The girls I sat with on the school bus were particularly brazen, a nearly feral brand of eight and nine-year-old. Something about being on that bus would cause us to lose our collective minds. We would yell, teach each other dirty words and, on warm days, tie our shirts up above our bellies in an attempt to look “sexy.”
Given the chaos, I didn’t expect my friend Abigail to pause one spring afternoon in the third grade, look down at my bare legs and say, “Wow, your thighs are really wide.”
The students around us continued to howl and jump, but we sat still, both looking down at my legs squished out on the dark-blue vinyl seat.
“Look at mine,” Abigail said when I didn’t respond.
She sat next to me, and when she did, what padding she had on her upper legs spread out ever so slightly around her femur and knees. She was right. My legs were a lot wider than hers.
I mumbled something incoherent in response and changed the subject, inching forward so that only my bottom was on the bus seat and my legs weren’t flattened against its surface. I sat like this every warm-weather day for the next several years.
As elementary school turned into middle school, I became fixated on other girls’ legs. They looked so effortlessly tiny to me, so delicate and incidental. When a friend in the sixth grade discussed her “double zero” size at length, I nodded, uncomfortable and filled with anxiety that she would ask me what size my own pants were, and that I’d have to reveal that they were not, in fact, anything close to a size zero, let alone a double zero. It didn’t occur to me that she could simply see that we were different sizes.
At home, my mother cycled through VHS workout systems where women in leotards with smooth skin and long hair smiled through crunches, lunges and bicep curls. She invited me to join her and I often did. By age 11, I was waking up before school to do pilates and yoga tapes.
I was not overweight, though even if I was, this behavior wouldn’t have been any more appropriate for such a young girl.
My mother encouraged me, no doubt believing that she was setting a positive example, not realizing that when I came home after school to find her doing yet another Firm video, I would stare at her robust, strong thighs and trunk-like torso, trying to understand why they never got any smaller. She’s just got to keep going, I thought. She will get there soon.
I applied the same mentality toward my own body. If I just kept going, I believed, if I just kept running in place and doing leg lifts, I would whittle my body down.
Adolescence took hold, and my curves filled out more distinctly from year to year. I began dreading school shopping and the fatiguing disappointment that, no matter what I did or what I ate, I would have to pick out bottoms that were a size larger than the year before. I was at a loss to explain this unceasing growth.
I never asked my mother why this was happening, and I never mentioned it to any other women in my family. Instead, I continued riding my bike, going for walks and by high school, eating protein bars for lunch. By the end of college, I had an overflowing drawer packed with pants that no longer comfortably fit, but which I forced myself to squeeze into.
In my mid-twenties, I spent a week with my grandmother, my mother’s mother, flipping through old photo albums and interviewing her about her life at my age. Her suburban apartment’s covered wall-to-wall with photos, so I was surprised she had so many stuffed away in a desk drawer that I had never seen.
One album was from the early 1950s. All the photos are black-and-white; many are posed portraits taken by my young grandfather. Until recently, my grandmother never let me photograph her, and any attempt to do so resulted in cursing and hand-waving. Evidently, this was not the case when she was young and recently married. There she was, standing confidently on the beach, or posing in a homemade bikini in front of my grandfather’s car, or sitting, legs crossed, on a rock wall with her younger brother.
She stared into the camera in snapshot after snapshot, her body sturdy, unapologetic and, to me, shockingly familiar.
“Apparently I got my figure from my grandma and never knew it,” I texted my boyfriend with a photo. He laughed and did not dispute what was so suddenly obvious to me.
“Grandma,” I said. “Didn’t you tell me once that you hated your legs because they were so skinny?” She is 85 years old now, and she is very slight in the way that a lot of elderly women are. I’d assumed she had always been that way.
“No,” she says, almost snorting. “I thought they were too big. I always hated my thighs.”
It dawned on me then that the shape that I had spent nearly two decades attempting to hide, remedy and “fix” was not something to be fixed at all. The bottom half that had made me feel so different than the other girls I grew up with was inherited. It was genetically and generationally mine. It was the same body that allowed my grandmother to have six healthy children, and my mother to have five after her. It is the body of generation after generation of women who fall down, pick themselves up and keep walking.
This revelation was not a perfect fix for years of internalized criticism and on-again, off-again crash dieting, but it did help me clean out that drawer full of pants that will probably never fit me again, replacing them with jeans I could sit comfortably in. And above all, it stopped me from constantly apologizing to myself for not being able to alter a body that I now know to be so, so irrevocably, and astonishingly, mine.