After watching Kjerstin Gruys on 20/20 the other night talking about the year she spent without mirrors, I’ve been reflecting a lot about the role outside comments, opinions, stares, etc play in our weight loss and how we feel about ourselves. I struggled with how to articulate my feelings on this topic, then I remembered a trip to Brooklyn that just about derailed my weight loss efforts.
At one point during my weight loss journey, I had reached a loss of 80 pounds, yet, according to most I was still a fat girl. This story, taken from my memoir, is probably about the best single representation I can think of to demonstrate how society can pervert our self-image.
Setup: At this point in the book my sister has moved to Brooklyn, I am newly divorced, and having lost 80 pounds, I’m feeling pretty damn good about myself.
The walk to the bar is long and cool. The early spring air lays on our backs like satchels full of wet, damp blankets. I pretend not to feel it. I am on a mission to start over, again. I am also here to show off my new body. I have lost almost eighty pounds. I have shed a whole person, or at least a very hungry supermodel. And now, I’m walking down Greenpoint Avenue in the middle of the night with my sister, Jennie, and for the first time in my life, I am within reach of her weight. I am normal. The last time I weighed this much I was in ninth grade, just off a bout with mono, which helped me drop a quick forty pounds. I feel sexy, desirable, and for the first time in a long time, I feel like a woman.
“Two Hefeweizens please,” Jennie whispers to the bartender.
“And a shot of Jager,” I add.
We are in a bar called The Pencil Factory. It’s a small space with only candles to provide the lighting. The tables, of which there are only four, are large slabs of unfinished wood. I run my hands over our table repeatedly, almost consumed with trying to get a sliver. There are no chairs only benches. The floor is dusty and dirty and looks like it belongs in a western saloon.
Jennie and I sit and watch the people around us. I am fascinated by their casual nature. One girl wears what looks like pajamas as she leans in and whispers to a man wearing shorts and no shirt. A couple by the door have brought their dog. A large white mutt who sleeps with his slobbering mouth on the girls sandaled foot. They are at ease in this space. Two or three girls sit at the bar chatting with the tall thin man behind it. The bartender knows their names, their drinks, and probably their marital statuses. Glasses clank, feet shuffle across the barren floors, an occasional chuckle wafts through the air, but it’s not loud. It’s a smooth rhythmic noise.
Twenty-five minutes later the room is beginning to spin, my legs are starting to feel warm and fuzzy, and my lips long for the taste of a menthol cigarette.
“I’m going for a smoke,” I say and leave Jennie, her face illuminated only by the screen on her Blackberry.
My shoes are flat and worn out, and they flip and flop across the floor like bedroom slippers. I have been working on my walk. I’ve heard from some friends who have traveled to Europe that American women do not know how to walk like real women. The proper way, to saunter back and forth, is not conducive to our hurried nature or slouched posture. But on this night, in this low lit bar, I walk like my hips are twirling a hula hoop. I pass the couple near the door with the dog and the man glances at me from the corner of his eye. I feel his eyes on me as I walk, my thighs burning together under my short jean skirt.
The Pencil Factory is on a corner with a stop sign right in front. I am the only smoker, ostracized to the street by the smoking ban that has made New York City bars breathable. I am not fearful as I stand here by myself with a thin line of white exhaust leaking from my lips. I do not flinch when a group of young men, strong and imposing, walk past me with their eyes locked on my breasts. I do not care that the nearest street light is a block away, and the only illumination I have comes from the neon beer advertisements in the windows behind me. The door to the bar stays open at my back, another oddity you would never find in Scranton. It’s inviting and warm.
Before I can finish my smoke, a large black SUV pulls to the stop sign in front of me. The four guys inside wear bandanas drenched with sweat and are talking over loud music when they spot me standing on the corner in my short skirt and tight top. For what feels like five whole minutes, I enjoy them looking at me, objectifying me, imagining me naked, having their way with me. I imagine if I was more daring I might go home with one of them, let them ravish me, and sneak out in the morning before daybreak. I imagine if they were in the bar behind me, I might let one buy me a drink, or pretend to be too drunk to notice their hands on my breasts. I stand there, eight eyes on me, feeling as sexy as I have ever felt, when the passenger in the front sticks his head out the window and, with the whole bar listening through the open door behind me yells at the top of his lungs.
“WOW! That’s a whale even I would fuck!”
Then, just like that, they are gone. My cigarette falls to the ground, and my stomach becomes a void of nothingness. I suck in the night air and attempt to regain my composure. And when I do, I am pissed. I want to chase after them, to explain to them that I have lost weight. I imagine I could show them a before and after picture. “See? See how fat I used to be? 265 pounds! That was fat! This, 185, this is not fat! Trust me!” I would force them to look, hold a gun to their heads if I had to. I would show them my stomach, the stretch marks, the hanging skin, the proof of a once fatter existence. Then, maybe I would kill one of them, stab him to death with a shard of glass after I bust their windows out. Maybe I could light their fancy SUV on fire, or find out where they live and kill their pets.
“What happened? You okay?” Jennie asks emerging from the bar.
“I’m fine,” I answer choking back tears, and walk a straight line back to our table without a wiggle in my hips.
The next night, I am on a bus cutting through the Pennsylvania mountains like a yo-yo being sucked back onto its string, heading towards Scranton. The mountains surrounding the Delaware Water Gap are like the breast implants of Pennsylvania. Huge, imposing, and unnaturally large, they dwarf the soft subtle bosom of the rest of the state’s worn down peaks. The Water Gap is the entrance to Pennsylvania from New Jersey, and also marks the halfway point of my bus ride home from New York City.
It’s pitch black around me and all I can think about is how I don’t belong anywhere. I don’t belong in the enormous city behind me, and I don’t belong in the small city in front of me. I don’t belong in my marriage and I don’t belong in the single life. I don’t belong to fat, and according to four boys in an SUV, I don’t belong to thin. I’m suspended in time. Stuck in a moment. Lost.