I’ve always been fat. I’m not one of those fat girls who has stories about when I was thin—because I was never thin. And I grew up with the knowledge that I was fat. When I was three years old I was playing outside with my friends and I got hungry. I came inside and asked my mom for a piece of cheese. I’ve always loved cheese—still do. She cut off a slice and handed it to me saying, “I’ll give you a piece of cheese if you want it but I want you to know if you eat it you’ll blow up as big as a house and no man will ever want you.”
Add to that I’ve always been loud and extremely outgoing and you’ve got a good picture of me—the last person on earth my mother would ever want for a daughter.
I remember in grade school I was so envious of the shy, quiet, thin girls. It was always my summer resolution that when I came back to school in the fall I would not only be thin but quiet and shy—like all the good girls were.
That never materialized.
I first discovered that it might be possible to lead a real life without losing weight as my primary goal when I got away from my parents’ house and went to college. I’d spent every year up to then planning and plotting how my life would begin after I had lost weight. Gradually I began to realize that how I ate and how I dressed were actually my choice and not fully dictated by the embarrassment of my appearance. I stopped dressing like I had to cover as much of my body as possible and I stopped eating in public like I was trying to lose weight.
The first few times I heard someone call me beautiful it didn’t even occur to me that they just might be sincere. It had never occurred to me that I could be beautiful.
Then I discovered feminism. Body-hair enriched, political-jargon clogged, liberal angry-white-suburban-girl feminism; but feminism nonetheless. I had finally found a forum where loud brash intelligent girls could shoot their mouths off and be encouraged for it. And in feminism I found me—or at least a sketch of me. I was not disabled by my belly or a criminal because of my thighs. It was really OK to be full, to be strong, to be solid. I was amazed by these thoughts, enraptured. I bought fat-girl clothes and fat-girl publications, went to fat-girl dances and hung out with fat girls.
One day I was walking along with a friend shooting my mouth off about the pervasive, disenfranchising, patriarchal culture of thin when we came across this sign:
Models for art classes
My friend, also a feminist and tired of my rant, turned to me and said, “Well, Teri, this is your chance. Get your body type out there.” It was almost a dare.
I had to do it. It was spiritually, politically, ethically, and morally imperative. How would all the other fat girls learn that it was OK to come out of hiding if they never saw anyone that vaguely looked like them? If I didn’t do it, I’d be a coward and a hypocrite.
When I called they hired me on the spot—without, it may be noted, seeing me first.
I went out that day and bought myself a shortie fire-engine-red satin robe. I figured, why not—if I was going be the only one naked in a room full of people, I might as well make one hell of an entrance.
Contemplating the sexy robe days later in a cold, dank room full of strangers, I wasn’t quite sure I could do it. I toyed with the idea of tearing ass down the hall. I figured they would be too polite to chase me down, rip off my clothes, and make me stand on the podium. But I stayed, peeled my clothes off, item by item, cursed my sense of humor, and made my entrance in the red robe.
For my first pose, I sat twisted so that I was looking over my shoulder. I couldn’t even feel my body. I didn’t look at the student artists. I was terrified. Eventually, though, the pose began to hurt and that in itself brought me out of my fear.
When the exercise was over and I put that glowing robe back on, I took a deep breath and went around the room looking at over 20 pictures of my naked body. Their pictures. My pictures. I started next to a group of young, self-conscious art students—the shy, pretty types I had envied when I was younger. They had drawn me bulbous, dumpy, horrible, crackled through with cellulite. The men in that group had drawn me like a medical illustration: a torso, an arm. Although they were artists, young and unsure of their skill, I recognized myself in their pictures. Looking at myself on their easels was like coming home.
I moved on to a trio of older women—mothers of grown children and grandmothers. They had drawn me full, rounded, luscious, a Venus perched on a wooden box. That’s when I realized that none of the students was drawing me; they were all drawing themselves, using me as a guideline. After that I could breathe.
That night I came home and looked at my full, naked self in the mirror for the first time in my life. There I was. You are here, I breathed.
Since then I’ve come to feel my body. I used to try to stay away from my outlines, my skin. It was like trying to will myself psychologically thin. But now I’ve moved into my body. I can feel myself from my belly to my butt, from one hip to the other. And I now see my body, fully. I’m not a size or a style or a number. I am a poem, a song. I move and exist in time and space. I guess you could say that once I allowed myself to be seen I could see myself.
And I no longer doubt people who say I’m beautiful.
This originally appeared at MoxieMag.com. Republished here with permission. Teri Heidenreich is a writer from the Midwest. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Theater with a focus in Acting and is working toward a graduate degree in education. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.