Photo: Morgan J Kern
Photo: Morgan J Kern

The People This Body Has Housed

Growing up in my parents’ seventies-era ranch house, my body was a misshapen thing. During playtime it became an imagined monster on the waterbed as my brothers hid inside a spaceship made out of my mother’s comforter. I sat outside the warmth of the cover, relegated to outer space while my brothers organized an attack. They lay on their backs, kicking, and I tried to avoid their feet, which blindly shot at the air in pursuit of me, the Giant Space Pig. I was the rotund monster, aware of why I was cast in the role, and I lunged at the spaceship with ferocity. The ferocity was not part of the act; it was aimed at the part of me I couldn’t control: my hunger.

In that childhood house, there was a snapshot of me hanging from my brother’s wall, a brown-eyed girl chomping into a sloppy joe like she’d never tasted one, an image that embodied the hunger that threw a shadow over my childhood. I would never be anything but that picture, which my brother hung up to taunt me. I had a taste for everything and a growling that never ceased for long. I tried to evade hunger, but it always found me. When my brother was out, I would sneak into his room and stare at the picture, contemplating how to make it disappear. But I knew it would exist even after it became ashes: Removing the picture would not make me into a smaller version of myself. Decades later I still see it: the girl with the frizzy brown locks, chubby arms erupting from a too-tight purple tank top with spaghetti straps.

I tried to be thin. Despite having asthma, I played baseball in the backyard, biked miles on the hilly country roads by our house. In high school I spent weeks eating only cucumber sandwiches and doing crunches on the cement floor of the cool basement. I was a religious kid, and at school I’d skip lunch, lie that I was fasting as a form of prayer. Part of me believed if I made sacrifices, Jesus would help those in need, but mostly I just prayed for my stomach to stop growling. I stared longingly at skinny girls who ate french fries and pizza but whose bodies maintained an acceptable size, wondering why life was so unfair.

I thought our bodies were supposed to be homes, and homes were supposed to feel safe. But I couldn’t find peace in my body, or in that seventies-era ranch house. Friends and family would say things like, “Your body is a temple” or “You only get one body, so take care of it.” Those were only nice ways of calling me fat; I knew what they meant. I felt only contempt for my body. For always making things hard, for not having the kind of body I deserved—the forgiving kind that other girls had. My thoughts were consumed by my fatness.

My bedroom was the only place where I sometimes forgot my fatness. I covered the walls with things prettier than me: pictures of Hanson and ‘N Sync clipped from magazines, art projects I liked. The wall became so saturated with posters and post cards and ticket stubs that the sky-blue paint was hardly visible. One of the few spots where blue peeked through was a round dent on the wall near my bed. It had been there since I was five. I remember my brother grabbing my feet and spinning me round and round. It had felt like flying—until his hands slipped and I was soaring toward the wall. My head left a dent in the drywall, but I don’t remember the pain; I remember the moment before impact—the only time I ever recall feeling light.

My childhood home became a monument to the thing I couldn’t control. Even the cracks in my parents’ driveway recalled the moment when my oldest brother introduced me, age sixteen, to his girlfriend in front of our house as his “fat sister,” as though my fatness were the only thing worth noting. For years I could not escape that moment: every time my hand-me-down Cadillac gasped back into the driveway, the tires landed in the spot where the words hung eternally in the air.

In many ways, that house remains a monument to my shame. The snack cabinet still sits in the dining room, the late afternoon sun hitting it like an invitation. Even at age twenty-eight, when I open the door on a weekend visit I half expect to see my father giving me a disappointed look that says, “Why can’t you stop eating?” or “You have no self control.” I imagine words like “You’re no daughter of mine,” though those words never came from his lips. His words were subtler. Things like: “It’s harder to lose weight once you get older,” or a chuckle he forgot to hold in when my brothers teased me. But my body came from somewhere, from someone. I tried, growing up, to blame genetics. I tried to blame the body, not myself. I told myself we were two different things.

When I left home and found myself instead within the cell-like confines of a dorm room, I tried to feel less at odds with my body, to give my bloated limbs a second chance. Like the barren room—white walls and plain furniture—I could be made anew. I could put up posters, buy a new set of orange extra-long sheets and a shiny new mini fridge. I could talk to people who knew nothing of my former home, of the cracks in the driveway or the snapshot on my brother’s wall.

In college, I found a boyfriend—one who loved my curves, loved the lilting halo of frizz on my head, the rosy too-round cheeks. I began to believe that my body and I didn’t have to be separate entities, that perhaps I could be at peace within it. Underneath my bright new sheets, my boyfriend’s warm legs wrapped up in mine, and my body felt, for once, like a gift, like something worth offering. Naked and ashamed were no longer synonyms. But I didn’t learn to love my body—only to let it be loved. When the relationship ended, my own contempt for it remained.

After college, I landed in a slumping economy. It took twenty applications before I found a part-time job delivering pizzas. It took me months to wrestle down a phone interview for a low-level reporting job I didn’t get. Instead I got a second job as a waitress. I was so desperate that I moved into a third-floor walk-up with the brother who’d made me and my sloppy joe famous. And there, I clutched onto a new hypothesis: Perhaps my body was a product, a commodity that could be traded for feelings other than failure.

So when I got off work, usually late at night, I would go out. I would find a man whose eyes landed on me, and I would revel in feeling wanted, if only for a few minutes. Sometimes I would take him home, let his hands remind me what it was for my body to be desired. But in the morning, I always returned to reality, to the lumpy rollout mattress I was lying on, to the minuscule balance in my bank account, to the fact that my brother was in the next bedroom. I lived on a diet of bologna, on-sale Pasta Roni, and discounted pizza and tacos from my two jobs. My body grew larger, engulfing me further.

My body was not me; I didn’t live there. It was just something I was riding in. It would walk to the car, to work, to the tables I waited on, to the doors at which I delivered pizzas and hot wings. I would ride in my body all day on cruise control. At night I would do shots of cheap cherry vodka at my apartment and go out on the balcony, hoping to free myself from the bland, off-white walls, from the feeling that I would never land in a place, or a body, that felt like home. But even on the patio with stars as my ceiling, I felt claustrophobic.

My escape from that apartment came early—I left before the lease ended, banished from my room on the third floor by a pelvis, broken in two places in a car accident. My family carted my things down the stairs because I couldn’t. I moved back to the childhood house I had tried to leave, imprisoned for months by my past and a doctor’s instructions not to bear weight on my left side. Relegated to one reclining seat on my parents’ couch, I began to miss my body’s imperfect former life. Its bones were too big, its appetite too robust, but I missed the way it moved. I missed the way my hips swayed on a dance floor, the way I could weave around the other servers at my job without thought.

After twelve weeks, the doctor told me I could put weight on my left leg, and exhilarated, I walked out of his office on weak limbs. I left my parents’ house a few weeks later. I moved into a house with friends. My joints were still stiff and my steps were unbalanced as I hauled boxes up the stairs of the split-level and into my new bedroom. It was a small room that smelled like the last occupant’s cats, but it was not a couch in my parents’ living room. And my roommates felt like comrades, other twenty-somethings who were beautifully imperfect, like me. Another waitress with a bachelor degree. One who was taking college courses at a crawl. A couple of girls nearing graduation: the dumping ground I’d been at a year ago. We were a house of unfinished women, and I didn’t feel so alone.

We lived near the end of the street where there was a rocky trailhead leading into a park. The trail beckoned from my window, and on free afternoons I found myself there. The grounds were full of hollows and hills that made my weakened glutes burn with each footfall in the first weeks of walking, but I loved the climb. I loved the way my muscles—disregarded for months—suddenly felt like working components inside my machine of a body. But though I was no longer stuck in a broken body in an oppressive living room, I was still confined to a life I didn’t want. I had little control over the lack of job prospects, or the feeling of failure that was a persistent scribble on the margins of my life. In school, hard work had always led to concrete results—straight As, the honor roll, scholarships—but in real life, it meant next to nothing. The job market was nonexistent, and I couldn’t gain the experience each company kept telling me I needed. I didn’t know the right people to get where I wanted. A man at a computer somewhere was sending me a rejection letter without even seeing my face. I was just another faceless applicant and my years of hard work weren’t enough.

And so, for the first time, my body seemed like the one thing I could control. I decided to test it, to do more than just walk. I had never run farther than the mandatory miles required in my high school gym class, and I had never believed that I could, but I decided to trust it could do more than I’d believed.

Each free afternoon I had I would throw on old yoga pants and a sports bra, gulp down the embarrassment of my jiggling limbs, and run. I was slow-moving at first, only running a quarter mile at a time, letting my wheezing body recover before launching forward again. But then, my body propelled me farther. I ran past the piercing pain in my side. I let pain drive me. The shin splints and sore knees and burning thighs became new things to conquer.

I began to know the aching of my lower back or the brutal cramping of my calves like I knew the head-shaped dent in the wall of my childhood bedroom. I could pinpoint the exact place on my hip where my joints rubbed together, like I could point to where my Hanson poster used to be, even though the wall had been painted over years ago. And in knowing my body, in knowing its strength, I found determination in the rest of my life. My body had always felt like the one thing holding me back, but it became the thing driving me forward. I began to control my life instead of letting it control me.

That was five years ago. Since then, my body has run a half marathon, but sometimes it still betrays me. Sometimes I am still the little girl hungrily eyeing a sloppy joe. The reconciliation is ongoing. My body is still too hungry, still bigger than I want it to be. In my townhouse, I walk up and down stairs. I wear my Fitbit like a talisman. I hop onto the trail down the block and run for miles under the shade of trees. When I am midway through a three-mile run, sweat dripping from my forehead toward the planes of my face, I can feel my heart thumping, so steady, in my chest. I think of how my heart is inside this body, how it is the only home my indispensable organ has ever known. Back in the townhouse I strip off my soaked t-shirt and stare in the mirror. I flex my left leg, watching the thigh muscles expand. I pull my sweaty curls from my face. I trace the curve of my butt with my eyes.

Still, I suck in my stomach, imagining a better body. I think of all the people this body has housed: the brown-eyed girl defined by her hunger; the college student who found hope under a pair of new orange bed sheets; the tipsy young woman who stood under the stars wishing to be any place but in the life she was living. I have tried to leave those people behind, but they are still with me, and I wonder if this body will ever feel like home.

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