Damn it, I knew I came in the wrong entrance, I cursed myself, stopped in my tracks by garment racks drenched in vibrant, unrepentant color. Each piece was as bright and irresistible as a scoop of gelato. The Nordstrom swimwear section was never empty; women twirled hangers at arm’s length, examining the specimen from all angles—weighing the possibilities, the commitments, the pros against the cons. Envy frothed inside of me as I watched them from the sidelines, and I ached to be next to them, contemplating all of the possibilities held by that thirteen square inches of fabric.
But I am the blind woman at the Monet exhibit, the deaf girl at the New York opera. I am a size 14 in the bikini department.
I have owned exactly one bikini in my life. It was navy blue with gaudy flowers all over the top: obnoxious orange lilies and pink orchids—tiki vomit. I found it on sale at Fred Meyer while tagging along with my mom to pick up tinfoil and cheddar cheese. What a practical purchase, I lobbied. It was the summer before I started the seventh grade, and we were headed on a camping trip to Canada’s Lake Okanagan. Mom stood outside the dressing room as I tried it on in front of the full-length mirror, sucking in my stomach with all of my lung capacity. It looked good—didn’t it? It was at least acceptable, I thought, as long as I remembered not to bend over. Or turn slightly to the side. Or exhale.
“Are you sure you want that?” Mom asked when I came out and tossed it in the cart, covering up the Tillamook cheese. “I don’t want you to wear it once and then decide you hate it.”
How dare she! How could that ever happen under any theoretical circumstances?
The bikini was worn once, to the water park in the Canadian town proper. I stood next to a set of fire extinguisher sprinklers gushing geysers into the air at spontaneous intervals. Mom snapped my picture, and developed it alongside the dozens of other vacation shots. I found it in the photo print envelope and recoiled at the evidence: my shoulders slouched forward, drawn to earth by the gravity of my almost-D cups. My stomach seemed to envelop the entire picture with its purebred Seattleite paleness and doughy softness that pleaded to be poked, like Buddha’s belly on a Chinese take-out counter. The picture, and the bikini, went together in the trash.
In high school, my best friend was Laura Thompson. We were exactly the same height, but she was almost half as wide. She was a person who could find pairs of size zero pants that were too big. The sort of severe, harsh skinny that compelled complete strangers to advise her that she’d better eat a sandwich. Her spidery arms and long, bony legs were a total curiosity to me. How could she lift things? Did she feel fragile? What was it like to sit on a chair and fill so very little of it?
As sixteen-year-old girls, one of our primary bonding activities was shopping together at least once a week. At the mall, she’d head into Express, her favorite clothing store, and scour the racks for extra small. She was extraordinarily picky, analyzing every last stitch in front of the mirror. “This pocket is a little big, don’t you think?” “I’d like it if the collar wasn’t so round.” I shrugged, and gave the answer that was right (and usually, maddeningly, true): “You look really good in it.” For me, it was never what’s better, it was what fits. I’d concentrate on size-neutral obsessions, like Bath & Body Works shower gels and Macy’s newest purses.
When we’d head back home Laura’s mom always stopped at Papa Murphy’s pizza and ordered the same two pies: an olive and mushroom pizza for Laura, and a chicken garlic pizza for her mom and I to share. Laura would polish the whole thing off herself, as Mrs. Thompson and I divvied up pieces. Still, the cheese and carbs evaporated right off of her like water droplets on a July afternoon.
As the svelte, sexy half of our duo, she was also the one routinely asked out for adolescent fetes like homecoming and prom. I’d come along to the department stores to sift through racks and racks of floor-length gowns, trying to help her find “the one.” It had to be up to Laura’s specifications of the right color, the right length; had to have the right clings and cascades in all the right places. While she fretted in the dressing room with her ugly selections (her taste was bizarre and downright dowdy, with lots of crushed velvet and cold color tones), I would go out and wander the jungle of frilly, bedazzled gowns. I’d pick out my if-I-was-a-junior-size dream dress, which tended to have the same M.O.: gigantic tulle skirt ripped from Scarlett O’Hara and a Swarovski shop’s worth of crystals, all sewn up in a radioactive raspberry lemonade shade. I didn’t bother suggesting it as an option for Laura; she’d hate it just as much as she detested my Britney Spears CDs. Insisting she was “mysterious” and “sophisticated,” she’d come home with the drabbest of possibilities and leave the glitter behind. Maybe it took more than a model-size body to pull off astounding.
Every so often my mind will coil up and cry out, like a despondent preschool child—why? As an obese nation, we’ve come up with a barrage of excuses that pollute our culture’s consciousness: stress, subliminal advertising, clandestine corn syrup, and everyone’s favorite pass-of-the-buck, genetics. I inherited lots of neat stuff from my parents: psoriasis, little hairs on my big toes, sinus migraines, veins a nurse can never catch in one poke. Blaming them for my weight seems a little far-fetched, when the most obvious reason loomed like a hulking white elephant—I love everything to do with eating, and hate any exercise.
I’ve despised sports my whole life. Any team my mom would register me for, with her world’s worth of good intentions, I hated immediately. The first was tee ball when I was seven. The local community center offered a co-ed league, which panned out to be a whole roster of boys and me, the token girl. I remember two things: I could never, ever hit the ball, even positioned stationery in front of me. Also, I wrote a heartfelt letter to advice column in Highlights for Children about my feminist plight, and it was printed in an issue with a family of blue zebras riding bicycles on the cover.
Even when I branched into the girly world of ballet, the physical demands didn’t make it worth wearing a cotton candy tutu. “I don’t want to do it anymore,” I told Mom when she picked me up from my first lesson, “they make me hold my arms up in the air too long.”
I avoided other forays into sports for the rest of my life, foiled only by the public school gulag that is P.E. Whether it was a team or solo activity, I was terrible. Laps were a death sentence. Halfway around the field and my calves turned to lead pillars. I couldn’t breathe, and I resorted to walking as everyone else zipped around me. My best mile was 16:45. When forced to drag down an otherwise competent team of my peers, I clung to the background, avoiding balls and shuttlecocks and Frisbees as best as I could. Most of the time it worked, with talented and invested players happily picking up the slack. But then I’d get stuck with someone like Katie Smith, the triple-threat sport-science-math genius and future valedictorian, who had also been raised by her well-meaning parents to “be nice to everyone” and that “all kids deserve a chance.” She wouldn’t let me slip through the cracks. Oh no. She wanted to help me be my best. One day, during our 10th grade volleyball unit, we had to take turns from the back of the court serving the ball to the other side. As I lined up the ball into what I knew would be a mangled shot that probably wouldn’t clear the net, I saw Katie in my peripheral, cheering through the mesh.
“You can do it, Tabitha!” she called.
I felt like I’d just been dropped off in the short bus. Shut up, Katie! I tried to telepathically scream. I released the ball and it flew too high; I swung my other arm too soon, and it fell to the floor. The gym teacher rolled her eyes as Katie clapped wildly. “Next,” said the coach, knowing a lost cause when she saw it.
“It’s okay, Tabitha! You can try again next time!”
She was the only one in the universe holding out hope.
No, my activities were of the Model United Nations variety. After school, I announced my arrival home by opening the fridge and snacking on whatever I could find. Leftover casseroles, cheese, thick ranch dip and potato chips. Mom was an excellent cook who subscribed to half a dozen food magazines and loved to try out new ideas. I was an eager guinea pig. When we ate out (which was uncommon with an expensive family of five), I’d scour the menu for the most decadent meal possible. Country fried steak was a favorite, as were fish and chips. My favorite, my standby, were crazy-topped hamburgers. Wally’s, our small town drive-in, had a burger that was the size of a dinner plate with a fried egg, Canadian bacon and onion rings wedged between the buns. The bigger, the messier, the better. And the fries—the fries! Happy golden ships ferrying ketchup, ranch, thousand island, even gravy when we visited British Columbia. I polished off every plate placed before me without a thought about my figure.
The summer before my senior year of high school, our family went on a road trip to Arizona and Las Vegas. I had thick, sloppy mission-style burritos in the shadow of red rock canyons, the best-ever chili fries in desolate Utah, and attacked the Mandalay Bay buffet. Once again, the photo envelope came back with our snapshots, the worst I’d ever seen.
I wasn’t mortified right away, just stunned. That’s what I looked like? My stomach, stuffed mercilessly into shorts, heaved a sigh of release above my waistband where it puffed into a generous muffin top. My smile was weighed down by an extra chin grinning right underneath. Flipping back through the prints I realized I wasn’t who I thought I was. Inside I was this person, but all there was on the outside was a fat girl.
After a few days of inconsolable grief, my parents helped me make a change. I enrolled in the local medical center’s weight control program and, over the next year, lost thirty-five pounds. Nothing extreme, just the basic life-skills of nutrition: portion control, healthy foods, light exercise. I experienced all the wonderful side-effects of slimming down—compliments, new clothes, photograph negatives I didn’t have to destroy.
When I began to plateau, I tried stepping things up. I joined a gym and hired a personal trainer. I’d loyally work out three, four times a week, as much as I hated it. Still my body stayed capped at curvy, foiled by hefty German bones and a sloth-like metabolism. As hard as I tried, the bare-all bikini was still out of my reach. So I’d give up, gain ten, feel bad, lose five, forget to care, gain ten more. It’s a carousel I keep riding today, not sure when or where it’s ever going to end.
Sometimes I figure I’m fat for my own good. If I looked like my sister, I’d be the most raging slut the world had ever known. Her stunning existence dispels any notion that my woes are genetic. Naturally blonde, blue eyes, and a figure that becomes legendary in a fitness regimen but still stays gorgeous on a diet of Olive Garden pasta and Frappuccinos. Gifted with grace and coordination, she was a born cheerleader. Our high school yearbooks, peppered with her picture on every other page, forever immortalize her immaculate abs and best-of-both-worlds boobs (not too big, not too small, so very perky).
“You should move to Vegas,” I advised her on our family vacation. Mom and Dad were checking us in to the Paris Hotel, and sexiness wafted through the lobby like the smell of fryer fat at a county fair. “You’d look so good in those costumes.” Girls were sashaying by, dripping in beads, covered just enough to keep from being arrested. Even the most conservative slot attendants wore vintage cigar-girl getups with adorable box hats and skirts that, from the right angle, let slip a crescent hint of lusciously sculpted ass. If I woke up one morning looking like one of those vixens, I’d dress up in nothing. I’d take it off. I’d photograph it, tape it, shake it, flaunt it. I’d make money and break hearts.
Brianna never got drunk on the power of her looks. She covered up, had long-term boyfriends, earned her car payment waiting tables. The gods gave the power to the sister who could handle it.
Back at Nordstrom’s I watched the bikini shoppers from the Classiques Entier section, an expensive career-wear brand I’d just been able to wear again after fighting my way another 35 pounds down. A feat to savor for sure, but being able to button up a blazer and bare all on a public beach were worlds apart. It was like staring at a subspecies of women in the wild. Most of the shoppers I saw bypassed the end caps of frilly, flirty Juicy Couture and Freya styles in favor of Champion two-pieces—a bikini that doubled as a sports bra. At best they’d pick something with a stringy top and bottom, but in a solid black or white. One, a woman young and slim enough to pull off anything she wanted on the whole floor, walked into the dressing room in a black one-piece. A one-piece! Even I could squeeze my ass into a one-piece and not have to wear a towel all day.
What a waste! I thought, twisting my hands around a pair of pleated slacks. Blessed with amazing figures and not even taking advantage of the bounty while the rest of us starved with beach wraps and butt-covering skirt ruffles? What were they afraid of? Did they nitpick at some nonexistent flaw, cellulite that was really just bad lighting?
Just as I was about to lose hope, a girl with blonde hair in messy summer braids paused next to the Betsey Johnson rack. She was wearing a cotton camisole top and faded jeans, like she’d just come in from the beach and was determined to return in style. She picked up a small top that made my heart ache: checkered blue like a picnic tablecloth, with tiny vintage rose speckles and a red gingham ribbon playfully tied above the right chest. The matching bottoms echoed the ribbons on each hip, creating a look that was so feminine, so fun and retro, it was threaded with the spirit of lemonade stands and coconut oil. She spun the hanger once, laid the fabric across her chest, and without another hesitation went straight for the register.
Flaunt it, sister. I turned back to my world of A-line skirts and wrap dresses, and for the first time in memory, felt at peace with myself, my body, my fate. A mass media-approved body shape didn’t guarantee a sense of style any more than imperfections doomed it. So what if I couldn’t rock the style I wanted on the beach? I don’t even like tropical places that much. I get sunburns in thirty seconds, and I get bored just lying there on towels. I’d rather be hurtling down Splash Mountain in Disneyland, or watching a traditional tea ceremony in Kyoto, or picking out a Black Forest cuckoo clock in Germany. After so many years of cutting back on the foods I loved and dragging myself into the gym I loathed, the elusive prize—cute as it might be, was starting to lose traction against what I truly enjoyed in life.
There was still ninety percent of the earth’s inland surface to strut down, not to mention all the rest of Nordstrom’s. I didn’t look or feel perfect, or suddenly transform into a confident swan, but for the moment, letting someone else give life to pieces that deserved it felt good enough. We all had our fears. But bravery was contagious. I plucked a Kate Spade sailor dress from a display and walked toward the dressing room. I might just surprise myself today.
Tabitha Blankenbiller is an MFA student at Pacific University, where she’s specializing in nonfiction. Her previous publications include work in The Promethean literary magazine and a reoccurring food column in the Canby Herald. She currently resides south of Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two cats.