Stories by Wildfire: Coming to Terms With this Body
I am 44 years old. I get up every morning to the same ritual that I have had for almost 20 years. It goes like this: open eyes, rise and run to bathroom, eliminate as much waste as possible, strip down naked, jump on the scale, hate or love myself depending on the feedback.
This is followed by a full body inspection in the mirror. I twist to and fro, grabbing this roll, tugging that one, clapping the cellulite on my thighs and detesting the matronly arms and stretch marks I’ve had since middle school. I shimmy and shake and hang my head in despair. Then, I stare at my boobs because they are staring at me. They are not what hey used to be. They have forsaken me. I came into this adult body sooner than most. During the summer between 6th and 7th grade, I sprouted huge breasts and a big backside. A typical Latina frame. So much so that when I returned to school that fall, the meanest boy called me “The Latex Lady”, indicating I had somehow rejoined the class with fake tits. Other stupid, mean boys joined in, endlessly snapping my bra in the halls between classes. Between that and my buck teeth that had also come in, I wanted to die.
I went on my first crash diet, convincing my mother to take me to the grocery store to shop for all of the items on the 3 Day American Heart Association Diet. It was a litany of rice cakes, grapefruit and cottage cheese. We ran into my best friend and her mother who were doing the same thing because, of course, she and I had conspired to diet together after our tennis coach singled the two of us out for extra laps around the track. Not surprisingly, it was because we were heavier than our teammates.
Although it was my first “diet,” I had already been at war with my body for years. My own grandmother (“the mean one,” as I refer to her) made a comment to me when I was about eight years old that has stayed with me forever. She watched as I crossed the kitchen to the patio door donning my summer bathing suit, a kid ready for a dip in the pool. She announced in Spanish, to no one in particular, that I had a “fat tonsi,” a slang term I hate to this very day that refers to the female genitalia. I didn’t speak Spanish then (still don’t and maybe this trauma has something do to with why I cannot seem to learn that language despite native parents) but I knew by her tone that she found me repulsive in some way. I hated her and my mons venus instantly from that day forward.
I remember back further to the tap and ballet class at the community rec center. I was no older than six. I was one of many little girls there for their first day of class, standing nervously in new tights, my back against the ballet barre. The emotions that surround that memory are vivid. I am an outsider, fat and embarrassed, a girl made of play-dough shoved into a cruelly constrictive leotard. I am a marshmallow on legs amongst the swan-like waifs around me, the full-length studio mirror confirming all of my fears. One class and I was one, much to the bewilderment of my family. To my mother’s credit, she never made me go again.
There were a few good years in my late 20s and early 30s where I grudgingly liked my body. It was conditional, of course. I had gotten a breast reduction and learned how to push and pull myself into different shapes by food restriction and extreme exercise. Then came the glory of the diet pill Fenfluramine/Phentermine (better known as “Fen-phen”) and later, after people’s hearts started to explode, other speedy drugs in its place.
I rode that roller coaster on and off for over 10 years. The husband-and-wife diet doctor/nurse team I found dispensed water pills, phentermine, and Bontril like Pez. They lavished praise on me when I finally lost over 40 pounds in three months under their “care.” When I hit goal weight, they personally invited me on their boat. I arrived for the day on the water wearing a new black bikini and was one of many “clients” to come aboard. I felt like I had entered a glamorous and secret club, one where all I had to do was be skinny to gain access to the finer things in life. I weighed 133 pounds.
My body, to its credit, took all of this abuse: the hours of cardio-kickboxing, the weighing, the measuring, the wide-eyed inspections, the diet drugs, the food journals, and the endless hate and self-loathing that was part and parcel to it all. I got pregnant. My body swelled. Another body was growing inside of me. I remember being freaked out knowing there was another set of eyeballs in my womb, someone seeing me from the inside. I relaxed into the pregnancy because I felt responsible for the person I was growing. I ate and let my body bloom. I was scolded by the midwives because I gained weight so fast. Shame rose in my throat but I stood up for myself and ate anyway. I was 205 pounds when I delivered. I stand 5’ 3” tall in bare feet. My ankles were tremendous.
When my husband ‘put a ring on it’ after my fourth month of pregnancy, I warned him that it was akin to pulling the ripcord on a floatation device – BAM! – as I was sure to inflate to the dimensions of the fat girl that had always lived inside of me. He thought I was kidding, but I know what happens when I am happy. I eat and I drink and I enjoy life and because I am having a good time, I blow up.
Now, I’m losing weight. The chemo makes it hard to eat most days. My oncologist wasn’t happy when I lost another five pounds after my second chemo. Secretly, I rejoice at the steadily declining number, although I know this is wrong on many levels. I tell her not to worry, that I have some to spare and that it will surely come back because it always has. And then I smile and find my skinny jeans that I haven’t worn in years because they finally fit again. Chemo is the new diet this time. How sick. How sad.
We are all just bags of meat. We are all just managing. There are dark corners in my mind where my body and brain meet up. In those moments I say to my body, “I am sorry I never loved you for what a miracle you are. Now we are sick and we have to fight. I know you can do this. We have to.” So my body fights the good fight. My white blood count is good, so good I could “sell those numbers on the black market,” according to my oncology nurse. I am glad my body is cooperating.
There is another driving force here. A little body that I birthed, the one with sable hair and deep brown eyes, that seeks my body out for comfort, warmth and nourishment. I tell her she is beautiful, I encourage her to wear bikinis. She goes to dance class and has no qualms about leotards. She eats for nourishment and also for joy. She struts around the house naked and I never, ever shame her. I teach her the proper names for all of her parts, no dirty slang. We laugh as she cavorts, her innocence palpable and beautiful. I hope that somewhere in all of this disorder that I can teach her to love her body, always and in all ways. Hopefully, even the forsaken have a shot at redemption.
Melissa Blanchenay. Brand ambassador and sales representative. Diagnosed at 44. IDC, Stage I, ER+, PR+. Melissa Blanchenay earned her Bachelor of Science in Interior Design in 2001. For most of her career, she has represented upper echelon brands as a sales representative and brand ambassador in the interiors industry. Chicago-born, she is a long-time South Florida resident who enjoys all of the things the warm weather has to offer, including boating and days at the beach.
She is also a wife and mother to a 4 year old daughter. Melissa has always had aspirations of being a writer and is currently working on her first book and blog. When she isn’t busy traveling for work and pleasure, you can find her in a yoga class, reading a book (or three) or hanging by the pool with her family, which also includes two Yorkies named Manolo and Zooey. @calmyourtts calmyourtts.com
Editor’s Note: This piece has been republished with permission from WILDFIRE Magazine, the annual “Body” issue (Vol 4, No 3, Copyright (c) April 2019 by Wildfire Community LLC). More information available at wildfirecommunity.org
WILDFIRE Magazine is the only magazine for young women survivors and fighters of breast cancer under 45 years old. Headquartered in Santa Cruz, California, WILDFIRE is a beautiful, story-based bi-monthly magazine published on different themes relevant to young women survivors, from stage 0 to stage IV. Beautiful and ad-free! Visit wildfirecommunity.org for more info.