In a departure from our regularly scheduled programming, I wanted to do a little show and tell of one of the pieces I've been working on for my memoir class this term (and the reason I've been so distracted this past week). Autobiography of a Belly started out as an assignment to emulate the style of Lucy Grealy's book Autobiography of a Face (hence the title), and grew into something that's more my own. It's obviously pretty different in tone and subject matter from what I usually write about here, but it was so challenging and rewarding to push myself out of my comfort zone. I hope you guys enjoy it (hey--it's a way to waste even more time at work!), and I'll be back tomorrow with more funny fashion!
Autobiography of a Belly
I was a chubby child, but I didn’t know it until fourth grade. Until then, I hadn’t seen anything wrong with my body; it was just a body, my body, and it was soft and smooth and allowed me to do terrifically fun things like play basketball and chase after my three younger brothers. I carried most of my weight in my stomach—still do—but when I was a child it was more pronounced. I had small, short legs upon which balanced my spherical torso (Later in life, a quiz in a women’s magazine would tell me that my body shape was an “apple”). Held up by a thick, stubby neck was my round face, all cheeks framed by thick, blond hair. I had round, dramatic features from my Italian mother, colored light shades of German/Irish from my father: big blue eyes, big pink lips, soft skin the color of unripe peaches. My skin was covered in fine blond hair that made it even more pleasing to touch, and my big belly was a smooth mountain that I’d trace my fingers over at night, in quiet awe of the pronounced and perfect curve.
* * *
The fourth grade teacher at my small rural school, Ms. Howler, was notorious for, well, howling, and I was terrified of her. My third grade classroom was next door to hers, and I often sat upright at my desk, frozen in panic at her shrieking tirades that reverberated through the thin wall. I could barely focus on my studies under my current teacher, Ms. Boyk, an exceedingly kind woman who didn’t hide the fact that I was her favorite student.
Toward the end of third grade, I got word that I had been assigned to Ms. Howler’s class for the following year. I was crippled with panic. I expressed my fear to my parents, and they heartily agreed that I would avoid Ms. Howler by transferring to an even smaller school fifteen miles down the highway.
* * *
Buxton Elementary was actually an ancient barn that stood in the middle of a sprawling field in the miniscule town of Buxton, Oregon. It had been converted into a school in the 1940s, and when I made my debut there, its pupils numbered about 75. Compared to my old school, which held 150 students in the bustling metropolis of Banks (population: 680), Buxton felt like a step back in time, and I fancied myself the civilized outsider, a visitor from the future. “At Banks, we run the mile on a real track, only four laps,” I’d wheeze to the kids next to me as we dodged gopher holes on our fifth circle around the back lawn.
“Only eleven more,” our PE teacher bellowed.
I don’t remember being scared on my first day at this new school. Perhaps I was too overcome with schadenfreude at the thought of my old classmates facing Ms. Howler to consider my own situation; perhaps the waffles my dad made me that morning provided genuine comfort. Either way, I tugged open the front door and strode confidently toward the first classroom on the left, my new teacher, my new life.
Mr. Bair, my new teacher, was a middle-aged man with gray hair. He had a glass eye and a temper, but I was only afraid of him for a few minutes. After introducing himself to the class, he asked if any of us enjoyed reading. I raised my hand, which turned out to be the only hand, and from this moment on I became his pet.
Mr. Bair was a voracious reader. Every week or so he’d get the rest of the class going on some inane project, pull a chair up to my desk and ask, “Read any good books lately?” I’d begin to answer, then hesitate, glancing down at the geography printout on my desk that was waiting to be colored. “Don’t worry about it,” he’d gesture toward the busy work, and, satisfied, I’d set down my crayon and regale him with reviews of The Phantom Tollbooth, Anne of Green Gables, and Walk Two Moons. He gave me recommendations and sometimes loaned me favorites out of his personal library. Years later, I saw Mr. Bair at the supermarket, looking shockingly old, and it was only seconds after our initial hellos that he asked, in a warm, raspy voice, if I’d read any good books lately.
With things going so well with my new teacher right off the bat, I couldn’t believe my luck when I found a seemingly wonderful group of friends as quickly. Melissa, Sara, and Becky adopted me into their group during lunch recess on the very first day of school. Melissa, the leader of the group, told me they’d spent the first recess checking me out, and I seemed cool enough to hang out with them.
These girls were much different from my old friends. All three were skinny with stringy hair and ratty clothes, and future slumber parties would reveal that they all lived in mobile homes on the hillsides along the Sunset highway. My old friends and I had spent our recesses engaged in lively games of pirate ship on the playground, but these girls ambled in circles around the yellowed grass of the back lawn, singing country songs I didn’t know. Of course I was still delighted to hang out with them, and hummed along with the lyrics I found cloying and clichéd. For weeks, we did this. Becky called me stupid when I kept flubbing a particularly tongue-twisting chorus, so I wrote it down and spent the entire evening practicing. Could ya, would ya, aint ya gonna, if I asked ya would ya wanna be my baby tonight? The next day, I had it down.
Despite my eagerness to please, Becky’s teasing increased in frequency and ferocity. “You’re so dumb,” she would say during class, “You’re such an idiot.” But I knew that I wasn’t dumb; I knew that I was, in fact, quite intelligent, so her words never broke the skin. One day, out on the playground, she tried a different approach. “You’re so fat, Winona,” she hissed, “Your stomach’s huge. It looks like you’re pregnant.” I looked at her, agape, confused. Her small eyes narrowed and a self-satisfied smile crept across her face; she knew she’d hit on something. I ran my hand along the curve of my belly. I’d never thought of it that way before. Maybe it was gross. Maybe I was gross.
Any previous concept of my body had been purely utilitarian; I’d never considered its aesthetic appeal. In that moment on the playground, I learned that bodies can be good or bad, and mine was bad. I didn’t realize the scope of her comment then, but Becky had planted an insecurity that she would lovingly tend to for the next year, watching it grow, taking over my whole being like English ivy.
When my dad picked me up from school that day, I didn’t excitedly recount the past six hours as I usually did. Instead, I sat quietly in the passenger seat as the road hummed by, examining my stomach. My fat separated into two rolls below and above the seatbelt stretched tight across my lap. It was quite disgusting.
I arrived at school the next day feeling like I had a secret, and it was out. I skulked into the classroom and found Becky waiting for me, standing next to my desk, smirking. “Hey tub of lard,” she announced, with the slightly rushed intonation of someone who’d been practicing. My cheeks reddened and I took my seat. Becky walked across the room and took hers. Mr. Bair began a lecture on long division. I hated long division.
At recess, Becky followed me around the playground, repeating “Hey chubby” in my ear. Melissa noticed the pained look on my face and asked what was going on. “She’s calling me chubby,” I murmured, hopeful that our leader would resolve the situation. Melissa paused, looked me up and down in my elastic waist jeans and striped t-shirt. “You are chubby,” she pronounced. Then she pointed to the field. “Let’s go sing.”
A week or so later, I was in the lunch line, loading my tray with celery and carrot sticks (after school, in the safety of my living room, I’d devour chips, cookies, cheese, but here I refused to feed into my fat girl image), when a popular boy rammed into me. As dozens of vegetables fell from my tray onto the filthy linoleum floor, he laughed and said, “Ease up, fatty.” His friends, in line behind him, burst into hysterical laughter, and I hurried over to an empty table with my empty tray, mortified.
What was happening? Suddenly I was the fat girl, the gross girl, the easy target. In bed at night, I still traced my stomach, but I no longer garnered any pleasure from its sloping curve, only stress, rage. Why couldn’t I be like my three friends, skinny as cinnamon sticks, with gaunt faces and long limbs? I fantasized about taking the plastic scissors from the drawer of my bedside table and trimming the fat from my belly, my thighs, my cheeks. I knew that my life would be drastically different, drastically better, if I were thin. I knew that my belly was all that was holding me back.
* * *
After arriving home from a particularly brutal day at school, I walked in the front door and threw my backpack on the kitchen floor. I plodded into the living room, to the soft recliner where my great grandma used to sit every Sunday, and promptly broke down in tears.
I felt better after ten minutes or so, but I purposefully stretched out my breakdown, moaning dramatically, yearning for my mom to notice. I wanted desperately to share my pain with her, but I didn’t know how to tell her. And, although it would have been completely out of character, a part of me was frightened that she might react like Melissa.
My mom was brought up on chicken-fried steak, thick gravies, and wonder bread. It was the menu of an Italian family longing to assimilate into the American middle class, and it gave her a big, round belly. She’d mentioned a few times that the kids at school used to tease her about her weight, and, more horrifying, that her mom did too. I imagined my grandmother, whose three favorite words were “eat, eat, eat,” hissing insults at my mom, telling her to lose weight while serving her more ice cream. My mom had always been so good to me, telling me I was smart and pretty, but Becky had convinced me that I was ugly, fat, and dumb. As I sat in that chair, waiting for my mom to find me, I felt that I was getting ready to confess.
After twenty minutes of sustained whimpering (the feeling of release had long given way to a fake-crying induced headache), she came into the room and noticed my wet, chubby cheeks, my bloodshot eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I shrugged. I wanted her to work for this.
She sat down on the arm of the chair, brushed a wisp of hair behind my ear. “What’s wrong, Honeygirl?”
I wiped my cheek, took a deep breath, and prepared to give her a full rundown—the cruel taunts, the feelings of isolation, of panic, the sensation of someone pulling the plug on my self-esteem, and watching it run down the drain like dirty bathwater—but something much simpler came out. “Becky called me fat.”
My mom wrapped her arm around me and, in her most soothing voice, told me that we were Italian women, we came from peasant stock, we were built for hard work. She spent a long time explaining how the kids might make fun of me now, but had we lived in Italy in the 19th century, I would have been able to haul buckets of water on my broad shoulders better than any of them.
Maybe this was what my mom told herself when she was my age. Maybe this idea gave her great comfort. She certainly intended it that way for me. In reality, it didn't matter what she said. All I could hear was, "Honeygirl, you are chubby."