An Incomplete History of My Body

fat

Grade school, maybe grade six or seven. Sitting in a circle with my girlfriends at recess. We go around the circle in turns: “My thighs are so fat. I hate them” “Your thighs are not fat! They’re so skinny! Look at my stomach. It’s flabby.” “Your stomach isn’t flabby, look at mine!” Around and around like that. I have a brief realization that none of us are fat, that this is ridiculous. I try not to feel bad about my body.

I am twelve, maybe thirteen. I’m playing at the school yard. A boy tells me I look good. I’m wearing a bit of makeup that I got for my birthday, a hairband, a brown corduroy collared shirt and khakis. I am pleased. Aware that I am noticed. I sense power in that, but don’t understand it. Won’t understand it for many years to come.

All through my young adult life, the women around me are on and off Weight Watchers. My mother, my aunts, my sister, my friends, all struggle with their weight, with their bodies. I subscribe to YM magazine, and read articles instructing me how to dress for my body type, what bathing suit I should be wearing, how to work out. For a while, I do workouts in my bedroom, push-ups and sit-ups on my dusty-pink carpet. I notice muscles growing, and I like it. I feel strong. It doesn’t last long, though. I know that I should care more.

Any time my dad’s family gets together, we eat all day long: cookies, squares, potato chips and dip, cheese trays, veggies and dip, and then we have dinner and then we have dessert. It is normal to eat to the point of feeling ill: that’s what the Borin girls do. In preparation for holidays, we are “good”,  we save our calories for an all-day binge. One Christmas eve, I vomit when we get home from my grandma’s, because I’ve eaten so much.

Throughout my late teen years, my twenties, I continue to spend the currency that is my body. I start waitressing in a bar, and the combination of attention and cash is intoxicating. I am so powerful. A low cut shirt, a push-up bra, pants that hug my ass: it’s so easy. These guys are so easy, so dumb. It feels like power, but in retrospect, I’m not sure it is. I go with it, though. Careening just a little bit, like going downhill on a bike and you’re on the edge of losing control, the handle bars wrenching back and forth in your hands.

Twenty-seven. Pregnant and keeping it. My body swells. I am the epitome of Earth Mother. All of the cliches: glowing, fertile, goddess. I birth my baby in the backseat of the car because I didn’t understand that I’d already started pushing at the house. Afterwards, I wonder how I could be so unaware of my body. Childbirth is different, though. I was in a different head space, I was out of my body and yet so firmly in it, of course I didn’t know. It was my first time. Pushing is feet in stirrups, doctor yelling instructions at you. Pushing is not in the dark of the bathroom against a washing machine. Bearing down is maybe a better descriptor.

Through the next two pregnancies, my weight fluctuates. Just before I become pregnant with Colm, I’m at my lowest weight ever. People tell me how good I look. What have you been doing? You look great, they tell me. I’ve lost enough weight that I need new bras, new pants, new shirts. My jaw, my cheek bones, are more pronounced. What have I been doing? I’ve been anxious about food, entire food groups or tiny molecular portions of them. Sugar and gluten are suspect: I try to avoid both with spotty success. I don’t want to eat things that come from far away, and this is partly a good thing and partly concerning because eventually I’m not sure what to eat. I am obsessed with “real” food. With toxins. I fall for pseudo-science and charismatic Internet food bloggers.

During my second pregnancy, my midwife encourages me to eat more, to put on more weight, as insurance. It’s not until my third pregnancy that I do. I eat with abandon and now, two years post-partum, I continue to do so. I eat oatmeal for breakfast, and then after Paul and Aedan leave for the day, I eat the rice leftover from dinner, with hot sauce. Then I find a chocolate bar stashed somewhere and I eat that, too. The kids want a snack so I eat a half a dozen crackers with them. A few cookies when they’re not looking. I finish their toast crusts. Then we make lunch and I eat mine plus what they don’t. We go to the grocery store and I buy a big bag of potato chips and then it’s empty before I realize it. I eat more crackers while I cook dinner, and then I eat seconds at dinner, too. I pay no attention to my body as I eat, as I go through my day, and then suddenly I can’t help but pay attention to it because I think I might throw up. Shame sets in. What the fuck is wrong with me?

For five years, almost six, my breasts have been on demand. My body constantly stimulated by little hands patting, reaching, clinging, wanting to be carried. I am adept at distancing myself from this body. I look in the mirror, naked, at my lopsided breasts hanging down towards my stomach. My stomach that could pass for six months pregnant. (People ask me, occasionally, if I’m pregnant again). None of my clothes fit right. My feet have gone up a half shoe size in the last couple of years and I wish that clothes came in half-sizes, too. Everything is either a bit too loose, or a bit too tight. I want to live in leggings. I want to cut my breasts off. I am a stranger in this body. This body that has climbed mountains, has hiked fifty two kilometers on the Chilkoot Trail. This body that can dance, and run, and grow and birth and nourish new humans. This body that was once my currency and that now feels like a crumpled bill in the bottom of a pocket. My body the afterthought, my body the inconvenience.

Still, though. It’s a woman’s body. I no longer wear low cut tops to work, but just this past Sunday, a man who once threatened to kill me because I cut him off told me if he were a bit younger, he’d take me home. As if that’s a compliment. In the summer I wear a red dress because it makes me happy and a man buys me a drink, expects conversation, is disappointed when he sees my wedding ring. I try to be invisible, wear jeans and a sports bra under a loose band t-shirt, and still they notice, tell me I look good. I’d like to tell them to fuck off, but I smile, I fumble, I walk away.

This body is mine and not mine. I’d like to come to a place of acceptance. Of some measure of gratitude. A truce, even. I try. I’d like to offer you more than this disjointed collection, had intended to, but it turns out I’m not there yet.

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A Bartender’s Work

tavern

On Sunday mornings, at twenty past eight, I walk to work in the dark. My good black boots with the pointed toes squeak on the hard-packed snow like pieces of styrofoam rubbed together. Outside of the bar I might pick up a few empty cigarette packages from the ground, sometimes a crushed beer can, evidence of the night before. I go inside and knock on the tavern door. The night cleaner lets me in. We chat about his evening, then he disappears to sleep. I take off my coat, turn up the lights. I count my float, take inventory of the cigarettes and the beer, wine and hard liquor we sell for offsales. I line the bottles up on the bar, the Christmas lights causing the amber coloured whiskey to glow. I load the hot dog machine, unlock the coolers, brew a pot of coffee, turn on the classic rock radio station. 9 a.m. I open the blinds, unlock the door.

Some mornings there is a rush of last night’s revelers: they belly up to the bar, order beer or coffee and Baileys. Their stories tumble out amid laughter, their eyes darting beneath heavy lids. They spend a few hours with me as they come down. Soon the stories slow, the eyes grow heavier. They wander home to bed or grab a half-sack of beer and head out to see if the party is still going.

Some mornings, for the first hour I sell only offsales. These folks move more slowly. Shaking hands pull out of coat pockets in a spill of crumpled bills and coin. I help them count out what they need, then pass the bottle across the bar to be tucked carefully inside their coats. Often I’ll see them again in the early afternoon.

There are quiet mornings when I get to chat with one or two people over coffee. Together we watch the light fill the sky, the details of the world coming into focus through the big windows in the front of the bar. We talk about the weather, or someone’s upcoming trip to Whitehorse, my kids or their grandkids. Rarely the talk forays into politics: it’s dangerous ground that we all generally try to avoid.

Always, they bring me their stories: of addiction, failed marriages, suicide, and very rarely, residential school. Stories of the old days. Of bush life, of hand-mining and shaft digging. They brag of being the best CAT operator in the territory, the best barmaid of their day. They share with me their journeys, both outside the territory, and in. Stories of last night’s party, last week’s canoe trip, Passions, heartbreak, dreams realized or not, birth, disease and death. We make our money on liquor sales but we trade in stories and I try my best to hold space for each one. To let each person tell their story as it needs to be told, whether it’s full of careful omission or gross embellishment. They all want to be heard, and that is the true work of the bartender.