By the time my relationship ended, I felt less like I had a body and more like I was a meaningless, burdensome pile of skin who slept next to another pile of skin I once loved. For the last few months of our relationship, this partner hardly touched me, but was generous with his criticisms, whether it was about the way I dressed, my practice of Judaism (or lack thereof), or if I made him laugh. Even sitting here writing this now, I cannot tell you what he liked about me. I was angry, I am angry, at myself for having let this go on for as long as it did.
I remember undressing for bed in front of him and he didn’t even glance away from his precious computer screen at me. Messages like this manifested deeper in me than I would have liked them to, and soon I found myself looking in the mirror and not feeling anything — none of the appreciation that I once had for the curve of my hips or the thickness of my thighs. I did love my body once, right?
I stopped bothering with my appearance at all, not because it felt especially good to do that, but because I knew he wouldn’t notice if I had put in any effort or not, and not in a romantic way. He just didn’t care. Ultimately, yes, validation has to come from inside yourself. As RuPaul says, if you can’t love yourself, how in the h*ll are you gonna love somebody else? But when the person you’ve chosen to spend nearly two years with, who purports to love you, cannot even muster a kindness, a glance for you, it doesn’t feel good. It feels withering and hopeless. I don’t think I knew just how withered I was until I realized how much I needed to revive myself.
I did love my body once, right?
I remember the day he broke up with me, I felt giant weight lifted off my shoulders. Suddenly I felt beautiful again. I felt charming and interesting and smart and glamorous and charismatic. I wondered where those feelings had gone, how long they had been missing. And then I felt sad that I didn’t even know the answers to these questions. It had been a long time since I felt good about myself, so I decided that day to do my best to be more positive moving forward. I walked through the streets listening to Kesha; I spent extra time crafting #looks with my makeup, swirls of green eyeshadow with thick, black cat-eye liner; I drank wine and talked about magazines with my girlfriends; I checked out my figure in the mirror; I bought dresses that exposed the parts of my torso I liked; I wore sneakers with funny designs on them; I went dancing; I went to art galleries and museums; I wrote pieces I was proud of; I felt so alive. I feel so alive.
My relationship to my body has been a complicated one, by no means assisted by the dearth of attention from my once-upon-a-time paramour. I have been overweight as long as I can remember, though as I got older, the weight has distributed itself into an hourglass figure of occasionally generous proportions I have come to love (most of the time). Perhaps because of certain celebrities, we are living in an age where thick, curvaceous women are revered, covering magazines and gracing the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, starring in fashion campaigns and walking on runways. When I was growing up, this wasn’t the case. Slim figures, rather, were de rigueur. I thought constantly that I was born in the wrong era, decades too late to the age that made stars of Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Sophia Loren. People called them bombshells, their curves dangerous enough to cause all manner of explosions. I wondered one day if my shape would come back into vogue and into Vogue. And now, curiously, it has.
In the wake of my breakup, I wanted to experiment with treating myself differently. I challenged myself to indulge the properties of self-love while I rejoin the world of dating. I had for a long time been my own worst enemy, and that’s not something that goes away overnight. Perhaps if I listened carefully to my own thoughts and impulses, I could learn to love myself better, love someone else better, and thereby accept the love I deserve — a higher quality of love — in the future.
In the wake of my breakup, I wanted to experiment with treating myself differently.
The day before my first date with Nick, I am in the hospital hooked up to an IV as Reglan, an anti-nausea/anti-headache medication, is pumped through my veins. The doctor tells me later I have a concussion from hitting my head the day before, but I’ll be fine. I’ll soon be discharged. But first, a question:
“Doc, I have a date tomorrow night, can I still go?” I ask.
“Yeah!” he says, more chipper than I would have expected. “Especially if you’re excited!”
I am excited. Nick and I had been set up on a blind date, interestingly for another piece I was writing for this very site. After trading delightful and silly texts for a few days, I was actually looking forward to meeting this guy.
My date preparation starts a little bit earlier than usual the next day, though, because my friend Andrew is taking some photography classes and needs a subject. I have to get ready for a date, I tell him, so why don’t you come over beforehand and I’ll get glammed and we can take some pictures?
It’s cold out and I wish it were warmer already so I could just not feel lost under all these layers of wool and cotton. I don’t feel like I sparkle under wool and cotton and tonight I feel like sparkling. I choose a tank top and a kimono over jeans and heels. I feel like I’m floating. Soon, Andrew is ready to take my picture.
In front of the camera, I feel powerful. My hands slide in my hair and rest on my head in repose, waiting for Andrew to shoot. Movement feels effortless with each camera flash, arms twirling hands twirling fingers, the kimono silky around my shoulders, necklaces hanging heavy on my chest. I get it, I want to say to every model I’ve ever photographed. I get why you do this. Something about those movements, that power, feels like glamour. I carry the sensation with me all night long. Walking through the restaurant, the kimono flutters behind me. I notice how straight my back is, how I carry my chin a little higher than usual.
In front of the camera, I feel powerful.
Sitting at the bar with Nick, I notice how quickly I forget about whether or not my stomach is rolling in front of me, if my thighs are touching too closely together. I just laugh because Nick is funny. I touch his shoulder with confidence I’m not used to, slide my fingers under his when he asks to see the rings I’m wearing. This kind of movement and the conviction that comes with them are new for me. I make a note to manifest them in myself more often, or at least to try.
On my second date with Nick, I am wearing the pants my mother asked me not to wear on a first date. Very Sandy at the end of Grease; a friend once told me they make my ass look like two honey hams. With the pants plus heels, a t-shirt of Dad’s so worn it became sheer, and a leopard coat, I feel good, but not as confident as I did after the photoshoot. When I get dressed, I notice myself saying “Sure, that works,” and tossing my hair to the side instead of the same resounding “YES!” I felt before. Maybe it’s that the outfit wasn’t my first choice, or maybe I’m tired or maybe it’s something else.
Nick and I are laughing about how I was feeling myself post-photoshoot on our date last time.
“But I mean, it can’t be like that every time, right?” I say.
“Why not????” he says.
He has a point.
Later, in a Basque restaurant in the East Village, we sit next to each other on barstools and kiss, his hand softly tracing the side of my torso. My nerves interrupt this sensual moment and my brain lurches into panic as his hand rests just above my hip. Sometimes, I wish I could forget my body entirely.
On our third date, Nick and I are jaunting through Brooklyn, first for brunch in Gowanus. Sitting next to a screaming baby in a crowded restaurant, my head starts to ache from the concussion and I have no medication.
At first, it’s manageable, but then, it gets worse. I lean forward on my hands. I have been looking forward to seeing him all week. I am so frustrated and embarrassed I almost start to cry, but instead I try to joke and put on a brave face.
“Hey,” he says. “You have a concussion. You don’t have to pretend it doesn’t suck.”
I curl my fingertips around his and say thank you.
After brunch and procuring Advil, we head to Coney Island for a stroll on the beach, wrapped up in coats because despite being April it’s still winter, apparently. My headache goes away and I feel normal again. Jonesing for a warm drink, we make our way to a cocktail and dessert bar further north into Brooklyn.
We sidle up to the bar and order treats and when I get warm, I take off my scarf and shove it in my bag.
“Yeah, I was definitely just checking you out,” he nods, self-deprecating.
My laugh echoes through the bar. I’m pleasantly surprised and flattered.
“You were? Oh, that’s so weird because I just….” And I arch my back, pushing my chest forward, leaning my head back and tossing my hair like a pinup girl. I knew there was a reason I wore a good bra today. “Sorry, I don’t know what came over me! I just needed to stretch for a second....”
Yet now, as I write this, I wonder where I got the balls to do that. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like that in my life, saying to another human, let alone someone on a date, yes, hello, look at my body because it’s great! The confidence lives inside me, photoshoot or not, apparently, and it’s good to know.
“Thanks…” he says. I laugh and we kiss.
Later on his couch, we are a tangle of limbs. I run my fingers across the thick knit of his sweater, around his shoulders, down his back. He kisses like a slow-burning candle and my nerves are awake again, this time in a good way.