By Sarah Levin

You have such a pretty face  

I count another calorie. I went over by one hundred because of the milk I used in my cereal. I drink two glasses of water to cancel it out. I do five crunches.  

You are so funny.  

I sweat on the treadmill. I am dizzy. I need to reach four hundred calories so that it discredits the coffee creamer from this morning. I shouldn’t have had that piece of bread.  

I love your eyes; they are so blue.  

I have learned to hate my eyes. My eyes mean nothing to me. Everybody has eyes. Eyes are subjectively pretty. Eyes are eyes. Compliment my body. Look at my body. Is it smaller? Is it better for you? Are you comfortable with it?  

The summer after I graduated from high school, I lost fifty pounds in three months. I shed my skin. I glimpse at photos of a girl who looks like me and her cheeks scream bloody innocence. I tore at my reflection. I shrivel up in denial when I see who used to represent me. I miss her, I long for her. She was taken from me, and I am in a constant search to get her back.  

When I was in fourth grade, I told my parents that I wanted to die so that I could skip gym class. I told my parents that I was struggling with their divorce – which happened five years prior. I told my parents I could not focus, I was bad at math, my lisp was getting in the way of my learning, I thought about death, I missed my sister who was in college, I could not adjust. All of this, because I was fearful of the jump rope unit. The jump rope unit.  

The year prior, in third grade, I was at a different school. The jump rope unit was barely memorable. This year, however, we all had to “complete” a certain jump rope formation to get to the next level of jump rope formations. I thought it was dumb. Who cares? It’s a jump rope!

 My classmates disagreed with me. They needed to get to the next level, and I held them back. My short, stocky build was holding them back. I could not jump high enough. My stomach would blubber, and my face would beat red. My heels refused to leave the ground. These ten-year olds with their lean torsos and skin tight tank tops, me with my off-brand flowy shirt worn to hide myself. It would come up as I jumped, calling me out to the class. The fat girl can’t do it. The fat girl can’t jump

I wouldn’t dare show my prepubescent rolls. I would not dare make anyone else see that.  

So, there I ended up, with the school social worker during gym class where I made up lies about how I felt so emotional all the time. Perhaps they were not lies at all. Of course, I was relieved that I got to skip gym class and I was able to help my classmates win their jump rope competition. My absence helped others.  

I would go to the playground during recess and stand near the girls with tank tops and short shorts that exposed their skinny legs. They had straight hair, mine was frizzy. Even if I was skinny, I thought, I still have this stupid hair. I had friends. Nobody taunted me in the hallways. I loved learning. I was never mocked, looked at, or threatened. Still, my absence helped others.  

In sixth grade, I developed my first crush. My friends had crushes before middle school, and I never attempted to discover that emotion because I knew that boys liked tank top girls, and I was not a tank top girl. I liked boys, I thought that they were cute, I would officiate many weddings on the blacktop behind my elementary school, but I never registered this feeling to myself. I would cling onto my teachers, spending lunchtime with them, begging to be first in line for everything, asking them what they like to do for fun. Some girls held their hearts on their sleeve, mine was tucked into my back pocket.

 After the jump rope fiasco, I discovered how to slither into the tank top girl group; I had to be funny. Nobody would make fun of the funny girl, regardless of if she can or cannot fit in the new leggings from the expensive athletic store in the mall. Nobody would want to leave the funny girl out, even if it is a jump rope competition. I went to the mall and spent $12 on a headband at the athletic store because I could not fit in the clothes, but at least I could take part in some way. My mother was furious.  

I developed my first crush and was beside myself in absolute denial and euphoria when he showed some interest back in me. Well, the sixth-grade version of interest…I would torment him by stealing his belongings while he tried to eat lunch and he would partner up with me in class. Me. The fat girl.

 He dismissed the tank top girls and partnered up with me. In my developing brain, the approval of a boy equated to the approval of society – or much more important, my middle school. I was walking in the hallway of my school, getting a drink from the water fountain, about to discover what I could say to my new interest that would equally annoy and endear him.  

“Hey, Sarah, uh, I got to tell you something.” I turned to see a popular boy looking in my general direction, refusing to make eye contact.  

I got dared to ask you out. You’re, uh, hot. Will you go out with me?”

 I froze, shocked and instantly warm and the popular boy and his friends swiftly turned around, laughing, scurrying away. For a short glimpse of time, I felt flattered. I had never been called hot before. Being called hot was such a mature term. Being hot was more than being pretty, but I could not figure out why that was. Then the realization kicked in. How could I be so blind to the truth? I was asked out as a dare. They would not do this to a tank top girl. 

A tank top girl would get asked out and she would believe it because it would be real. To them, I am not real. I am a practice trial. I am a fat girl. Even my absence was noticed, regardless of how hard I tried to fade away.  

I read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” when I was around thirteen years old. Within the pop culture of the 2010s, the quote “we accept the love we think we deserve” was plastered all over the initial stages of teenagers’ easy access to social media. Bullshit, I remember thinking, I want to be loved and I hate myself

I clearly misinterpreted the quote.

 The mere thought that I was expected to accept such love irritated me. It was as if the denial of love that I attached myself to appeared somewhere in a sturdier form. I had grown. There was no more standing near the tank top girls. I knew my place. The boy I had a crush on asked me to see a movie with him, I told him that I would bring a friend along as well. I accepted that there was no way he would like me back. I was, in fact, the fat girl. I went to school dances, and when the slow songs came on, I left the dance floor with a smile. It was a dance routine for me, a web of carefully-placed situations to avoid. Avoid sitting on laps, going to the beach, boys, taking yourself too seriously. I felt guilty for wanting to deserve more than I let myself receive. 

I grew and I grew and I grew. 

Every growth spurt results in a fresh beginning, a new diet, a fresh start. It is a lifestyle, it is for my mental health, it is for the longevity of my life. I need to accept the love I am forcing myself to feel like I deserve. I weighed myself every week, stripping naked and cold in my bathroom to get the lowest number I could view. I lost weight, I gained it back. I loved myself, I hated myself, I loved myself again. I wrestled with my absence, or the lack thereof.  

Then, after years of contortion, it was over. I graduated high school. I had grown into my funny persona that I had fallen back on when I was younger. I had friends, I became award-winning in my theatrical performance as the fat girl. I knew exactly what to avoid and how to avoid it, I knew how to make others comfortable with my weight. I had kissed a boy, so I felt socially equipped for someone of my size. I planned to become “healthy” for college, which was my disguise for my internal pleading to finally be skinny and accepted in my new chapter. We accept the love we think we deserve. I’d repeat this mantra every time I skip a meal. I deserve to be skinny. I counted my calories. I deserve to be loved. I would weigh myself each day, morning and night. I deserve to have a hot college boyfriend. I sprinted on the treadmill that I dug out of the attic. The absence of me did not help others, it was now only the absence of my weight that could do that. I could be so much if I were just skinny. I liked my frizzy hair; I had grown into a sense of style. I had so much potential if only I was just fucking skinny. I went to college, I made new friends, I stayed persistent with my funny facade; it was all I knew how to do. I had my first boyfriend, so I must have been somewhat hot, however, in a different way than how those middle school boys once mocked me. I ate at the dining hall and counted everything on my plate, I saved calories for humid fraternity parties.  I had my first breakup, my first global pandemic, my first drunken night. I accepted the love I thought I deserved because it existed. I was a fat girl, I had been a fat girl, I had to take what I could get. I thought of the girl who skipped gym class and I laughed at her. Skipping gym class? I would scoff at my own memories, now you go to parties and drink and kiss boys. I erased it all, I hyper fixated on removing myself from the harsh truth. I erased the little girl I once was. I erased the feeling of needing to be absent. I erased my past.  The absence of my being was becoming more absent in itself.  

When I was in kindergarten, I went as Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” for Halloween. I had big blue eyes and dark hair that my mother carved into braids. She let me wear red lipstick and blue bows in my hair. 

I felt beautiful. 

I went to school and took part in the annual Halloween parade around the exterior of the building. My parents cheered and snapped photos. One girl went as a pop star. Her costume exposed her bare midriff, where her tummy poked through. Somehow, I remember seeing her and understanding that I would never be able to wear that costume. I ate less candy that day. My red lipstick smeared, and I wanted to cry. I wanted to be a pop star, I wanted her costume, her body, her ability. My mom complained that the girl’s mother was inappropriate for letting her child dress like that. I was too young to understand what that meant. All I understood was that the absence of my bare midriff was how it was supposed to be.  I understood that skinny girls got what I longed for. Skinny girls could get away with jumping rope, with crushing hard, with being serious. Skinny girls did not have to hide the fact that they take up space.  Now, I am twenty-one years old. I no longer count calories; I became too busy. I eat with other people in restaurants, and I focus on the price rather than the meal. I know boys like me– well, some do. I show my bare midriff in clothes, and I know how to jump rope (a bit). I do not drink often; it upsets my chubby stomach. I have learned how to cook – just not well. I can accept the love I deserve and still have insecurities. I can know my worth and still wish I had a better figure. I can obtain self-respect and still wish for some fantasy boyfriend. I can understand that my absence is not the solution and still want to not exist on hard days. I can believe that my appearance is the least interesting thing about me. I can prove that I am a human. My body works for me, it bends for me, beats for me, inhales for me, loves for me. My body is mere flesh, and I am the controller. I am the master of my being. I am the wonder behind the weight. I deserve to take up as much space as I do. Boys will come and go, so will parties and drinking and jump rope and movies and Halloween. My body is all I have, and my rolls shield me from a world that would reject them. My body is all I have, and I do not love it. My body is all I have, and I have flaws. My body is all I have, and I get sick. My body is all I have, and it is mine. 

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