Above Average

Buenos Diaz, lovers! 

Earlier this week, I did a teary-eyed fist-pump when browsing through my Facebook timeline. I was pleased - no, ecstatic to learn that the beautiful Ashley Graham was named a Sports Illustrated Magazine cover model. Ashley has made history as the first plus-sized model to nab this coveted spot and I could not be any happier for her. Watching her reaction to the grand reveal gave me all of the feels; the tears, the incredulity, the jumping up and down in her inability to contain her excitement… it felt like a win for all of the curvy girls out there fighting the daily battle to have their beauty validated.

Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images  Stunning!!

Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

Stunning!!

In the same week, I accompanied my soon-to-be sister-in-law along with both of our mothers and the rest of her bridesmaids to pick out her dress and be fitted for ours. The appointment started out perfectly – the bride had already narrowed the choice down to two dresses, so we helped her make the final choice then finalized a few of the color and veil-related details.

Next it was time to pick out the bridesmaids’ dresses. We were given a few choices to pick between and came to an agreement quite easily. The gown is quite lovely if I do say so myself, long and somewhat ethereal in a great shade of purple. The gathered waist and sweetheart neckline each feature some delicate crystal beading that adds a sophisticated level of sparkle to the dress. All in all, a great pick across the board.

With the hard part behind us, we each waited to have our measurements taken. The bride went first and remarked how surprised she was at the sizing schematic, which can absolutely come as a shock if you’ve never purchased a bridal gown before. For whatever reason, your wedding/bridesmaid dress size is, in a word: bullshit. It’s your regular size all hopped up on steroids. I don’t know who decided that it was a good idea to make you feel like a cow during what is supposed to be a positive and memorable experience, but that’s precisely how I felt the first time I was part of a bridal party. My brother’s fiancé, for example, is regularly a size three or four; her wedding dress, rounding one size up to play it safe, was ordered at a size 10.

Now, as any of my faithful readers or social media followers undoubtedly know by now, this is not my first rodeo, or second or third or seventh. I’m a frequent flyer at this damn rodeo, I should have a punch card for a free dress at this point. So I was more or less prepared to have to order a dress in a size that would stir up visions of a circus tent. Whatever, I thought. It is what it is.

Note: not all weddings pictured here. Side Note: No, I'm not kidding.

Note: not all weddings pictured here. Side Note: No, I'm not kidding.

Then I was measured. I was advised that my bust, waist and hip measurements each corresponded with a different dress size. To err on the safe side, I should go with the size dictated by the largest of the measurements; no surprise here, that meant my hips. Fine, bring on the larger size. Better to have to alter a dress to make it smaller in places than to get one too small and be screwed. I still instinctively cringed a tiny bit when she told me the size I’d have to order, but told myself to brush it off. That was until the sales consultant said the following: “So, we’re going to order the larger size. And just so you know, that’s a plus size and has to be custom made. So you have to pay extra and there’s nothing I can do about that. Ok! Did you want to prepay for the entire thing or just leave the deposit?”

My previously cheery demeanor immediately evaporated, making way for the resting bitch face for which I’m apparently well known. I handed over my debit card for the payment of the deposit only, embittered enough to find, however irrationally, some sort of victory in a partial payment. Sensing my palpable mood shift, the sales girl attempted to make bubbly chatter. She asked if I was married yet, feigned shock that I wasn’t and expressed most enthusiastically her hopes that I’d come back to the bridal shop to get my dress when it was my turn. I couldn’t stop myself from issuing a snarky “Not if you’re going to tack on a premium for my hips, but thanks!” It was bordering on rude in tone and I know it.

I quickly corrected my mood as soon as the bride, who with the possible exception of my mother is the sweetest person I’ve ever met, looked at me with big brown eyes full of consternation. I smiled big and wide and assured her that all was fine. Inwardly though, I was not only upset but embarrassed. I work hard to be healthy – I eat right, I exercise. It was disheartening to be made to feel like a giant red buzzer was going to be pressed as soon as my order hit the manifest, like sirens would blare all across the factory, sending seamstresses whose overtime I was paying for into a frenzy to make my epic-sized gown. “THIS IS NOT A DRILL! GET OUT THE REALLY BIG SCISSORS AND GIANT SEWING MACHINE, WE'RE GONNA NEED THE HEAVY DUTY THREAD FOR THIS ONE!!!”

Later that evening at home with a glass of wine in my hand, I took a break from writing to read up on Ashley Graham and perhaps give myself a little ego boost. I was highly annoyed to learn of the barrage of hateful comments being leveled at Ashley and at Sports Illustrated for choosing her. One idiot called the cover a disgusting effort to shove obesity and laziness down our throats, another said curves aren’t anything to be proud of and said you too could look like Ashley if you just eat cheesecake all day. One troll commented, “Eww, another fat Adele. Wouldn’t want to pay for that grocery bill! What a whale!” and picked fights with anyone who called him out for his cruelty. Ironically, lots of the vitriol I read seemed to be coming from folks who were in no position to call anyone unattractive. I hope they all step barefoot on tiny Legos.

I was quite astonished at a different kind of negative feedback. Many plus-sized women expressed their distaste for the cover because they felt like Ashley wasn’t plus-sized enough. So skinny people are calling Ashley a whale, and bigger folk are giving her the Gretchen Wieners you-can’t-sit-with-us because she’s not plus enough to kick it. What the bloody hell?

So let’s go deeper here. I have never been a big fan of the term Plus Sized, in the assigning of certain sizes as normal and any outliers as not so. It is bothersome to me for a few reasons:

Plus, but No Minus: Only the outliers on the higher end of the spectrum get a special label. While I’m glad someone went with Plus Size rather than Too Big, Super Size, or Biggie, Biggie Biggie, Can’t You See These Clothes Aren’t Meant to Fit You, You See?, I resent the fact that no one went out of their way then to assign a label to the sizes on the lower end of the spectrum. If I’m a Plus Size, why aren’t the size 0 girls of the world a Minus Size? And don’t give me Petites, because that’s more about height.

Law of Averages: I have read and heard for as long as I can remember that the average woman is actually a size 14 or 16. Honestly, I don’t know if this is the case or not. It’s a confusing statistic. For one thing, sizing has changed drastically over the years (a size 8 in the 1950s is now a 16 according to an article I read in the Washington Post last year). Size also varies significantly depending on where you shop (some places I’m a size 12, others a 14 or 16. Blah – there, I said it). If it’s true though, the whole concept of what’s plus-sized relative to what's "average" or "normal" is seriously out of whack.

Who Decides What’s Normal?  As far as what’s “normal,” what the hell does that mean anyway? In my family, for example, wide hips are common. One of my aunts and I often wear a pant size that matches exactly or is within one size of each other. She’s rail thin, I am clearly not. Who’s the normal one and who's the circus attraction? Are we both abnormal because we’re not a smaller size? Am I the abnormal one because I see a larger number on the scale though our hip circumference is similar? I get that clothing obviously has to be bigger if your measurements are larger – that’s called math, and I get it. But why normalize one size range and not another when they encompass so many different body types? It leaves a lot out of the equation.

This all brings me back to why I’m perplexed over the divisiveness of Ashley Graham. I love that she’s breaking new ground but hate that this particular ground was there to break in the first place. For everyone calling her a cow because she’s a double-digit size, shut the hell up. Quit trying to marginalize her success with your “stop trying to make fat people beautiful, they’re all unhealthy and have diabetes” nonsense. I get what you're trying to do here, and yes: I do believe that there is a fine line between body positivity and glorifying unhealthy habits. But sweetie, the girl isn’t sitting around shoveling spoons of lard into her mouth in between shots of insulin and begging you to love her. It is absolutely possible to be of a larger size and be in excellent health, as is Ashley. For those saying she isn’t big enough to truly represent plus-sized women, you too may sit down. It all has to start somewhere, and I think she is a perfectly stunning place to start.   

Where I’m choosing to focus, as I’m sure are Ashley and countless other women, is the positive response. For every hatred-spewing troglodyte likening Ashley to a barnyard mammal or aquatic beast, there appears to an exponential number of light-bearing, love-touting supporters in Ashley’s corner. It gives me hope that the tide may indeed be turning, that healthy, not necessarily skinny, will be the new goal; it’s like I’ve said before – beauty comes in all sizes and real women have mitochondria.  I am still pretty bothered at being told that my bridesmaids dress is going to cost me more because I’m not a certain size. Then again, my waist size is cool enough to grace the cover of a swimsuit magazine.

So maybe I’m just above average, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Bookishly Yours,

Vanessa

 

 

The Look of Love

Buenos Diaz! I’m putting this post together on Valentine’s Day, a perfectly lovely day that I spent most of at a secret solo sanctuary away from home. I read and wrote in a Harry Potter t-shirt with a bottle of wine and snacks of all sorts. Because I forgot to bring a glass to drink out of or any kind of cutlery, I drank the wine straight from the bottle and took bites of cheese straight from the block. I am nothing if not the picture of classiness.

Today is supposed to be about love though, so earlier I joined some of the people I love most for breakfast – my parents and brother. We noshed at a favorite Mexican spot where the tortillas are made right there in the restaurant and are as thick as the hips they go straight to when I eat them. My favorite element of the meal was that for once, we weren’t approached like we usually are by a camera-toting female offering to take a free photo of us. That “free” photo is tiny and plastered with the restaurant logo, clearly meant to be a gateway to prettier, higher-quality prints costing $15.00 each. It’s uncomfortable enough to have to refuse the accompanying sales pitch; it’s super f*cking awkward to have to let the chick know that my brother and I are indeed siblings and not the “cute couple” she keeps referring to us as. This is what happens when you look nothing like your brother and he’s a good looking dude.

Keeping with the trend of surrounding ourselves in love, we made our way as a family over to a place near and dear to our hearts: Costco. After picking out a gorgeous arrangement of roses and lilies for my brother's fiancé (plus one for my mom - dad wasn't going to be upstaged), we walked towards the back of the store and approached the aisle containing the camping gear. My dad has had his eye on a dome tent, a model that boasts a 60-second setup and can accommodate five or six people, for at least a year. He has longed for that bad boy, excitedly explaining how useful it would be for trips to the park or beach or for toting around the grandkids, should my brother and I ever get it together and actually decide to produce any. He’s caressed the damn tent lovingly while walking away from it each time though, whispering “Someday!” to it the way I do to pricey rings, private libraries or travel ads to the UK. The tent was only around $80 but this amount has never been justifiable to my retiree father, who’s always been frugal and not one to indulge his fancies.

This time though, he decided it was time to treat himself – well, almost. My brother and I overheard him telling my mom that with his next pension check, he’d finally pull the trigger. My brother quickly chimed in to remind us all that he was the only one of the group with a Costco card, so he was going to pay for everything anyway and had no problem spotting my dad the cost of the tent. He and I will likely end up splitting the cost anyway as a present; it’s not that my parents can’t afford it, it’s that they feel guilty spending money on themselves.

I can’t help but look back on my childhood here. My parents put both my brother and I through private school as kids, a feat my parents struggled to afford but figured out as best they could in the name of giving us a solid education.  At one point, the financial burden forced them to evaluate whether they could continue to keep us in Catholic school. This caused my parents a great deal of consternation; the part of town we lived in didn’t boast a particularly stellar public school system but did have the advantage of being $Free.99.  When they sat me down to tell me that I might have to switch schools, I cried my freckly little face off. I begged and pleaded with them to let me stay with my friends, as though they were exacting an unjust punishment and not trying to keep their heads above water. I was breaking their hearts without a clue that I was going so.

So they continued to make it work, taking advantage of every possible tuition break available: endless volunteer shifts at every carnival, gala and bake sale, helping out at the school itself, signing us up to sell a ridiculous amount of those World’s Famous Chocolates or any other item the school asked us to hock. When it came time to pick a high school, I can only imagine my parent’s horror and simultaneous relief when I asked to be sent to a public school. My dad loathed the idea of me going to the local high school for a variety of reasons, insisting he'd find a way to afford one of the two Catholic high schools that were the natural next step for the majority of my classmates. Still, the idea of a free education held significant appeal; my parents sure as hell didn’t have a five-digit sum of money to fork over every year, not by a stretch.

One night I walked by my parents’ bedroom on my way to bed, and through a sliver in the mostly closed door, I saw my dad wringing his hands through his hair. Even if we hadn’t just discussed my educational future at length over dinner, I wouldn’t have had to think too hard to guess the source of his agony. I was starting to get it at the tender age of 13, to grasp the enormous weight that accompanies the making of choices that affect your children’s futures. He was stressing over me, over what to do with me.

The following morning, I formulated a plan: I’d file a request with the school board to be allowed to attend a high school outside of my district. The process took several weeks and involved multiple interviews with counselors, principals and board members. plus carefully written letters and presentations with graphs and fancy pie charts. The school I’d selected after careful analysis of the entire district's AP curriculum, graduation rates and college acceptance ratios was already significantly over-populated; I heard a lot of "no" during the process, an already daunting one for a kid of my age.  Imagine my family’s surprise and collective sigh of exuberant relief though when we got the call informing us that my request had been granted. Something about a pre-teen in her best clothes and a giant portfolio with big dreams must have won someone over. Thus was born the story my dad would tell about a thousand time in the years that followed. He was so proud of me, and elated that he could send me off to high school in peace.

My parents’ sacrifice was far from over though. Attending a school out of my district meant a longer commute; this meant that my mother had to pick up and drop off her two children in different parts of town every day, a challenge even before factoring in the many sports practices, dance rehearsals, study groups, volunteer shifts, etc. Then after high school, both my brother and I decided to pursue education at private universities. The scholarships and grants helped but weren’t enough; my parents took out loans to help afford the cost of our education. They held on to cars that badly needed replacing but managed to help my brother and I get cars of our own. They never took a single vacation or bought themselves one nice thing for themselves. They put their children above all things always – and what’s more, they were happy to do it.

The thing about all of this is that 98% of the time, my parents hid their struggle. They rarely let on to the fact that making ends meet was a challenge, never made my brother or I feel like we owed them anything or like it was all a lot to manage. Instead they celebrated every good grade, every victory, every performance. They made us feel special and treasured and important and unstoppable. They loved us every day, unequivocally, unwaveringly.   

So as I stood in line at Costco with my successful, educated and soon-to-be-married brother and my goofy, affectionate parents, I felt pride. I’m proud to be the daughter of a man who has brought his wife flowers every Valentine’s Day and anniversary as far as I can remember, the first man to bring me flowers and to put a ring on my finger. I’m proud to be the daughter of a woman who is loved by everyone everywhere and who leads always with her heart. I’m proud that, though a little bit lost and a lot of a dreamer, I am still deemed worthy of their decades of enormous sacrifice; they remind me of this fact every chance they get. To them, it was all so worth it.

To get these people a Costco camper then seems a little anti-climactic, especially with no cute offspring to load it with and sweeten the pot. “Thanks for all the self-denial, folks! Here’s an $80 camper thing to even the score!” Still, look at the man’s face, the sheer, unbridled joy of a wish made reality. This is the man that taught me how to love, folks. May you all feel this kind of love in your lives today and every other day.