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Back to the Mothership
The Chinese dress, the jealous cousins, and other Cinderella tales—a prodigal’s return.
In the spring of 2011, I was at the lowest weight I’d ever been in my adult life; 185. For my height and frame, that put me about fifteen pounds from where I wanted to be. I was about to travel to Saint-Tropez for the wedding of a French fashion mogul’s daughter. My whole family was going to be there.
My daughter and I had to find fourteen outfits between us. Don’t ask. She was a veryCalifornian fifteen-year-old, and it was a very traditional French wedding. Lagerfeld was designing most of the gowns, so the pressure was on. Leah was not the kind of kid you told what to wear: she never was. The most I’d say was “I like,” or “I don’t.” After that, let the chips fall where they may; mom wouldn’t like what either of us chose, anyway.
So we hunted for gowns, on and off-line.
I used a Chinese website with hundreds of reasonably priced, custom-made options; you measured, you ordered, you waited three weeks, hoping to land remotely in the ballpark. I was planning on shrinking before the trip, so I reduced dimensions by an inch, wherever possible.
I loved ordering clothes online. For starters, I got to avoid the skinny clerks judging me; but I could also daydream, from the safety of my couch, that the gown I picked would look just as good on me as it did on the on-screen pretties.
Two weeks in, I started looking for the dirty, long-journeyed, multi-stamped package in the mailbox. Past the third week, I started to panic: What if it didn’t arrive on time? What if it didn’t fit me? Where could I find another outfit for Mom to criticize?
On my way to find a Plan B, I checked the mailbox one more time — phew, there it was.
As I mentally prepared for what was inside the package, my fat life flashed before me: asking for seat belt extensions on planes; spotting chairs without armrests when walking into a room; sitting in the middle of the back seat, so as not tip over tiny European cars; checking the weight limit on elevators; and bringing extra clothes everywhere, knowing I could never borrow from anyone.
Sweet and sour, always. Not wanting to hate where I had been but loving not being there anymore.
Leah had friends over when my parcel arrived, so I stashed it away — not wanting to feel the shame of the dress potentially not fitting in front of an audience. When the coast was clear, I made myself a cup of tea and opened the package.
The dress was gorgeous. It actually fit, mostly. The waist was a little tight; my inch-reducing stratagem, had in fact, worked everywhere but there.
We can do this, Soph, I said to myself. Nothing compared to what we’ve already done.
I hadn’t seen some of my family in almost 80 pounds. Size-shaming was the national sport among my people. I was going to fit in that dress. Tight, but I did. I just needed to stay away from food until the actual nuptial.
Trips to France caused me anxiety, even more so if a big event was planned; and if that wasn’t enough, my man and daughter didn’t like each other. My relationship with him was complicated; the good was the best, the worst made me want to break-up weekly. We stayed together six years. I thought he was the love of my life; but he didn’t think so. Ending that relationship felt like my heart had been pulled out of my chest, and it was never going back in.
He had said when we met that he didn’t like fat women — not knowing I was, or used to be one; I didn’t hide the fact that I used to be twice my size, but didn’t volunteer the information either.
I remember being with a group of guys once, when a rather large woman walked by, wearing a black and white dress, “perfect outfit, for an orca,” one of them said, as the group burst into laughter. I didn’t; but I didn’t make them shut up or walk away either. Having them make that fat joke in front of me meant I was knighted out of the table of the fat humans. They would have never said it in front of me if I were still in it.
I felt multiple, incompatible feelings, all at once: I collapsed inside from the pain they inflicted on that woman as she inevitably heard the laughter. I know she did, because I always did. At the same time, I recognized the sick high I got from disassociating from my ex-fat peer group.
After I quit smoking three packs a day years before, people would offer me a cigarette and for a while, I would say, “I don’t smoke anymore.” But after a few months, I started saying, “I don’t smoke.” By dropping those seven letters, I was reclaiming my - self as a non-smoker; making smoking a parenthesis in my life, rather than my identity.
Not walking away from that stupid orca joke, shifted me from, “I am not fat anymore,” to, “I am not fat.” To celebrate that change of status, I threw a sister under the bus, and I’m ashamed of that.
Getting ready for the wedding, my mission to fit my waist into the Chinese dress, became a crusade: I bought every single wellness offer on the Groupon-like websites, that included the words ‘losing,’ ‘trimming,’ ‘toning,’ ‘shrinking,’ ‘reducing,’ ‘sweating,’ or ‘pilating.’ You name it; I bought it. Booked three a day; and actually did them.
I’d made enough money to finance my take-care-of-myself-projects from a short but very lucrative flipping house business. In those days, my job was either to be a mother to my daughter — or one to myself.
That month, my man had gone scuba diving in the Maldives. On my way to pick him up from the airport, I felt better/thinner than ever in my adult life. I’d gotten a blow-dry, waxed and mani-pedi’d, wore a sexy burgundy silk blouse with jeans at least two sizes smaller than the last time he saw me, three weeks earlier. My shirt was tucked in, belt exposed.
When he hugged me at the baggage claim, I could sense that he was surprised by how much less of me there was.
“WOW,” he whispered in my ear. “I can’t believe it, what did you do?”
“Pilates, yoga, dance, sweat sessions,” I replied. “I lost eleven pounds.” We left the airport, skipping and laughing — crazy how much better it feels to carry less weight on your bones.
We went home and, almost right away, got ready for Paris. I decided not to show my dress until the grand reveal, so I packed it without asking anyone’s opinion/ approval. Risqué, knowing France’s — in general, and my family’s in particular — propensity for fashion diktat.
When I put that sexy red thing in my suitcase, I felt like an army general packing a uniform; the medals were invisible, but no less real. I’d never owned a gown, so someone had to show me how to roll it without ruining it in my suitcase. I’d rented one once for a gala, when I was in the 300-zone; it looked more like a sequined muumuu, but I could attend the function — that was something.
The day finally came; Leah, boyfriend and I flew to France for the wedding week.
Getting ready for the main reception was a big production. Mom had hired a make-up and hair crew. I wore a robe for the glamming so as not to ruin the dress; and when they were done, went to another room to change.
I remember reading that Marilyn Monroe had her dresses sewn on; I felt like mine had been. The cleavage was so deep, I had to watch my posture to avoid showing my belly button. After years of hiding the fat rolling over my jeans, I liked having this problem.
On my way back, full on decked, I caught a glimpse in the mirror and noticed that I hadn’t altered anything as I passed my reflection: no stomach tightening, no butt clenching; I just smiled and walked back into the glam room. Jean, who’d done my family’s hair for decades, and had witnessed the tortured relationship I had with my body, actually gasped. He applauded like a little boy who was proud of his creation. I certainly was proud of mine.
The last gathering where I’d seen everyone in my family—more importantly, the last gathering where they’d seen me — had been a couple of years earlier. I’d weighed 246 then, and 174 now — lighter by 72 pounds.
I arrived at the wedding dinner, feeling like my usual self on the inside; but pretty. Cousins and aunts were checking me out. I could see them whispering from a distance. I don’t read lips, but their vibe was, “Wow, she looks great.”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel slightly triumphant, knowing that some stats say only two percent of the obese get thin and stay thin; what I’d accomplished was essentially a tour de force. But that was a complex moment, in my history. As much as I wanted my success to be mine and mine alone, I was craving their attention, their admiration — their jealousy even.
My man was proud to be seen with me; I was proud to be seen. There is a glow to a woman who feels good about herself, something about having been fat, then thin, that is so much better than having been thin all along.
This trip was the return of a used-to-be-fat prodigal daughter. My parents were proud; my success reflected well on them — not an atypical narcissistic response.
“My daughter looks so good, doesn’t she?” I heard mom say to Monique, the “friend” who didn’t want my fat-ness around her pool. I’m sure Mom said it deliberately, in earshot of me, as a delayed apology for throwing me under the camp bus, so as not to insult Monique’s aesthetic.
Mom always complimented me through a third party; coming from a narcissist, that’s as good as it gets. For some people, that would be too little too late — not for me. Expecting more would be like expecting someone without legs to run; I’ll take the third-party compliment any day.
All the beauties in my family were aging and packing on pounds. I was trying not to be a bitch about it, but I don’t think I did a very good job. Growing up fat around them had been fucking painful. I was trying to take the high road — but I couldn’t find its map. It took years before I could elevate that inner debate. For now, I was a ninja — a thin one — and I was going to milk it.
The wedding was a surreal whirlwind: seven parties and hundreds of fancy dresses and elegant suits. We danced every night and took photos in funny hats and fake mustaches. My favorite part came one evening when they lit the ocean — I am not kidding — they turned on huge spotlights, and literally lit the ocean.
Packing to head back to Paris from St. Tropez, I rolled my red gown like Cinderella might have, smiling that there was no midnight curfew, and no pumpkin taking me out of the fairytale to a life of cinders. This new body and this new life were my new normal, and that night marked my rite of passage from my before to my after pictures.
The visit with my parents had gone well, so far. Leaving their apartment at the end of the trip, I ran into Valerie: pineapple-Valerie. Not that I was looking for revenge, but she’d gained weight. I’d lost mine. We exchanged a look that stated that fact.
My parents took us to the airport, and we got into a huge fight — not atypical for my family. It has something to do with my mother’s separation anxiety. To avoid missing me, she starts fights; being angry is easier than being sad.
Sitting on the plane back home to LA, I exhaled a huge breath of relief, as if I’d been holding it in for the past two weeks. If nothing else, to fit in my dress.
To have been twice my size and half of that, gave me two distinct existences in one. Having toggled my whole life between the two, this trip terminated the yo-yoing; establishing my tenure on the healthy side of the equation.
It took me a minute to adjust to my new center of gravity, literally and figuratively. I would pass mirrors, notice a reflection, and say to myself, ‘I love this woman’s shoes,’ only to realize they were mine.
Many times, I would stand next to a thin someone to take a picture, I’d think, “I am going to look like an elephant,” and be shocked that I did not, everytime.
A decade into a healthy weight, I found myself in a store, picking outfits, and when the sales guy saw them, he shrieked, “Honey, are you buying those for yourself? They’re three sizes too big!” I would go back to hunt for more size-appropriate things, and come back with 2’s and 4’s. “Sweetie, those are too small,” he would say, grabbing my arm to go help me find my actual size.
Body dysmorphia is more common in people struggling with anorexic behaviors, but not uncommon in my kind. For a few years, I underwent major renovations, inside and out. Being twice my weight and half of it in one lifetime is no small feat.
I love Michelangelo’s response when asked how he sculpted David: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
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