48 essays by Elizabeth Shé

Essay #23: billboards

In Love on August 8, 2011 at 2:20 pm

I spent last week in Southern California, where I grew up. Huge billboards line the freeways, featuring smiling women or men, posing sideways, with the phone number: 1-800-GET-THIN. “I lost 100 pounds!” they boast. Lap band surgery.

My stomach hurts just thinking about it.

I have felt fat most of my life, regardless of actual body weight. My earlier film career did nothing to dispel this, and the dance world is notorious for encouraging self-loathing. All those studio mirrors, all of us striving for perfect form. I could not look at myself with love, only criticism.

Recently I found an old picture of me dressed as a skeleton for Halloween, face painted like a skull. I remember putting that outfit on — black long-sleeve t-shirt and pants, with ironed-on bones. Loose clothes, covering what I thought was an over-sized body.

Looking at that photo now, I see clearly that I was thin, if not skinny.

Why the distortion? Even now, depending on my mood and the mirror, I can easily gain or lose 20 pounds in an hour.

Lying eyes.

Feeling fat‘n’ugly (that’s one word) is a symptom of a different unhappiness, not related to reality. The body is easy to attack when things are out of whack.

After Jill’s funeral, everyone came back to her parents’ house. Later in the day, her 7-year-old son opened the door to her childhood bedroom where I was lying down, trying to cool off. “Collier!” I said, sitting up. “Do you want to come in?”

“No, thank you,” he said, sliding the door closed.

Shit, I thought. Shit. I’m the wrong person. I am the wrong person, in his mother’s room.

I got up, and eventually found him in the pool, playing with his cousins. I jumped in and joined the splashing. I did my shark imitation, grabbing his toes so he could shriek and leap out, then cannonball back in for revenge. I wanted him to see who I was, not who I wasn’t.

Feeling like the wrong person is not new to me; it’s an old, familiar belief. I should be dead, instead of my brother John.

Outrageous.

My intelligent body compensates for these thoughts by blowing up like a puffer fish: I will take up space. I will exist.

Besides, isn’t it rude to disparage this god-given body and brain? I don’t criticize gifts from others.

I did see another billboard in California, near my friend’s house:
Enjoy Everything.

Good advice.

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