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.
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.
Kim 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.