Two Cameras, One Fat Body: A Journey to Self-Acceptance

pink“You know Kim, you should’ve been up on that runway. You look better than all of those models did tonight.”

It was Dave Greer, husband of my mother’s friend Juanita. The Greers lived in our neighborhood, but my parents first met them at The Quartett Club, a social club where they were all members. I tended to steer clear of the Quartett Club, but was lured once to its clubhouse for a fashion show.

It was there that jug-eared Dave Greer sauntered over and fondled me with his gaze. He was always looking at me lustily, hungrily.

I wasn’t flattered. I reasoned that at his age, anything under thirty looked good to him. I was a ripe, juicy seventeen. And Dave was obviously crazy. Models were thin. I was not.

My mother pointed out that there were so-called “plus size” models.

“But it’s not just the fat,” I argued. “I have frizzy hair and a gap between my two front teeth. Models don’t look like that. And am I even tall enough?”

“You’re tall enough. Your teeth can be fixed, and you wouldn’t have that problem with your hair if you rinsed the shampoo out correctly in the shower.”

I rolled my eyes. The woman would never accept that my hair wasn’t somehow my own fault.

“Look here in the Spiegel catalog,” my mom said, flipping her favorite monstrous mail order catalog open to the fat girls’ section. She pointed to a brunette in a one-piece swimsuit, reclining backwards against a rock. “All you’d have to do is work on your stomach. Look. See? This girl is heavy, but her stomach is completely flat. That’s all you’d have to do. You wouldn’t have to lose a lot of weight. Just do sit-ups and flatten your stomach.”

Modeling was not my soul’s calling, but there were things about the idea I liked. I liked that models got to wear funky clothes. I liked that they made lots of money, and lived in places like New York and Paris. And I liked that they were “somebodies”.

And besides, the idea of being a model — that is, a representation of ultimate beauty, after a lifetime of being fat and ugly — would mean some major validation.

So I entertained the thought. My mother took pictures of me in our sun room with her 35 millimeter camera, a top-of-the-line Christmas present from Dad. We hung up solid bed sheets to create backdrops. I posed in different outfits. In some shots, we kept my hair naturally wavy. For others, my mother ironed my hair on the ironing board, so it would be shiny and straight. It was an old trick from the ’60s. I’d kneel next to the ironing board and lean my scalp as close as possible into the padded surface. With the iron on a low setting, my mother pressed my hair stick-straight. It was odd-looking. Unnaturally straight, without any sort of flow, with an inch of wiry frizz from the scalp.

We took the pictures to a local modeling agency, and the lady said I’d have to lose about twenty pounds, and have professional photos done; that no one would see me without a portfolio of professional shots, both head shots and full body.

In the yellow pages, I found a photographer on Bainbridge Street who took head shots and portfolio photos for actors and models. His name was Alex Wenger. I took the train from my parents’ far-flung suburban corner of Philadelphia into Center City, with a suitcase full of different styles of clothes, per Alex’s instructions. I brought a 1960s bell-shaped black velvet jacket with black-and-white striped satin lining; a 1920s white tuxedo with tails and black lapels; a black fedora; a purple satin blouse, a floral scarf.

Alex Wenger was a shaggy thirty-something guy with a spotty beard and longish, straight hair. He wore faded jeans that were baggy in the ass and an army green t-shirt.

His studio was scattered with lamps and backdrops, stools and big wooden boxes painted black, for posing on. The wall above his desk was covered in scraps of paper, magazine clippings and black-and-white photo prints, many of womens’ torsos with smallish breasts, their heads torn raggedly off.

He offered me a glass of wine, but I refused.

I’d sprung the extra fifty bucks for the make-up lady, who impressed me with her ability to resculpt my face with her variety of powders and creams. She thinned my nose, raised my cheekbones and coaxed my deep-set eyes out of my face and made them sparkle.

“Oh wait, I brought something,” I said to Alex, pulling a piece of paper from my pants pocket. “See how I have this giant gap between my two front teeth?”

He looked at my mouth, and I forced a toothy grin. He nodded.

“You sure do.”

“Well, watch this. I know it’s a weird idea but it actually makes a difference.” I tore off a tiny strip of paper and plastered it behind my upper front teeth, pressing it into place with my tongue. My saliva created a temporary seal. “Thee?” I lisped. “It ack-tully redu-thess the appear-enths of the gap.”

He arched his eyebrows and let his lower lip protrude. “You know what? You’re right. That is weird. But it kinda works. Okay, so let’s start.”

We began with head shots. Some with my hair up, others with my hair falling over my shoulders. I changed tops several times, creating different moods. I feigned sophistication, devilishness, wistfulness.

Eventually we came to full-body shots. Alex led me across the room to a grouping of black-washed wooden boxes.

“Come on, you little sex pot, you,” he said, then he belly-laughed, like he’d just made a damn good joke.

I didn’t understand.

I thought I was beautiful enough to be a model. Dave Greer thought so.

Why was the idea that I was a sex pot so hilarious?

I followed his directions. I put on a pair of black corduroys, a black turtleneck, my big black velvet Carnaby Street jacket, a black fedora. I perched on the edge of a box, tilted my head into a false sun. He adjusted the lights so a black shadow fell purposely across my middle, right across my bump of a stomach. I felt awkward. I opted for pouting and melancholy, because I was finding it hard to smile.

When I got off the local commuter train near home, my mother and sister were there to meet me. Their faces shone with excited surprise when they saw me, still in my professional hair and make-up.

“Oh my god!” my mother yelped, grinning out of control. “You look like a totally different person!

“Kim, you look so much older,” my sister remarked.

“It’s amazing what they can do with make-up,” my mother added, scrutinizing my face up-close and brushing a curly lock of hair from my face. “We should go out to dinner tonight so you can make the most of it. Show that face around in public before the make-up has to come off.”

When we got home I went straight up to the third floor of the house, where I had my bedroom and a little bathroom to myself. I closed the toilet seat and sat on it, regarding myself in the mirrored medicine cabinet opposite.

What’s pretty?, I wondered. What is beautiful?

You should’ve been up on that runway.

Sarcasm: Come here, you little sex pot, you. A laughing stock.

Maybe I had a face like one of those quirky visual puzzles they sometimes publish in newspapers or comic books. It looks like nothingness, a mess of lines or pixels until you stare at it long enough. Then you see an old woman upside-down, or Abraham Lincoln. Some people never see it.

Maybe if you have kaleidoscope eyes, like an insect, you see something beautiful when you look at me. It’s a trick. And maybe it only works with men over fifty, whose eyes are starting to go.

Hip people, young people, creative men with artists’ eyes, trained to really “see” beauty, like photographers, saw a joke of a girl. A belly to be blotted out in shadow. A middle like moist dough, Thick, cellulite-ridden thighs like pock-marked ham hocks. Someone to overlook in favor of childlike torsos with champagne-glass breasts.

The way I saw it, fat canceled out any trace of prettiness that flickered across a girl’s face, any potential for love-at-first-sight.

I never had been right, deep down. And I would never be beautiful. Only my grandmother knew how to love me. My dear little grandmother with her beak-like nose and tiny eyes, her father’s favorite. He’d always called her his “ugly duckling”.

“I hate you,” I said matter-of-factly to the painted face in the mirror. My jaw stiffened. “I hate you!” I screamed. “I hate you!”

I picked up the nearest thing to my hand — a bottle of shampoo on the edge of the bath tub. I hurled it at my reflection with all my strength. The medicine cabinet bounced open, but the mirror didn’t shatter. The bottle cap flew off and spread golden syrupy shampoo across the checkered floor in a wide teardrop puddle. I regarded it almost calmly.

“I hate you,” I whispered again, then stepped over the shampoo mess to the sink and began to scrub my face clean.

A week later I returned to Alex’s studio to collect the negatives and several contact sheets. The contact sheets showed the strips of photo negatives printed as rows of tiny developed images.

He sat at his desk, hunched over the sheets, studying the shots through a loupe. With a wax pencil he circled the ones he recommended I have printed for my portfolio. As his eyes perused the images, he said with a concentrated frown, “You know, you kinda have a cool face.”

Then he shrugged and shuffled the sheets and negatives into a neat pile, pushed them into a manila envelope and handed it to me. We were done here.

* * *

“Oh, my God.” My mother slapped the steering wheel in percussive disbelief. “Can you believe the nerve of that woman? Where does she get off wearing a skirt that short? At her size, she’s got no business!”

We were driving along Byberry Road, past the old abandoned lunatic asylum. A fat woman was walking with relaxed purpose along the side of the road in a black mini-skirt and t-shirt. Her arms and legs were thick and alabaster, her rear end ample and heart-shaped.

It was summer and I was fat too. I wore jeans and a boatneck tunic with three-quarter-length sleeves to hide my sausage-like upper arms and flabby elbows. I was keeping my fat to myself, sparing the public of my hideousness. Just as “The Elephant Man” John Merrick wore a burlap sack over his head when walking the streets of London. It was a simple matter of courtesy.

I was in my twenties then. By my late thirties, I was still wearing three-quarter-length sleeves in summer, and I’d only bare my legs when I swam. But the difference was, I no longer thought my body was ugly. I’d arrived at a place where I thought my body was beautiful. I still do.

To the touch, I’m scrumptious. The pinkish-white swells of my hips, breasts and belly beg to be caressed, stroked — kneaded like so much pie dough. And if you’ve ever actually kneaded dough, or pressed your fingers into a lump of dense but pliable clay and felt the sweet, aching satisfaction in your hands as you molded it — feeling it give beneath your palms, subtly varying the pressure from your fingertips as you slid them across the endlessly fascinating surface — then you know the pleasure of a body like mine beneath your touch.

Aesthetically, I’m pear-shaped. The contrast between my waist and hips is dramatic and unmistakable. It’s an exaggeration of femininity; like a promise of extreme fertility.

For an observer to be aroused by the sight of me should not be surprising, because my fat casts a floodlight on my pelvic area and is shamelessly suggestive not only of the babies to which I was designed to give passage, but of the sexual stimulation of which I am capable. It is a pelvis that can writhe with abandon and thump like a bass drum in arousal. The sway of my generous hips is like a neon yellow highlighter wiped over the word “woman”. My oversized hips are a bull horn screaming “woman!” I am a siren song to every other human being capable of seeping with desire for the female form. I am woman — lots of woman, abundant woman, ultimate woman.

This is what breast implants are meant to do, you know. Cast a magnifying glass over the inherent womanliness of breasts and attract.

Women get boob jobs to give themselves a certain edge. Frankly, I don’t see why they nearly kill themselves trying to diet off their equally bulbous hips. Besides, my belly feels just like a nipple-less breast. It’s like one giant porn boob implanted at my waist — a sexual bonus, if you will.

Archaeological discoveries like the Venus of Willendorf have taught us that early peoples, untainted by contemporary definitions of the body “ideal”, really responded to the big-hipped, big-bellied woman. They idolized her, literally.

And when I see myself naked, I see that body worthy of worship.

Everything changed when I got my first digital camera. It was a gift, and it came with a tripod. Alone in my apartment one afternoon, I decided to look at myself — see myself as I actually was.

I pulled the blinds and stripped down to my cheap polyester bra and teal cotton granny-panties. I slipped on my black satin special occasion pumps, then erected the tripod at the end of the hallway that led from the front door.

Pressing the camera button for a ten-second delay, I hustled to the opposite end of the hall and stood, hands-on-hips, letting the camera’s flash shower me in white.

I returned to the camera and reached for it, tentatively. I looked in the viewer.

Yep. I was fat. And at the same time, something about my body pleased me — the milky fullness, the inviting topography of its curves.

So I set the timer again, this time to take my picture as I sashayed away from the camera, capturing me in movement.

I was stunned by how sexy I looked. I’m talking drop-dead bombshell sexy. The kind of sexy that makes sailors in movie musicals spin 180 degrees on their heels and whistle, white caps comically askew or twisted in their hands.

There was a line to my body like an elongated “S” that riveted me. And I liked the way one of my ass cheeks cocked upwards as I threw my leg forward. Like a wry smile, or the cheerful buttocks in the old Underalls commercial that made a cute staccato xylophone sound with each side-to-side wag.

I liked these pictures. I liked the body in them.

Now I understand why every lover I ever had couldn’t resist tucking their hands into the warm, baby-smooth pockets of skin on either side of my pudendum, just under the fold of my overhanging belly. I understand the passionate abandon with which one man took my left leg into both arms as he knelt before my reclining body and kissed the leg’s thickness, stroked it wildly from tree-trunk calf to thunder-thigh, his eyelids half-lowered in a state of near-madness, overcome, a stream of pleasing filth dripping from his slack lips.

I no longer discount the lovers who reveled in the rolling cashmere expanse of my ass as having had “something wrong” with them.

Do people view fat women as unsexy because it’s what they’ve been taught since birth? And are they eating that opinion obediently off a spoon like a dozy infant in a high chair?

We look at fat women and are conditioned to think their thick limbs and juicy middles are putrid. But these same features fail to disgust us in other contexts.

We bite into a plump and succulent fruit with relish.

We put the corpulent plaster bodies of cherubs on display in our gardens, on our bedspreads in one-dimensional brushed cotton and on glossy paper we frame and hang in our powder rooms.

Every fleshy newborn baby inspires cooing and cuddling. We can’t resist fondling their soft, stout and unshapely limbs, tickling their pudgy bellies and nuzzling their swollen apple cheeks.

Every time I see a dog show on TV, I’m struck by how fervently we adore our fat little breeds of dogs: the endearing rotundity of lumbering bulldogs and chubby pugs, the sad heavy-lidded eyes and loose sagging skin of the sweet shar-pei. We derive joy from the appearance of these creatures. We can’t resist reaching out for them, encircling their barrel bodies with affectionate hands.

We survey lush landscapes with variations not dissimilar to an “imperfect” female body with absolute pleasure — say, an expanse of Irish countryside with grassy rolling hills, and clusters of boulders and sudden valleys, gullies and ridges and bald patches. Do these wide swaths of earth nauseate us? Is it really so much uglier when it’s made of flesh instead of soil?

I think men in particular are ashamed to admit to their buddies, even to their families, when they find themselves attracted to a fat woman. Sometimes I think they sublimate their natural desires just to keep up appearances. And that’s just plain unhealthy.

When I lived in New York City, I eventually stopped riding the subway because I was tired of being molested. Every other trip it seemed I was getting grabbed or squeezed or jizzed on. I’ve seen some clever, applause-worthy ruses for trying to get a hand on a boob. I even sent a stalker to jail — a wiry, drunken fool whom I first noticed when he tried to slip his hand under my ass while I sat. Men did strip teases to impress me; they pulled it out and shamelessly started whacking off as they stared.

Men were literally taking their desires underground.

That’s not to say I haven’t been hit on above ground, too. The male model from Italy who practically broke his neck to get a good look at me in the nightclub — and get my number. The driver who wanted to kiss me. And online, I can see through site analytics what search terms people use to find my web site, and I routinely find phrases like “sexy fat women”, “women with big hips” and “naked fat ladies”.

Not that long ago, I was ashamed of myself. Ashamed that I wasn’t strong enough to be the woman in that private living room photo shoot every day. It took some time. It used to be, when skin was bared to the emerging sun of summer, eagerly unwrapped and unsweatered and flaunted in the light of day, what kept me covered up was the disgust I imagined other people feeling for my body. I didn’t want to tempt cruel comments, didn’t want to imagine the ones people might be making as they drove by.

I didn’t want anyone to think less of me because of how I looked. I didn’t want people to miss my engaging personality, my wealth of good jokes and even better ideas, just because they were distracted by the details of my fatness: the translucent tiger stripes of my stretch marks; cellulite like a dappling of fairy fingerprints on my skin. I wanted a fair chance. For a job and equal pay, for a table near the front of the restaurant, for courtesy when I shopped in a high-end store, for lasting friendship, for unconditional love, for everyday kindness. So I hid my fat as best I could.

I didn’t just wake up one morning and find myself in a state of complete and radical self-acceptance. It was a gradual process, like easing one’s self into a pool of cold water one inch at a time, or gingerly and systematically removing a mediocre painted landscape from a canvas to reveal an earlier, priceless masterpiece underneath. I was gentle with myself. I emerged from my cocoon in patient time. All the while, I was growing stronger in there. So strong that when I finally spread my wings and bared my arms, nothing anyone might say about them could possibly hurt me.

Contact Kim Brittingham. 

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