I’m getting a new tattoo. On my left thigh. It’s going to cover pretty much the whole front and side of that thigh. Last week I had my first session under the needle, in which the outline was completed. My next session is coming up soon, and there’ll probably be another session after that to get the whole thing finished with color and shading. I’m pretty excited about the new art, the piece makes me happy.
I thought really long about whether I was willing to post this publicly, because obviously body image issues can be difficult, and provoke strong reactions. But I stumbled onto something very powerful for me in my journey to body acceptance recently, and completely unintentionally. And I know I’m not the only person working on weight management who also struggles with body image and acceptance.
Today I want to talk about my thighs. I hate them. I’ve hated them my whole life.
It wasn’t, originally, an aesthetic thing. When I was a child, we were taken to church every Sunday. I had to wear a dress, of course, and my thighs rubbed together and chafed the whole time and I always ended up with a painful rash. Until a little later when I was maybe 9 or 10, and my mother gave me nylons to wear under my dress to be proper. This was even worse. The nylons weren’t big enough, but I squeezed into them anyway (I did a lot of trying to make things work when I was a child). When you squeeze into nylons (or pantyhose, as we called them then) that don’t fit you what happens is that the thin little threads that make up the fabric stretch apart and your fat oozes out into the tiny stretched-apart squares. And then that already-stressed and stretched skin rubs against each other and creates a massive, painful rash of epic proportions. So much hurt. So much trauma. I hated my thighs for being wrong. Because obviously if they were right this wouldn’t happen, nobody else had trouble wearing the correct items of clothing to be at a church.
I think that in this blog we’ve already touched on how unpleasant it was to grow up fat in the 80s. The fattest, biggest part of me has always been my thighs. My thighs have been why most pants don’t fit me. My mother would make me clothes when I was a small child, and I would get in trouble if they didn’t fit, and often they didn’t fit. I remember one jumpsuit in particular that she made, pulled up hard into my crotch because it didn’t fit, but I had to wear it anyway, because she had made it. Complaining about it not fitting or hurting was ungrateful. Clothes shopping was a similar fraught nightmare. I could be wrong in so many ways, usually because of how fat and hard to fit I was. My thighs were a visible, constant reminder of my wrong, hated body, the traitors that made so much of everything I tried not fit. I used to pray at night to Jesus to make me normal sized, I cried, entreating this beneficent, mysterious, omniscient presence that I learned about on Sundays to stop tormenting me and just let me be a normal sized person.
In high school I auditioned for and won the position of Drum Major of my high school marching band for my junior and senior years. At the end of my sophomore year my drum major uniform was ordered and received. I tried it on in a private changing area at the Band Room and found that while the jacket fit fine, the thighs were way too tight, they had betrayed me again, and would never fit into the uniform pants. I was so deeply embarrassed and ashamed that my fatness was a problem again, that I said nothing and told the uniform coordinator (one of the parents) that it was fine, then went home for the summer determined to lose some weight so it would be fine. Sadly, I had no idea how to do that whatsoever, other than to worry anxiously about it all summer and berate myself every time I ate. When autumn rolled around you’ll be astounded to know that the uniform still did not fit me. My mother took this opportunity to deliver a lecture dripping with disappointment, derision, and shame for my actions and my fat, disgusting body. Then she went to a uniform shop or tailor or something and had a pair of pants made for me that looked close enough to the uniform pants that I could wear them, and nobody was the wiser except me and her. She saved my bacon that time, but I despised the entire process and the whole episode overshadowed the summer and autumn of 1990 with anxiety, self-derision, and shame. For my stupid, ugly thighs in particular, and my stupid, fat body in general.
Transitioning into adulthood, my thighs have mostly just been a hassle. They rub together and chafe whenever left without some intervening material to smooth the way. Okay, there was a two week period in 2005 when they didn’t, when I was at my absolute lowest weight, and I could wear a dress or skirt without shorts underneath, but that didn’t last long as that was a flatly impossible weight for me to maintain long-term. Any time I wear a skirt or dress, I need to take action to prevent chafing. Originally it was bike shorts or similar, these days there are great products out there like slipshorts or anti-chafe gel. Also, as a grown-ass woman I can buy nylons or tights that fit and don’t hurt me now. But it’s a hassle, especially if it’s a super hot day, to wear another layer. But not wearing it isn’t an option. Hanging out in a swim-suit outside of water is a no-go, I’ll throw shorts on the minute I get out, not because of how they look but because of the irritating chafing and discomfort of my thighs rubbing together.
And, well, when I used to care about such things, they’re ugly. My thighs are wrinkly due to excess skin, plus I’ve always had cellulite (even at the youngest age I can remember), and they’ve always been big and chunky. I even had some of the skin removed after weight loss, so I have a scar seam up the inside of each thigh and one along the inner crease on each side, where they took a triangle of flesh out and stitched me back together. Age has been a balm to me regarding their appearance, but hasn’t done much for the hassle factor. Still, the cellulite is a constant – I used to (and still occasionally do) envy women with legs not sagging with wrinkly, wobbly, unwanted flesh.
Yes, they’re ugly, but I don’t feel the same way about my arms, and they also have excess skin, and they also have cellulite and are wrinkly and wobbly with it. They don’t bother me at all, because they haven’t been a giant, painful, traitorous hassle my whole life.
Anyway, what I’m saying is that I’ve never loved my thighs, I’ve never even liked them. At most I’ve come to a sullen detente with them over the years. My husband, for some reason, loves them, and tells me so often. Often when he’s driving, he’ll place his hand on my left thigh and say, “I love your legs!” This is a weird feeling for me, and I’ve tried to ask him to stop saying it, not because I want to patrol his feelings, but because having my stupid, ugly, difficult thighs pointed out to me regularly is uncomfortable. I’ve tried to demonstrate for him how it makes me feel with an analogy. I say, “When you say that you’re pointing out something I don’t like and don’t have any control over, it’s akin to me patting you on the head and saying, ‘I love your bald spot!’ every day. I can’t imagine that would do anything to make you dislike it any less. In fact, you might prefer if I would just not talk about it every day, right?” But alas, this hasn’t worked.
I mention all of this to say that last week brought something I had no idea was even possible. After I got home from my first tattoo session I took the bandaging off of the new tattoo outline and checked it out. I love it. I love the theme, I love the execution. It was an idea I’m very proud of. I brought a bunch of reference images to Stevie, my kickass tattoo artist, and she drew up a custom piece based on our conversation about what I liked about each image. But here’s what stopped me in my tracks. After my shower, after that first session, when she laid down the outline on my skin in black ink, while I was waiting for the tat to air dry, I passed by a mirror and caught a glimpse and my only thought, on seeing my hated, my utterly despised, thigh in the mirror, was, “That’s badass.”
And then out loud I said, “I have to get the other one done too.”