Looking at me you would not know that I am skinny. I have always been skinny and still am — at least in my head.
I was underweight the first half of my life. Even after socking on the pounds — 35-50 of them– during pregnancy, I’d shrink right back down to my skinny self. (Though after that fourth time, my waist never returned.) But then, in my mid-30s, I got knocked down by “yuppie flu” and gained thirty pounds in less than a year. My appetite thermostat reset, leaving me always hungry and too sick to move.
I no longer look or feel like myself. I have never been outwardly skinny again, and I have never gotten used to the body I now live in. My own expectations have been disappointed.
My mother had different expectations for me.
Mama was skinny and stacked. When she hung the wash outside on the lines, she always hung her double-D white cotton bras on the inside lines between sheets or towels. In our small town, Mama had to special order her super-size bras at the dry goods store down on Main Street.
I also wore a bra. It was what teenagers did back then. But I didn’t need it. I disappointed Mama’s expectations for me.
Her expectations were not unrealistic, given the genetics. She and her surviving sister were both quite well endowed. (After my aunt’s mastectomy, she confided that she wished they’d cut the second one off, too: the weight was a strain on her back.) Both my grandmothers, my father’s sister and mother’s aunts were all busty women. So what were the chances that I’d take after a skinny, flat-chested great grandmother?
Good enough, apparently.
My mother was disappointed for me. Boobs were an advantage, in her book. And she loved me and wanted me to have every possible advantage.
My two flat-chested great-grandmothers died in their 90’s, still skinny. My mother and her sister were skinny, too, and I got to share their high metabolism as a kind of compensation prize for being flat-chested. I could eat more cake and cookies than any of my friends and never gain a pound. And I was comfortable inside my washboard self.
Once, in the early days of my first pregnancy, I was pounding away at my ancient typewriter and noticed some obstruction when I hit the carriage return: my swollen boob was in the way. It was inconvenient.
So this flat-chested woman got to “enjoy” being well-endowed during pregnancy and lactation. Of course, I knew that big boobs attract unwanted attention but I hadn’t owned that before. Later, when E.M. told me, sorrowfully, how no man ever looked her in the face when he talked to her, I understood her pain in a new way.
My breasts, insignificant as they were, worked when I needed them but I preferred them small. I liked the way my clothes hung on me and I liked moving around easily.
Now, I’m not skinny (outwardly) and I no longer have a high metabolism. Clothes don’t fit right.
And who are my models for this new self?
Women like my paternal grandmother no longer exist. She was stout, with trim ankles and feet in low heels. She wore pearls and furs and hats. Her dresses were belted at the waist.She was a fine figure of a woman. She was a matron.
Unlike my grandmother, I have no pretensions to a standing in society, which was part of being a matron. It took some money to achieve that look, but the general demeanor was available to any self-respecting woman of a particular age.
My grandmother was the primary matron in my life. But even when I was a child, matrons were an old-fashioned concept. Wealthy society matrons like Margaret Dumont were often foils for the antics of the Three Stooges or the avaricious desires of Groucho Marx and those were old movies when my brother and I saw them at the Castamba Theatre for 25 cents a ticket. When I was in high school, grown women started buying into the glorification of the youth culture. My own mother dressed like a teen-ager. People often mistook us for sisters.
Now, almost all the models in all the magazines and catalogues are super-skinny, photo-shopped skinny on top of that, no matter what their age. My grandmother could enjoy her bonbons and bridge mix. These models look like they count the calories in lettuce leaves! What happens to women in a culture saturated with unrealistic feminine ideals?
Consider Dolly Parton, a talented and estimable woman, with a rich voice and a loyal, generous heart. Even she is not able to be who she is. She found it professionally necessary to surgically augment her breasts and have more “work” done as she aged. The way she looks now is a distraction from her beautiful voice.
What does it say about our culture when a woman like her needs to put herself under the knife to remain relevant in show business? When Carrie Fisher/Princess Leia appeared on screen as General Organa, she had to endure cracks about her weight — and she’d lost weight for the film!
I’d like to think matrons still have a place in a church ladies culture. But, as a Quaker from an unprogrammed meeting, I’m not part of that community, so I don’t really know if it exists. Hillary Clinton’s pant suits and precise blonde haircuts might suffice for some women (and most other female politicians). The gravitas necessary to a proper matron is there, but it’s an image primarily (I believe) adopted to be inoffensive.
Where is the contemporary version of the matron, one sans girdle and garter belt? A look I can emulate, without extreme dieting, manicures, or a face life? Dressing with character is an art and not everyone has the eye for it. I have some non-skinny artist friends who dress with style and aplomb, people who put fabulous looks together from thrift stores and consignment shops. But us ordinary people, who don’t have that talent, also don’t have the funds to hire a dresser to do it for us.
To be realistic, I just don’t have what it takes to pull it off. With low-to-no energy and extended bouts of inertia, I’m not up to it. It takes effort to create that look and energy to generate the aura that holds it all together.
Me? I guess I’ll just stay comfortable and insignificant in elastic waist jeans and denim jumpers. My signature fashion statement? Hand-knitted wool socks.
Margaret Dumont never had it so good.
But she sure looked super!