We were skinny when we were younger, lithe and barely there.
By the time I re-met Alexis, I had softened up a bit, but I remember in college being ashamed of how flat my torso was, how visible my bones were. Then, slowly over time, whiskey, beer and bread bulged over my waistband and pulled my chest out and down.
Alexis has always been impossibly thin, dangerously so at times. I remember her hip bones jutting against mine in a dorm room at Dartmouth at an alumni theater festival, the first time we took our clothes off together. There used to be a running joke among my friends about how I purported to like full, curvy women but always ended up with waifish intellectuals. You can’t escape what you are, I guess. And deep in my heart, I’ll always be a waifish intellectual.
Two summers ago, I had a bad reaction to Cipro¹ and was hobbled for months, my achilles tendons aching and weak. I fell genuinely out of shape. I’ve always been lazy, too free with my fried potato consumption, but this was different. I wasn’t able to exercise aerobically for four months. Unsurprisingly, this showed up in my body. My thighs rubbed together; I went up a couple pants sizes. This was, I think, barely noticeable to anyone but the body-obsessed (and Alexis, of course) but I noticed it, staring at myself in the unforgiving light of the bathroom mirror at the beginning or ending of the day.
I am constantly pulled between two poles, as, I believe, is the whole country: the desire to be healthy (and thus conventionally beautiful) and the desire to love my body no matter what it looks like. The former is a real concern. Even if I got to the point where I loved my sagging, softer body unconditionally, that love would be short-lived if I were felled by a massive heart attack at age 45. I eat too much saturated fat, too few vegetables; I drink too much alcohol too often: these are things that are true. But, secretly², I want to do these things and reap the consequences. I want to die fat and rosy and tipsy and extremely fucking happy, knowing that I had sucked deep from life and hadn’t counted calories.
But at the same time I don’t ever want to die³. I want to feel good when I get up in the morning. I want to take my shirt off and not look like the human equivalent of a tuna salad sandwich on white bread.
Alexis, much to my chagrin, asked for a fancy video monitoring system on our baby registry. We set it up a little while back (it’s terrible) and found that it plays a hilariously cruel joke: it records moments of activity and plays them back to you WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT⁴. Want to forget the time you walked around in circles at 4 am, bouncing your daughter and singing her an unhinged, improvised lullaby? Too bad, here it is on repeat! I caught a glimpse of myself shirtless, bending over to put Poe down in her bassinet, and it was FUCKING CHASTENING. I immediately turned to Alexis and thanked her for continuing to be attracted to me⁵.
I did something that hurt Alexis, back when she was still living in Switzerland and I was struggling with the idea of commitment, and she lost a not-insubstantial amount of weight. It was scary. She was already desperately thin and I watched her begin to disappear before my eyes. Then, when we moved in together, she gained some weight. I knew Alexis had dabbled in eating disorders before, and I would get in her face if she skipped a meal (something I suspect she got away with on a regular basis when she lived alone). She would make assessments of her body that were categorically insane for someone of her size and frame, and it would make me angry.
But I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in this country, and I never will. The entertainment industry does its best to body-shame men equally as hard as women these days⁶, but it will always be worse for women. Agents and casting directors say things like, “well, you’ll need to lose 15 pounds,” and we can’t even call it an insult. It’s just the truth. Low on talent? Who gives a shit?! If we can see your jawline and collar bone⁷, then you’ve got a passing shot. Even our overweight celebrities are gorgeous. Melissa McCarthy is genuinely good-looking, as is Aidy Bryant. Adele is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.
I know that tv, film, theater — and even music these days — are visual media. Executives are going to employ people who they think will attract the most viewers and thus make the most money. I’m not an idiot; I’m not being disingenuous. I’m aware of how capitalism works. But why are we so afraid of people who don’t look a certain way?
Alexis, of course, gained some more weight when she got pregnant and then has kept on some of it post-partum⁸. She laments it, thinks about it often. But I didn’t fall in love with her because she was skinny. I fell in love with her because her brain was made of holy fire. I fell in love with her because her whole being was alight with life, with simultaneous brightness and darkness. An optimist with a deep well of melancholy.
And look, I hope this doesn’t sound like some sort of sanctimonious pat on the back⁹ or that it sounds blithe or naive. I know how insidious, how deeply ingrained body image issues can be. So I don’t mean to imply that this is some sort of simple or easy fix. But, seriously, how do we free ourselves? How do we help our friends, our lovers, our children free themselves to be able to look down at the curves, the lumps, the angles, the evidence that life, that experience, can put a mark on our bodies and think that that is not sad, not disappointing, but beautiful. That is time; that is life.
And how do I direct that love back toward myself? How do I look in the mirror at the folds and the handles and the softness, and smile and think, “that’s life”?
We were skinny when we were younger, lithe and barely there. But now life has filled us up a bit. And in the dark, in the night, our daughter (hopefully) asleep in the next room, our hands search for each other, trace the curves and the bones, trying to grasp the life, pull it out of each other, trying to fill our noses and our mouths with it. In stolen moments and quiet hours, we bury our faces in each other’s hair and attempt to inhale the particles of eternity that have begun to settle there.
¹ In not especially rare cases, Cipro (and a handful of other antibiotics) attacks all the tendons in a person’s body. DO NOT TAKE CIPRO. Seriously.
² And plenty of the time not so secretly.
³ Have I told you about my fear of death? It is POTENT.
⁴ I’m not kidding. I can’t figure out how to turn this feature off.
⁵ Or at least feigning it well.
⁶ When was the last time you saw an Everyman hero with an actual everyman physique? 1980?
⁷ And hell, throw in a couple ribs, why the fuck not?
⁸ Difficult to jog with an infant attached to one’s nipple, I presume.
⁹ I still love my partner even though she gained 15 pounds?! What am I, A SAINT?!?!