I have forgotten to feel bad about my body, in the same way I forgot to get married or have kids or learn to change a tyre. I didn’t even know it was an almost universal adult experience until I hung out with some friends recently. Now I have discovered there are entirely new things I could hate about myself that I didn’t even know existed.
A few days ago, when times were innocent, I was standing in a shop pulling out linen dresses in the various shades of chic porridge that they always come in and waving them at my friend.
“What about this one?” I asked.
“No, it has to have something with a sleeve to cover my fat arms because they make a crease under my armpit when they’re at my side,” she said remorsefully.
Brianna Parkins: Friends panic-drinking after an engagement break-up is more enjoyable than weddings that shouldn’t happen
This is a friend who trains with a personal trainer and does HiiT classes on her “days off”. Who could bench press her own weight, despite having arms you could probably get your thumb and forefinger to meet around.
She would not show me what she was talking about on her current self. Instead, she brought out a photo from her “fat days”, in which she looked suspiciously like my current weight, and zoomed in to the tiny section where her arm hinged to her torso.
I have the kind of build that once caused a man in an Irish nightclub to look me up and down before nodding ‘Jeez you’re a grand tall girl’
It was at this juncture that I pointed out that everyone has a fold of flesh where their arm is attached to their body – it is literally the skin that keeps all our disgusting body goo together and enables us to make full use of our upper limbs for God’s intended purposes. Like doing Rock the Boat at weddings.
I shook my head, imagining a life being held hostage to sleeves because you thought having a little fold of tissue would offend the public. But maybe I was the one in the wrong. Maybe I have been wandering around, inexplicably confident in singlets, with my pudgy oxters oozing out for the world to see while I put people off their dinners.
The good news is there are lots of other things to get neurotic about if armpits weren’t my thing. Calves are a popular one for men. You have to have big veiny ones. I could see how this might come in handy for intravenous drug use, but not so much for managing a HR department as my friend does.
[ Brianna Parkins: Kerry Condon in yellow was the supreme winner on Oscars night ]
Somehow I have made it through my teens and 20s being on quite good terms with my body – sort of around the level of friendship where we might wee in front of each other in a shared pub cubicle if the toilet line is really long, but where it would feel too intimate asking her to give up her weekend to help me move. We have occasionally let each other down, with mostly me to blame. I have fuelled her with foods equivalent to diesel when she in fact takes petrol. She has paid me back with chronic illness. But other than that, we get on.
I have a body that some have deemed slim, but others have found too fat. Mainly dance teachers; an ex-partner or two, internet trolls and other assorted arseholes. But overall I know my body has given me privileges others don’t have: always knowing a brand makes clothes in my size, and being able to eat what I want without strangers commenting. I am in the realms of what is deemed acceptable. Not exactly ideal, as one personal trainer once told me, unsolicited, in my DMs. He thought I would be perfect if I lost 5kg and my tummy. But my main goal in life is doing something else than striving for a perfect body.
I have the kind of build that once caused a man in an Irish nightclub to look me up and down before nodding “Jeez you’re a grand tall girl.”
It wasn’t a pick-up line. He said it in that begrudgingly admirable way, the way men do with their eyebrows raised and lower lip jutting out when shown a big digger or watching another man reverse park a trailer with one smooth manoeuvre. It was just an honest appraisal. My body suggests I would produce robust offspring useful for tilling fields. It could be described as “sturdy”. I was already too big for my grandmother’s wedding dress when I was 11. When I was “scouted” by a dodgy modelling agency at 19, they told me my rib cage was too wide and to come back when I got my measurements down. To this day, I don’t know whether they expected me to take out my own ribs or just merely crush and reset them.
Maybe it was a blessing, because I was never considered a small or petite woman. I never worried about trying to make sure those adjectives followed me for the rest of my life.
When I was nine, I realised that the Miss Universe contestants’ legs already looked thinner than mine
Depending on the shop, the garment, the alignment of the moons and the strength of the euro, I could be between the sizes small to large when I have to try something on. The numbers and letters on clothes tags have no meaning to me – I buy the one that fits. I don’t extract any other meanings from numbers going up or down compared to the last time.
I have accepted that my body has changed and I have thrown out the clothes that don’t fit. I don’t think I should have the same body I had when I was 17. I try to eat decently, mainly to help control my ADHD, but I never learned what foods had what amount of kilojoules or calories. I was spared the dieting phase which so many women go through as a rite of passage, like a horse phase or cutting your own fringe.
I don’t know how I managed this, but I’m willing to bet it has something to do with my mum.
She would say things like “I know I’m fat, but I’m happy” and would confidently ask shop assistants, “Have you got this in a big ladies’ size love”. If she ever felt pressure to lose weight or feel bad about herself, she never let me see it.
When I was nine, I realised that the Miss Universe contestants’ legs already looked thinner than mine and I was doomed to go unloved, uncrowned, for the rest of my days.
[ Brianna Parkins: Yes to female CEOs, but I’m more interested in fair treatment for the women who allow us all to be here ]
“But darling you are a fast runner, you need your thighs to be big so you can win the 100m, so it’s okay,” mum said.
My body was for doing stuff with – not for being nice to look at. It helped that I am Australian and forced into competitive sport, because the arts are for Europeans and wimpy kids whose parents are afraid of them getting hurt.
I learned that a body’s appearance doesn’t tell you anything about the ability of your competitor. All it came down to was performance.
On top of that, Australians are generally always some sort of naked. Older men cheerfully trot down to the ocean edge alongside taut lifeguards, their bellies sometimes overhanging their brief speedos, giving the (sometimes shocking) illusion they are nude. They know no one cares. This is their beach as much as anyone else’s, and their bodies are welcomed just the same.
I rang mum up recently to thank her for helping me on the glorious path of not giving a shit what my body looks like, leaving me free to pursue other fun things such as coping with various mental illnesses.
[ Brianna Parkins: pay attention to your credit history — it could be the key to unlocking a future loan ]
“I think I have reverse body dysmorphia,” she reasoned.
“On the inside I feel like Elle McPherson, but my mirror and clothes say I shop in the plus size section.”
Yes, what my mother had deemed a sort of inverse anorexia was actually just liking herself and feeling comfortable in her body. Something so radical for a middle-aged woman, she had decided it was an illness.