Her Body, Her Self
Holidays were the worst.
During the holidays, the family gathered together in one house, so he gave up his bedroom for the guests.
During the holidays, he slept on the couch in the living room. As a “big girl” little kid, she slept on the floor in the living room.
Her took her body from her.
He was a teenager. She was three.
He was her uncle.
The first time he touched her, she had her Mrs. Beasley doll with her. Eerily, when Mrs. Beasley’s string was pulled, one of the doll’s utterances was, “Do you want to know a secret? I know one.”
For the next decade, every time there was a family gathering, a holiday, an opportune moment at her beloved grandma’s house (where he, Grandma’s teenage son, still lived), molestation threatened.
The sexual abuse denied her the chance to inhabit her body as a place that was easy, free, carefree. He groomed her over the years, as they do, and his use of her removed the possibility that this young woman could ever take her body for granted. Some girls romp, dance, tumble, perform, all with a sassy toss of the head. Their bodies are their friends, helping them achieve feelings of power and health and “can do” confidence.
Girls who are abused, however, find that their relationships with their bodies are corrupted, often permanently.
For my friend “Jayne,” whose uncle began abusing her when she was three years old–
who, as she got older, realized that having her uncle’s attentions directed at her ran a kind of protective interference on behalf her younger sister, assuring that she remained untouched (as Jayne puts it, “I stayed in the game long enough”)–
who, when she was ten, realized that she was sprouting towards her ultimate adult height of 5’10″…and that being bigger and stronger could put her at an advantage against a smaller-framed molester, that sheer size could put a stop to things–
for my friend Jayne, now 42, her entire life has been about trying to make friends with her body.
Her decades of pain, vulnerability, love, effort, work, digging, strength, frustration, and celebration move me. The details of her story expose Judgement for the superficial, small-minded bitch that it is. I met Jayne a handful of years ago, and with each passing season, I’ve come more and more to regard Jayne as a sister.
One ongoing topic of our conversations is the issue of weight. There is the front end of Jayne’s story–the business with her uncle. The middle of Jayne’s story can be summed up with this piece of information: 436 pounds.
The details of her story are what make me feel like screaming when a 160-pound gangly man, or a 110-pound super-fit mom, or a 120-pound still-developing teenager announces, too often from a perch of superiority, “All you have to do to lose weight is eat less and move more.””
You know what weight loss isn’t? A dog that jumps to heel with the snap of the fingers.
Weight and weight loss are so much more than an easily biddable cause/effect. Weight issues are fraught with emotion, meaning, Mrs. Beasley’s secrets, untold stories, deeply absorbed blows. A significant padding of pounds reveals at the same time it protects.
There are dots that can be connected between ten years of molestation and 436 pounds.
Here are the dots:
Jayne’s father was equal parts charm and mess. A born salesman, he also struggled to live a responsible life. Whenever he’d get himself into financial trouble, he’d disappear. When Jayne was in college, he drove away one last time, was gone for four weeks, and ended up on Canada’s Missing Person list. He’d lost his job six months before and had begun living off credit cards and hiding the statements from Jayne’s mum. Throughout Jayne’s childhood, her mum was always cleaning up after him, along with working full time. Fortunately, Jayne’s grandma (the “good” grandma in her life) would frequently watch the girls when their regular daycare provider couldn’t or when their mum needed an assist. This grandma was the mother of both the disappearing dad and the abuser, yet she was a source of steady, reassuring love for Jayne.
The sustaining grandma was full of love and affection–Jayne still refers to her as the “good grandma,” the one who offered unconditional love, the one who would sense the judgment heaped upon herself or the “husky” grand-daughter and announce, “Fuck ’em. Let’s go eat ice cream.” Yet this woman who offered Jayne’s primary emotional comfort lived in the place that threatened Jayne with the greatest physical danger.
Jayne was given her first membership to Weight Watchers when she was ten years old, that age when she consciously chose to become bigger than her molester.
At one point in her growing up years, Jayne stood on the second floor of her grandmother’s house and looked down through the iron grate in the floor to the action below. There, she watched her beloved grandma counsel her mum about Jayne’s n’er-do-well father–that beloved grandma’s son–advising her daughter-in-law to “dump his ass.”
On the other side of the family was the “Icky Grandma,” Jayne’s mother’s mum. This grandma was a British war bride brought to Canada and was all about appearance and perfection, to this day still sometimes wearing gloves to church. The Icky Grandma always sent cards for Jayne’s birthdays and holidays that mentioned the problem of weight. Icky Grandma didn’t like that Jayne was sloppy, dirty-kneed, and not into dolls. In Jayne’s recollection, this grandmother’s most heartfelt moments always started with the words “You would be so beautiful if…” When Jayne was 14, this grandmother offered to pay Jayne $5 for each pound she lost.
The perfection-oriented grandma didn’t get her wish. Whereas in the third grade, Jayne weighed 120 pounds, as a graduating senior, she was 250 pounds. In addition to being an effect of her uncle’s abuse, some of Jayne’s weight issues stemmed from genetics–as she notes, “We’re big people”–and some of them came from the diet of low-income families in Central Canada twenty-five years ago. The family ate a high-carb diet, regularly featuring homemade buns, mac ‘n cheese, and potato salad; as well, the produce section then wasn’t what it is now. Jayne distinctly remembers her mother’s disappointment when she discovered her two daughters had eaten a bag of oranges in a day-and-a-half.
Interestingly, while Jayne’s childhood saw her trying out every known diet, including a go at the cabbage soup diet with her mum (who was never more than a size 18), her younger sister was never overweight.
The shift from 120 pounds to 250 pounds really happened after Jayne’s family moved during her 9th grade (er, Grade 9) year. With that move, she lost her best group of friends and their acceptance. For Jayne, 9th grade was horrible, as she moved to a town with one class of thirty-five 9th graders, and, as she remembers, “I was fat, and they were brutal to me.” One guy drew pig faces with a marker on her desk top. In a kind of silver lining, the lack of Lane Bryant-type clothing options made her creative: she would buy jeans and rip them apart and remake them into something unique. Ultimately, her best coping strategy, her best way to fight for a spot in the crowd, was to focus on her personality: being funny. At a school where partying was pervasive, with a lot of drinking, Jayne made herself into one of the guys. And although she didn’t have a real boyfriend in high school, she did have a fling with an older guy (in his 20s), a man seemingly named by Canadian Prairie Central Casting: Oren.
As the teen years ticked by, and Jayne negotiated new ways to either neutralize or sexualize her image, there was always an underlying, unacknowledged piece: Jayne was gay. Even before the move in 9th grade, there had been three girls in the neighborhood, her age, who were sexually experimental types, and Jayne sought out their attentions. At the same time, she and a good friend hung out with a circle of guys—her friend would flirt, but Jayne was genuinely “in there” with a couple of those guys, and it was around 8th grade when she let one of them have sex with her. Then she and her easy, complicated, open, tamped-down, confused sexuality moved in 9th grade.
What Jayne discovered over the years was that the only people talking about homosexuality–in any terms–were the fundamentalist Christians. So at the same time that she was partying and having sex with well-named Oren, she was also attending the fundamentalist youth group once a week because they’d give kids attention and, even better, remove them from their small-town confines every weekend to visit Bible colleges or for a bowling or shopping trip in the city. With regards to homosexuality, the fundamentalist folks were all about “picking up the trash,” yet because they actually addressed the issue of homosexuality and said the word, they felt like Jayne’s only option. She never came out to them, not in that culture of “it’s pray-away-able.” Because there were no counselors in the schools addressing sexual orientation, because there was no diversity club, because nobody was talking about it, Jayne didn’t really know how to call her inner urges what they were.Yet, even though she wasn’t clearly “a lesbian,” she managed to be a project for the fundamentalists: it was their mission to save the obnoxious badass who drank too much. For her part, Jayne understood that faith was important to her, just not in the way the fundies did—“but that’s all right: it was free bowling.”
During these teenage years of partying with friends, hanging with fundamentalists, and not knowing how to say “I’m gay,” Jayne formed a friendship with a Mennonite girl that allowed her to stumble into the bosom of the friend’s uber-conservative family. Their home ended up being the place Jayne would go to crash and burn because the mother, Grace, and the entire family genuinely loved her. This love was part of the equation that saved Jayne’s life in high school.
Then high school ended, and Jayne’s option was to get a job or go to college. So her family moved her into an apartment, but that summer after high school graduation, according to Jayne, “the gay thing was itching in me.” As a way of moving her life along, she opted for college. However, Jayne only went to U of Brandon for four days before dropping out to join a traveling theater group called Covenant Players. You see, the other faith piece throughout her teen years had been that Jayne went to Christian summer camps and eventually became a counselor; after she was done with high school and was trying to decide if college would be a “fit,” she went to a youth retreat, and Covenant Players performed there and announced they needed people. Four days into college, Jayne took them up on that call and tapped the group as an “out.”
For the ensuing five years, she used Covenant Players as a tool for keeping a lid on “the gay thing.” As she continued to resist her sexuality, her weight externalized that conflict, moving up and down from 225 to 300 pounds as she traveled Canada and the U.S., performing and staying with families.
The intersection of repressed sexual orientation and unexposed abuse from a family member created a situation in our 18-year-old heroine wherein food served as a release valve. What’s noteworthy is that coming clean about the abuse didn’t help Jayne reclaim her body as a healthy place. In fact, the result was just the opposite.
As a senior in high school, Jayne did tell her mum about the abuse. After that, during her five years in Covenant Players, she would eke out more information to her mum and others about what had happened to her, but in a very controlled way. Here’s the thing: her abuser’s mother, that beloved grandma, was still alive, and Jayne couldn’t bear to hurt her.
It was only in 1995, when the “good” grandmother died and Jayne no longer had to protect her from what her son had done, that Jayne shared the details of what had happened to her between the ages of three and thirteen. Losing her favorite grandma while simultaneously blowing the lid off a lifetime of secrets took an emotional toll that led to the beginning of the end with Covenant Players.
Jayne had a breakdown.
Stay tuned for “Her Body, Her Self: Part II.”