I met Veronica in junior college. Ivory-skinned and dark-lipped, she’d waltzed into advanced improv wearing a burgundy gothic gown, pointed chin held high, and waist-length brown waves swinging in a delicate arc against her back.
It’s important to note that, even without knowing Veronica, I could tell she took a lot of pride in being slender, and more power to her. I was obsessed with her lady Macbeth vibes.
Veronica wasn’t the nicest girl, but I followed her wherever she went (being “friends” while young can be so strange, can’t it?).
We’d sit in the quad or at one of the more visible tables in the cafeteria, and I’d listen to her brag about the “art gallery” her boyfriend owned in the basement of his dad’s bar where she and some friends still in high school would get together to have painting parties and roll on E.
“It’s pretty chill,” she’d say, her lax voice always sounding as if she were about to yawn, “you should come hang out sometime. We do shows.”
She’d hold up the camera around her neck then as if I hadn’t noticed it every week for the past several months. “I’m a photographer.”
(In my imagination, you’re thinking, Dammit, Evie, enough about Veronica! But this explanation all has a purpose, I promise.)
Everyone has that moment where they become hyper-aware of their body and how the world views it. Mine happened to be while I stood butt-naked in a diaper-scented room at a Travelodge motel.
And before these moments, there are often words that get the questions about body image and why it should matter rolling in your head.
The words Veronica spoke to me as we changed in a pool locker room one day were, “damn girl, you’ve got some nice tits. The boys must be dipping over you.”
She’d paused for an answer.
“Not exactly,” I said, adding, “but thanks,” when Veronica kept staring as if she expected it.
But in my head, all I could think was, How weird! Who says that?
I’m not sure why Veronica’s words had such an effect on me, but at that moment, something tripped in my head, and I became part of that statistic or started a long path down that road, at least.
I started to wonder, as I imagine so many have wondered at some point under unnecessary scrutiny and in their more insecure times, what was wrong with me.
My mindset relating to feminine physique was simple, and one I wish more people shared: if the doctor gives your body the green light, why care? And I didn’t.
I couldn’t even tell you what I weighed back then as a scale hadn’t become a daily tool for self-ridicule yet, or even found a place in my bathroom. (Not saying scales aren’t useful tools in regulating your fitness, but there are even professionals speaking against the bathroom scales, which can actually be a trigger for those suffering from an eating disorder.) I exercised every day and watched what I ate, more or less. My dance teacher didn’t pick on me like some girls (which is another story altogether.)
Up until then, I’d thought my body invisible. I didn’t like being wrong.
Maybe it was the edge of surprise in Veronica’s voice or the way her eyes lingered on my ass as we walked out to the pool. But all kinds of thoughts about the people around me and their opinions ran through my mind instead of the only question I should’ve been asking:
Why does it matter what someone thinks of your body?
A few weeks later, I received an interesting phone call from Veronica.
“Evie,” she’d told me in that same sleepy tone, albeit a little more urgent. “I had a model bail for a shoot tomorrow. I’m screwed.”
She huffed, and my ten-year-old cousin came to mind. “I need another model, but no-one will help. They’ve all got ‘plans.’”
She huffed again before pulling a Godfather. “There’s pay.”
She finished the word “pay” with an upward tick, not a question but the kind of emphasis given when an offer is made, though I hadn’t heard a direct one.
“You have to do it nude, though, and with another girl. I’m calling it ‘Lesbians in Love.’”
Maybe it’s just an excuse for folding to Veronica with little fight, but Veronica’s words came back to me then, and for some stupid reason, I wanted to impress her. Nudity has never bothered me.
So, I said, “If it’s not porn, I’m down. I don’t have class.”
“It’ll be vanilla, don’t worry. I’ll text you the details.”
The next morning, I set off to Santa Cruz, singing show tunes and feelin’ pretty fine about my choices. But my tune changed from Broadway to “Oh God, are you serious?” when I rolled up to a crusty Travelodge, the given address.
I hustled across the blacktop to room 118, looking like a dirty politician’s side piece. When I knocked on the door, and it opened, I rushed inside, but the smell sent me staggering back out.
“Breathe through your mouth,” advised Veronica with a shrug.
She rolled her eyes as she started to fiddle with the settings on her camera. I watched as she popped some Salvia leaves into her mouth and started to chew.
After a minute, she seemed to remember she wasn’t alone in the room, gave me another annoyed eye roll and a tween huff before gesturing toward a peeling white door.
“Lizzie is in the bathroom. She can help you. And don’t wear too much make-up.”
Once Lizzie and I’d had our awkward greetings and performed a last-minute shave job with our legs hiked on the bathroom sink, we entered the room. It’d gone dark save for the glow of the lights Veronica had set up.
She posed Lizzie and me on the bed, wrapping the sheets and blankets around our curves. Lizzie and I moved through a few positions before Veronica let out a sigh — much different than the huff — and lowered her camera.
“Evie, I didn’t want to say anything, but did you gain weight? You look kinda fat — puffy.” she’d asked, her brow knitting as she tabbed through the photos.
A small word with a large impact, but why?
I had, in fact, been “puffier” since the last time she saw me because life happens and weight fluctuations are normal — up to five pounds a day, in fact, especially in women (we all understand how our hormones love to wreak havoc during certain times of the month — hello water weight!).
Now, at thirty-two, I’d have sucked it in and told her to take the damned shot because my body is what it is.
But back then, as Veronica gave a dry smile and said, “I’ll figure it out,” I didn’t know what to do except continue the shoot in a daze. Once I got to my car, I cried until my eyes grew sore.
The word fat (and even skinny, while where at it) is small but can have one hell of an impact.
At the age of thirteen, I’d gone to the mental hospital for unrelated reasons. The girls with me, who were committed for bulimia, anorexia, and body dysmorphia, were not much older.
Did you know that of all the women and girls who claim to be unhappy with their bodies (remember? we talked about them), fifty percent of thirteen-year-olds confessed to dissatisfaction with their bodies.
On top of that, eighty percent of teenage girls, much like the friends I’d made, feared getting fat. In the U.S. alone, ten in one hundred of these young women suffer from an eating disorder. Eighty-nine percent of girls have been on a diet by the age of seventeen. And one-thousand women a year die from eating disorders.
Body issues don’t stop with young women, either. Any age and gender can be affected.
Need I go on?
My long-winded point is, people out there are unhappy with themselves, and some people, like Veronica, might not understand how destructive critique like that can be.
Whatever words they use, they’ll stay with us when we drive through Taco Bell at night and try on bathing suits. Or when an acquaintance greets us with, “You look like you lost/gained weight, good for you!” instead of a proper hello.
And this hyper-focus on bodies makes no sense to me, and hopefully, not to you, either.
So, here’s the question I have for you: Why do we care so much?
Veronica made a point to avoid me the rest of the semester. But during a depressing class party on our last day, she came to join me by the Save-mart cookies and orange drink.
She’d handed me an envelope; inside, I found several glossy prints from the photoshoot, the promised cash, and a note saying:
These are so hot! Everyone loved the photos. Thanks for everything, girl.
But her attempt to save face didn’t move me so much. I’d started my painful climb to realizing my worth isn’t determined by my appearance, and neither is anyone else’s.
Focus on what matters
Women are held to some pretty rigid standards the moment our bodies start to take shape. And while it’s important to stay mindful of what our bodies need, we are a lot more than our parts or what the scale says.
What I’d wished I realize then as a young woman, and what I hope you take-away now is that I still don’t have an answer. But at every size, all I wanted was to be happy and respected.
We all do.
Maybe we should focus on the outside a little less and worry more about what makes us who we are.
AND, on a personal note, I can now admit that when it came to bodies (seeing it from the other side of obesity and an eating disorder), I’d always liked mine, even if it was “puffy.”
There was no shame in liking who you are as you are — all of you. Or in keeping my favorite of the glossy prints under my mattress.
Because dress size doesn’t matter like we as people do. But appreciation for femininity in all shapes and forms can’t hurt from time to time.
And damn, do all our shapes and forms look good.