By Leila Sinclaire
I am curvy. My Italian-American mother is straight out of a Botticelli painting and my dad is a sort of Scottish Viking. My ample backside in particular earns me lots of unwanted attention. My closest black girlfriends congratulate me for looking “black from the back;” it’s safe to say that Sir-Mix-a-Lot’s anaconda would want some. “I like your piggyback rides best,” a kindergartener once confided in me. “Because your bottom is like a horse’s bottom.”
I never wanted to be vain like my youngest sister. She was five when I was 16, and she would come into my bedroom to use my full-length mirror. She pranced and posed and purred to herself, “Isn’t that a lovely hat? Why, yes, it is!” and blew herself kisses. I would groan and evict her. How embarrassing, such raw confidence! Who did she think she was?
A few years later, choice words spat by bullies shut her down. When I returned from college for Thanksgiving, my sister was a slip of her former self, hiding behind her hair, blue veins peeking through papery skin stretched tight across her starving frame. She wasn’t the first one in the family with an eating disorder.
Our gorgeous Italian grandmother — I should be more specific here and call her Roman, as she was proud of her cosmopolitan roots — drank more than she ate. Her English wasn’t perfect but she knew enough to say, “A minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.” After a particularly intense and fruitful training season with my champion high school crew team, she looked at me in a swimsuit and said, “They are turning you into a man!”
Muscular like my father wasn’t beautiful.
Pear shaped like my mother wasn’t ideal either, despite the Renaissance. My mom is scarred by painful memories of my grandmother’s sharp tongue.
I tried to escape my genetics by eating only one piece of dry wheat toast, an apple, and a container of fat free yogurt each day. It worked, for a time. The puppy love of a few doting boyfriends distracted me from the regimen of starvation and self-hatred, for a time. A summer in the wilderness — there were 4 a.m. peak ascents and Native American sweat lodges involved — helped shift my priorities away from pretty and popular towards smart and strong, but my grandmother’s voice stayed with me.
“Are you really going to eat that?” I thought nearly every time I took a bite of something other than lettuce. I spent an inordinate amount of time as a young adult hating my curves and wishing to inhabit a different, skinnier body. I was the person on the treadmill at its highest incline wearing a weighted vest like a would-be Olympian. I exercised obsessively from the age of 13 until the year I first became pregnant at age 29.
I gained more than 50 pounds during each of my pregnancies and also involuntarily vomited every single day, usually multiple times. Morning sickness is a misleading term; I was sick constantly. My feet swelled up like trolls’, my hair fell out in clumps, and my breasts attained the size and heft of mature honeydew. I regularly came home from teaching middle school, crawled straight into bed, and cried myself to sleep in order to escape the nausea and discomfort. It seemed so unfair to barf nonstop and simultaneously gain copious amounts of weight. Forty weeks of this paradox was a crash course in the loss of control and subversion of personal needs that was to come.
Vanity and selflessness don’t pair well. Infants need everything from you; then they poop and need you some more. I didn’t have time to pee, much less look at myself from various angles in the mirror. For months on end I had to do virtually everything one-handed while holding a squirming or sleeping infant: eat, read (magazines were easier than hardcovers because they stayed open to the right page), brush teeth and hair. I rarely slept for more than four hours at a time. I found my body issues slip-sliding away. I especially loved how strong I was. I could carry groceries and babies on my back for miles, and I did. Milo and Ruby both appeared thankful for my gargantuan breasts that dispensed milk that looked like butter. The guy who cut my hair suggested we take advantage of the strange wisps of surviving hair at my brow by fashioning them into stylish bangs. I had worn the same hairstyle all my life and loved the new look. When I crossed paths with long-lost acquaintances, I got a lot of compliments, a lot of “Motherhood suits you” and “You’re glowing!”
This uptick of self-esteem doesn’t mean I have transformed into Penelope Cruz. Despite my return to regular strenuous exercise, my once-taut middle is permanently soft and marked with tiger stripes, like I’m wearing a kitten as a fanny pack in front. The broken blood vessels and varicose veins that run in my family are significantly more pronounced now in my tree-trunk legs. Both my children are worried that these purple veins will suddenly spill blood; they take every opportunity to ask me about them and remind me that they look really, really scary and bad.
But I find I don’t really mind. I am not built like a model and I never was. We all want to feel needed, happy, safe. Milo and Ruby need me and help me feel happy (and infuriated and mystified) every single day. We are safe in our crazy North Berkeley, California, enclave. It seems so ungrateful and shallow to worry about my thighs when children all over the world are orphaned and forced from their homes by war. Milo lovingly calls me “a little bit fat,” and for once in my life, I am truly okay with that assessment.
Leila Sinclaire is a mother, writer, teacher, and educational consultant in the Bay Area. She tries not to let her two kids run indoors, but often fails. Check her out at www.sparkjoyconsulting.com or on Twitter @leilasinclaire.