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Elusive Beauty

It’s as if a higher power or worldwide ruling body once passed a law of obesity, simply stating that if you are overweight you are supposed to be emotionally affected by it. The heavier you are, the more miserable you ought to be. If you weigh more, you struggle more. If you don’t like what you see on the scale or in the mirror, you don’t like what you see in the world. I was one of the big kids to which none of this applied. I didn’t need to be thin to be happy. I didn’t need to love my reflection to love the person it reflected. I don’t know how it came easy to me and seemingly no one else, but living the skinny girl life allowed me to ignore the fat suit in which I lived it.

I successfully denied my obesity because it never caused me any significant hardship. When elected to be the captain of my softball team and chosen for every dance group I auditioned for, it was easy to ignore that I was twice the size of everyone with which I shared the field and the stage. My body didn’t stop me from living the life I wanted to live, so I chose to never acknowledge the reality of my physical condition. It was only once my body began to get in the way – when I could no longer walk without back pain and every seat of every car, train, bus, and airplane required an uncomfortable and embarrassing process of squeezing and squirming – that I decided to respond to the world I was undeniably struggling to be a part of.

My 150-pound weight loss unified me with the rest of society because it was the first time we shared an agreement: getting thinner meant being happier. Before, I wore a smile in between chubby cheeks and it couldn’t be understood; but you’re so overweight, how can you feel so content? Now, I was a girl losing weight and I was happier for it. I flashed back with remorse to the days when I walked down the street staring longingly at dreamy strangers that never looked in my direction, knowing it was ironically my large size that made me invisible. I didn’t miss the challenge of finding my clothing size hidden behind racks of smaller versions and I willingly left behind the ritual of losing hope in every dressing room. I enjoyed no longer having to constantly confront the subtle discomfort of feeling permanently judged and out of place. Weight loss meant finally joining the rest of the world. For the first time, my reality matched everyone’s expectation; being smaller was better and getting thinner made me happier.

Because my rapid weight loss occurred primarily during my sophomore year of college, every visit back home brought a shocking new body for my family members and friends to wrap their heads around. When I saw my grandfather for the first time in months, his confusion at my appearance manifested into tears. He gazed up and down at his transformed granddaughter, now a shrunken and almost entirely unrecognizable version of the one pictured on the wall. My physical change was stark, always making it the unavoidable first topic of every discussion, but he approached the conversation from a new angle. He refused to blindly accept the assumption that I must be pleased with my results and he was the first person to ever doubt that my emotions necessarily correlated with the conventions of society. “Do you like it?” He asked. “Are you happy?

Tears formed as I processed his words. His inquiry, so honest and simple, forced me to realize that I had never come even close to considering what he was asking. I was happy, yes, but I hadn’t yet figured out why. Until this point there had been no inquiry involved. Before, it was an unspoken statement driven by the norms of society: you must be happier, it wouldn’t make any sense for you not to be. I knew it as a statement, a declaration, an accepted truth not to be reckoned with. I never doubted that weight loss brought me joy – because it genuinely did – but I never stopped to think about why that was true. But then, for the first time in my life, I could feel the impact of this well-placed and long overdue question mark. In this moment, it stopped being about the fact that I felt good and suddenly became about identifying the reasons why I felt good. Once probed, my motives became disappointingly clear. I wasn’t doing it entirely for me.

His question made me realize that my transformation was encouraged by the happiness I gained from being accepted by the conventions of society, not by the happiness I gained from being accepted by myself. It was the constraints and limitations of the world at large, not any internal dissatisfaction, to which I dedicated my weight loss. It made me happy to fit in – literally and figuratively speaking – but only because I did myself a favor by finally blending into the world outside my own head. It was getting smaller for society, not getting smaller for myself, that made me happy. I didn’t care about how big the seat was, I was happy that I got myself into it. I didn’t care how small my clothes were, I was happy because I could fit into them. If seats were wider and clothes were bigger, the joy I got from fitting into them wouldn’t even be possible realizations.

My aspirations were set for me, but reaching them still brought me joy. It wasn’t only the idea of being skinnier that enticed me, but the feeling of accomplishment that became an addiction. Getting thinner was my goal and then I became obsessed with how good it felt to achieve it. I wasn’t necessarily concerned with advancing my physical capabilities, but then I began to experience the excitement of being able to run faster and lift heavier. I was so thrilled by my improvements that I couldn’t let go of the process of improving. Now that I was aware of my body and realized I was capable of changing it, fixing it, sculpting it, crafting it, I continued to look toward physical progress as my new source of happiness.

As soon as I realized it was there, my body existed with all its imperfections and begged to be perfected. It was once hidden under a cloak of ignorant bliss, but leaving behind my ignorance meant leaving behind my bliss. Following weight loss, I was left to deal with the dangerous combination of having cultivated a consciousness of the physical self while simultaneously conditioning my mind to regard my body as a constant work in progress. Nothing was ever good enough because there always existed the possibility of even better. Getting fast made me happy but I chased faster. Getting strong made me happy but I was teased by stronger. Getting thin made me happy but I was tormented by thinner.

The happiness pursuit continued until it masked itself in the darkness of self-destruction. Dieting became starving and exercise became excessive. Improvement made me happy until it stole my ability to feel at all content; bettering myself made me happy until all I could feel was the torture of not being the best. I spent every second of my life chasing the high until it brought me to my low. The distance between what the world expected me to feel and what I truly felt grew with time, and eventually I divulged the ultimate irony of my situation. I sobbed on the phone to my mom and confessed in surrender, “This is the least I’ve ever weighed and the least happy I’ve ever been.”

***

I eventually came to the conclusion that it was possible to make physical progress while simultaneously feeling content with my body as it was. It proved difficult, but slowly became increasingly possible, to look in the mirror and see perfections in addition to imperfections and focus my attention on things I liked next to the things I didn’t. Motivated by the opportunity to experience a semester of studying abroad, I recognized the need to couple my interest in physical perfection with a healthy and stable mental state. I gradually forced myself to become comfortable with eating more and exercising less, knowing that I would only be hurting myself by bringing restriction and control on board Semester at Sea. By the time I set sail around the world, the demons weren’t gone but I was getting better at fighting them.

 

I’d seen them around before; many a world traveler sported the high stretchy waistline, flowy legs, and elastic-rimmed bottoms. If you want to be stylish and exotic, unconventional while still obeying the rules of fashion and simultaneously show the world how cultured you are, elephant pants are your calling. Every girl on our trip into Cambodia had the same intention upon walking into our first market – find, buy, and finally put on, her first pair (and then purchase her second, third, fourth, and fifth). For a group of six girls diverse in body type, the process required trying on various styles and sizes. Victoria was the first to slip off a pair in discouragement and hand them back to the vendor. The tiny Asian woman graciously retrieved them and confidently offered a solution, “You need bigger size. Just wait! I have bigger size. Wait for bigger size, ok? You take big size.” Victoria looked up at me, visibly mustering all self-control to stop her cheeks from turning red and her eyes from watering. “I wish she’d stop saying that,” she whispered.

Continuing to encourage our elephant pant escapade, the woman grabbed more apparel from the walls of a cramped shack drenched in different colors and patterns, but I was lost in thought. The moment instantly took me back to every time I felt victimized by the word “big” and immediately reminded me of the crippling embarrassment of having somebody label you in front of a crowd. The irony of well-intentioned words offending those to whom they were spoken exposed the situation as it was: a completely culturally-constructed crossroad. She said a fact and we heard an insult, but it was only the ethnic barrier that lost her message in translation. The pants were too small; she needed bigger pants. The little Cambodian woman who acted as if our buying clothes meant her children eating dinner that week simply stated the truth. To her, smaller was smaller and bigger was bigger; to us, smaller was better and bigger was bad. Her non-sugarcoated truth was shocking to the young American ear because it meant exposing the thin-driven world that we had thoughtlessly already left behind. As we made our way through the markets of Cambodia and beyond, I felt bad for each desperate shopkeeper that unintentionally drove away almost-customers with verbalized physical observations, not knowing which terms our foreign society had deemed taboo and which characteristics were considered unacceptable.

Without having been raised in a place that stressed skinny, I would have been encountering the world with a less sensitive mind. I wouldn’t have perceived neutral words as negative ones; I wouldn’t have been offended by the inoffensive. I wouldn’t have automatically heard insults where they weren’t intended and I wouldn’t have inherently attached meanings to words they didn’t have. I knew she didn’t say it as an insult, but I couldn’t help myself from hearing it that way. I knew hers was a harmless attempt at assistance, but I felt a familiar grudge brewing against her. I knew that she wasn’t trying to attack the entire obese population, but I was locked in the mentality of my former self and I couldn’t help but resent her. I wanted to accept her words as she meant them, her generous attitude as she presented it, but I couldn’t force logic on emotion. In Cambodia, big was not bad. I just couldn’t stop myself from thinking it was.

 

Travel was teaching me that the law of obesity under which I grew up was a regional one, entirely ineffective elsewhere. It was changing myself to fit my world that brought me happiness, but I started to see how that causal link was entirely culturally created. Openly discussing their preference for heavier women, Indian men had me consider the Eastern ideal and question everything I thought I knew. After many mindful observations of noticing more thick than thin, I expressed my appreciation for the unusual. “I think Indian women are the most beautiful people in the world,” I said. “They are,” responded a kind storeowner in Cochin. I grew up disconnected from society because I didn’t feel bad about my body, but it seemed that within India that my overweight self could have thrived without causing confusion. The Indians wouldn’t have been perplexed by my childhood happiness. You have chubby cheeks, they would say, why should that mean you don’t smile?

When everyone around me surrendered complete brain function to gape at the overwhelming beauty of the Taj Mahal, I was also losing myself in observations of the natives. Women of all shapes and sizes wore saris of identical style, sporting the traditional clothing and accordingly leaving generous portions of their different body-types uncovered. I looked at Easterners as a Westerner, witnessing a natural acceptance of the female physique so perplexing in its extraordinary unfamiliarity. What was seemingly invisible to the insider was painfully visible to the outsider, but I wanted to look at them they way they looked at each other. I wanted the ability to focus on the grandeur of their beautiful dresses without being distracted entirely by the bodies over which they hung. I wanted to see them as Indian women, not Indian women who let their obviously overweight figures be shown without concern. I wanted to erase the affect of my society on my mind and strip the judgmental lenses from my eyes. How can they walk around like that? Why can’t I walk around like that? Don’t they realize what they look like?

I once had a big belly like theirs, but I had to do everything in my power to hide it. I once had a hanging stomach too, but I would have been tormented if I let it be seen like that. I once was thick and curvy too, but I was meant to feel unattractive because of it. I suffered to destroy a body in America that would have never felt the need to change in India. For each female I saw wrapped from head to toe in brightly colored cloth against a complimenting shade of light brown skin, none ever appeared anything but a physical manifestation of the lesson I needed to learn: the definition of physically acceptable is only ever a culturally specific one. Thinness and fitness became my sources of joy until the realization that I could never be physically perfect deprived me the ability to reap happiness from them at all. India was not the land for this nonsense.

 

My shopping partner was interested in the handcrafted lions, tigers, cheetahs, and zebras displayed by each artist on the streets of South Africa, but my eyes gravitated toward the paintings of women. There was a large variety; some depicted only one, some had two, some showed groups, some were women with children, some were women with men, and some were women working in the field. My observations of the African female physique were connected by the one common characteristic that applied to almost every one. Never drawn with a specific face or identifying detail, each woman flaunted her robust chest and curvy hips with abstract pride. Solid backgrounds of bright colors accentuated the black silhouettes and brought each body to life, beautiful in their large size. As if the Ghanaian radio were speaking the words of Cape Town’s street art, songs titled “Beautiful African Woman” and “Sexy Lady From Ghana” epitomized the soundtrack of African vibes.

I had intentionally harmed both my body and my mind to rid myself of the curves that were here idealized and embraced. Whereas my old self – indifferent toward all encounters with the human body – would see each figure just as it was, I looked at what was painted, but I saw what was implied; I looked at pieces of art but I saw a social commentary. I couldn’t just see beauty; I saw individual features of the female figure. I couldn’t just see a body, I saw a BMI. Where I would once see shapes I now saw sizes. I resented my society for conditioning me to encounter the female body as an entity deserving constant critique, but there I was, outside my society constantly critiquing the female body. I now connected each one to a personally significant message and felt tempted to purchase each depiction of African women to collage my walls back home with artistic reminders of the fact that I let myself fall victim to a vicious cycle of change that would never have originated elsewhere. A sinister laugh escaped as I imagined the exotic art hanging in my Michigan apartment, so painfully out of place in its message of big booty beauty.

 

The more I traveled, the more I thought that escaping my world could help me escape the mindset it created. I changed for society but I temporarily left that society behind. I suffered to achieve a goal set by my culture, but I experienced other cultures. I saw the definition of beauty repeatedly redefined, and I hoped every time that I could learn and accept the lesson of cultural relativity. Such enlightenment would have me see that I strove to achieve an end to which the means did not exist; a body valued in one specific time and place is not universally esteemed and thus the objective of physical perfection is entirely unattainable. I hoped that seeing new places and being introduced to new beauty would send me back living peacefully in the self-acceptance I once knew.

I blamed society for rewarding my self-destruction with happiness, but leaving the society I knew revealed to me an unfortunate truth. I tied the knot between physical progress and happiness as an individual imprisoned by the ideals of society, but continued the process as an individual forever infiltrated by the ideals of society. Once my transformative process morphed into the need to change for myself, I was endlessly dissatisfied. As I now look in the mirror and see imperfection, I look around and analyze the imperfection that surrounds me. As I attempt to accept myself, I envy the acceptance I view elsewhere. I miss being blind to bodies and seeing them as impartially as I once did, because having innately accepted myself meant also having inherently accepted the world. Weight loss was the means through which society drove me to reevaluate myself and consequently molded how I evaluate the world. It was through these realizations around the world that I learned the regrettable lesson inevitably taught to every traveler: no matter where you go, there you are.

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