My mother kept two photographs of me tacked to her kitchen bulletin board throughout my years in college and graduate school. In one, I am twelve years old and have dressed up as a flapper in a real 1920s dress, black with maroon flower appliqués on the skirt and maroon lining that continued onto the very flapper, long narrow sash at the neck meant to tie in a bow at one shoulder and drape down the torso to the hip. The black velvet turban I am wearing is also period, having been worn by my maternal grandmother during that decade. An exaggerated cupid’s bow is my mouth. My legs are crossed coyly. I am a dead ringer for Clara Bow, but for the faux beauty mark I’ve penciled above my upper lip. In the other photograph, I am thirteen or fourteen, soaking wet on the front porch of the second house we lived in on Olive Avenue (the last house we occupied as an intact family). The Saturday Night Fever beach towel stretched triumphantly behind me I have taken to The Floral Plunge downtown near the recycling center every weekday for the entire summer for two summers running. The occasion is my sister’s eleventh or twelfth birthday party. Lanky and wrapped in her own towel Phen Trahn, my sister’s arch-nemesis and best friend is standing to one side and a little behind me laughing. (Phen and Sarah always competed for the highest test score. Tran won a little more often than Sarah.) I am wearing a brown bikini with tiger-like black stripes arranged in a triangle on each cup and in lightening bolts pointing toward or exploding outward from my hoo-ha on the briefs. My pose is triumphant, legs apart with one foot forward, knees slightly bent, hips thrust forward, arms raised above my head so that the iconic, Statue of Liberty pose of John Travolta hangs down behind me like the cape of a superhero. When each of these photos came back from being developed at the CVS Drugstore at the new Redlands Mall, I loved them. By the time I sent them away, I hated them.
I loved the photos because I looked good in them: pretty, well formed. They were just the sort of photo one’s female relatives would unselfconsciously tack to a bulletin board or frame in silver and display in the living room, and then to which direct the attention of visitors, those visitors politely opining that one is indeed a lovely girl. My mother-in-law’s house is full of photos of this type: herself and my daughters—big smiles on pretty faces, nice clothes on special occasions. (There is a single photo of me in my mother-in-law’s house—a wedding photo in which my hair is an elaborate Elizabethan up do studded with pearls and my gown is dark champagne with heavy white pearl beading. My makeup is perfect and I look as lovely as I’ve ever looked as an adult. In it, I weigh somewhere around 270 pounds, give or take 20, where I have hovered for at least one decade, maybe longer. I am fat in this photo. I’m pretty certain visitors are not encouraged to look at this photo. It is not one that is trotted out into the den, as I am not a show pony. As one of my husband’s childhood friends explained when I was complaining about always being sent out for office support jobs instead of office work jobs, “There are show ponies and there are work horses.” I took that negatively, but it now seems maybe I should have considered his comment more carefully: The receptionist and executive assistant does, after all, require “front office appearance.” Maybe the crushing dysmorphia I carried through my adolescence followed me into adulthood? Why do I even bother posing this as a question? Of course it did.
Hyper-compensation is one of the cruel ironies of dysmorphia. We bulimics, anorexics, disordered eaters, and food addicts are fashion-obsessed habitués of the cosmetics section of the drugstore (along with the diuretic, laxative, and purgative aisles). While we are certain that what we see in the mirror will send children screaming for their mothers, our costuming is perfect, our makeup worthy of Kevyn Aucoin. While I was on my knees in a pepto bismol pink bathroom sticking my fingers down my throat, friends were saying things like, “You’re so cute and shubby, Gordita,” “you look like a plus-sized model,” and the most damning, from the mother of a friend, “Your graduation portrait is lovely: the only thing wrong with this photo is you’re fat.” Underneath the perfect outfits, artfully coiffured hair and the carefully applied cosmetics is a little girl who knows she has to work harder at it just to be presentable, or in the best case, ignored. (As a chunky adolescent, being ignored is better than the boys’ moo-ing at you in the junior high hallways. Being invisible is preferable to pretending you don’t hear people calling “Hey, Romeo Void!” or calling you “thunder thighs” or “fat bitch.”)
Dear friend, Amelia recommended Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty-- the story of Ann Patchett's friend, the poet Lucy Grealy, whose face was the subject of her own book, Autobiography of a Face. Grealy suffered cancer as a child and wore the scars of chemotherapy and dozens of reconstructive surgeries as an adult. Truth and Beauty has obsessed me for the past couple of months. Usually when Amelia recommends a book, I order and read it promptly. Like a carbohydrate rich meal, this one loomed as both repellent and attractive. At least a year passed before I purchased it. At least another half year passed before I opened it. I read the first chapter and closed it for another couple of months. Then I took it to work when I started a new job—something to read in the lunchroom—and I was face down in a pile of… nutritious greens? Or is it chocolate? Particularly extraordinary, beyond the fact of Lucy Grealy’s life experience, is Patchett’s description of how dysmorphia works both ways. Patchett describes Grealy’s personals ad date with George Stephanopoulos, and the ego gratification Grealy enjoys in telling the story of the date. At a dinner party, Grealy tells the story and another writer asks if Stephanopoulos knew she was disfigured prior to their meeting. This question sucks the air from the room and from Grealy’s lungs. She runs from the room.
In that anecdote is a truth I recognize in myself: the dysmorphic indulge in believing they are just like everyone else, perhaps even attractive, or in my case, exceptionally attractive. How is this possible? Do we not have mirrors to look in? Do we not notice the size of our clothes when we pull them from the closet? Here is my theory: the same disconnection from reality that allowed me to function walking down the hallways from one class to another at Cope Junior High, allows me to focus only on my face in the mirror, to see only the outfit as I imagine it in my head (as opposed to how it looks on my body in the mirror), to filter through what people say or do not say and chose what makes me happy or least at peace. Here is another theory: it is the constructing of such worlds, actively piecing together a sustainable relationship to reality (which ultimately isn’t reality at all) that has fed my facility for imaginative thought. My self image is the product of three funhouse mirrors arranged as for a fitting area, reflecting back and forth, no single image accurate, or and here’s the scary part, no warped image is inaccurate because self image is, ultimately, something that only exists in our minds.
Further horror: I identify deeply, not with Ann Patchett, but with Lucy Grealy, and it’s not the MFA and the poet who petered out thing. It’s Grealy repeatedly asking, “Do you love me?” “Do you love me the most?” “Will I ever have sex again?” It’s the sex almost exclusively outside committed relationship because you have to take it where and when you can get it; you know what they say about beggars. It’s the endless search for who I am because believing something positive is so very fleeting and difficult. Because believing something damning is likewise unsustainable and ultimately defeating. Neither the worst case nor the best case is the truth: the truth is unstable, refracted across the faces of loved ones and strangers and my bathroom mirror then negotiated between all those perspectives before gathering into a smoky image that threatens to materialize as something substantive and focused only to implode on itself and disappear, replaced with the latest warm greeting or disapproving look of assessment.
It occurred to me that I should at least know what Lucy Grealy looked like before I claim any kind of emotional kinship. She looks far better than I expected. She had a pleasant face, a face that looks to have begun basically attractive and then became damaged some around the lower half. I claim no physical parity with her. She prided herself on her lean figure, her coltish legs, Fitch writes. Her relationship with food was torturous in its physicality, not emotionally; my tortured relationship with food is mostly joyous lately and began and remains a problem rooted in psychology more than in any difficulty in merely swallowing. I have no problem swallowing food in great quantities. In fairness to Grealy, I suspect she would rather have died than be fat. She made a point of being thin and muscular. There is no mention of her ever believing that when people fall in love they fall in love with the person, not the body. That is a bromide people who are fundamentally attractive like to believe about themselves, so that they have some confirmation that the gifts offered to them have some origin in the attractive party’s quality as a human being, rather than as an object. (Tell the pretty girls they’re smart and the smart ones they’re pretty.) Lucy Grealy probably knew very well that “will I ever have sex again?” was a legitimate question. I would caution that while the answer is “yes, of course,” it is the circumstances under which the marginally attractive copulate that are the bitch.
When I was newly bulimic and attending junior high school, I went to the multiplex at the Carousel Mall in San Bernardino with Brian and Monica, and Brian’s parents/my godparents Nancy and Phil to see The Elephant Man. It remains one of my favorite movies. The stage play also remains one of my favorites. For the next decade, whenever I needed a good cry, I watched The Elephant Man. Do I identify with John Merrick? Of course. Who doesn’t? What kind of person does not carry some kind of damage that makes him fear he is ultimately unworthy of love? Or too damaged to accept love when it is offered? Or too self-involved to be of any use to anyone who might attempt to love us? When asked why it is one of my favorite movies, I used to talk about canted angles, subjective film making, fine performances, beautiful cinematography. Yeah, that’s all true; The Elephant Man is movie making of the highest order, but the reason I weep like a penitent pretty much from the opening scene on is that I feel John Merrick’s pain. (And yes, I’m aware of how melodramatic and self-indulgent that sounds.) Deep down, some of us are freaks whether or not others can see the evidence of our criminally malformed souls and bodies. One of us, one of us . . .
People like Lucy Grealy (and me) who genuinely have a defect are excluded from the diagnosis of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) put forth in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that is to say, part of the diagnosis for BDD is that the perceived disfigurement is merely perceived and not actual. When visiting a therapist, Lucy Grealy would likely have been excluded from the diagnosis as she did, in fact, have a facial deformity. Likewise, people like me, who are genuinely fat, fall under some other rubric of mental illness when presenting with BDD symptoms. Nonetheless, being me being fat trying to figure out who I am and what I look like in the world of other people feels crazy. Truth and Beauty in many ways points to a similar crazy in Lucy Grealy. Further, when I read through the list of symptoms, that crazy person sounds an awful lot like someone I hold dear: me. (I wonder if the advice psychologists are supposed to offer us freaks is similar to that my mother offered me. Do they lean forward and offer in kinder words, stop being a freak?)
Back to the photographs: when I sent the photographs away, I did so in response to a question posed by my mentor: Did I remember or know what I look like thin? After age 14, I never again looked the same size as my skinny peers. These two photographs were iconic in my household as the best evidence of what I could have been—a person whose non-existence my mother mourned, hoped for, and tried in her own adolescent way to encourage into being (the advice “just stop eating,” a Venus De Milo membership as my 14th birthday present, a refusal to buy “nice clothes” until I reached my goal weight, the frantically tearful pronouncement that I had ruined the beautiful body she had given me). Sending the photographs away in the mail purged them from my mother’s house. I probably wanted to purge them from my mother’s psyche and my own. By my early twenties, I was determined to prove that the person I was, whomever she might be, was lovable. (How could my mother love me, if she were still mourning the girl she didn’t have?) Tucked into a letter that likely contained many other less interesting observations, the photographs traveled along Interstate 10 from Redlands to Pasadena, arriving at the home of my professor like so much weapons grade plutonium—what else could a photograph of a bikini clad, 13 year old girl mean to a college professor? Needless to say, it is highly likely that the photographs no longer exist.