PRESENTING YOUR BEST BODY

The month before Beauty of the Broken was released, I had drinks with a friend who’d met me years before, when I weighed about 30 pounds less than I do now. I was a size 8 then.  Now, I’m a size 12. We were discussing my impending book tour, and he said, “Don’t you want to lose weight? Don’t you want to present your best body to the world?”

I’m sure he meant well, but the question rocked me. First of all, after spending years wrestling an eating disorder into submission, I was finally pretty a-ok with the way my body as it was, so hearing I definitively needed to lose weight was upsetting. Secondly, it made me nervous about standing in front of bunches of people talking about my books, because I wondered if they’d be thinking about the size of my thighs instead of listening to what I had to say.

I wasn’t always a curvy girl. When I was growing up, I was skinny. Boys teased me by calling me Scrawny Tawni. But when puberty hit, all that changed. I am not a naturally thin woman. I can get skinny if I really try (i.e. go on dangerous diets, throw up, work out three hours a day), but if I eat healthy foods and work out normally, my body tends to be about a size 12. I’ve always though that was a curse. For many years, my curvy shape was the bane of my existence. I saw myself as inherently flawed. I was 100% sure that every time I walked into a room, people were secretly disgusted by my hideous, flabby, decidedly un-supermodel self.

Speaking of modeling, I dabbled in modeling (and, I’m embarrassed to say, pageantry) in my teens and 20s. I was told I had a great face, but if I wanted to really make a go of a career, I was going to have to lose about 20 pounds. At that time, I had barfed my way into weighing about 40 pounds less than I do now.

aphrodite me 2
Me when I weighed about 40 pounds less than I do now (but was still not skinny enough to make a career of modeling).

So a Tawni that weighed 60 pounds less than the current Tawni would have been an acceptable underwear model. A Tawni that weighed 60 pounds less than the current Tawni was pretty enough to be seen in a bikini. If I embrace that version of what I should be, I am presently carrying around an extra half of a person, or a medium-sized German shepherd, everywhere I go. Every time I put on lingerie, there is an extra half a person sticking out beneath the lace. Every time I slip into a bikini, that German shepherd bites me.

me signing books
Me signing books the day I won the International Literacy Association Award for Young Adult Literature (Where is that German shepherd I’m hiding under my dress?)

When my dad died, the service was standing room only, and as person after person tearfully told me how my father had changed their lives, I realized I wanted to do something more with my life than be pretty. So I gave up on the idea of modeling. But I still felt pressured by the “cult of skinny” I’d absorbed in my short stint with pageantry/modeling. Truth be told, I’d absorbed the tenets of the cult long before that, when I was a little girl being bludgeoned by image after image of starving women presented as the ideal (and only) standard of beauty. But after my attempt to model, I felt even more pressured.

Pressured is an understatement. It’s sort of like saying victims of the Spanish Inquisition felt pressured by the iron maiden. Those ideas tortured me, played starring roles in my self-loathing, drove me to dream of cutting off pieces of my body so that it would be smaller and more acceptable, drove me to throwing up every time I ate, drove me to taking dangerous pills in hopes of making myself skinnier, drove me to running for hours, drove me to wanting to die.

I don’t remember when I stopped hating my body. It was a process. I released hating it gradually, as I learned to love all parts of me. I made a concerted effort to unbrainwash myself. I quit buying fashion magazines. I sought out images of gorgeous women who looked like me. I started to be nice to myself, to tell myself I was beautiful instead of ugly, no matter what size I was. When I worked out, I’d think things like, “I’m giving you this gift because I love you” instead of “You’re so ugly, you deserve to die, lose some fucking weight.” And all of that worked. I really did start to see a beautiful woman when I looked in the mirror.

me daniel wine
Me drinking wine at a winery with my dear friend Daniel (not the friend who told me I needed to lose weight). I picked this photo to include in this essay because I was embarrassed of how curvy I looked in it when  I first saw it. I’m done being embarrassed of how curvy I am.

So even though my friend’s question rocked me, I didn’t lose weight before my novel came out. And then I went on book tour. When you go on book tour, people take pictures of you.  Much of the time, you are standing on a stage, and the audience members are seated below you, which means you look larger than life in the pictures. As I traveled the U.S., pictures of  me showed up all over the internet, looking bigger than I thought I was. I’d like to say it didn’t bother me, but it did. A lot. One day, I spoke in front of 2,000 high school students.  Before I read from Beauty of the Broken, I talked about my journey from would be self-murderer to staunch self-embracer. A newspaper ran a story about me, complete with photos taken from below. Ironically, after giving a day’s worth of stirring speeches about self-acceptance, I was aghast at the chubby woman I saw in the photos. I was mortified. (Here is the article in question, along with the accompanying photos.)

But after I spoke at that school, I received hundreds of letters from students who told me my talk had changed their lives. A large percentage of those letters were from young women. I’d spoken to some of them after the event, and many of them were my size, or bigger. And part of the reason they hated themselves is they thought they were too fat to be loved.

Today, I saw the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 2016 Swimsuit Issue. For the first time in history, it featured a model who is traditionally considered “plus size.” (What the hell is with that phrase, by the way? Plus indicates addition. What is a plus-sized woman adding to herself? Another half a person? A German shepherd? At one point does a person go from being just a person to being a person plus some of something else?) Cover model Ashley Graham is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She’s also a size 16.

As I stared at her, someone who looked like me, gazing out at me from that cover that is, in many people’s minds, the epitome of the American beauty standard, tears welled. It was like I was finally being granted permission by society at large just to be. Not to be Tawni that would be pretty if she lost weight, but to be Tawni who is pretty just as she is.  I’m embarrassed that I didn’t have the power to fully grant myself that permission without seeing that image. But I didn’t. I was 98% there, but Ashley Graham gave me that final 2%.

ashley.jpg

And finally, finally, I had an answer to my friend’s question.

No, I do not want to lose weight. This is my best body. This is the body I was given by my Creator, and it is a perfectly lovable, breathtaking body, a body that looks like the bodies of many of my beautiful sisters in this world. My sisters do not need to see another skinny woman standing on a stage. Our culture has more than enough of those. Our idea of beauty is skewed dramatically in that direction. And skinny girls are pretty. But I am also pretty.  And so are my sisters who are my size, and bigger. I want them to look at me and think, “Well, if she looks like that, and she loves herself, maybe I can look like me and love me too.”

By refusing to lose weight, I grant myself, and those that look like me, permission to be.  By refusing to lose weight, maybe, just maybe, one of those girls who sits in my audience will decide she’d rather live her life than obsess about her size. Maybe one of those girls will decide not to throw up that day because Tawni said she was beautiful just like she was.  If my body is going to be presented to any part of my world, I’m going to make a real present of it, and I’m going to bury a little something extra in the package, like that candy bar your grandma sticks under the sweater she gives you at Christmas. Along with my curvy body, I give you the possibility that whether you are 100 pounds or 200 pounds or 500 pounds, you are breathtaking exactly as you are.

Give that gift back to me now. Be what you are, and love it. We could tag team each other forever with this “I am beautiful just like I am” thing. If we all presented the body we have now as our best body, imagine what a pretty world that would be.

me thanksgiving
Me at Thankgiving.  A secret about me.  I almost always crop my photos so my body doesn’t show.  I’m done with that too.

 

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