The only person who has ever told me, in no uncertain terms, that my legs are fat is my grandmother. Other women have been more discreet. They tell me I have such a pretty face, or that I look great in long dresses—consolations meant to make up for my lower half.
The incident with my grandmother happened a few summers ago, in the midst of one of New York’s oppressive heat waves. I’d fled the city to my parents’ home and was lounging by the pool with a group that included my mother, sister, aunt and grandmother.
Instead of a bathing suit—which would have been out of the question—I was wearing a cotton sundress, the kind of flimsy, barely-there thing that stops mid-thigh, leaving my legs, earthworm pale and thick with running muscles, entirely exposed. From the waist up, my body is small and delicately boned, which only seems to highlight the size of my legs, a fact that wasn’t lost on my grandmother.
“Brienne,” she said. “Can I talk to you alone for a minute?”
Normally, when my grandmother wanted to talk to me alone, it was about my sister. I braced myself for a lecture about being nicer to her.
“Brienne,” she began, once we were safely out of earshot from the rest of the group, behind a hedge on the lawn. “You can’t tell anyone what I’m about to say to you.”
“OK,” I said, my imagination going wild. Was she going to talk to me about her boyfriend at the senior center again?
“You’re a beautiful girl.” She gazed at me directly. “But you have very fat legs.”
I said nothing. What was there to say? My legs have always been my biggest insecurity (physically, at least). In the worst of times, when I look at myself in the mirror, all I see are my cankles, and the layers of fat, speckled with cellulite, that rounded out my thighs. In my eyes, my legs are like stuffed turkey sausages—blotchy and thick.
More than anything, they make me feel ashamed—for having that ice cream sandwich after dinner, for not waking up in time to run before work, for not losing that little bit of weight that might not make them perfect, but would at least make them presentable.
“I talked to a trainer about the situation,” my grandmother continued, “and he suggested some exercises you could do. I’d like you to go talk to him.”
Immediately, my mind tried to shelve her comment under “crazy.” But my face must have betrayed what I was feeling.
“I’m not trying to be mean,” she said. “I’m just trying to help you.”
In my heart of hearts, I did know that she wasn’t being malicious. My grandmother is from a different era, one in which women were judged almost solely by their appearance. In the mostly lower class Irish neighborhood where she had grown up, neither money nor a career played into finding a husband.
“It’s not surprising that the generation of women who grew up in a time when they were really punished for their bodies are so critical of their daughters or granddaughters,” says Courtney Martin, author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body. “They’re operating on the premise that we have to figure out how to fit into the framework of society in order to live happy, carefree lives. They want us to have as little criticism from the outside world as possible. So in many ways, their words are a botched attempt at protecting us.”
Today, women are no less critical of their physical appearance, but we have diversified our offerings. Not only can we be beautiful, we can also be successful at our careers, well educated and independent. We can choose when we want to settle down, and if we want to settle down at all. The proliferation of images telling us that our bodies aren’t perfect unless we are starving may seem overwhelming, but we have an increasing number of attributes that we can choose to focus on instead of our beauty.
But still, we continue to take that self-hatred out on our bodies. A failure at work, a fight with a boyfriend or a bad conversation with a friend can translate into physical punishment. “When we are looking at our bodies in the mirror, we have to pay attention to our moods,” Martin explains. “We are not accurate perceivers of our physicality. We have to do it with a grain of salt. When I feel bad one morning about my appearance, there’s a good chance that in six hours, I probably won’t feel the same way.”
If a setback in the outside world is particularly painful, then I find that my disdain for my body becomes especially acute. One day, I might feel perfectly fine wearing ballet flats with a skirt. But if I’m upset about a relationship, or discouraged about my writing career, I feel so physically ugly that I don’t want to leave the house.
Moments after my grandmother’s stinging comments, I tried to laugh off the incident with my aunt. “You’ll never guess what Nana just told me,” I said to her.
“You promised not to tell anyone!” my grandmother said, not wanting my aunt to see her on the other side of the line she had just crossed.
Later that day, I went to Target and bought as many maxi dresses as I could afford. For the rest of the summer, I avoided looking at photographs of myself taken from afar. Every time I wore a short skirt, I felt as if I had resigned myself to being invisible to men. Surely once they saw my legs, they would look past me.
But then the fall came, and my days were packed with graduate school classes, dates with interesting men and freelance projects. Awash in activity, I barely had time to think about what I was wearing, and even less to scrutinize myself in the mirror.
On the rare occasion that I did ponder my looks, my grandmother’s criticism still resonated. But somehow, by bringing my deepest insecurity out in the open, she allowed me to admit to myself that my legs aren’t perfect, and to move on to greater concerns.
“Coping with imperfections is the best way of dealing with them,” says Martin. “You can’t heal relationships with your body once and for all. It’s a constant negotiation. The women who are successful at this are those who take the time to really tune into their lives, to reject their own internal critics, and really turn up their focus on joy and wellness. Once you step away and look at the bigger picture, the size of your thighs seems pretty insignificant.”
I know she’s right. Today, I have a career I love. My dating life is blossoming. I have friends whom I trust in abundance. Who cares, weighed against those things, if I think I have sausage legs? (Because yes, that’s still what I think of them.)
A few weeks ago, I was visiting a friend in Los Angeles. After a long winter in New York, the warm weather was a welcome change. One night, I put on a short dress and high (high) heels, leaving my legs bare.
As I teetered across the street on my way to dinner, a man called out to me from the sidewalk. “You have the most beautiful legs I’ve ever seen,” he yelled.
I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see some creepy, cat-calling weirdo. But the guy was normal and he had his arm wrapped around a beautiful woman.
“Aren’t they great?” he said to her.
“They really are,” she said, nodding in agreement.
“Thanks,” I said blushing. The light changed in the direction they were heading, and they disappeared from view. “You made my night,” I wanted to shout after them.
But instead, I just smiled to myself, relishing the compliment that would keep me glowing for the rest of the evening. I held it close, because the next day or the next week, I could easily find myself back at the bottom of the confidence scale.
The truth is, I might never like my legs, much less love them. And I most certainly will continue to wear maxi-dresses or the highest heels possible when the hemline calls for it. But I’m learning to put less emphasis on my legs. While my grandmother may see them as fat, and a random couple might see them as beautiful, I like to believe that the people who really see me won’t even notice them at all.
* By Brienne Walsh, July 1, 2011