So here we are, a full two months after I graduated from Beauty U. And while my life is largely back to “normal,” last week’s fat talk made me realize that I’m walking around feeling very not normal in one key way: My personal body image. And it’s time to own up to this. Which means talking about size — but hopefully in a way that changes the conversation a little bit. I’d love to hear what you think, even if you think I’m being not very nice and maybe a giant hypocrite. Because I might agree with you there.
Here’s the thing: I gained twenty pounds during my ten months in beauty school.
Eating McDonalds, Subway, KFC and Dunkin Donuts three or four nights a week was not normal for me in my pre-Beauty U life. I want to explain this without judgment, but it’s very tricky to keep judgment at bay when you’re talking about food, so I’m just going to say it: I’m an organic-eating, farmer’s market-shopping girl who will cook pretty much anything Mark Bittman suggests in his Wednesday New York Times column.
I’m not a rabid calorie counter or a gym geek (though I’ve dabbled in gymming and calorie counting over the years) and I love, love, love to consume plenty of delicious things like red wine, chocolate, ice cream, completely decadent and not at all whole grain pasta dishes. I really have worked hard to separate myself from the weight beauty standard enough that I would hands down rather be a size 8-10 who eats pasta and enjoys life than a size 4-6 who doesn’t eat pasta.
So, I love food. In a rather particular, have-you-tried-this-artisanal-goat-cheese and ooh-what-about-these-heirloom-tomatoes way. Then I went to beauty school and realized: I eat like a very specific type of upper middle class liberal white person. Who is, very often, pretentious as hell about food.
And Beauty U? Not so much an artisanal-goat-cheese-having kind of place. The majority of teachers and students come from lower-to-middle-class backgrounds and that tends to translate to a very different food culture. One where you don’t can your own tomatoes because you want to avoid the BPA lining in the store-bought kind. You go to the Price Chopper Can-Can Sale and stock the heck up.
I wanted to fit in.
I didn’t want to seem pretentious as hell.
I belong to a CSA in the summer (I mean, of course I do) and the farm tries to do outreach to low-income neighborhoods. This means that people on food stamps can use them to get the farm’s vegetables, which I think is just swell. Except that whenever one of the low-income members (read: one of the very few members of color, or members not driving a Prius) showed up at the weekly distribution, I would watch some of the volunteers fall all over themselves explaining how to braise dinosaur kale or why wheat berries are just so good for you. And talk really loud and slow, like maybe these members weren’t just poor, but also deaf. Sample quote: “Do you have a grill where you live? Because these turnips will be divine on the grill if you brush them with a little EXTRA VIRGIN olive oil.”
I did not want to be one of those people.
Also, hi: McDonald’s Snack Wraps are pretty delicious, especially if you’re eating one for the first time ever. So I got over myself even if there was a little bit of the patronizing in my “when in Rome” attitude. In fact, it was maybe more “what happens in Vegas…” I knew I didn’t really eat like that when I was being Normal Virginia. So I decided that Beauty School Virginia could do it and it would be no big thing. So what if I gained a few pounds, or my skin broke out? It was in the name of journalism, dammit! And not looking like a dbag preachy liberal!
Because here’s the other thing: Towards the end of Beauty U, I started getting fed up with the diet. I’m not saying Snack Wraps aren’t delicious, but they stopped being quite so delicious after I’d eaten around thirty. Then, they started to taste like plastic. Plus, I was really feeling the difference of twenty extra pounds on my body (plus months of inactivity): I was getting winded walking up a hill and none of my clothes fit.
And so I started saying: “I can’t wait to get back to normal.” And also: “I can’t wait to get my body back.” By which I meant my 145-pound body that could hike up hills without a problem and do headstands and backbends in yoga or even, my 135-pound body that once ran two half-marathons.
It was like I thought someone had come along and zipped a fat suit up over my real body, leaving me with this 165-pound version that I couldn’t — or didn’t want to — recognize.
And as I’ve been getting back to “normal,” over the past two months — revisiting the farmer’s market, getting back to yoga and walking, thinking up new ways to cook quinoa, not eating Snack Wraps because I’m actually at my house for dinner — I’ve also been waiting for someone to come along and unzip the fat suit so I can have my body back.
Everyone kept saying, “Oh don’t even worry! Once you stop eating all that junk, you’ll be back to normal!” And yes, there was a quick, five-pound shift that might have been a little bit of that. But mostly, I was just focused on how uncomfortable and not normal I’d become.
But then last week, in yoga (because, of course I do yoga), I did a completely kick-ass back bend. I mean, five-year-olds and tall dogs could have run under the arch shape that was me without having to duck. Everyone oohed.
I was confused.
I still weigh 160 pounds. I thought only my “real body” could do that. And my clothes keep telling me that I don’t have my “real body” back yet.
And then I remembered: This is my body, too.
There is no fat suit. This is me. In fact, I’ve weighed this before, when I worked super long hours in a magazine office. I didn’t eat McDonalds then, but I did eat a lot of late night takeout and never had time to go the gym.
So much of my Beauty U life felt like I was playing a part. I don’t mean I wasn’t myself — I very much was. I’m a chatty person and so my Beauty U friends got to know all sorts of personal facts about me like how I do yoga and am obsessed with my cats and “Veronica Mars.” But wearing the uniform apron and doing things like Brazilian waxing and glycolic peels did not feel very “me” as I had previously known myself. And from a socioeconomic perspective, sure, I was a fish out of water. So somehow, I translated those “not me” things to what I ate and how I felt about my body too.
And that is where I lost the plot. Because even if my 145-pound body didn’t perfectly adhere to say, Hollywood’s beauty standards, it was a much closer fit than where I am now. So when I said “I want my body back,” what I was really saying was, “I want the Beauty Myth’s body back.”
Even while I spend all this time writing and talking about being body positive and picking and choosing among our cultural beauty standards— I was buying into one of the biggest, most oppressive beauty standards and not even admitting it to myself.
So, okay. This is my body. It is bigger than it used to be. That might change or it might not. Sometimes it eats Subway sandwiches loaded with cold cuts and Chipotle Southwest Sauce. Other times, it braises dinosaur kale in extra virgin olive oil. Either way, it can do a crazy cool back bend. And it is always me.