A Number: 139
Once upon a time there was a family of red birds; three babies and a mama. After a long while, the day finally came. It was time to teach the baby birds how to fly. The two oldest birds were cautious. They flapped their wings hesitantly, listening intently to their mother’s instructions. Mama Bird told them not to fly too high; she set boundaries and the two oldest birds never dared to cross those boundaries. But the youngest bird… the youngest bird’s head was full of impossible dreams. She was too excited to listen carefully—all she could think about was how fabulous it was to finally experiencing flight. Flapping her wings, she soared higher than all the other birds—even her mother—and she flew farther and farther from the nest. The wind beneath her wings supported her, made her feel invincible. When she looked down, she could see other birds. They were always flying lower than she. But it didn’t scare her. From her vantage point, she could see everything—and the skies always seemed clear. Freedom felt so wonderful and light. She soared higher and higher, youthfully oblivious to any thought of danger.
One day, while flying higher than all the other birds, she heard rumbling in the distance. The clouds were lower than she and they darkened beneath her, blocking her view of the other birds and of the earth. She dipped lower, curious about the low-flying clouds, and saw the other birds seeking shelter. But she didn’t understand the danger. So she continued flying. She soared above the clouds, enjoying the crisp wind against her face. When the first drop of rain hit her wing, she reluctantly decided to find a place to land. She headed down. She never saw the bolt of lightning before it hit her. One minute, she was soaring high about the clouds; the next, she was tumbling head over heels to the earth, her speed out of control.
When she awoke, she found herself trapped in a cage made of steel bars. She could see the pale blue sky—but she couldn’t get out of the cage to reach it. She tried. For days, she rammed herself into the bars, trying to break open the cage. Every day, a bowl of water and food was put into the cage for her, but she refused to eat. She knew she’d been hurt because her wing was sore. But it still flapped. She knew she could fly—if only she wasn’t trapped by the steel cage. Days passed; weeks, then months. Finally, she stopped trying to get out of the cage. She ate because she didn’t want to die. But she didn’t chirp; she didn’t sing. The cage was placed outside and every day, she stared up at the sky, watching the birds fly to and fro. Every time one of them landed anywhere near her, she chirped, hoping to attract the birds’ attention, hoping to get help. But the birds were never close enough. All she could do was watch. And remember how it felt to take to the skies, how it felt to chase her dreams. She’d tasted the freedom, she’d soared above everything. What a grand feeling that had been! How beautiful each day had felt! How proud she’d been, effortlessly learning how to fly and then surpassing everyone else. She’d been the best flier, the highest. Until she’d been struck. And now… now she was trapped in a cage, unable to free herself. She wasn’t strong anymore, she wasn’t exceptional. She was trapped: steel bars encircled her.
One day, as she lay on the floor of the cage, staring out at the sky, a blue bird perched on the ground, just inches from the cage. The red bird leaped up and started chirping. When the blue bird glanced her way, she became very excited. “Hey! Help me! Please, please help me! Come closer, help me get out of this cage!” The blue bird looked at her strangely and did not hop closer. She became panicked, walking around in circles in the cage. “Help me! Quick! Help me get the cage open!” Only then did the blue bird speak, slowly, as if she were talking to an infant, “Bird, you’re not in a cage. Fly if you want to fly. There’s no cage. You’re just in a nest, bird.”
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Today, I took the girls to the Adventure Science Center here in Nashville. It’s a phenomenal museum, choked full of exhibits that are not only great fun but also highly educational. For instance, there is a “skin” tunnel that’s red, narrow and filled with patches of different material that are supposed to represent the different layers of skin: hair follicles, tissue, etc. All of the exhibits are like this: fun but also full of educational potential. The museum has been there for ages. I remember taking field trips there myself as a kid. My favorite room for years has been the solar system room. It’s got life-sized replicas of all the planets and in front of each planet a computer screen onto which you enter your age and weight to discover what you would weigh and how old you would be if on that particular planet. The girls really enjoy this: they go to each planet and calculate their Martian, Saturn, Uranus, etc details and compare them to their Earthly specifics. I enjoy it, too. I went behind them, snapping photographs and laughing at myself as I punched in my characteristics to see myself on other planets. When I got to Mars, I entered the same information I’d been entering before each planet: my weight and my age. When the answer blinked back and said I would weigh a meager 53.1 pounds, I chuckled, snapped a “proof” photo of the screen with my Canon and laughingly said silently in my head, 52 pounds? Can I be a participant of Mars One? Then I moved on. I mean, really, I’d be quite fine with going to most of the planets: 23 pounds on the Moon, 52 on Mercury as well, 127 on Venus, 126 on Uranus… really, the only one that I’d avoid at all costs would be Jupiter, on which I’d weigh 328 pounds. Eventually, we moved on from the solar system room and enjoyed the other exhibits. Once we got home, I uploaded the pictures from the camera to the computer and went to post them to Facebook, as I do nigh daily. When the picture of the computer screen I’d snapped popped up, I hesitated. The picture captured the entire screen—-and my real, Earthly weight blared back at me. The computer isn’t really an inanimate object—real live human beings would see that picture and would forevermore know how much I weigh. That’s just a tad bit more than I can do—I deleted the picture so that I wouldn’t be tempted to post it at a later date.
I’ve regretted deleting that silly picture ever since.
As I thought about it later in the evening, it made me feel quite like the bird in the story…. trapped by cages constructed of social definitions of beauty and acceptance. From the time I was in the 8th grade all the way up until my first daughter was born at age 23, I defined my worth by how much I weighed. When I was 103 pounds, I was beautiful. When I was 110 pounds, I was acceptable. But after 120… well…. I’m a mom, does that help? I used to stand straight up in the shower and look down. If I could see the slightest “budge”, I… freaked…. out. The scene in The Little Princess in which Sarah and her friend imagine food to stave off hunger gets me every time because I used to think about food all the time in order to stave off self-inflicted hunger. Imagining food was the only way I was able to resist eating food. Food was the number one enemy—-a greater enemy than any other force in my life, my father included. See, I knew I had nothing to offer. Nothing about me was exceptional. To make up for it, then, I had to be “beautiful” because, if I wasn’t, why in the world would anyone ever want anything to do with me? Being beautiful was the only thing I could ensure I had to offer—and “beautiful” had nothing to do with the brilliant blue of my eyes or my wide smile. “Beautiful” had nothing to do with the shape of my face. And it most definitely had nothing to do with anything non-physical about me. “Beautiful” referred strictly to how thin I was because I knew that thin girls were wanted. Valued. Protected. Loved. The thinner I was, the more whistles I heard aimed in my direction, the less invisible I became in a room. People automatically assume eating disorders always have something to do with control issues and maybe that’s true. But, in my case, the only thing I wanted was to be loved and, if I’m really honest, protected. Since I didn’t believe in myself enough to think someone would ever offer me those things based on my character, I had to hope that a pretty face and body would take the place of emotional and psychological worth. I’d eat only on the weekends because I didn’t trust myself not to eat too much if I allowed daily meals.
True change only started when I realized I was pregnant with my first daughter.
For the first time in my life, I had a valid and terrific reason to eat.
Once she was born, I lost a lot of the pregnancy weight right away—but not all of it. I didn’t really try, to be honest with you, because not eating required way too much effort as a new mom who was trying to breastfeed every few hours. I kept it under control but losing weight wasn’t a priority for the first time ever. Being a mom was. And its stayed that way over the last nearly 10 years. Every so often, I’ll get on a “I should lose some pounds now, I guess” kick. When I see Facebook posts about women going to the gym, I sigh and think to myself, I probably should do that, too. I’ll lose ten, fifteen pounds, then get scared of going down a road that hurt me once before. More importantly, I’ll see my girls and think, “they have to see me eat. It’s not an option. I will not let them see me hate my body because it will teach them to hate theirs.” As a result, I’ve pretty much just ignored weight. Scales are from the devil, and I never get on them except when doctors’ offices force me to. Even then, I often specifically ask the nurse not to tell me a number. I know when I’ve lost or gained a few pounds because I can feel it, but not because a number blinks like a marquee in my head. In the last three years, I’ve filled out a few online dating profiles and when asked to describe my weight usually pick the “average” option. Am I pretty these days? In the physical sense? Not particularly, no. The dental bridge I had done twelve years ago is two years past due for being redone, which makes me self-conscious about smiling too much. My hair is often stuck in a pony tail because “fixing it” only to play on the playground and crawl through tunnels just doesn’t even make a whole lot of sense. The only make-up I’ve ever owned is foundation and I only own that to cover up a few “blemishes” that seem to never go away completely.
Oh, and I don’t weigh 103 pounds anymore, either.
Still, until today, I thought I was pretty free of the social “beauty” cage. I mean, I’m pretty open about my life. I’ve stopped looking straight down in the shower for a “pudge.” I don’t hate the reflection in the mirror as virulently as I used to. I try to fly high, to view life from above the clouds, so that the decisions I make are going to be ones I can live with tomorrow. Like the bird in the story, I make a very conscious decision to try and completely disregard things that will not matter in the long run. Who cares, for instance, that I don’t drive a car that can park itself? Who cares, for instance, my face won’t ever look like Julia Roberts’ because I don’t wear makeup? Unless it’s got a long term consequence, I really try very hard not to worry about it. But I did delete that picture because I did not want others to know how much I weigh. Which is ridiculous, when you think about it. I mean, don’t they already know? I could be in a line-up of women and wouldn’t they be able to tell who is thinner without scales? I mean, just because I don’t say how much I weigh, does that change what’s true? Shaving five pounds off the number—-does that really wipe out those five pounds? And what difference does five pounds really make—does five pounds more or less really decide who is beautiful and who is not? And, if it does, why, pray tell, would I want to be a part of that culture? While it hopefully does, I’m not writing this to make myself feel better for not being 110 pounds anymore. I’m writing this because, one day when I’m dead and gone, I want my girls to remember that no matter what the supermodel on Vogue looks like, weight does not define worth. Neither does hair color, fashion choices or any other frivolous difference between me and any other woman on the planet.
This past week was really difficult for me. I traveled to multiple cities in less than a week in order to speak about my past and to sign books (you can view one of the readings here.) I drove 3 hours only to turn around the very next day and drive 9 hours to do this. With one paragraph left to read, tears clogged my throat at the last stop, Ohio, and made me unable to finish reading for a solid 60 seconds (it doesn’t sound long but, I promise you, it is an eternity when you are saying extremely personal things, crying and strangers are watching you). But I did it. With God’s grace, guidance, comfort and insight, I have managed to turn something shameful and horrific into something powerfully uplifting. I have two daughters who have no idea that, were she a “model”, their mother, who wears a size 8, is “plus sized.” I have two daughters who know that being kind to others is the most important behavior they can practice. The three of us know that not only does God exist but He is good. My daughters go to sleep at night feeling safe and loved. And, no matter what it is I’m trying to do at any given moment, I give it my all. I’m loyal, even when I shouldn’t be. The very few people I consider to be my friends know exactly how much I care about them because I’m not embarrassed or afraid of telling them. And even though I have numerous flaws—physical and otherwise—I believe in the good of humankind and in its beauty. I know that, for every discouraging, sad, tragic news story I read, there’s another uplifting, beautiful, flawless one on the next page. I’ve got my walls, but I recognize the importance of tearing them down, and I’m not afraid of trying.
What if I were really put on Mars and weighed a mere 52 pounds? What good would that do me? Wouldn’t I still shake at night? Wouldn’t I still have the blemishes on my face? Wouldn’t I still be me? And, if some Matthew McConnaughay look-alike that wouldn’t have noticed me at my current weight here on Earth suddenly “wanted” my 52 pound version on Mars…. would that say more about me or him? The idea that going to Mars would be cool because I’d weigh less is not even remotely funny or witty or worth contemplation—-it’s nothing but a steel bar in that socially constructed cage in which I’ve allowed myself to be placed. Deleting a picture because viewers of it would have seen my weight is a steel bar in the same cage. The words weight and worth are not synonyms—putting them in the same sentence is a bar in that cage. Believing that guys I respect or girls I admire would change their opinion of me based on a number is a steel bar in that cage. If I were on Jupiter and weighed 328 pounds and those guys I respect or the girls I admire thought less of me for it, upon whose character would that really reflect? Martin Luther King, Jr’s speech begins by saying, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation in which they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I have a dream, too, one very similar to Dr. King’s. I have a dream that one day my two little girls will grow up believing that they are hot and sexy and beautiful regardless of what number is on a scale. Because refusing to wear a bikini because you are not a clone of the girl who is 110 pounds is just a steel bar in that cage.
That cage…. it’s imaginary. That cage… it is in our heads. It doesn’t really exist. Nothing was keeping that bird from flying away except the fear of being struck again. Nothing is keeping women who weigh exactly the same as I do from wearing a bikini except fear of being compared to other women. There are two things that are “impolite” to ask a woman: her age and her weight. Why? Not because it really matters… it’s “impolite” only because women are sensitive to those answers and they are only sensitive to those answers because steel bars of the cage make them think the answers matter. But they don’t. My worth isn’t going to change overnight because I tell others how much I weigh or how old I am. In fact, doing so might show me just who really are my friends and worthy of my respect and / or admiration.
I deleted the picture so, as much as I wish I could, I can’t post it for it to speak for itself here. But the point remains to be made. Sharing my weight number still makes me uneasy but I know that that fear is a mental construct and the only one truly allowing it to hurt my self-esteem is me and so….I’m sure the number fluctuates, probably as much as ten pounds higher or maybe up to five pounds lower on my “good” days, but today, on the “Earth” scale at the science museum, I weigh 139.5 pounds. Also, even if I could weigh 127 on Venus, I’d still choose to live on Earth.