Today we found a purple swimsuit at Lerner’s. I just gave up on my diet. That’s because I could not keep it up, and because when I wear my new swimsuit it looks better when you are fat.
May 30, 1980 (ten years old)
I have always been both littler and bigger than everyone else. How anyone can be both at the same time only makes sense if you’ve seen me. I have fragile bones and tiny wrists and hands so childlike that sometimes fully linked and clasped bracelets will fall clear off.
So much has changed since I wrote about the legendary swimsuit that looks better when you are fat, but one thing has not changed: I’ve never been able to reach the upper portions of cabinets, or grab Fruity Pebbles boxes from the top shelf at the grocery, or drive a car and have motorists behind me observe more than the shadowy implication of a head behind the wheel. Because I only measure just under five-foot-two, I’m always dizzied with looking up and down to scoot up the car seat, to adjust the side mirrors, and to repeatedly stretch uncomfortably to top shelves in the pantry.
Unlike the ‘height problem’, the ‘weight problem’ wasn’t so obvious at first; in that diary entry of 1980, it still flew quietly under the radar. But I do remember stuff through old writings, and through crappy Reagan-era photos from my mother’s 110 camera, and through badly composed portraits from Olan Mills Portrait Studios. I do have fuzzy, but unacknowledged, remembrances of always feeling chunkier than everyone else.
When looking at old photos, I see why. I’m not so much fat as a fat person in-the-making. I’m a plus-sized blueprint, waiting to be built. You can see it. It’s there in the hips, a telltale heft, even years before the tidal change of puberty. You can see that, despite the small wrists, I would some day in the future be willing to give my metaphorical right nut for a swimsuit that looks better when you are fat.
There is a photo, taken at age fourteen. It is one of the Olan Mills shots, and is carefully staged. I am in it; my sisters are there; my little brother is there. Through the years, I had never noticed anything peculiar in this photo until I looked through a photo album with a friend:
FRIEND: “What the heck is this?”
ME: “Just a picture of us. Why?”
FRIEND: “Well, why are you sitting here in the middle, and the others are all around you? It looks like you’re their mother.”
And then I saw it. I saw how big I seemed, how much heft and presence I had in that picture. I saw that the imbalance of my form had placed me in the center, a big anchor. My siblings posed around like a litter of pups, gossamer in their lace dresses and infantile dress-up clothes. I saw that the photographer had used me for a sort of grounding.
I looked like their mother. I looked less like a teen and more like a chubby middle-aged woman in ill-fitting, comfortable jeans. With bird wrists. Or at least it seemed. And when I was fourteen, I suddenly realized I was no longer a fat person in the making, but that I had, perhaps, already arrived.
A paradigm shift happened; I no longer felt too skinny for a swimsuit. In fact, trying on swimsuits instantly became an exercise in misery. I began to seek out the suit with the most ‘coverage’ and optical illusion; only vertical stripes and strategic cinching would do. In addition to stressing about whether anyone had tried them on before (and whether or not they had worn their underwear), I now had two things to worry about. Year after year, I’d enter the fitting room each spring and delay putting the things on. I’d inspect the crotches for telltale pubes, to distract from the fact that I was about to try on a swimsuit that no doubt would NOT look better when I was fatter.
Nowadays, years later, I still get sweaty from the fact that this process takes fifteen hours and half a bottle of tequila. But in a sense, I’ve actually gotten old enough, and big enough, to have come full-circle. Sometimes, when trying on these garments designed for somewhat larger women, with their full underwire cups and frilly thigh-covering skirts, I actually do think: “This looks better when you are fatter!” And I am 100% correct in this. No skinny chick would look good in a swimsuit mumu; they are best left for the anchors. They are best left for the women of substance that do all the heavy labor of grounding. A plus-size design on a slim chick would make her seem a little baroque, a little burdened. She would always look textbook beautiful, but would appear as a child playing dress-up, grasping at a bulk of spirit that she would rarely, if ever, possess.
So I do eventually buy one of these suits each year, and remember that tall and skinny does not matter one bit when you’re lying in the waves. And I think about all the things that no one will ever notice: the small bones in my pinkies, and and the reasonable quality of my character, and the sparkly bracelet that could, at any moment, covertly slip over my downright malnourished palm, and off into the endlessly forgiving surf.