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Getting Personal: “How Loving my Grandmother Helped Me to Love My Body”

The following is a guest essay by Kim Brittingham, author of Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting, and Live Large.

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When I was small, my grandmother was a chubby woman. She lost weight later in life and became a tiny, featherweight sprite of an old lady. But when I remember cuddling with her as a preschooler, I clearly remember her big belly. Sometimes I liked to lay my head in her lap, and her belly made a wonderful pillow. Beneath her thin cotton housedresses that always smelled of Ivory soap, her middle was lumpy and soft, yet supportive.

My grandmother’s later, slimmer figure betrayed clues of her once-higher weight – like on her upper arms where the skin hung loose in fleshy flaps. But that loose skin was also the softest skin you could imagine, as soft as a newborn baby’s. Often, I’d stroke her flabby arms and say, “Mmmm, your skin feels like dewy rose petals,” and she’d laugh or tell me I was “crazy, kid” or make a disparaging remark about her “ugly” upper arms.

In the most brutally honest core of my being, I cannot agree that my grandmother’s flabby arms were ugly or, for that matter, anything less than lovely. They were my grandmother’s arms, and I loved them because they were a part of her.

Before my parents moved our family away from my grandmother when I was five, I spent a lot of time with her. I wanted to be in whatever room she was in. On the sofa, I curled up at her side and caressed her baby-fine silver hair, plastered her face with kisses, and cupped my small, rosy hands around her own knotty, speckled, velveteen-soft hands. When I told her I loved her, she always said, “I love you too, kiddo.”

As I got older, oblivious to how I might be expected to curtail my childlike interactions with my grandmother (or maybe just not giving a damn), I always fell quite naturally and comfortably into our long-established routine. “I want to sit next to you, Grandmom,” I insisted – and at age four, nineteen, thirty, I snuggled up at her side and took her hand in mine.

In the presence of my grandmother, I returned to a place most of us leave behind for good in early childhood, a place where we feel and speak our truth without self-censoring or self-consciousness. A place from which we look upon our bodies — both our own and the bodies of others – with curiosity, incapable of cruel scrutiny. We notice that some people are taller than others, that some people have skin that’s a darker or lighter shade than our own. And some bodies are larger and thicker than others. I think of my friend Kathleen’s three-year-old daughter, who innocently observed and announced without judgment, “Kimmy, you have a big butt.”

As I get older I can see the similarities between my heavier figure and my grandmother’s. When I catch a glimpse of my own thick calves in a mirror, I flash back to seeing Grandmom’s legs peeking out from under a gingham snap-on dress.

I also have my grandmother’s former belly, and in truth, at moments when I collapse backward into my plump, inviting sofa and lose myself in the TV, I like to pull my belly out of my pants and rest my hands on it. It’s warm and soft and comforting. I’m done hating it. Hating the fact that it’s too big to even get sucked in anymore, hating the way it makes me look pregnant in sweatshirts and sweaters.

How can I hate something on my own body that I was capable of adoring on my grandmother’s? My grandmother was lovable exactly the way she was. So why should it be so difficult to love my own body, regardless of what stage it’s in? Why indulge in the preposterous idea that I am unlovable because my stomach, my arms, my ass, my thighs, are not what a shallow, money-driven media tells me they should be?

If I do happen to lose my belly, or any other mounds of fat, I’ll be left with lots of loose skin where my chub once was. There are plenty of doctors out there who’ve perfected the art of trimming post-weight-loss skin, and, I must admit, in the past I was willing to consider the idea. But trimming my arm skin is no longer an option. It would break my heart to get rid of something that reminds me so much of my dear grandmother – the only warm, living-flesh representation I have of her.

My grandmother was long gone before she actually died. Her eventual dementia was an effective buffer between my fear of losing her and her inevitable demise. It helped me ease into the goodbye. The disease made her unrecognizable from behind those wide, glassy eyes, and once her mind was gone, so was the woman I knew as my grandmother. The woman who walked hardily to and from the Salvation Army church every Sunday in thick-heeled shoes, even when she was well into her eighties. The woman who’d scold me in adulthood for slipping up and taking the Lord’s name in vain. The same woman who sent me into a laughing fit when I asked her what she thought of my aunt’s new husband and she turned to me with a curled upper lip and said, “He’s a nerd.”

Her dementia gave me time to get used to having lost her, though for a while I still had her warm skin to caress and her familiar, comforting body to embrace. When I held her, I tried to transmit soothing love into her body via sheer will, though I knew she would never be herself again. The Alzheimer’s gave her the expression of a contented infant. It made her speak like a child.

“Russell,” she’d say to my uncle, who was her caretaker, “when are we going home?”

“You are home, Ma,” he’d tell her gently, every time as though she was asking for the first time. One day she looked up as I walked into her living room and asked, “Are you my daughter?” I knelt by her chair and stroked her face tenderly with my hand. “No, I’m your granddaughter. And I looooove you.” I kissed her forehead and she giggled like a little girl.

“Do we love each other?” she asked.

“Mm-hm,” I nodded. She gestured to my uncle with an arthritic finger.

“And do you love him, too?”

“Yep,” I said. “He’s my Uncle Russell.”

Her eyes traveled between my uncle and me and she proclaimed, “Then we all love each other, don’t we? We all love each other here!”

I couldn’t help letting out a small laugh. In spite of everything, she was awfully cute.

My grandmother existed in a tiny world outside of popular culture and its poisonous prescriptions, a world with many tiny worlds within it. One of them was the little universe where her heart and mine coexisted. There were no thoughts of supermodels or sucking it in between us. There was only her and me, and the incomparable bliss we felt when we sat together, hand in hand, enjoying being together. And that love and sense of absolute belonging was bigger than any worry I’ve ever had about how I looked in a sleeveless dress. It was bigger than my belly at its biggest, or the biggest-size jeans I’ve ever bought to accommodate it. It was – it still is – bigger than any big jerk who has something petty and critical to say about the shape of a woman’s body – mine, or anyone’s else’s.

Kim2010cKim Brittingham is the author of Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting, and Live Large. She’s also a ghostwriter and content developer for thought leaders, marketing collectives and professional speakers. Learn more at KimWrites.com.

 

 

 

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Comments on this entry are closed.

ApresMoi ApresMoi July 8, 2014, 1:47 pm

Thank you for this beautiful essay!

mandalee mandalee July 8, 2014, 1:57 pm

Loved this so much. What a beautiful tribute to your relationship with your grandmother and body acceptance!

veritek33 veritek33 July 8, 2014, 2:39 pm

This reminded me of my grandma who passed away 22 years ago and I miss her everyday. She wasn’t very overweight, but she had a little extra on her. I remember her arms too. They were so soft and her hands had skin like paper. She and I would make lunch together every day and I remember her making herself a slim fast shake many times while I had macaroni ad cheese. I wish I could go back in time to before she died and tell her how beautiful she was and how I loved her hugs and that she should just have the mac and cheese with me.

Crap. Now I’m crying at work. It was a beautiful essay.

muchachaenlaventana muchachaenlaventana July 8, 2014, 2:47 pm

This is lovely, it really reminded me of my grandmother who passed away a year ago. She always had some extra weight on her, and it was one of the things I loved about her. She was the best and I never once thought that she was in any way less than beautiful or perfect, because she was my grandmother and I loved her. Great essay.

avatar Portia July 8, 2014, 3:01 pm

This is so beautiful.
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My own bubby was a bit rotund and I loved that about her. I remember falling asleep on her stomach as a pillow and I loved her exactly as she was. Maybe she felt self-conscious because of her weight, as she used to be skinny, but never let on to me. She stopped smoking when I was born and gained the weight. So, I kind of felt that the extra weight was love for me. I can’t believe it’s been 17 years since she passed away, I still think about her from time to time.

Addie Pray Addie Pray July 8, 2014, 4:41 pm

That was very sweet.

Addie Pray Addie Pray July 8, 2014, 9:48 pm

Also, Kim are you a DW commenter? What’s your screen name? (Can I ask that?)

Lianne Lianne July 8, 2014, 5:12 pm

I loved this so much! It also reminded my of my Nana. She had a little extra on her and I always remember thinking how soft she was. I loved cuddling up with her. She passed out 11 years ago and I too miss her so much everyday. Thank you for the beautiful essay and especially a great reminder about loving ourselves as we have loved our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, etc., no matter what their shape or size!

Lyra Lyra July 8, 2014, 7:57 pm

This essay actually concerns me a lot. I totally get that body image and self image is important BUT not at the risk of being unhealthy. Many, many, many people are overweight or obese. There is a severely obese man who lives in my apartment building who is on disability. He lives on the second floor and I’ve witnessed him completely out of breath and needing to take a minute to rest when taking out his trash. It’s really freaking terrifying. I would guess he’s in his late 40′s/early 50′s.
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Lots of people say “oh my mom was fat so I am too” or “I love myself so nothing else matters”. I myself am in the process of getting healthier and losing weight. I’ve been there…the “I don’t have time”, “my family is overweight”, “exercise is dumb”, “I’m not good at sports”…the list goes on and on. My grandma, who I never met, was fairly overweight and she had SO MANY health problems. She died at age 56. I don’t want that to happen to me, so I’m finally taking charge. I have a long journey ahead of me. I DO have high self esteem but on the same token, I know now is the time to take initiative. I’m running 5-6 days per week, I’m eating more fruits and veggies, and I’m making positive changes to help me reach my goals.
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Yes it’s important to accept your body and to love it even when you absolutely don’t want to, but at the same time it’s important to take care of yourself. “Living large” is not the answer.

honeybeenicki honeybeenicki July 9, 2014, 10:01 am

While I agree that it’s always a good idea to try to be healthy, overweight does not necessarily mean unhealthy. There’s been a lot of information put out over the last 6-7 years that the health risks in overweight vs not aren’t nearly what they believed them to be.

Lyra Lyra July 9, 2014, 10:26 am

I respectfully disagree. I’ve always been a bit overweight myself and though I’m overall healthy, my weight has always been something I struggle with…eventually it DOES catch up to you. The whole “healthy but overweight” thing is dangerous territory. Weight has become such a HUGE problem and I think people sometimes try to justify it (not picking on you specifically honeybeenicki, just generally). Weight causes so many health problems, not necessarily right away, but after 10, 15, 20 years it literally and figurative weighs you down. I saw this one study as to how many dollars people spend on healthcare because of being overweight or obese (insulin for type 2 diabetes, extra pills, etc.) and it was alarming. Literally billions of dollars are spent per YEAR on weight related health issues.
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This whole topic hits home because I finally did stand in my truth and I realized the number on the scale — though just a number — was not a good sign of what may be in my future. My family has history of heart disease and like I said my grandma had a bunch of health problems because of her weight. I think generally people need to be honest with themselves. Weight is a sensitive topic, but at the same time health needs to be the number 1 concern. Carrying around extra weight isn’t good for anyone.

avatar Dawn Tupponce Ross July 9, 2014, 10:03 am

I just finished reading your essay with tears running down my face. What a wonderful tribute that was for grandmom! She’s looking down from heaven so very proud of you!!! Loved tthe picture of you two.

avatar Millie July 9, 2014, 4:01 pm

Kim – This was so beautiful – brought tears to my eyes. As someone who struggles with body issues – I have always enjoyed your down to earth and practical point of view. I thank you for this – after all if we don’t love ourselves who else will. Your Grandmother was lucky to have such a smart and kind Granddaughter. She’s smiling down on you.