Chronicles of a F-A-T Cheerleader
The Origins of a fucked-up body complex.
A pudgy 13 year old girl in a purple knit sun dress and matching head band sits, locked, in her father’s suburban. She shoves down a few Reese’s peanut butter cups as alligator tears fall down her puffy pink cheeks. It’s Easter Sunday, and as she devours her sugary loot from the bunny, her heart is filled with a new found self-hatred.
“All this candy is making you chubby…”
Her grandfather, whom she greatly admired, had sat her down only moments before.
“You need to eat less, like your grandmother.”
He continued to say…
“No one will like you if you are fat.”
The words cut at her.
No One Will Like You If You Are Fat.
NO ONE will LIKE YOU if you are FAT.
NO one will LIKE you if you are FAT.
She eats another Reese’s.
She will stay safe in that SUV for eternity, she thinks, no one can tell her she’s fat if she’s in there.
No one can give her any more complexes if she chooses eternal solitude.
*Spoiler Alert: The little girl is me.*
When I look back on my life- I am sure that it is at this precise moment, this singularity of time and space that my entire world shifted. I go back to that sticky suburban, on that hot Easter Sunday and I can pinpoint the exact second where my soul got its first taste of self-loathing and shame.
It is the moment my innocence and blissful unawares were ripped away from me… to be replaced with a certain special kind of body hatred only a young girl can have; the kind that mutates as you age into body-dysmorphia and self-contempt . The sort of complex that festers inside your head and makes you believe you are "fat," even when you are not.
It is forever on, from that tiny moment, that I would not be locked in an oversize (and entirely maroon) SUV; but rather, in the emblematic prison that is:
Valuing yourself based on your appearance.
Now I’m not going to blame my grandfather here, entirely.
He was merely the catalyst that opened my eyes to the greater influences around me: mainstream media, my mother, advertisements, MTV, seventeen magazine and, worst of all, *shudders*
Other Teenage Girls
As if hating yourself for being chubby at the age of 13 isn’t hard enough, let’s throw in some acne, awkward glasses, a complex passed down from your mother, gap kids clothes in the late 90’s (which consisted of entirely too much corduroy) and – oh hey, JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL.
(*For my STL readers: Junior High is a cruel stratagem in which grades 8 and 9 are placed in the same school. So, instead of separating the children from the teenagers, someone had the horrible idea to put all pre-pubescent shitheads under one roof.)
Girls in Jr. High are a rare form of beast- they’re hormonal, judgmental, vicious animals. The popular girls (generally the rich ones with big boobs) would eat girls like me for breakfast. I was middle class, middle height, middle sized and right smack dab in the middle of their universe… I would not have been able to quantify this then, but my involvement in all things “popular girl” was, perhaps, my early efforts to 'stick-it-to-the-man', so to speak.
I never really shied away from their teasing, in fact- more often, I leaned in. If they called me slow- I’d join the track team. (Only to find out I was, in fact, too slow - so I became the track team manager.) If they said I was ugly- I’d audition for the leading role in the school play (only to be cast as the heinous sister.) If they told me I was too klutzy- I would walk around with a confident swagger that emulated theirs (only to subsequently trip up the stairs and break my wrist.)
AND, if they told me I wasn’t popular enough- I would try out for the cheerleading squad.
This, ladies and gentleman, would be the greatest regret of my life.
8th Grade- Women’s JV basketball
The only thing worse than the Women’s JV Basketball squad (I know, I know- you’re thinking ‘what could be WORSE than the women’s JV BASKETBALL SQUAD!?”) was being on the wrestling squad… I thank god every day that, at the very least, I made it beyond cheering from a seated position quietly rooting for boys in leotards, drooling profusely from their mouthpieces. (Always look on the bright side- amiright?!)
This was the year I was introduced to body shaming. The cruel heckles of the skinny girls and popular boys delineating the haves and the have-nots; the value of your person was only to be defined by your bust size and waist line. My waist line was larger than my bust size, so I will let you guess which category I fell into... And, because I apparently didn’t get enough embarrassment from being the tubby short cheerleader who had the lowest jumps, (because of the sheer amount of baby fat they expected me to launch off the ground) I decided to try out again for the next year…
9th Grade- Varsity Basketball
I had worked on my jumps, I had practiced the splits, I’d even quit pointe ballet to hone in on my “cheerleading athleticism,” and it had paid off! (Not in the long run, I assure you.) Varsity! Men and Women’s basketball.
While some would say the pinnacle of cheerleading was the Football squad, I was perfectly content to be on the sidelines in a warm, musty, half-filled gymnasium; rather than in questionably tight wind pants, “nipping out” in 30-degree temperatures in front of our entire student body.
The basketball squad would stand in two rows and the formula was this:
Boys Games: The pretty skinnier girls with the boobs in the front row (cheering for their rotating ‘boyfriend of the week’) and the girls with “heart” in the back.
Girls Games: The heart-filled chubsters in the front, the bored pretty girls in the back.
“We have to rotate to keep it fair.” I remember the cheer captain had once told me. “Don’t feel bad, you get to stand in the front for the women’s games!!” I should point out that no one hates Women’s basketball cheerleaders more than women who actually play basketball, so…lucky me.
10th & 11th -I can’t believe I’m still subjecting myself to this either.
By this point it was now a matter of pride. I didn’t like cheerleading, in fact I despised it. Aside from the one redeeming fact that I had a best friend on the squad with me, the rest of it was a total mind fuck. Every photo op, every rally and assembly, every game day I would don my cheer costume and hope to god I wasn’t too bloated to zip the skirt, I would say a silent prayer that whomever I was crushing on was out sick that day, I’d neurotically check my reflection in the bathroom to make sure I didn’t have a rouge, unsightly armpit hair. (*which actually happened once- I refused to lift my arms the entire game. I'll tell you this, it is incredibly hard to cheerlead with your arms glued to your sides in fear that someone in the stands might see your lone, half-inch long, first arm pit hair ever...)
The duality of life- wanting to stand out and be popular and beautiful, while simultaneously feeling the unending desire to meld into the background and hide in shame for being ‘too fat’.
Too fat to be popular.
Too fat to have a boyfriend.
Too fat to be a cheerleader.
Too fat to be pretty.
Too fat to have value.
Maybe it was me who had put those stigmas upon myself.
Maybe it was the mean girls and popular boys who snickered behind my back.
Maybe it was my grandfather’s words permeating my malleable teenage mind.
Maybe it was all bull shit because I wasn't actually FAT. I was a late bloomer who was still carrying around her baby-fat.
Maybe it was just a mindset that had now become a permanent part of my personality.
Maybe it was me not listening to everyone else around me who told me that I was beautiful and reminded me that there was more to strive for, more to be proud of and far better ways to find worth within myself.
The year I finally Split
By the time my senior year rolled around, I had given up on cheerleading. One of the bitchy “cheer moms” had stepped in as head coach.
(Cheer mom’s are similar to dance mom’s only, instead of forcing their daughters into the limelight, they strive to continually relive their own glory days from high school)
*side note: It is my firm belief that if your “glory days” were High School, you did not do life right
Anywho, Bitchy-glorydayswerehighschool-cheermom had decided that being able to do the splits was now a *requirement* to get on the team. It was a smear campaign directed precisely at me (‘the chubbier one’) since I was the only cheerleader on the squad who could not, in fact, do the splits. On the day of try-outs (I was the only returning cheerleader who had to participate because of the aforementioned ‘splits’ situation) I warmed up, stretched out, said a little prayer and went into the gym. Evil Bitchy-glorydayswerehighschool-cheermom grinned smugly at me from across the judges table… I smiled peevishly back and began my routine.
I jumped as high as I ever had, I smiled as bright as the fucking sun, I enthusiastically cheered at imaginary athletes from the top of my lungs and then- I LANDED my splits.
There I was…crotch to the floor- hands to god, in utter disbelief…
Bitchy-glorydayswerehighschool-cheermom’s mouth stood agape.
After the shock, and pain, subsided- I peeled myself off the floor, smiled (I think I may have even curtsied) and walked out.
‘That will be the last time I ever spread my legs for someone I don’t respect’ I thought.
(Not surprisingly, that would turn out to not be the case…but this isn’t the post for those stories)
Anyway I, of course, declined my spot on the varsity football cheer squad.
Instead, I walked straight into my drama teachers’ classroom and on with the rest of my life.
I would no longer be the “fat” cheerleader in any one’s book, including my own.
I look at photos from my cheerleading years and I see a smart girl who got sucked into the game of ‘popularity’ and defining her self-worth based on other people’s opinions. I see a little girl who was given an unfair complex about her weight at a very trying age. You can see that I’m smiling in the photos, but behind that, you can sense the strain in my eyes as I try to suck in my gut, you can tell the extreme measures I took to hide in the back or strategically place my pom-poms to cover my ‘unsightly’ chub. I’m 14, 15, 16 years old and I am hating every minute of it.
Looking back, I know I wasn’t really FAT. I was just, well- as Nancy Drew would describe it: “Pleasantly Plump Bess.”
Now, more than ever, I wish that my broader desires in Jr. High and High School had not been overshadowed by the justification I felt I needed by being defined as ‘pretty’ or ‘popular’. Rather, I wish that I would have prioritized them differently and endeavored to be known for being intelligent, authentic, compassionate and dynamic. (Things I would, and do, strive to embody later in my life.)
The problem with being a “fat” cheerleader is that those wounds don’t ever truly heal- they merely become scar tissue that, every once in a while, burst open. The pain of being the ousted chubby teenage girl only morphed into being a body-obsessed grown-ass woman who may never know true self-acceptance. The irreversible damage of my body complex has permeated every aspect of my life. It now must be a conscious choice, every single day, to not refer to my appearance in a negative way.
Even now, in my 31 year-old-post-divorce-million-dollar-doctor skinnier body- I still find myself comparing my size to societally driven ideals of the “perfect” shape. And while I can rationalize it and talk myself out of buying into the hype, my deep-seeded insecurities still permeate through and I am suddenly back in that suburban.
When I think on that fateful Easter Sunday- I remember perfectly the knit purple dress I had loved so much, a dress I would never wear again, and I can almost taste the sense of freedom. The freedom of being blissfully unaware that there was anything conventionally “wrong” with my body. It would be the last day for the rest of my life that I wouldn’t know what it feels like to be hyper-sensitive and aware of my appearance, and the flaws I now spot at every glance in a mirror
As I've grown older, become more conscious and aware, I make concerted effots to be more gentle with myself and, despite sinking into the occasional insecurity, I do know the following to be true:
Most importantly, though, I know that true self-love and acceptance comes from listening to and believing the positive influences in your life.
There’s a knock on the window.
The little girl looks up and, through her tears, sees her father standing outside of the suburban.
He smiles and waves, in his hand something gold shimmers in the light.
“Let me in, Bessie…” He says with a jovial twinkle in his eye.
She remains frozen as she considers her life of solitude.
“Open the door, Bessie!”
The girl looks closer and sees the shimmering gold is the wrapping on a handful of Reese’s.
She hits the latch and he climbs into the driver seat.
Without a word he reaches back to hand her a peanut butter cup and they each devour one.
After a few moments of silence, he finally says:
“Look bunny, you eat as many Reese’s as you goddamn want…
Don’t listen to those assholes.”
“…I’ll try not to, Daddy. I’ll try not to”
To hell with them, indeed.
NEW yEAR, nO yOU, nEW yORK
Reflections on the trials of 2017 and the rebirth of a boss ass bitch.
2017 came rolling in fast and hard, and like a double black diamond course with one bent ski, I went barreling down. It seems that you have to fall pretty hard in order to understand who will be there at the bottom to pick you back up. And, more often, it seems that it has to be yourself that does the rescuing.
2017 was the year my marriage fell to pieces, a divorce took me to the brink of my emotional stability, and through introspection, the support of a select few, and a reaffirmed belief in myself- 2017 also became the year I re-emerged as a new version of me. Better.
You are going to have to save yourself.
I am not generally a person who see’s signs, at least- not right away. I can usually look back on an occurrence in my life and say- ‘the writing was on the wall, I just never looked up.’
It was last March, the reality of my struggling marriage had begun to set in as the acceptance of my unbridled unhappiness festered under my skin, and I needed some space. I took a trip to Louisville, KY with some buds to see plays at the Humana New Play Festival. While I was there, immersed in my element and reeling from the freedom at which moving as a solo person gives you, I went to brunch with one of my oldest friends.
After catching up over mimosas and heaping plates of vulnerability –discussing our lives, partners and careers, we went for a walk. We wandered into an art exhibit that happened to be attached to the restaurant I had randomly picked that morning on Yelp!. As we walked around the interactive displays, we came upon a small white shelf unit with white rubber bracelets laying out in prayer votive fashion. There was a box with a lock on it and a small slit. It was, as the sign read; ‘an exercise in morality, feel free to take one- but what will you leave in return?’
We each dropped a dollar in the slit and took a bracelet.
Etched into the rubber it read : You Are Going To Have To Save Yourself
I am not a person who see’s signs... except for that day. That day I knew I had to make waves to get myself out of the bottom of the black pit of complacency and monotony that I had fallen in. I knew that it was me who would have to do the work, to make the changes to fix my marriage, to seek the help I needed to heal my broken self-love. I would have to reach deep down into my soul to find the courage to be better.
I knew my marriage was not sustainable. Perhaps I knew it longer than I will ever allow myself to admit; but I wouldn’t go down without a fight. I wanted to be absolutely certain that if it came to dissolution, that I had done everything in my power to attempt rectifying it. I wanted to be sure that however it turned out, I would not have to feel guilty about the result.
It turns out that talk therapy is a cruel beast for the emotionally repressed man and the overly articulate woman. After a couple futile attempts at communicating our feelings and problems, and numerous failed endeavors at fair discussions of how we had each let the other down, I feared that there would never be a level of intimacy suitable to a lifetime of mutual love and respect.
Perhaps a trip to the beach might re-ignite a desire to fight for each other?
But Florida came and went and more fights, than laughs, were had.
While in Florida, my husband was invited by his friend and his wife to Guatemala later in the summer and I encouraged him to go. I honestly believed that a free place to stay for 7 days in Guatemala was well worth it and he should jump at the chance. I thought it was extremely strange, however, that there was never any conversation about my joining him on that trip.
Later, in a fight, I would learn that he felt entitled to go alone because I had booked a solo trip to NYC for a long weekend to see friends. I was also informed, when I counter-argued that he had gone on a solo trip earlier that year, that his 8 day quest with his guy friends to raft down the Colorado river in the Grand Canyon did not, in fact, count as 8 days. ’Only 4…because the rest of that time was traveling time.’
He went to Guatemala, I packed some things and moved them to a friend’s basement. I went to NYC and, upon my return, left him.
Upon my leaving, we had been married exactly 1 year and 8 months. In the grand scheme of things, that is a drop in the bucket. However, while you’re enduring the separation of two intermingled lives, it feels like a fucking eternity. I am now quite certain that an amicable divorce is basically a unicorn.
I moved into my grandmother’s spare bed room, a posh condo in the Central West End, I practically had a wing to myself. She was generous, kind and patient; a grace I will never be able to articulate the value of. For weeks on end it felt like a new wave of big “D” bull shit would slap me in the face if I wasn’t too careful. One day it’s a counter offer to our original agreement, the next its subpoenas to rack up legal fees. A real highlight was signing a court order for the exact items I would be removing from my FRONT PORCH. (It took pot, Ativan and a bloody mary at 9am to keep me calm enough to navigate that experience.)
A job opportunity in New York City had poked its head into my life and I considered the move, a complete life change. I deliberated about what I would be leaving behind, or transversely, what I could look forward to in a total life re-set... Ultimately, I chose to stay and ground myself- a decision I will never regret. But as these swirls of decisions and homeless uncertainty whirled around, I found myself feeling only angry. I was angry at my ex for gaslighting me into believing it was my fault that he couldn’t connect. I was angry at myself for having married him, knowing full well that there was no real emotional intimacy there. Mostly though, I was angry that I had let myself get so far away from the strong, independent, confident and fierce woman I had been. In the dizzy madness of divorce, I was desperate to find my footing again. Desperate to arise like the Phoenix from the ashes of a failed marriage and show the world I was whole again. I wanted, more than anything, to be on the other side of it as soon as humanly possible.
Maybe the anger also came from needing to have patience, knowing that I needed to bolster up some universal trust and allow the chips to fall where they may.
It is the fall, after all, that gives you something to climb back up.
People do what they can for you.
Perhaps the most important lesson from my 2017 is that people will do what they can for you. Some people will surprise you with their strength, and still others will shock you with their fragility. A part of my anger was frustration with my friends and family at large. It felt like reaching out to my tribe was like screaming into a vacuum, like no one wanted to participate in the struggle, but would be more than willing sit atop the mountain and congratulate me upon my return. That being said, all bitterness aside, there were quite a few people in my life who really did step up, lean in, and participate. For them- I am eternally grateful.
What I realized is that each person has a different capacity for handling stress and a varying set of priorities for how they chose to nurture their friendships. I turned what I had experienced into an understanding that some friends just couldn’t be counted upon to be emotionally supportive, and still others couldn’t be counted on to be present and helpful in times I needed physical assistance. People just do… what they can, and there must be a different definition of that for each person.
I, on the one hand, am the friend who does things for people- so, when Danny called in October, I went.
“Your darkest hour is but 60 minutes” the saying goes. I think it’s more like “Your darkest hour is merely dusk compared to someone else’s struggle.” Danny had lost both of his parents within a calendar year-Christ, within nearly 6 months of each other. While juggling his big job and life in NYC, the legalities of estates, the emotional pain of losing your parents, and the house his father left to him- Danny asked for help, a help I could give. I flew out to Chicago to assist in cleaning out his father’s house.
I left for the trip anxious to see how Danny would be and nervous that I would talk about my recent struggles too much. Struggles that seemed trivial, given his circumstances.
Those four days in Chicago were the four most healing days of my entire year. By doing for Danny what I had needed from others, I paid forward the love and devotion I knew he needed. And Danny, through his pain, reminded me-always- to laugh. (at myself...and others)
We drank rose from water bottles in an Uber.
We ripped up carpet and drank cheap beer.
We memorized a storage locker number.
We spent $38 at Burger King (in one trip).
We laughed. We cried,
We helped each other.
I came home from Chicago transformed, a return to a more lighthearted and self-accepting version of myself. The darkness had finally begun to recede, the future began to feel bright. I rented a flat of my own and spent all sorts of money on everything from a couch to a new bed, right on down to the scotch tape and sharpies. I started over, on myself. I died my hair pink and leaned in to my “all black clothes, all the time” uniform without second guessing myself. I made plans with friends and filled my life with everything I loved, with everything I had put on the back burner during my turn as a wife. I got cast in a show as well as cast the first show I will be professionally directing. I started the website I had held the domain to for the past 2 years. I invested in self-love and acceptance. I embraced my flaws and promised myself to never let the veracious, capable person inside of me be sequestered for any reason, ever again.
This year ends where it began, in NYC- with some of my favorite people. The first of my three trips this year, I realized the rock I was under. The second trip in the summer gave me the strength to boldly go forward. The third trip will be ringing in the New Year a new way, it is a celebration of having chosen the hard path, and emerging victorious. Victorious because I am certain that I made the right choice in leaving my marriage, the right choice in staying in St. Louis, and the right choice, always, in trusting my gut.
2017, I did TheBessICould... but I am not sorry to see you go.
I used to be cool and smoke.