Pieces

Published on November 12, 2017 by   ·   2 Comments

I used to love my legs.

Pieces 04I remember when I was in 6th grade, I had this pair of white swimming trunks that were super short and cut up high on the side; they looked like the shorts from the 80s where the front and back connected on the upper thigh, creating a suggestive point.  These shorts were like that except they just overlapped and were stitched separately to the waistband so as I was swimming or walking they would sometimes part a little more than usual and show off my upper leg, sometimes almost all the way to the hip bone.

That was the first time I ever experienced a piece of clothing as erotic.  Not cheap and pre-packaged eroticism like the lingerie I would sometimes see in a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog; just the pure sensual feeling of a regular garment against skin that produced an electric feeling deep inside me. And while I’ve had some articles of clothing since that made me feel sexy or attractive, I’ve never found anything quite like those shorts.

Those shorts were good, but the other half of my response (perhaps even the more important piece) was how I felt about my legs.

Pieces 06When I was young and sassy, I always insisted that I was cute.  I said it a lot, and I meant it.  In 5th grade, puberty kicked in and I started to “fill out,” the polite phrase adults sometimes use to indicate that you’re putting on weight.  In the summer, I was obsessed with swimming, so while my upper body began to wear my new development in somewhat unflattering ways, my legs were solid and dense with young muscle.  If I was in the sun for a hot second, I would take on a peachy glow that darkened throughout the summer into a deep, deep brown.  I remember my mom once referring to me as “her little Indian” because of how easily my skin took on a tan.  Not the most politically correct moniker, but we didn’t really do political correctness in the 80s in Bowbells, ND.   As I got older and puberty got a deeper hold on my body, my beloved straw blonde hair darkened to what my mother called “dishwater blonde,”an apt description that I never entirely forgave her for.  I never got over the sting of that particular betrayal on the part of Mother Nature; decades later and I’m still coloring my hair.  My skin stopped taking on that burnished bronze look I treasured and I settled into a pattern of angry sunburns that would, if I was lucky, fade into a light semblance of a suntan that I didn’t love, but that was better than nothing.  Everything felt like it was changing, except my legs: they stayed strong and toned.

Pieces 03One summer in high school, I decided to try reclaiming some of my youthful glory and bought myself a self-tanning cream off the Walmart shelf.  I dutifully applied layer after layer until I was maybe one shade away from that bronzed perfection I remembered.  I probably should have stopped there; I should have decided that this was lovely and it was enough.  But I am who I am and enough was never enough.  So I put on one last coat, finishing out the contents of the bottle.

I turned the most bizarre shade of radioactive orange I have ever seen.  You could almost see what I was going for beneath the practically glow-in-the-dark radiance of my legs, but no one but me was looking that deeply.  I was the only one who wanted to see that burnished bronze, so everyone else just saw orange.

As it faded, I remember seeing small freckle-like dots on my legs for the first time.  I thought I did it, like it was some sort of punishment for not being able to exercise control over that awful self-tanner.  I didn’t realize that it was just my legs changing along with the rest of my body.  This was the first change, and I wasn’t really ready to receive it or understand it.

Those dots were just the first change, but not the last.  Piece by piece, with each scrape and scar I saw those legs that I loved change, lose the shape I loved.  They kept their muscled core, but they spread a little further when I sat down and the color was never quite right.  There were marks from where I had stumbled or knocked into something in my usual clumsy way.  My ankles thickened to match the rest of my body.  Little by little I saw my legs transform to something I barely recognized.

Pieces 07Now if you ask me what I love about my body, I’m going to talk about the modifications, the places where I’ve made a conscious effort to take control – my hair when it’s freshly colored (bleached blonde or hot pink or some other crazy color that makes me smile) or the Playboy bunny tattoo on my left shoulder.  It’s not about what I have, but what I’ve made with it.

And I’m working on loving these legs; I’m trying so fucking hard, and some days I really do get close.  I think about the importance of body positivity and I repeat my mantras and I look at my legs and I get really close to some sort of love.  But it’s not the same.  It’s like having some sort of heirloom or keepsake that means a lot to you, and it gets broken.  Maybe you try to glue it back together, or you keep the pieces and keep the memory of the intact whole in your mind, our you throw it away and find something to replace it.  You can appreciate it, and the breaking becomes a part of the story, but it’s never quite the same; nothing can replace that piece of your heart.  It becomes a new piece of your heart, of your story, and you just do what you can to keep the pluses ahead of the minuses.

I’m in the hospital for a skin infection in my lower right leg.  Officially, it’s caused by bacteria entering an open wound and infecting the cellulite layer of the skin, but behind everyone’s concerned faces and patronizing tones, it’s being made very clear that the real cause is in my poor life choices and my refusal to stop existing in the world as a fat person.

I’ve been angry several times during my stay.  I was angry when the young aide told me that the blood pressure cuff above my bed wasn’t possibly big enough to fit on my upper arm, despite me trying to explain that it was the exact same cuff the staff had been using (successfully) the last two days.  I was angry with the way she patronized me when I told her I was sure it would fit, and she still put it on my forearm.  I’ve been angry when random nurses or other staff just casually ask me if I am diabetic, if I suffer from sleep apnea, or if I have mobility issues, as if these sorts of random assumptions would ever be appropriate if I wasn’t a fat person.  Can you imagine walking into the room of a stranger, not even consulting their chart or their records, and asking, “Oh are you schizophrenic?”  “Do you have a learning disability?”  “Have you been checked for syphilis?”

Pieces 08I was angry enough at my primary care doctor to contact the hospital social worker and have her removed from my case.  The hard hospital bed made it difficult for me to follow her recommendation that I elevate my foot above my heart.  If I laid the whole bed flat and put pillows under my infected leg, there wasn’t enough cushioning on my upper body and I would get severe pain in my back.  If I laid the top part of the bed flat and raised both feet above my head I had slightly less pain in my back but I began to feel dizzy from all of the blood rushing to my head.  She took the word dizzy and launched into a monologue about how I needed to be checked for sleep apnea, despite the fact that I had none of the symptoms of sleep apnea and the even more obvious fact that the dizziness I was describing occurred when I was fully awake.  I told her that I didn’t want to pursue this testing as I was comfortable that I didn’t have it and my concerns were about the bed and was interested in finding alternate ways to elevate my leg.  Her response?  To explain in full doom and gloom details the risks and complications of undiagnosed sleep apnea including increased risk of a whole host of things that would surely lead to me dying in my sleep.

I was angry when her replacement showed up and talked about the way he wanted to approach my treatment since I was diabetic.  When I told him that I wasn’t diabetic and that a simple review of my medical records would have made this clear, he acted visibly surprised and then talked about why he thought I was and the risks I would probably face whether I thought I was diabetic or not, and mostly ignored the problem I was in the hospital to solve.

A lot of things made me angry, but only one thing made me cry.

PIeces 02The resident is sort of awkward and her bedside manner is visibly forced, but there is nothing malicious about her.  She reminds me of Clea DuVall in But I’m A Cheerleader; she’s odd and bookish and I can’t help but feel like if we had met in a different context I would have really liked her.  She’s examining my leg: looking at the skin marker borders from the ER compared to the current topography of infection, looking for positive signs and talking about what great progress I’m making, how I’ll be up and around again in no time.

Then, as she’s pressing down on the top of my foot to gauge the edema, she says, “Chronic changes in the legs, though.”

After she left, with snowy gray light filtering in through the window shades, I cried alone in the semi-dark.

I cried for the way that small handful of words encompassed decades of wearing away at the part of my body I once loved the most, the part that felt the most me.  I cried for every piece of that love chipped away in scrapes that never healed nicely, each new change in shape and size and color, every new change that ever weighed on my mind.

I cried for my impulse to always want to make love in the dark – not out of shame, but so that I can experience my body, and especially my legs, in a more tactile way without being confronted by the truth of the visible.

And I cried for that stupid boy, bronzed legs in a pair of white trunks, the plasticy fabric moving as he swims or walks, and the electric charge he feels but doesn’t entirely understand when those flaps part, revealing skin previously hidden like an invitation to himself, naively believing that this invitation didn’t come with an expiration.

Pieces 09After I cried, that’s when I started speaking up: about the questions, the judgements, the assumptions, and the unacceptable treatment from healthcare professionals who violated my trust when I was vulnerable.  It didn’t change those words, or the loss they’ve come to embody.  But it’s what I can do to try to keep some balance in the pluses and the minuses.  I can do it to help keep me going on that journey to find some kind of love for the body I have now.  And I can do it for those people who can’t say it, who experience the same sort of treatment and don’t feel brave or strong enough to speak, or worse, believe that they deserve it.  Because they don’t.  We don’t.  I don’t.

So bring it on, world: if you try to serve up some body-shaming bullshit, you’re going to get a piece of my mind.

You’ve already got a piece of my heart, and you can’t just take the good stuff.

Pieces 10

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Readers Comments (2)
  1. Lisa Shanklin says:

    Chris,
    I love you. That was something I’ll cherish. Thanks for sharing your inner self.

  2. Natalina says:

    Your heart is so beautiful.





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