By Megan Byrd
special to the chronicle
I was 15, my grandmother’s friend Flo grasped both my shoulders, looked me in the eyes and told me, “I love big women.” It was so abrupt, intense and effortlessly honest, I was startled. I was 250 pounds at that moment and I was definitely wearing some poorly fitting jeans and a T-shirt I’d put no thought into and in no way could have felt attractive or comfortable in.
That single phrase, “I love big women,” elevated something in me I hadn’t realized was being neglected. Flo wasn’t sympathizing me, she wasn’t calling me pretty or coddling the existence of my womanly parts. She was just being completely honest; she loves big women. And I am a big woman.
This was one of the first times someone had made a comment of both my gender and my size that wasn’t patronizing. The first time someone made me realize you could simply love others, authentically for who they are. Flo didn’t look at my huge thighs and stomach and make me want to fold inside myself. She didn’t squeeze the fat of my shoulders and make me wish it wasn’t there. In this brief moment, she made me acknowledge this part of myself I didn’t know could be empowering. She made me realize you could simply love a woman based on the vague definition of her ‘bigness.’
In the past five years, I’ve gone up and down 70 pounds twice and now my stomach is lined with stretch marks and my arms flatten out like pancakes when I lift them. It reminds me of when my Spanish teacher in high school used to wear sleeveless dresses and explain verbs to us with her arms. “Usted,” we’d all chant back at her, our eyes following the soft pale sacks of meat that hung from the bottom of her risen arms and jiggled in the air like Jell-O. They’d hang the longest when horizontal to the ground. Mrs. Horn would look at us with her arms outstretched, her fatty meat packs swaying back and forth in the air, hanging halfway down to her breasts. And I couldn’t help it. I had to think to myself, ‘her arms are so fat.’
Thanks to my fluctuating weight and genetics, I have premature Mrs. Horn arms. If I lose weight they thin out and become saggier and if I gain weight they only grow round and plumpish. When I outstretch them horizontally, a little sack of meat protrudes from the bottom like the fluffy white fat that hangs from a chicken thigh. When I turn my palm to the side the meat will flatten and from my elbow to my armpit, you can see the entire journey that is the slope of my arm fat.
The only strapless dress I’ve worn was at my senior prom. I don’t even like to wear T-shirts sometimes. I go for clothes with loose sleeves: long sleeve shirts, sweaters. And when I wear a swimsuit I can’t be this concealed version of myself, I have to show my arms from all their ugly angles. I refuse to go on swimming dates with guys — I find most water experiences fairly uncomfortable.
I’m not myself, in this vain way I become these flabby arms. It’s like Mrs. Horn’s verb lessons. When her arms are out and unconsciously displayed like a zoo exhibit, she becomes this fixation. And when I can’t wear long sleeves or sweaters, I see myself the same way. I become the fat arms.
I don’t work out and I don’t get worked up over this insecurity. I don’t get anxious, depressed or demoralized over it. Because really, I can’t help it. I could do pushups and try to prevent the inevitable, but I don’t want to. And as I get older and my body changes and my skin ages and gravity makes the fat sink lower, I’ll probably still not love it. But the reality is, it’s a body part; it’s a lump of fat that looks a little different from everyone else’s lumps of fat. It’s a minute detail that prevents me from being something that society has created women to be.
Sometimes I look at my flabby arms, sometimes I squeeze them and jiggle them, and fold the fat over to make little tan/white splotchy butts with the skin. And I forget to remember that my arms were ever not fat. I forget that I’m supposed to think they’re ugly.
I’m 21 and I only exercise when I feel like it. Sometimes I walk up the stairs, but not always. Some days I don’t brush my hair. Some months I don’t shave my legs or armpits. Some days I eat salad and a well-balanced dinner and others I eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and a bag of Cheetos. My body is shaped pretty well to carry my weight so I can’t complain too much. I know other girls have far more difficulty accepting the natural appearance of their body than I do, and I don’t want to make it sound easy.
I’m growing up in the body positivity movement. Which really, for me, doesn’t mean crap. When I find myself in certain situations, for example a bar, in which I’m around beautiful women who are thinner, more normal looking and more socially adept, I’m going to be uncomfortable. Not because I’m jealous or feel bad about myself, but because no one will understand. No one will understand that I don’t give a crap if I don’t get hit on by shitty guys. That I can’t pull off the same tops other girls with skinnier arms and larger breasts can. That I can’t enter any mundane conversation and liven it up. This just isn’t my thing.
I’m pretty in a modest way, in a way that speaks through grimy library hair, oversized flannels worn out of laziness, quirky T-shirts, funky glasses and a face that has its good days and its bad ones. I’m not into wearing a lot of makeup, I never wear eyeliner or lipstick. On principle, I refuse to spend more than 45 minutes getting ready for anything, ever. I never curl my hair – I don’t even know how to braid it. When I grow old I want to wear my flat grey hair like a long crown around my head. I want long wrinkles and dark leathery skin to adorn my face. I want my youthful beauty to appear like a shadow rather than something that can be resurrected. Just like now, I don’t want to try and make my face something it isn’t naturally. I have no interest in choreographing the everyday artificial beauty of my physical appearance.
There isn’t any certain way to be a big woman. There is no waist measurement, weight limit or dress size. So many of the women who have inspired me through life were big women. A grandmother, an aunt, an elementary school principal and a little sister. And what I share with all of these women is an unstated agreement to embrace the meat that armors our bodies. To not act like it’s a nuisance or a poison to our appearance. But that it’s just that: meat. Not something to be physically conquered or emotionally overcome, but something that simply exists.