GROWING PAINS | Emer O’Toole looks back at a changing body over the years.
by Emer O’Toole
There’s a photo of you stuck to the fridge in your kitchen. In it, you’re wearing a long green dress and white sandals, and you’re smiling sweetly at the camera. There’s a bow in your hair, and there are roses and honeysuckle clambering up the fence in the background.
The photo will hang there for years. Every so often, your mum will lift it down, all misty-eyed, and remind you that you dragged her out to your aunt and uncle’s back garden in England and that you made her take that picture of you sitting on their brick wall.
Looking at the photo a decade later, you’ll feel like your heart’s being cleaved in two. There are about six photos, in total, of you as a teenager.
When you look at the photo as an adolescent, your insides will contort with envy at the blitheness and confidence of baby you – the ease with which you effortlessly inhabited your own body, and the quiet, rock-solid surety with which you’d decided you deserved to be documented.
When you look at the photo as an adolescent, your insides will spasm with embarrassment, and anger. What made baby you think she was worthy?
Your great-aunt is putting the finishing touches to your First Communion dress – a puffy white meringue of a thing – and she tells you that in the upcoming weeks, you should ‘stop eating all those fish suppers’, so that the dress looks nice on you.
You’re confused. You’ve never eaten a whole fish supper in your life, and your family only has chips once a week, on Fridays, but you nod manically to appease her, and to get her to stop tugging her tape measure around your stomach, which suddenly feels like a sore, swollen rubber ring on the verge of bursting.
You’re squeezed into a cramped changing-room cubicle before your P5 class’s first swimming lesson. You squeal at your classmate not to turn around, as you haven’t got your boobs covered yet. She informs you somewhat drily that she hasn’t got boobs yet.
That entire term, you don’t take in a single thing about doggy paddles, or breaststroke, or what you should do if you come across a rubber brick that’s dying a slow and watery death.
You’re too preoccupied by how your thighs wobble and shake on the hundred-mile long hike from the changing room to the poolside, and how your friends all look like tiny paper dolls beside to you. If you tread on them by accident they might crumple and fall into the water below.
Ten and a half
Through no fault of your own, you grow three inches in as many months and your life bursts into golden sunshine.
Adults – grandparents, aunts, uncles, your parents, your teachers, your neighbours – tell you how much weight you’ve lost, how tall and skinny you look, how beautiful you are now. How beautiful you are – now. You weep with relief in the bathroom: thank God, these last few years were just a blip. You’re going to be okay.
Ten and three quarters
You stop growing taller and everyone stops telling you how good you look. Everything goes back to normal, and you aren’t pretty anymore. Awk, well. It was nice while it lasted.
Boys five years older than you lean out of the senior school PE changing rooms to whoop and whistle and holler ‘Look at that ass!’ as you scurry past them on the way to the music room. You still have plasters on your scuffed knees and a pink plastic lunchbox in your flower-patterned schoolbag. The same boys’ younger brothers dare their friends to ask you out as a joke on the school bus home. You’re not sure what to think anymore.
You’re on Facebook, idly checking up on the first boy you ever kissed. Over the last number of months, his friends have consistently, like clockwork, linked different pages to his wall – ‘Tag your mate who’s shagged a munter’; ‘That one friend who always pulls the fat girl’; ‘We all know a chubby chaser’.
You log out and don’t kiss anyone else for a while.
You console yourself with the fact that you don’t have body dysmorphia, or anything like that. No – you know, at least, that your body actually is defective. You know this thanks to the silver stretch marks that spider across your arms and chest and hips and legs – aspirational for forty-something mothers of six who post odes to their ‘tiger stripes’ on Pinterest, but less so for you, when teenage girls are meant to be delicate and doll-like – and you know it thanks to the label inside your jeans, which seem hundreds of sizes bigger than your friends’ self-proclaimed ‘fat day’ clothes.
Your size-eight girlfriends constantly tell you how beautiful you are and, in the same breath, they complain about how much weight they need to lose before the formal. You wonder if they know how much their words hurt you. You wonder how many times a week they see themselves caricatured as a blind-date horror story on TV. You know that you could squash them with a single thigh.
You go home and shovel crisps into your mouth, or starve yourself until the room spins when you stand up, or scratch at your legs in the bath and wish you could peel away entire strips of flesh.
“You wonder if your body will ever be allowed to be neutral, and pass without comment.”
It’s New York City in July and it’s thirty-one degrees at midnight, but you’re wearing black leggings with a pair of black tights underneath them, and underneath those are a pair of beige knickers so huge they’d have Bridget Jones running. You’re wearing a long-sleeved top and a dark jacket on top.
You’re very pale, you see, and the heat doesn’t agree with your skin – that’s why you’re all bundled up, and that’s why your side-fringe is clumpy and sticking to your bright red forehead. You nip into the bathrooms at Grand Central Station to mop your back with toilet paper and wring your jacket out over the toilet.
At night, in Times Square and on the subway and in tiny Italian pizzerias and on tree-lined Bushwick streets, you look at girls in their twenties, and you can’t look away. Gorgeous, happy, glowing girls – thin ones, curvy ones, fat ones, with tattooed backs and dyed hair and leather jackets and bracelets up and down their arms. They sit alone with a book, or with groups of girlfriends, or with men with glasses and buns and beards and beer bellies or hard, gym-honed arms. You long to have what they have – confidence, contentment, a boy looking at them adoringly – and you long to be invisible in a big city, eating and drinking and laughing without hearing voices screaming at you in your head.
On the fourth of July, on a crowded Brooklyn street corner, you’ll see a loud American girl a few years older than you run up to a group of people and throw herself tipsily into another woman’s arms, gushing about how happy she is (‘Everyone that I love is in one place!’). Years later, you can’t remember what her body looked like, but you remember the joy, and you remember the sunflower she had in her hair.
You’re on a stage at your old school, clutching a certificate and a small trophy while people you respect say nice things about you. You don’t deserve to be there, and you don’t take in a single sentence because all you can hear is your heart pounding in your throat. There are too many people’s eyes on you and your flat shoes and black tights and woolly cardigan. You feel sorry for them having to look at you.
You feel sorry for your friends and teachers when they hug you, and you have to bite your tongue so you don’t apologise for your stomach pressing into them.
You feel sorry for yourself that night, so you drink too many glasses of Bailey’s and ugly-cry along to Love Actually.
You move abroad alone, to a tiny, nondescript city where you don’t know a single person.
You’re frustrated – in every possible sense of the word – and you’re bored and you’re sometimes lonely, but you’re making the best of it. You go out alone, you travel alone, you talk to new people. You eat a lot of cheese, and churros, and chocolate. It’s nice.
Men in the street here leer at you and call you ‘guapa’ as you pass them by. A tiny bit of you is breathless with delight that they’re not shouting insults at you. You hate yourself for being relieved.
You wonder if your body will ever be allowed to be neutral, and pass without comment.
You’re watching the body of a boy the same age as your younger brother get lowered into the ground, in a coffin. He collapsed in the street last week after having lunch with his family and the paramedics couldn’t save him.
Fretting about your bingo wings suddenly seems a bit stupid.
You’re with your friends on a beach a few hours outside of Madrid, where you live now. You’re wearing a swimsuit under a sleeveless, knee-length dress, and the sky hasn’t fallen in. Nothing has gone on fire (yet), and nobody has thrown up or asked you to put some clothes on. There’s music playing and the sun’s on your face and you’ve all brought a picnic.
You know that there’s still plenty that’s ‘wrong’ with your body. Like, that your right shoulder blade is sore and peeling after you missed a spot with the old Factor 50+ Para Niños. Like, that you can’t read in cars or on buses without getting a migraine. Like, that your heart still does an involuntary joyful leap every time anyone tells you that you’re looking thinner, and that your stomach floods with sour bilious guilt immediately after.
You know that beauty standards are patriarchal rubbish, that there are bigger things to worry about than cellulite, that size is no indicator of health and that health is no indicator of worth, and that men in boardrooms profit off your insecurities. You know all this – but you also know that you haven’t made up the catcalls and glances and thousand tiny cruelties that have soundtracked your life for so long. You know they still hurt you.
You also know that your thighs and your arms and strangers leaning out of car windows haven’t been what’s made you miss out on whole chunks of your life – only you’re responsible for that.
You know that wearing cardigans and jeans in forty-degree heat, holding your stomach in even when a boy is kissing it, and pretending not to be hungry at your own birthday party aren’t penance that you need to carry out in exchange for existing, and for taking up space. People will be cruel to you, and people will be kind to you, regardless of how much of your life you choose to let yourself enjoy.
You decide to forgive yourself.
Emer O’Toole | @_emerotoole
Emer is a 24-year-old Irish girl who loves books, languages, art, writing and being very picky about postcards. She’s currently hiding from adulthood by working as a teacher in Madrid, and the novelty of living somewhere with a metro system still hasn’t worn off. It’s pronounced ‘EE-mur’.