The other f-word

Creative non-fiction winner

Illustrations: Shantala Robinson

Bye-bye body

Twelve hours after surgery, I am on my feet again, shuffling to the bathroom in dirty feet. With one hand, I clutch the back of my blue hospital gown; with the other, I grip my IV stand. With each step, pain radiates from the six-inch gash just above my pubic bone. My guts are screaming bloody murder.

Nurse what’s-her-face spots me as I take my first steps.

Shuffle, shuffle, stop. Inhale. Exhale.

“Just take it easy now,” she cautions. Two nights ago, a surgeon sliced through layers of fat and muscle to extract the ailing baby trapped inside. Now I am hunched over like a 90-year-old with osteoporosis, unable to take more than two steps at a time.

We are at the bathroom door. The nurse gives me clear instructions: I am to pee into the plastic insert in the toilet, take a squeeze bottle and squirt warm water on my lady business, and change the three-inch thick maternity pad stuck to the crotch of hospital-issue granny panties. Yes, ma’am.

I pull the pocket door closed behind me, pull up my gown with swollen fingers, and sit on the tall toilet. As I relieve myself, I discover that even my bladder aches. Ah, right. The catheter.

Alone with my body, I decide to investigate. First, my legs: white, waxy tree trunks that hardly bend. I run my hands up my massive thighs and hips that roll off the edge of the toilet seat. Filled to bursting with IV fluids, the skin on my hips is taut; it feels like I’ve sausaged myself into pantyhose five sizes too small.

I sort myself out and shuffle to the sink. An invalid stares back from the mirror before me. Her face is round and jaundiced. Purple moons hang beneath tired eyes. Her hair is greasy, with strands that cling to one another.

I rest my forearms on the counter, close my eyes. Inhale … exhale. Now for the grand finale.

I pull up the gown, open my eyes slowly. What I see cannot be me: A pale belly droops like the jowls of a British parliamentarian. To look at my incision, I must actually lift a flap with both hands.

I let the gown fall.

Was that really me?

I take a deep breath and lift the gown again. I am still an enormous mound of pizza dough shoved into a diabetic compression sock. I actually laugh out loud – what else is there to do? I wasn’t expecting sculpted abs, of course, but I was not expecting … this.

The map of my old body made sense: a collarbone linking two distinct shoulders, a gentle curve between waist and hip, a round bottom emerging from strong thighs tapering to the knee bones, a soft belly providing a gentle path between sternum and pubic bone. Even my pregnant body made more sense. Even when my belly seemed impossibly large and strangers asked if I was carrying twins, I didn’t feel too bad about my size: after all, I was pregnant fat.

Now, I’m just regular fat.

Mirror, mirror

I’m in love with the floor-length mirror at the end of the hallway. During the day, I like to stand before it and pose with my hand on my hip. Smile demurely. Wave at my reflection. It would be narcissistic if it accurately represented me, which it does not. This is a reverse-funhouse mirror, making me look far less scary than usual. By some miracle of physics, it stretches me up a few inches, smoothing out the lumps and bumps.

“Sure, I’m fat,” I tell myself, as I twirl before it, “but it’s a pretty kind of fat.” I am trying on fat acceptance. I tell myself that I can be 205 pounds and five-foot-eight (okay, five-foot-seven-and-a-half) and still hot, still me. I need this mirror to convince myself that my old body is still hiding underneath this one. I need this visual lie in order to venture out into public during the first couple of months after the birth, because I still look six months pregnant.

Unfortunately, the mirror doesn’t lie about my outfits. These threadbare Lululemon yoga pants should have been retired six years ago (and never worn in public, ever). The blue nursing shirt I wear day in and day out is pilling in the armpits and belly. I imagine myself in an episode of What Not To Wear, standing in that soul-crushing 360-degree mirror. “Nothing about this says ‘Yummy Mummy,’ ” says Stacy London, off-camera. “Everything about this says, ‘I’ve given up on life.’ ” Nodding, Clinton Kelly pipes up with a question: “Do you want your daughter thinking it’s okay to raid the lost and found at the YMCA?”

Finally, a few weeks before a conference session I’m speaking at, I realize I can’t keep waiting for my old body to reappear. I need to dress the body I have. After my partner Gail gets home from work one day, I head out for a spouse-sanctioned shopping spree. I hit up my usual haunts, and it doesn’t go well. I break a sweat trying to yank shirts over my swollen breasts and burgeoning belly, and every pair of pants stops mid-thigh. It is now time to do the unthinkable.

I have never, ever, ever set foot in a plus-size store. And not because I’ve been too svelte. For years, I’ve purchased the biggest regular-size clothing, even if it meant a snug fit. I held onto the idea that I was a regular-sized woman. I used euphemisms like “curvy” to describe my physique, eschewing more honest labels like “fat,” “plus-size,” or “chubby.” On paper, I’m a proud feminist who believes that body size doesn’t determine self-worth; alone in a change room, with pants stuck halfway up my legs, I feel completely defeated by my body.

Within moments of walking through the doors of Addition Elle, three different staff people – all shaped like apples, just like me – come up to say hello and talk about some sale happening. I’m not paying attention. I’m staring at the biggest hips, thighs, and rear ends I’ve seen in a long time. I’m well aware of the irony. Stop it! I chide myself. You are shopping in a plus-size clothing store for a reason! These are your people.

So I browse the racks. There’s a weird amount of skinny jeans and other unflattering trends. But plenty of things are perfectly nice, so I grab as many as I can carry and head toward the change room. As I approach, a couple of women are folding the change room rejects, chatting and laughing while they work. With a big smile, one lady turns to unlock a room for me. “Let me know if you need anything, honey,” she calls from the other side of the door. Everyone here is so bloody happy about being fat, I think, bitterly.

The pants fit. The shirts fit. Everything looks pretty good, in fact. But I’m not sure whether this is a win or a loss. On one hand, I look much more pulled together, and Clinton and Stacy would definitely approve. On the other hand, this confirms it: I’m really and truly fat. Before I yanked my head out of the toilet in my early 20s, after a six-year eating disorder that made my life hell, this body was my worst fear. When I was living off of carrots and mustard and running until I saw stars, the thought of walking into a plus-size store and walking out with a pair of size 16 jeans would have given me heart palpitations. But, here I am.

Om my god

On an April afternoon, I finally wear my yoga pants for their intended purpose. The baby is still not sleeping through the night, so I swig three cups of coffee to keep myself vertical, hop in the car, and drive five minutes to the yoga studio. I am practically vibrating with glee (and caffeine).

I roll into the strip mall parking lot, grab my mat from the back seat, and waltz into the yoga studio. Just like old times. I am ready to soak up the prana … and shed this fat suit.

Then I see them: the yoga bodies in (new) Lululemon yoga outfits. Triangular torsos. Tummies that look sucked in but aren’t. Bums you could bounce a toonie off of. Muscular calves that taper at the ankles.

The blond woman at the front desk looks airbrushed, with glow-in-the-dark teeth. “Have you practised yoga before?” she asks. Uh, yeah. I’ve practised yoga at this friggin’ studio for longer than you’ve been legal. Back in my day, I did headstands and back bends and one-legged balances – without breaking a sweat. Which, of course, is absolutely not the point of yoga.

I force myself to smile, act casual. “Oh, I used to come here all the time,” I blurt. “I just had a baby and couldn’t practise here during pregnancy because there wasn’t a prenatal class, so I just kind of stopped doing it altogether. I should have kept going, but pregnancy is so hard, you know? But I’m excited to be getting back into it. It was, like, such an important part of my life. It’s going to be great.”

As each word exits my mouth, I think: Just shut up. Shut up. Why are you still talking? But somehow, my lips keep moving, completely disengaged from my brain. Of course, I’m not explaining my absence from yoga – I am explaining my fatness. What I am really saying is, “Don’t worry – I’m not usually this fat!” As if I need to justify my body to this stranger who probably doesn’t care. And if she does – if she’s counting calories and using fat ladies as thinspiration – that’s sad. I’m not sure why the judgment of someone who hates herself should concern me.

I slip into the darkened studio, relieved to see that it’s still free of mirrors. A single tea light on a ceramic plate burns at the front of the room. I find a spot where I can’t jealously stare down the other yogis and unroll my mat. Then I sit, cross-legged, and try not to twitch.

Class begins and I move through the poses with my eyes closed. My hip flexors are tight and sore. I even hear my ankle crick as I balance on one leg in tree pose. These aren’t the knees that once balanced against my forearms in crow. These aren’t the arms that held a steady plank.

And this belly. It curls over the waistband of my pants and puts inches between my ribs and thighs during a forward fold. It is an unwieldy mass that makes even the gentlest twist cumbersome. It reminds me that my old body isn’t hiding beneath this fat suit: it is gone forever.

But at the end of class, I can feel my core again. Between my sternum and belly button I feel a burn and realize what is happening: after being sliced open, the muscles and ligaments have sewn themselves back together. Beneath soft flesh, I am rebuilding, and no mirror could ever capture that.

Caitlin Crawshaw is a freelance journalist and an MFA student of the University of British Columbia’s optional-residency creative writing program. She lives in Edmonton with her partner, daughter, and their animal menagerie.

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