“You’re so thin. Are you a dancer?” a fellow intern asked after looking me up and down. I had just turned 21 and was starting my first summer internship in the accessories closet at a major women’s magazine. I was awkward. I was going through overwhelming life changes. I was sad. I was emaciated.
My body–or what was left of it_soon became the envy of fellow interns. Obsessively counting calories and finding new ways to limit food intake gave me a false sense of power over my life, which I felt was quickly spiraling out of control. I didn’t have a trust fund or designer clothing, but I had my body, a body I would try to starve into perfection.
Spending 14-hour days running errands and organizing the fashion closet accelerated my weight loss. I pushed through headaches and dizziness to haul heavy bags across town and carefully photograph and organize jewelry, shoes, and handbags. At times, I almost forgot that I was running on a sugar-free Jello, coffee, and a bagel with the dough ripped out of it. I used to call my sister in a panic when I ate a granola bar.
You may have heard or read that Turkish Airlines implemented a ban on wearing red lipstick or nail polish because it was said to undermine the “visual integrity” of the airline. Whether it does or doesn't do this, it's pretty clear that red isn't associated with purity in this situation. I disagree with the ban for my own feminist reasons but always think it is wise to consider the cultural context in which such decisions are made (and in this case overturned as a result of pressure). In my search for other articles about Turkish Airlines I found a second and contrasting example of the use of red (and flight attendants, coincidentally).
Whenever I catch a glance of myself in a store window as I walk past, I'm surprised. I've been an amputee for thirteen years – ever since I was diagnosed with bone cancer at age fifteen. Still, in my head, I think I walk just like everyone else. The full-length windows show me differently. I have a slight limp. My hip dips as I walk. My prosthetic socket is visible through the side of my jeans and squishes up one butt cheek. I'm fascinated by this stranger everyone else sees. Even now, there are so few differently-able people in the media that I will sometimes walk back and forth trying to image what I look like to other people. A process that becomes more complicated when I am wearing shorts or a dress.
I dislike the way my prosthetic leg looks most when it is off. I roll it under the bed at night. I cover it with a towel by the pool. It looks lifeless, dead. I am reminded that one day it will be left behind when I die. It will be someone's job to take a piece of me to be dismantled and donated to landmine victims overseas. The actual appearance of the titanium pole, plastic foot, and springs don't bother me as much as the way other people stare. I can feel it when you touch me. I can also feel the way a friend freezes the first time they do it and are afraid they've done something wrong. Their body language communicates their debate of whether or not to take their hand away.
In this culture of images, our currency is made up of envious or admiring glances. Advertising encourages us to be the center of attention but only for the right reasons. I've become accustom to the way people look at my body as they try to figure out is wrong. I'm not used to the nasty looks people give me when I am with my girlfriend.
When I first came out a year ago, a female friend commented, “so you like ugly girls.” She immediately tried to pass it off as a joke. We were flipping through Facebook profiles of the girls I had crushes on. In some ways, I am so grateful to her for her insensitive slip-up. Her accidental honesty made me realize I was trying to blend in and pass for a beauty norm I didn't even find attractive. Real punishments exist for falling off the grid of accepted standards. Yet, real freedom comes from trusting your own vision.