41. Pork and Beans

41. Pork and Beans

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Curvy & Confident

Pork and Beans

The things we hate about ourselves aren’t more real than things we like about ourselves.

~Ellen Goodman

From my earliest memory I knew I was not what I should be. I was not her. It wasn’t my sister’s fault. Just a year and a half older than me, she naturally possessed all the things my father adored in a little girl. She was a skinny little thing with knobby knees, dark hair, olive skin and an impish smile. When she cried, he scooped her up. When her temper flared, he admired her spirit. He called her String Bean.

That was not how he felt about me. He called me Porky.

Maybe it’s understandable. I was unplanned and born on a particularly hot summer day when my father was out of work and suffering from considerable depression. Worrying about feeding the family he already had, he had little to offer a new daughter. But even after finances improved and his feelings for me warmed, I grew up knowing I was very different from the little girl he already loved.

My wispy hair was dirty blond. I was fair and freckled, with a tendency to burn. I was stout, too, outgrowing my sister by the age of three, which put me ahead of her in the hand-me-down brigade. When she tried on my old clothes, they slipped right off her narrow hips. “You have no meat on your bones at all!” Dad said with a smile.

I watched and listened, trying to copy my sister’s mannerisms, to be dainty and petite instead of big and clumsy. It didn’t work and Dad ridiculed me for my efforts. I tried to bury my hurt, but I kept growing. When I was a teenager, I dieted and fasted. I weighed myself incessantly and started comparing myself to every girl I knew. I took up sports, hoping to slim down. No matter what I did, I never lost weight.

By the time I was an adult I towered over my sister. She had remained skinny and topped out at 5’4”. I was an anomaly in my family at 5’9” with arms as thick as her legs. In family pictures, I looked out of proportion — like I had been Photoshopped into the frame.

Dozens of pictures—hundreds maybe—passed through my hands that day, showing me a truth that did not match my memory.

“How did you get so big?” people asked me.

Every time I stepped on a scale I felt sick. I knew I should weigh more than she did, but so much more? I fantasized about being small — light as a feather — or having a boyfriend who could put his hands around my waist, pick me up and swing me around. He would have a mother who thought I was too skinny and wanted to fatten me up.

Reality was letting me down and I kept gaining weight.

Then one day I was looking through old photographs and found one that struck me. My sister and I were about four and five years old, sitting on our father’s knees.

And I wasn’t fat.

I started digging through more photos. There I was with my cousin. Not fat. I found another with my mom. Not fat.

Standing next to my sister. Not fat!

Dozens of pictures — hundreds maybe — passed through my hands that day, showing me a truth that did not match my memory. I was never an overweight child. Yes, I was bigger than my sister, but the difference was nothing compared to what I had made it inside my head.

I was dumbfounded. For a long time after that, I thought about the way I felt about myself: my weight, my coloring, my clumsiness, my need to please people — especially my father. I thought about my sister, of whom I had always been jealous. She had grown into a lovely person who had her own issues with our father. And she didn’t choose her physiology any more than I chose mine.

Then I thought about my father, who was unkind and critical, but who suffered from life-long depression. Sadly, he remained unhappy with his own life. Was his voice the one I wanted to listen to, to measure my self-worth?

Then I thought about myself — the way I had learned to judge others. I was kind in practice, but in my head I compared myself to every woman I met, thinking: I’m thinner than her, fatter than her, thinner than her, fatter than her . . .

My father had taught me what beauty was and was not and I had accepted it blindly! I was wasting my youth, yearning for the impossible, caught up in jealousy, destined to fail.

But it didn’t have to be that way. I was healthy, with strong arms and legs and a brain that was pretty sharp. My father had let me down, but that didn’t mean I had to let him pull me under. I could choose to see myself from a healthier perspective. I could reject the worthless image I had let dominate my mind and rebuild a new one.

I gave up dieting and started focusing on exercise I enjoyed. I started running with a friend and took up Pilates. I made similar changes with food, no longer sneaking high-calorie treats but making conscientious decisions in the light of day. Now I eat right most of the time, cheat occasionally with joy in my heart, and forgive myself when I fail.

More important, I’ve learned to appreciate my own self-worth. My beauty is as unique as I am, and doesn’t need to be compared to my sister or anyone else.

I’ve also developed a new habit of looking at other women with love and appreciation for their beauty — never as a superficial comparison. It’s been eye opening and a complete blessing, because beauty is all around me, in all sizes, shapes and colors. Yet, finally, I am jealous of no one.

I would like to tell you that the change in me was immediate and permanent. That ever since the day I found those pictures, I have never felt bad about my body or freaked out about the number on a scale, but that’s not the truth. Everything is a process — a road that goes up and then down again, but one I continue to walk. When bad days creep up on me — days when my father’s voice seeps in and mars my self-worth — I remind myself that I forgave him long ago. That letting go of my anger and bitterness is essential to staying positive.

Now, when I look in the mirror, I like what I see. I am not the perfect weight or the perfect size. My skin is not creamy and my hair still needs lots of attention. But the woman who smiles back at me is strong and courageous. She has overcome a difficult childhood and will not pass on those destructive patterns to her own children.

I’m rather fond of her.

~B.J. Dilley

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