My best friend recently shared an incredible piece she wrote of creative nonfiction – her story and fears of taking up space. Alisha had always been a skinny adolescent, something our peers picked up on and ruthlessly attacked her for. She was made to feel that her smallness made her unwanted, disgusting, unattractive and so she sought out ways to make herself big, seen, worthy of attention.
It’s interesting how much of the piece I did not know, despite our seventeen-or-so year friendship. Alisha is more of an internal person than I, this is true, and we had some dark years, yes, but there are somethings I wish I had been told. Or, if I am being honest, somethings I wish I had intrinsically known, because, in addition to fixing all of our friends’ problems or insecurities, best friends are also supposed to be mind readers, no?
Regardless of my knowledge then, through Alisha’s brave and vulnerable genuflection, I know now and I can’t help but be influenced by her words, her thoughts, her experience into a self-reflection of my own. While Alisha struggled to take up more space, I struggled to take up less.
I have a loud personality. Volume-wise, yes. Loud. But also just an “out loud” way about me. If there’s something I love, everyone knows about it. This is how I came to be known as “The Billy Joel Girl” and/or “The Femi-Nazi” in school. People knew how I felt about everything, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to politics to my hatred of infidelity, alcohol, and drugs. I was a person with no secrets, the proverbial open book.
Being an open book left me as an open target. My willingness to share was also a willingness to be vulnerable and kids in school did what any kids would do when they smell vulnerability – they attacked. I was different, “weird,” open about my weirdness in a time before nerd-culture was cool and acceptable and the norm. Grade school was hunting season and my otherness was an easy target.
I got through mostly intact, though my confidence began to wane as I lost friends when I chose not to partake in the weekend drinking sessions at a friends’ parentless house. I knew what I was about, what I wanted, and my determination to become something more drove me towards a college that I felt would accept my loudness, my otherness with open arms.
Little did I know, I would still be strange.
In college, my strangeness centered around my academic prowess. I was surrounded by students who knew different acting methods, winners of the past five years of Tony Awards, who Mandy Patinkin was outside of The Princess Bride. I was used to competing for the A in Honors and AP classes against the future doctors and lawyers of America. Now, in a school where grading tended to be more subjective on our ability to “show up,” “be open,” and “act well,” I found myself a little lost. Grades mattered to me and if I expressed a concern about one, I became fodder for attack.
One such occasion was on the last day of Freshman year. I had been home sick with strep throat and my parents had to drive me the two hours into Philadelphia to take my Acting final, a monologue presentation. Once reaching the classroom, already exhausted from my trek, I sank down into a chair and turned to a classmate next to me, expressing my concern for my future grade and vocalizing my hopes that my performance would go alright. The classmate turned on me, announcing my “ridiculous” request to the rest of the class. They made fun of me, ridiculed me, claimed that I would only be happy with a 110% grade, made me to feel embarrassed for yet another thing that mattered to me. Something I had based my previous 18 years of life on.
Around the same time, I had begun to deal with sensitive health issues, what I would later find out was IBS with chronic constipation. (Woah, I know TMI, but I did tell you I am an open book.) Over the course of a year or so, I had begun to gain a lot of weight, was always bloated, was always painfully gassy. Every Thanksgiving, we all know how that feels: achingly stuffed with gas bubbles, made to feel like you’re 20 pounds more than you actually are. That was my every day. My life. I downed Gas-X like breath mints and took products like Citrucel and Miralax three times a day. With no result, if I may add.
I went to several (male) doctors who accused me of everything from an eating disorder to pregnancy. (It seems that male doctors are always concerned with these two things and insist that I do not know that I suffer from these conditions.) Finally, I tried a new doctor, one who stated my diagnosis simply: “You’re overweight.”
Now, yes, I had gained a lot of weight since high school, but I still fit into a size 6 jeans and, at 5’7″, I figured that was pretty normal. When confronted with this information, I questioned it, asked how it could be possible. The doctor marched me out to the scale (twice), me, clutching my hospital gown closed. He pointed at the number and said, “See – that’s what happens when you’re overweight. See?” After the second time, he marched me back to the room and performed a rectal examination on me.
Later, I cried into the nurse’s arms, she soothingly told me that I “looked fine,” that I “didn’t look overweight.”
I have since stopped weighing myself and refuse to allow a doctor tell me what is on the scale.
I had never been so violated in my whole life.
These two instances, along with my high school sweetheart’s infidelity, started a process in college of disappearing. I wanted to be smaller, I wanted to not take up too much space. I wanted to not take up room, to lose weight, not share, cover up, end vulnerability once and for all. Any time my once spot-on intuition spoke up (like when it suggested I transfer to a different college and study English and/or History), I ignored it. I began failing attempts to lose weight, even purchasing a bottle of Hydroxy-Cut. Twice. I think I hid it under my bed both times, never finishing the bottle. I began apologizing for my sense of humor, my emotions, my thoughts – shrugging off tough situations and feelings that should have been felt or explored.
There were small instances, certain people and places, where I felt safe to shine, to live out loud. But it always seemed that I would come across a reminder to hush, button up, turn it down a notch. (Including a restaurant customer who once told me I was “a bit much.”)
I subconsciously found jobs that suppressed me, I found relationships that were doomed from the start, I found people who kept me silent, and I drilled into my head that my voice no longer mattered nor should it be heard. I sabotaged my intuition in order to disappear, to not become a target any longer. I even stopped remembering my dreams.
My breaking point came when I was asked by a coworker at the restaurant I managed to proofread something for him. I comically cracked my knuckles and told him to move over. “I am a writer after all,” I said. “No you aren’t,” he replied. “You work in a restaurant.”
I was done being shot down for what I am, who I wanted to be. I was tired of being The Boys’ punching bag, someone to laugh at because she was single, didn’t wear enough makeup, and “took up too much space in the office.” I was even told that I wasn’t allowed to manage the restaurant floor one night when I had my makeup professionally done for me. I had become too much and shouldn’t be seen. I was sick of them man-splaining, man-spreading all over my life, making me feel small. Putting me in my place.
At that moment, I was ready to be the size I was always meant to be. Size Loud. I was ready to put pen to paper and allow my voice to be heard as loudly or as quietly or as sexily or as darkly as I wanted it to be.
Finally, after 28 years of adjusting my volume, I found where I was always meant to be and, luckily for me, my best friend found her perfect place (and size and voice) at the same time. Luckily for me, she and I found that our new life started where our old life began, by each others sides, toasting the world with our crowning achievement: our voice.