The paintings on the walls of my 236th Street apartment in the Bronx are all of unusual depictions of people, mostly women. Hanging above the brown chair is a white woman facing backward, two large round butt cheeks bursting out of black underwear, with rolls of flesh piled on her wide hips. Around the corner is Blue Elvis, his teal shoulder blades protruding unnaturally far out from his back, placed on top of a vibrant yellow-and-orange background. Next to the TV squats a glowing copper-skinned woman wearing a white sheet-like dress. Her breasts pool over her knees as her hand grabs the sun behind her turned head. These figures aren’t contained by clothes or flesh; their bodies stretch and fill the space.
I always thought these paintings decorated my home because of my mom’s sex-positive, love-your-body-no-matter-what attitude; the same reason she composed and produced the paintings in the first place. I grew up feeling it was normal for her to walk around the apartment naked, looking for clothes in the laundry basket. I would notice the bounce of her stomach’s folds, the vibrations of her thick thighs, the sway of her black hair, still curly at the time, and tried to capture some of her radiating pride for myself.
I marveled at her commitment to exercising, perceiving her frequent use of our treadmill and attendance to spin classes as another one of her Wonder-Woman strengths. Wide-eyed, I used to sit in her lap, my hand squeezing her biceps. “You’re so strong, Mommy!” I’d exclaim, pressing my small fingers into the rock-hard muscles beneath her smooth skin.
My extra-curriculars in elementary and middle school consisted of trying out athletics myself. I was signed up for jazz dance, soccer, figure skating, swimming, and even a couple of days of hockey. But I never felt I belonged among my peers, all of whom were eager to race for the ball or demonstrate a spin on the ice. I felt less coordinated than my teammates and hated the required uniforms—always feeling like they weren’t made for my body. I dreaded every eighth-grade jazz practice at Broadway Dance Center because of the required hot pink leotard with a matching unpadded bra, said to be for “high impact” activities, and spandex. Dancing the warm-up in front of the dance studio’s floor-to-ceiling mirror, I stared at myself in the pink outfit, hating how the fabric hugged my protruding hips and stomach, while the other dancers’ leotards revealed their abs and hip bones. I positioned myself in the back of the studio during stretching because my split was always the highest; looking out across the flexible dancers low on the floor, I’d angrily make eye contact with myself in the mirror. I began adding clothing to my outfit attempting to mask how different my body looked from my peers. It was as if I forgot everything my mom had shown me about body image. My discomfort motivated me to tell my mom I was too tired to attend the Sunday morning practices. But missing one practice turned into a couple more, culminating in my being “asked to leave the class” through an email. I was relieved.
My best friend at the time was a dancer, too, though she was much more skilled than I was. Until my senior year of high school, we lived only a couple of blocks away from each other in Riverdale, and spent every Wednesday together doing homework and eating dinner. She has an all-female household, consisting of my friend, her mom, and older sister. My friend and her mom are both built differently than my mom and me. They both have visible abs, flat chests, and are blonde—traits I frequently admired when eating the various salads her mom made for dinner. Interwoven into our conversations about the House Hunters episodes always on their TV, they would comment on bodies and health. Whether praising a family friend who’d recently lost weight or jokingly shouting “fatass” to whomever was grabbing ice cream out of the freezer, these conversations at her house often made me feel overly conscious of my body.
I became convinced that being healthy was equivalent to my friend’s body-type in eighth grade after an unfortunate FaceTime call with her. I was showing her the green-tea mints my mom had bought from Whole Foods that day after school, convincing her that she had to try them. Agreeing, she shouted to her mom, who was doing something else in the next room, that my mom had bought me the mints and she really wanted to try them herself. Not knowing I was on FaceTime, her mom shouts back, “No! That’s why her mom’s so fat.” Both of us shocked, my friend and I stared silently at each other through the computer screen, before she began defending my mom. I proceeded to hang up the FaceTime, and feeling my heart pumping, tried to figure out what to do next. At this point, I considered being called “fat” an insult, something synonymous with ugly, something I never wanted to be or associated with. I hadn’t realized yet that feeling this way was indicative of the damage that the language and perpetuated notions of beauty causes. My friend’s mom’s comment made me ashamed of how my mom’s body is perceived, and since I look similar to her, my own too.
Toward the end of middle school, my dad signed me up to run a 5K with my synagogue—my dad plans my synagogue’s teen programming and often asks me to participate. I convinced my friend to do it with me. I knew she wasn’t a runner either so I wouldn’t be too embarrassed, and together we attended the required “Tweens in Action” program at the Riverdale Y to train for the upcoming race. Every Wednesday evening, my friend and I would walk into the Y, past the theater where I sat in the audience for her dance recitals, past the small, hot room where I had piano lessons, and into the chlorine- and rubber-smelling gym. I initially dreaded these evenings, but eventually grew to appreciate the soreness of my muscles after using all my effort to run a mile. I was satisfied to see sweat stains marking my Young Judaea T-shirts, matching the work I put in. I looked forward to the rush of cold air meeting my red face when exiting the Y, waiting for my dad to pull the car around. I began forgetting my friend was there next to me, and exercising became independent, similar to how I perceived my mom’s relationship with working out to be.
After the 5K in April of eighth grade, I didn’t run again until cross-country preseason at my new high school. I didn’t know anyone there and thought joining a sports team would be a good way to enter ninth grade with some familiar faces and become more athletic—something Tweens in Action demonstrated I might actually be able to do. On a Wednesday in August, I approached the cross-country team outside of the 59th Street entrance to Central Park. My discomfort with meeting new people, exacerbated by my unfamiliarity with athletics, resulted in shyness dominating my personality. I had conjured an image of a short, white-haired, shaky-voiced man as the coach who I’d been emailing with—an image quickly replaced by the coach’s young, over-excited, and wild persona upon meeting him. My arms folded over my chest, I observed the team members the same way I watch my dogs playing at the Seton Park dog run, unsure of when to intervene and when to just notice. There were only about seven people in the whole group, all of whom were upperclassmen who’d been on the team before. After introducing me to the rest of the team, the coach stuffed my iPhone and blue water bottle into his tall Patagonia backpack, swung it onto his back, and began running into the park.
After almost 30 blocks of water breaks and awkward chatting with a senior about my summer and middle school, we arrived at the 86th Street spot where I was told the real workout would start. Observing my exhaustion and significantly slower pace than the rest of the team, my coach gave me other strength exercises to do beside running. I got comfortable on the patch of grass next to Central Park’s reservoir, watching the cross-country runners determining their mileages and paces for the day, numbers that didn’t mean anything to me at the time. I felt inexperienced and out of shape, similar to how I felt in Broadway Dance Center’s brightly lit studio. But this time I was surrounded by teammates with various body types; I wasn’t the only one with thicker thighs or breasts. As I began my sit-ups, I was joined by an injured senior on the team who looked like me and assured me that nearly everyone who joins the team has trouble running over to this spot at first. Despite struggling to get through the push-ups and leg lifts assigned, I felt supported and, like those around me, had confidence that I too could become a runner.
My first year of running on the cross-country team, and then on track-and-field, was successful; the improvements I made from not being able to run 30 blocks without stopping to racing double that distance competitively motivated me to stay with the team. But the following year, when I couldn’t use the excuse that I was new and inexperienced to justify being slower than my teammates, I began doubting my abilities and blaming it on my body. This first happened at training camp that year, when we travelled to a teammate’s home and trained away from the city for the weekend of preseason. That Sunday is always dedicated to a long run, before showering and rushing to the train station to head home. My goal for that Sunday was five miles. At that point, I’d never run five miles before, and was excited to be able to say I had.
I began running beside my teammates on the Hamptons’ dirt roads, feeling the familiar confidence and energy at the beginning of a run. The smell of sunscreen and deodorant wafted among us, breaking through the dirt being lifted up by our pounding feet. Not 10 minutes into the run, my thighs began to burn. Not the muscles, but the flesh on my inner thighs, rubbing against each other in the heat. At this point we were spread out, many of us on our own according to our paces. I usually enjoy this independence, being able to go at the pace that works for me. But the pain was all-consuming, and I knew my thighs were going to bleed and scar. I was miserable, and was running much slower than I wanted to be going, than I knew my coach wanted me to be going. When he tells us to endure the pain of running, is this what he means? I blamed my body for preventing me from being a good runner and achieving my goals. In the moment, I promised myself I would never run again, I was going to quit the team when the weekend was over.
I adopt a similar thought process when my friends run without their shirts on to better brave the heat on the West Side Highway, but I keep mine on fearing judgment for my bigger sports bras and mushier stomach. Or when I bench press more weight than my friends, and finish the set proudly, a pride quickly diminished by comments from my peers like “You can bench more weight because you don’t have to bring the bar as far down on your chest.” When sifting through the pictures from meets, I notice how my red shorts cling onto my thighs and how my chest distorts the school logo on the tank top, feeling embarrassed that I was seen running like that.
But for every moment of doubt and feeling ashamed of my body on the team, I experience moments that remind me of the pride I see in my mom, running confidently on the treadmill, looking down at me when I squeeze her arm muscles. When I finish one more 800-meter repeat than I thought I could do, motivated by my teammates’ cheering and solidarity, or use all my effort to pass someone in a race, I love my body and its capabilities.
To attempt to stabilize my oscillating body image, I tend to overcompensate for my insecurities by acting overly confident. I realized this when at practice one day two friends asked me to demonstrate the dance moves from a workout class I’d done with a friend outside of school. While running along the East River, the November wind harshly hitting my bare hands and nose, I described the amusing body-rolls and butt-shaking choreography making up the class, and decided to stop and show them. Clutching her stomach from laughing, one friend shares, “I could never do that in public, I have too much shame.” I didn’t know how to respond because I thought that I too have that shame, the embarrassment of my body, and the care of what others will think of me that she describes. So how could I stand on the side of the East River attempting to twerk?
I recently discovered screenshots on my phone that must have been somehow transferred from my mom’s. They are of a Google search bar saying, “paintings of fat anxious women” with different results maximized on the screen. When I initially found them, I was confused, but then I thought these must be references for the painting my mom’s working on. My mom has suffered from anxiety for most of her life, and I know she’s been called fat by others as an insult—I wondered if the paintings I always associated with her sex-positive self were actually self-portraits of her dark-sides, her anxiety and her body. I wondered if she was using her sex-positivity to mask these insecurities.
Is that what I was doing on the East River? Maybe my friend’s shame prevented her from dancing, but mine made me dance. But in my experience, I’m not a dancer.
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