Last week, I posted to FB a retro photo of my husband and me on the beach circa 1998. In the photo, we look pretty happy, and oh-so-young. But I don’t think that the people liking the photo understood what a brave act it was for me to post it. Not because it illustrates how much I’ve aged. But because in the photo, my thighs are showing.
OH MY GOD MY THIGHS!
In my house growing up, showing thighs was posnisht – not done. Actually, thighs were a regular topic of conversation. Like other key body parts, we regularly dissected our own and other girls’ thighs, butts, stomachs, ankles, arms, and chins. These conversations revolved around two key measures: whether the body was sufficiently covered, and whether it was sufficiently thin. As I described in my book, Conversations with my Body, our Shabbat lunch invariably had detailed analyses of whether we gained or lost weight each week, with my father offering his expert opinion based on the flatness of our stomachs and the doubliness of our chins. We, in turn – four impressionable young women and our mother – would kvetch about the parts of our body we wish were more acceptable.
“Women’s arms are ugly,” my mother regularly asserted, for example, explaining why the Orthodox rules forbidding us from wearing sleeveless were correct. There was never a thought passing anywhere in our house that women could actually strengthen or tone our arms. What we were given was our fate. We were short, we had double chins, and our arms were ugly. This was just the way it was. So we covered.
Thighs in particular were objects to be furiously hidden. Skirts were strictly knee-and-below affairs. When we sat cross-legged, we had to be careful not to allow any thigh-bits to be seen. My mother was also regularly ired by the way high school girls would sit on the stairs outside the Yeshivah of Flatbush in ways that thighs were visible. Even though in our modern-Orthodox culture we wore pants outside of school and in summer camp, we always had to make sure the shorts came down to the knees.
For me, the insistence on thigh-covering was a relief. Because that way nobody saw your jiggly cellulite. Oh, we had lots of debates over whether products or Jane Fonda exercises could fix your thighs. But for the most part, the answer was, “No.” Just as there was no coming back from untoned arms, double chins, or pregnant-looking stomachs, there was also nothing to do about the flabby thighs. Once you were cursed with them, you were done for.
Beaches came with their own set of rules. Like many religious families, there were some negotiations around summers and swimming. In our house, we were allowed to wear bathing suits at the beach – a clear break from “modesty” – although we were not allowed to wear a bathing suit anywhere other than by the water. Even in the changing rooms, we covered ourselves frantically, often gawking in disbelief at the women who sauntered around with their stark naked jelly-like bodies.
And most tellingly, even when we wore bathing suits on the beach, we usually wore a long t-shirt on top. It was less about “modesty” – after all, we were “allowed” on the beach. No.
We did it because we didn’t want anyone to see our fat. Our flabby thighs.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that even when I started to release myself from some of these rules, I still continued to cover it all up. The process was not linear. In college, I stopped wearing pants, and then when I got married at the age of 21 I started covering my hair. When I turned 25 and gave birth to my second child, I started wearing pants again and eventually stopped covering my hair. I think about those events as turning points in my relationship with myself, with my body, with my culture. It was the first time I started asking myself what I wanted and needed, not just what people around me expected me to be. It took me a long time to answer those questions, and I’m still doing it. But loosening the body cover was key in the process. This is the process that I explore most in my book.
Still, in that photo, which was taken after my third child was born, when I was 28 or 29 years old, the thing that strikes me is how much I was still covering my body. I was on the beach with my family, being squeezed tight by a wonderful man who thought I was the most amazing thing since sliced bread. We were happy – exhausted but happy. But despite all that, I’m still covering myself. I’m still wearing the two-sizes-too-big shirt with sleeves down to the elbow that covers my upper thighs. It was a rebellious act in a way -- because actually it was relatively short. I am pretty sure it’s the only photo I have anywhere that shows even that much leg.
This feels like the story of my life in a way. I was always living two conflicting narratives. One story of my life is of building and growing, of creating loving relationships on my own terms, of crafting my own rules based on what was right for me, of letting go of old constructs and expectations and learning to listen to myself.
But the other story – which always took place simultaneously and intertwined itself in every event of my life – is one of shame. Of constant, relentless shame about my body. I was afraid of being seen. I thought that my body – even when I was not fat – made me unworthy. Made me bad. Made me problematic. Like, if I have cellulite on my thighs, obviously there is something wrong with me. And later on, when my waistline grew, I thought I had committed the world’s greatest sin. I thought the world looks at me with disgust and disdain because, obviously, Look at you.
To be sure, there has been ample confirmation of this theory. A woman can hardly walk into a room without the first assessment being how we “look”. If you “look good” then you are affirmed. If you dare to look not good, then people wonder what’s wrong with your life. Or with you.
So even as I was growing and changing and building a life based on values of love, compassion, and freedom, the truth is that I was still struggling. Still living in shame. Still hiding because of my body.
Maybe I still am a little. I actually think that deciding to publish this book was one of the most important acts for releasing the shame. I’m finally pulling back the curtain. Really pulling back the curtain, maybe for the first time.
And it’s okay. I don’t have to feel the shame. I’m really okay.
And here’s a bonus: That guy in the photo still thinks I’m the best thing since sliced bread. Go figure.
Read more at www.conversationswithmybody.com Buy the book at www.lionessbooks.com/shop