Growing Up Big
Rewind. Back to 1954. A really big baby, one with toes that hung over the edge of the box for footprints on the birth certificate. Could be a linebacker in the early stages. Or a forward for the Celtics. Just one problem. This baby was a girl. In a time when the perfect size for girls was 5’2”.
It was rarely hot where I grew up. Even in the summertime. Western Washington was a green, cool, mountain ringed place. My family was small but perfect. One older brother and a mom and dad who loved to do fun things. Like drive into the mountains to find a perfect picnic spot. Usually beside a clear, icy cold rushing river or serene blue lake, but always filled with the smell of pine trees. Or a drive into the snow covered mountains to sled or ski. Walks on the waterfront in Seattle, drives up a mountain to see a view in our Jeep. Jumping in an icy cold river and getting out as fast as humanly possible. Pretty idyllic.
Sometimes my grandparents went with us. They were the best. They added a magical ingredient to my childhood- they had time. My grandma had time to make matching dresses for me and my dolls. Time to bake special cakes for birthdays, to grow incredible flowers, make pies and cakes and lunch for me to eat when I walked to her house from school. These last gifts of love added to the picture of a girl growing up big.
I didn’t really know I was “chubby” until I saw family pictures that showed a pouching belly and rounded cheeks. I might have been ten when I tried my first diet. I had complained to my grandma about being fat, and she, being a professional dieter, bought me Metrecal. It was a disgusting chocolate liquid with little odd tasting chocolate cookies to go with. It tasted more like metal than like food, and after my first Metrecal lunch, I cried. Grandma felt bad. She made me a hamburger. But it had begun. The search for the magic bullet that would make me smaller.
Most of the time I pretended I didn’t care that I was big. Even if I was in the middle of the back row of every school picture. No one in my family was petite. I felt normal around them. My mom was tall, my dad was tall, my brother was tall. I didn’t think any of them should be smaller. Just me. I never wished for a different family, because mine was perfect.
I was lucky I didn’t grow up in high society. My town was normal, all American, hard working. Nothing terribly fancy, and designer clothes were something I didn’t encounter until I was grown. I can remember the excitement of ordering school clothes from a catalog- probably JC Penney or Sears and Roebuck (whatever happened to Roebuck, anyway?) and anticipating the arrival of a package just for me. Pleated skirts and sweaters complimented the dresses my grandma made for me (and spent hours ironing) and if we had to order the chubby blue jeans, I wasn’t aware.
I loved looking at pictures of ballerinas, and kept asking for ballet lessons. Finally, when I was in fourth grade, my mom took me an old VFW hall where a woman was teaching ballet to middle class kids. I fell in love. I fell in love with Miss Van Valey, my teacher, with her stories of life on the stage, of dancing all over the world, of the beauty and rigor of ballet. And the truly great thing, for me, was that for the first two years of my ballet life, we danced in the big room downstairs that had no mirrors. I’m not sure I would have made it past that stage if I had seen myself. Years later, Miss Van Valey, who loved me very well, told me I was the most amazing success story she had. That I had been so awkward she was surprised I turned out so well. She said it because she believed it was a huge compliment.
By 7th grade, we were upstairs in the mirror lined studio where I would spend much of my teenage years working on my turnout, my elevation, turns, jumps, adagio…where I would stare at my tights-and-leotard-clad self and wish to be smaller. What I lacked in natural ability, I made up for in passion. I loved ballet. I could not wait to dance on point. And that brings up my feet. My shoe size.
Remember those toes that edged across the line on the birth certificate? They kept on edging. Into a size many stores did not even carry. A size ten. Goodness, the shoe clerk said. Well, I could show you nice pair of wingtips. Thank heaven for the basement of Nordstrom in Seattle. They carried tens. In women’s shoes. But point shoes were another concern. We ordered them from New York.
My parents were very supportive of my ballet habit. They never said so, but I imagine they were grateful for the grace it was lending me in my awkward years. My mom wrote out checks to the ballet school, ordered shoes from New York, and my parents were both at every dance recital. In a time when all my friend’s moms were stay-at-home housewives, my mom had a great career with the phone company. My dad worked two jobs. My brother and I had many opportunities we wouldn’t otherwise have had. My grandparents pitched in to take care of us when we were small.
Ballet was more blessing than curse, even taking into consideration that I developed an adversarial attitude toward my own body. It fed my soul, clichéd as that sounds. And while it was feeding my soul, I was beginning to starve my body. It began slowly. My dance friends and I would envy the ultra-thin bodies of other dancers. I cut calories. Skipped meals. In the cafeteria at school, many days I pretended to eat, throwing out most of my lunch. I poured milk in a cereal bowl and dumped it out, wanting my parents to think I’d already eaten breakfast. In high school I had a 24” waist. But I thought I was fat. When I looked in the mirror at dance, all I could see were my thighs. Topping out at 5’ 10” by junior high, I felt like a giant everywhere I went. Boys didn’t even catch up with me until later in high school. I would have been a first class slumper if Miss Van Valey hadn’t stayed on my case about my posture.
Miss Van Valey discovered my self-defeating thoughts one day after class when I admitted I would give anything to look like a girl in my class. My teacher made me sit down with her (arthritic knees that looked like bags of rocks kept her from dancing, but she could still demonstrate positions perfectly) and talk it through. She told me I was perfect. That I was healthy and beautiful. That I was a good dancer. That I had stage presence and could pursue a dance career if I wanted. But that life was more than being thin, more than looking a certain way. Life was looking at others, and yourself, with love. Then she told me the dancer I envied was fighting a terrible disease. Her thinness was not natural. She was ill. I remember this conversation very well. It made an impact, but the sneaky lie of perfection-seeking was too embedded at that point to be cured in one conversation.
My senior year I had a solo. I danced on point in a beautiful costume in a theater filled with dancer’s families and friends. In 1972 not that many people danced. Ballet was pretty much the only genre that was widespread. I knew only a handful of girls in my giant high school who danced. So when some of my friends came to my senior recital, it was the first time they had seen me dance. One friend told me she couldn’t really believe how graceful I was, or how I could stand on my toes like that. It helped me to know they thought I was amazing, but it was how I felt when I danced that made me call myself a dancer. It was a descriptor I would not bestow lightly. I was snobby about who was, and who was not, a dancer. But there was always a voice inside insisting that I certainly didn’t look like a dancer. I needed to be thinner.
The summer after graduation, Miss Van Valey brought in a new teacher. He was strict. He pounded with a stick to the beat, and used the stick to point out errant body positions. Not meanly. Just strictly. After class one day I was putting away my point shoes. By then, I had had my big toe nails surgically made smaller, so my shoes were less bloody than before. At any rate, I was sitting there winding the ribbons around my shoes, tucking in the lamb’s wool wisps I still used to pad the toe box. The teacher came and sat beside me. He asked me my plans, and when I told him I was going to Pacific Lutheran University in the fall, he told me I should consider dance. He told me that Balanchine was changing the face of the dance world, that he wanted tall dancers. Of course, he wanted tall, thin dancers, but thinness could be attained. At that point, I was 5’10” and weighed 136 pounds. With a large frame, I was thin by most standards. But not ballet’s. But that was not a problem, he said. He could give me tips to lose weight. A heavy smoker, he could only make it through one class without going outside to light up. I am pretty sure that was his “tip”. He wanted me to take advantage of a Joffrey Summer Scholarship.
I didn’t know whether to be flattered or scared to death. I spent some days thinking over what he said. I made some excuses, but deep down I think I knew I might pull off dancing in the corps of some small company, but I would never make it beyond that. I told myself I had other fish to fry, (not that I would ever eat them if they were fried) but I had other dreams. So I finished classes that summer with that teacher, and told him I was not going to pursue dance, but would go to college. He thought it very, very odd that I would go to a college hat didn’t even offer a dance degree. He told me I’d regret it.
I didn’t. Regret it, that is. I did wonder about it, years later. You know, we all play, “what if…” but still I wouldn’t change my past. Oh, I would hope to avoid some mistakes. I would hope to learn to love my body sooner. Spend less time on diets and more on appreciating the incredible machine I live in that can do so many things. I would love it if I hadn’t passed on my blindness to self-acceptance to my daughters. If the faulty thinking had stopped with me, I would be ever so grateful. If I had embraced growing up big as a perfectly good way to be. But you know what they say, (I don’t know who “they” are, but sometimes they’re funny and correct at the same time) if wishes were horses, we’d all have saddle sores.
Sometimes I think of my ballet years, and I know they have grown rosier in memory. But I’m grateful to have those happy memories of childhood and youth. I can still do a gloriously graceful grand reverence in my mind. That’s the pretty combination that ends in a bow at the end of class. I hear Mrs. Erheart playing the piano, smell the rosin, feel the watery Washington sunshine coming in the windows of the studio. I can see Miss Van Valey, her kind and wrinkly face, her twinkly eyes, her smile when we got it right. It was worth it. All the checks my mom wrote, all the bloody toes, all the missed high school activities. When you find something that feeds your soul, that’s how it is.
We are given our bodies as a gift. We can use the efforts of our minds to grow in grace, to embrace our gifts, or we can spend our time wishing for something we can’t, and won’t, ever be. Maybe growing up is simply the process of learning that. Growing up. Growing up big, or small, or in between. Growing up is the thing. It’s not too late. Even at 62.