The monstrous black pick-up truck barreled directly toward me, its front bumper as high as my waist. Watching it hurtle in my direction, I froze. Although I was a mere 10 feet from the safety of the sidewalk, I stood riveted—motionless—on the black asphalt as two tons of metal and zoned-out driver accelerated.
Paralyzed, I couldn’t get my feet to move; I tried to scream, but my throat was locked. I was suspended in the moment, a petrified witness to my own imminent death.
As the truck gunned even closer, the cliché didn’t prove true. I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes. Instead, a jangle of half-formed images flickered through my brain as adrenaline turned my blood cold. Then, in that millisecond of mental chaos, a single lucid thought crystallized. It had nothing to do with wishing my husband goodbye or telling my children I loved them. It had nothing to do with expressing gratitude to my parents and siblings. It had nothing to do with appreciation for the richness of the life I’d been given.
Rather, in the blip of time before the truck smashed into me, the only thought my brain managed to form was one of regret:
I can’t believe I wasted all those years worrying about my weight.
Obviously, I didn’t die that day. When the truck was close enough for me to look into the dilated pupils of the impassive driver, a last-ditch survival instinct kicked in, and I leapt out of the way. Three stunned bystanders—all of whom had been yelling—clustered around, clucking protectively as their fear turned into indignation. Hazily, I heard their exclamations of, “What is he on?” and, “He almost hit you!” My knees were weak, and I shook as my body processed the near miss. Mentally, however, I was in an entirely different place. My mind was chewing over a momentous revelation.
In the moment of my death, my last thought would be a regret. At the end of all the joy and gusto and dancing and adventure, when all the happy noise stilled, I would mourn the time I had poured into active dislike of my body.
The thing is: My body is more than serviceable. Admittedly, during certain periods, I have been distinctly overweight, and no one would ever call me svelte. Generally, though, my weight has been on the upper end of “healthy.” I am solidly built, not apt to blow over in a strong wind. Were I a prehistoric woman, my body would have survived stressful times; as less hearty bodies fell, mine would have continued to nurse all the clan’s babies while we trudged across the plains in search of food and fire.
Thus, it is confounding that this body, which carries me through my days with energy and ability, makes me sad. Why should a body that totes six bags of groceries up the stairs be disappointing? By what measure can a body that runs ten miles on wooded, single-track trails be inadequate? If my 47-year-old body can do tricks on the trampoline with the kids, how can it be a source of dissatisfaction? How can I be so blessedly able yet still feel like a hulking beast?
It’s a queer kind of madness, this disconnect between health and emotion. The psychology of self-image is complicated enough that I am simultaneously able to appreciate how fortunate I am to have a capable body and at the same time loathe its lumpy bits. A trail of life moments contributed to this lack of satisfaction.
When I was 11, I stepped outside to grab the newspaper off the front stoop. A boy riding by on his bike yelled, “You’re fat!”
When I was 17, in the moment of losing my virginity, the man above me said, “If you lost weight, you could be attractive.”
During college, I called a guy I was crushing on and asked him out for a drink. When he replied, “I don’t drink,” I regrouped with, “How about coffee, then?” Awkward silence reigned until he bit out, “Yeah, I don’t think so,” before hanging up. That weekend, my roommate cornered him at a party to pinpoint the problem. Because he was drunk, he was frank: “I don’t date big girls.”
A handful of years later, my sister considered our potential genetic legacy and told me, “Neither of us should have kids.”
In my late twenties, a close friend looked at a photograph of my grandmother standing in line with her sisters and exclaimed, “Those hips and breasts! Honey, you didn’t stand a chance, did you?”
In my early thirties, I was sharing a hotel room with my mother and, having showered and realized there were no full-sized towels, I walked across the room, naked, to my clothes. As I moved, my mother’s choked voice, full of raw horror, asked, “Has your belly always hung over like that?”
In my early forties, while in Turkey, I took a hot air balloon ride. At the end of the flight, the crew lifted each woman out of the basket and set her on the ground. When my turn came, the burly Turk asked, “You can get your leg over the basket and hop down, yes?”
There are hundreds more moments like this, each one a confidence-deflating needle. Even though I realize the hurtful words reveal more about the speakers’ issues than mine, the echoes of those voices are powerful. They keep me from peace, for I chafe against the notion that my body—and every woman’s body—is public domain. Inside my brain and heart, in the seat of my emotions, my body belongs solely to me. Yet the constant, unsolicited feedback from the world at large keeps me from rest. I am strong. I am fit. Despite this, according to popular opinion, I am too much.
Secretly, though, I disagree. Despite the assessments of both strangers and loved ones, I dare to think I’m lovely. My smile is warm; my hair is lively; my eyes are bright; my arms could be friends with Michelle Obama’s arms; my muscular legs could crack open walnuts.
The task, then, has been to let belief in loveliness trump the nagging worries about weight. This only became possible when I saw myself as a stranger.
I was in a hardcore exercise class full of plyometrics, lunges, high-intensity intervals, and toned physiques. We were facing a row of mirrors, sweating and jumping, when my brain started to meander around the room, admiring the participants. After a few minutes, my eyes still scanning the crowded class in the mirrors, I wondered, “Where am I?” Although I’m spatially challenged, I certainly should have been able to spot my beastly self in a group of 40 elfin people.
Strangely, I couldn’t find my chunky, panting figure.
Wondering if I was standing too far off to the side, out of range, I looked down at my clothes and then tried to locate my brightly colored top in the mirror.
There I was.
My eyes had been searching for an overweight woman lumbering and galumphing in the midst of wasp-waisted marathoners. Yet that’s not how I looked at all. I couldn’t see myself in the mirror because I hadn’t known how to see myself.
Suddenly, epiphany: I am indistinguishable in a crowd of fit people. Even more profound was the realization that many of the leaner class participants actually looked fragile, almost brittle, compared with me. In a moment of striking clarity, I saw that my body is vigorous, hearty, positively juicy.
Watching myself in the mirror, admiring the height I achieved during a series of explosive lateral jumps, I finally applied the insight I’d been given when the black pick-up truck almost hit me. I was done letting other people’s voices define my self-perception. The world doesn’t get to frame my opinion of myself; I do. Grinning as I hopped and squatted, I decided I like to think of myself as a beast: a strong, glorious beast.
It shouldn’t make me sad.
It isn’t a disappointment.
My body—that juicy beast—is amazing.