruse photos of myself from years ago they don’t match my memories. I see a pretty young woman. In the time before mega-models like Paulina, and Naomi, Gisele and Kate, there was sunny Cheryl Tiegs. Christie Brinkley. American girls. Blonde, golden, blue-eyed, and lanky.
Nothing like me.
But when Tom chose me a lot of old pain washed away. He loved most everything about me, of that I was certain. In time I became okay with me, too. When he suggested, I knew it was just that. I respected his aesthetic and his judgment. He cared for me, admired me, encouraged me, loved me and married me. I relaxed into being me.
After his sudden death, for the first time in my life, I could not eat. Did not think of food at all, a long-time preoccupation. I could not look at food or even smell it. Most of all, I couldn’t chew it or swallow it.
Food was for some far away place where people stirred among the living and needed sustenance. My soul bereft, my mind wrapped in fog, I hovered in a state where a sandwich couldn’t help.
But I was thirsty. Endlessly so and water, water needed little help to swallow. It cleansed and cooled. With a slight pour it trickled down my throat and no matter how many pints and quarts I drank, I wanted more.
When little more than a month had passed so had 20 pounds. Dressing was a problem. Now clothes weren’t only unrestrictive, they were hard to keep on. Hip bones hiding since college made a blatant appearance, coupled with cheekbones I’d never seen. I pinned and clipped, rolled and belted to make adjustments.
Then, 30 or 35 pounds of me was missing. Still I could barely eat.
Co-workers made everything as comfortable for me as possible and shielded me from taxing situations. But when I’d returned to work meetings were required with individuals in other organizations. Not everyone knew what had happened nor did I want them to. By now my clothes had left the realm of oversized and rolled right into odd. It was time to shop. Mom and I together determined to make me presentable again.
It had happened quickly and the sizes I needed were so much smaller than I’d ever worn that I was disoriented. I chose things still far too big, finding out when buried once again by another skirt or pair of pants only slightly smaller than what I had at home.
I was overwhelmed by racks, and people, and choices, and colors, and mostly by being in public. I didn’t know what size I was. I didn’t know who I was. Painful as my inside was, it was at least familiar, unlike the stranger I attempted to dress.
It was a brief and tiring shopping trip. We left with a few items and I had a vaguely improved outlook. Everyone assured me I looked fine. My mother nodded her approval and the sales team said the clothes in the bag were cute and appropriate, stylish and well fitted.
I surrendered the familiar and oversized garments from my closet and began to wear the new. As I continued to dwindle more purchases were necessary and the single thing I enjoyed was the ability to walk into the store and grab any article quickly with a high probability it would fit and look good. In the midst of so much pain this was a (no pun intended) small delight.
And then it happened. The world I’d been shrinking away from, one of colleagues, neighbors and those I thought friends who’d distanced themselves from me, the collective mute universe filled with those who peered around corners and peeked only when they thought I wouldn’t see, all those who had nothing to say to me but plenty to each other, came out of their homes, offices, yards, and cubicles to tell me how wonderful I looked.
How svelte and stylish. Fashionable and fit. I must be feeling ever so much better they prattled on, because — I looked so good.
Never had my outward appearance so disguised my inner world, my childhood inverted. First a happy child made miserable by external deficiencies as defined by other children, and now in this agonizing period after Tom’s suicide, the scale fairy waved a wand and I drew kudos for my looks.
I wondered why they didn’t see my entrails or the trail of blood behind me.
I seethed when confronted by those emboldened by appearance who simultaneously remained timid – no, cowardly – in addressing what mattered most to me. As they felt twinges of unease and awkwardness they took an easy path. I viewed it as a choice between their discomfort and mine, and as if similar in magnitude they chose to soothe their own. “You look great,” and they hid from the opportunity to say something I could feel.
As they did, I felt hidden to the world while at the same time drawing its attention. Upside down and inside out, I couldn’t get my bearings.
One evening after dinner my son and I meandered through a shopping mall. An excursion into life, a field trip of sorts. Months had passed. We tasted social interaction in small, sample-sized spoonfuls. A voice called my name from behind.
“Pam,” I turned to see her. A peer who sat near me in the evening philosophy class I’d dropped after my husband’s death. We’d spoken once since.
“You look wonderful. What have you been doing? Some kind of diet? Which one?”
My boy and I stood hand in hand. We looked at each other. A relative stranger barged into our world with her unsolicited, superficial observation. Maybe she deserved it and maybe she didn’t. I didn’t care about being fair.
And for that moment my inside and my outside found compatibility.