CW: body shaming, mental health, body image issues
The mirror's size, shape, clarity; the lighting in the room, the color of the paint on the walls, the surfaces in the reflection, whatever was behind me; none of that mattered. Those things weren’t the problem. The problem was the fat girl in the mirror’s reflection. The problem was me.
My dad is Wayne, my brother is Wayne Jr., and my mother died of breast cancer when I was thirteen. We’ve always been the big family. Not like, “there’s a lot of people in that family” big, but like, “wow, those people are big humans” big.
I’m Winona. It means firstborn daughter, but my parents weren’t aware of my name’s meaning; my family doesn’t think like that. What happened was my dad wanted another Wayne, but then I popped out. They choose a name that started with a “W” to keep with tradition. I never met a thin person with a name that started with a “W.”
My mom’s name was Wendy, like the fast-food restaurant. Before menopause, a woman’s estrogen production comes from her ovaries. After menopause, it comes from fat tissue. My mom had a lot of extra fat tissue, so she had high levels of estrogen that fueled the growth of the tumors in her breasts, then she died. There was an open casket funeral. I said to my brother, “That’s a big casket.”
He said, “Dad had to get her an oversize one. It cost him an extra three-hundred bucks.”
Lots of parents have pet names for their children or at least give them names with the pre-fix “little.” My parents never gave me a pet name or used that pre-fix. I was always my parent’s “big girl.”
After my mom’s death, we moved to a smaller house in a different school district. My father mostly ignored me because he had to work. My brother channeled all of his energy into football. I felt deserted without my mother, like a hot dog without a bun.
I started cooking around this time. My mother used to do it, and one day after we moved into the small house, my dad asked if I could “take a stab at it.” I ended up cooking for the family every night after that, which seemed natural because I was the girl. I made simple things like macaroni and cheese, Hamburger Helper, and frozen lasagna. While I cooked, my dad and brother sat in front of the TV on our saggy couch. I remember one time when I added grilled sausage to a pasta dish with store-bought tomato sauce, and my dad turned away from the TV and said, “This is great.” Finally, I was more important than the TV. That compliment was the reason I went to culinary school.
Other compliments were few and far between, and I desperately wanted my dad to pay more attention to me. Sometimes I think that if I’d been accepted at school during this time, I wouldn’t have placed so much importance on my relationship with my dad, but that wasn’t my reality. School was terrible was for me.
I started paying attention to what types of girls my dad noticed so I could be more like them. He watched girls on TV who looked nothing like me. None of them were big girls. That’s when I began to spend more time in front of the mirror, looking at myself and seeing flaws: if my wrists weren’t so thick; if my arms didn’t sag; if my face weren’t plump; if my stomach was flat; if I didn’t have my brother’s legs, etc.
I told my therapist that I wasn’t undressing in front of the mirror anymore and that I’d gotten the line cook job at Spruce. It was a job I was overqualified for but kept hiding from because I didn’t think I deserved it. I attributed these successes to my therapist, who had helped me navigate my anxiety and feelings of inadequacy through the interview process. The job at Spruce felt like a good step towards my goal of becoming a chef; I wasn’t working in a casual dining restaurant anymore. I felt triumphant going into that session with these achievements like they were proof I was getting better.
But she turned on me. Instead of perpetuating my narrative, my therapist asked question after question until I was confused about what I’d accomplished. There was no denying the job opportunity was positive; she was much more concerned about the mirror. We were back to square one: talking about my reflection. It was like I hadn’t achieved anything at all.
She asked me, “Have you stopped looking at your body because you’ve accepted it or because it’s easier to avoid it?”
I was flummoxed by how quickly she’d brought me back down to reality. I told her the truth: I didn’t know.
I asked her to tell me the answer, but it wasn’t up to her to decide.
She gave me an affirmation exercise and told me, “This will give you the answer.”
I walked into my apartment, downcast from the photoshoot that had just finished. An in-house photographer took headshots of me for the Spruce website. The whole experience was miserable. I was so ashamed of my appearance that I thought of quitting just to get out of having to stand in front of a camera.
I’ve never liked photographs of myself. Even when I looked at pictures of myself when I was a toddler, it wasn’t like, “Oh, look how chubby I was. That’s cute.” Nope. Looking at those pictures just made me think, “You were always too fat.”
There’s a picture of me that I can’t get out of mind that exists in the high school yearbook without my consent. It was part of the two-page section where the yearbook committee highlighted what students did at lunch. It was a picture of me eating a foot-long sandwich at a picnic table. The photo was taken mid-chew, so I looked like a squirrel with nuts tucked away in its cheek. I held the sandwich in front of me like a flower bouquet I was dipping my nose into. I appeared so large that the rectangular steel picnic table looked like a two-seater, which sucked because eight girls were sitting at a similar table in another photo on the opposite page. Every picture I ever saw of myself seemed to reaffirm my ugliness.
I practiced the techniques my therapist taught me so I could get through the shoot: STAR (Stop, Think, Act, Right) was a good one. I repeated that in my head a hundred times over to stop myself from quitting. I think what’s more embarrassing than how I felt about getting my photograph taken was that I assumed I was the only one getting their picture taken. In fact, there were two others getting headshots as well. They were both new dishwashers. I learned all kitchen staff who work at Spruce get a professional headshot posted on the website. I wasn’t special. I should have known.
A wave of relief rushed through my body when my apartment door shut behind me. It was a familiar solace, like the feeling I get when I walk across a busy intersection without falling. It was like I was free from judgment. Of course, it was silly to think that other people’s thoughts about me were the problem.
People like me are drawn to their reflection like metal to a magnet. I’d been able to avoid the mirror for a week, but I couldn’t go any longer. My only focus was seeing my reflection and completing the exercise. I thought I might fail, but I couldn’t pretend any longer. I grabbed the piece of paper my therapist gave me, the dry erase marker too, and walked the green mile to my bathroom.
I saw a fat girl wearing a white chef’s apron. When she turned to see her profile, her belly was even more rotund than it had been head-on, and it looked super BIG head-on.
What did she remind me of? It’s on the tip of my tongue.
BINGO. There it is: she’s Winnie the Pooh. The poor fat girl has a belly just like the lovable cartoon character.
What a cliche, the big girl chef! Of course, she works in a kitchen; she clearly loves to eat.
I didn’t even know wrists could be that thick - they’re bigger than a soccer player’s calves.
I took off the chef’s jacket. I wasn’t sitting down, but my reflection showed roll after roll in my midsection like donuts or hamburger buns stacked on top of one another.
Guys like big breasts, and the girl has E’s. 38E’s that are held up by a purple lace bra. It looks like her armpit hair’s growing on her shoulder. Why is that? How many folds of fat are too many folds of fat?
Was this what my therapist meant by getting the answer?
I took off my pants. There was a red mark all around my FUPA from the waistband, and those pants were the stretchy kind that aren’t supposed to leave a mark.
The girl has stretch marks like heroin addicts have track marks.
Oh! But look, she matched her panties with her bra: they’re both purple.
How cute - she thinks matching will make her less ugly.
I lost my virginity my senior year of high school to a heavy-weight wrestler on the Junior Varsity team. He was 275lbs. There was a month when he convinced me to run to his house to have sex with him. I had a car; I could have driven, I could have said no, but he asked me to run, and I did it. He’d grip the sides of my sweaty body with his strong hands and slam me up and down on top of him. Everything about it hurt then, and everything about the memory hurts now.
My brother called me lard-ass for five years. Seriously, instead of calling me Winona, he’d call me lard-ass. Sometimes if he said it too many times in one day, my dad would say, “Wayne!” But it never was clear to me what the threshold of my father’s tolerance was. Some days, it felt like Wayne had a quota to fulfill.
At school, I wanted a change. I didn’t like my name because it was a fat name. There was an orca whale image I saw on Google, and the beast was named Winona. It looked better naked than I did. I went to school and told people to call me Winnie. I asked the teachers to do it, and they did. That’s when I became Winnie the Pooh. I’m not E.H. Shepard, but I created Pooh bear. My peers all asked me for honey.
Winnie’s not skinny!
Winnie’s not skinny!
Winnie’s not skinny!
Imagine that chant during a kickball game when it's your turn.
I was naked in front of the mirror. The purple underwear was on the floor beside the chef’s jacket and stretchy pants.
The girl has spiky legs and a hairy bush, and her nipples are the size of a laptop’s trackpad.
There are stretch marks everywhere. What’s wrong with this girl? Why does she still have the lights on?
In college, I went on a date to the county fair with Jim. Jim was my last boyfriend. That was three years ago. Jim was skinnier than me, just like most people on TV or outside, but at the county fair, I was happy because I wasn’t the biggest girl there. There were other beasts, and they carried candy apples and cups of coca-cola. I ate cotton candy because Jim bought it for me. He told me he liked “all of me.” I felt we might say I love you at the end of the night, but a caricature artist ruined everything. We sat down side by side, and the artist went to work. Five minutes later, he presented us with his masterpiece in realism: I took up 3/4th’s of the picture, and Jim was drawn like a stick figure by comparison. Even artist renditions of my body destroyed me.
I can sing it for you:
Girl, girl, in the mirror
Fatty, fatty, I can see her
You’re so ugly
You’re so gross
Big fat cheeks
Porky pig nose
And that’s when I started to cry.
I had an answer. I was avoiding my reflection because it still beat me, still latched onto me, my soul, and dragged me down to hell, the thought system I’d crafted when I was thirteen, the one that controlled it all.
I cried and watched the girl cry. I felt so sad for her. She was drowning in her creation. When we put negativity out into the world, we get negativity back. Yet when negativity comes back, we forget we were the ones that put it out into the world.
I took the paper my therapist gave me and the dry erase marker and started to write on the mirror:
I love my body, and I love myself.
I shook when I wrote.
I am perfect and complete just the way I am.
I choked and heaved when I wrote.
My brain is my sexiest body part.
I clenched my teeth until they felt like they’d shatter when I wrote.
My worth isn't defined by my weight. I define my worth, and I am worthy.
I blew snot out of my nostrils and bawled when I wrote.
I accept my body the way it is.
I collapsed on the tile floor after I wrote. I was naked, and it was cold, but my head was hot, and the roots of my hair were wet from sweat.
I sniffled, and whined, and dragged my naked body to bed.
What is war?
Don’t answer that.
But believe me when I tell you that people like me are at war. We’re battling the demons of dysmorphia every time we see our reflection. We are slaves to our perceived inadequacies, and the chains pull tighter every time we catch a glimpse of ourselves. We believe that we deserve rejection, so we act in ways that invite rejection. We are trapped by our thought systems.
Ego is an illusion; self-esteem is an illusion. How could you lack self-esteem without thinking you have no self-esteem? How could you be insecure without thinking you are insecure? We obsess over our flaws because we believe that we are flawed.
I woke up to my buzzing phone. The sun was setting, and I heard a siren squeal outside. It was a text from the head chef with a link to the Spruce website and the words, “You’re pictures up! Excited to see you tomorrow.”
My thumb hovered over the link for a few seconds, and then I dropped my phone. I was drained like the last squirts of a hose that’s just been turned off; I had nothing left. My head was clear and clouded at the same time. I felt that I had access to open space, but the clouds were there too, reminding me they can come back if I wanted. I didn’t want them; I wanted the space.
My intuition pulled me to the bathroom and blocked my fear of myself. It told me to read what was on the mirror.
The lights were on. I was still naked.
I saw the girl.
She had spiky legs and a hairy bush, big nipples, thick wrists, and so many stretch marks. But I saw something else. I saw the demon attack. I understood what my thoughts were trying to make me feel. Unexpectedly, I exhaled a monosyllabic chuckle.
My eyes went to the words that I’d written on the mirror, and I read each affirmation aloud. When I finished, I looked back at the girl.
I saw her hands. Her fingertips were flattened and ironed by the touch of hot dishes and pans. She had a callus at the base of the forefinger of her knife-hand. She wore no clothes, but she was a chef. Her body was strong and healthy. It had carried her to this point, and she stood proud. She wouldn’t be intimated. She had nothing to prove.
I went back to my bedroom and opened my phone. I clicked the link and saw the headshots of all the people I’d be working with. I scrolled once and saw my headshot.
Of course, it was me.
I smiled and put my hand to my mouth.
I had my answer. I had understanding.
As a woman thinketh, so is she.