“Have you found a dress yet?” asks the voice on the other end of my phone. My son is getting married in a few months, so I’m not surprised by the question. But I am surprised I’m hearing it from my dad, who never talks about my clothing. His inquiry knocks me off balance; my stomach lurches. Well, this is weird.
I force a chuckle, and tell him I haven’t started to look yet. “Plenty of time!” I say, or something like that. His voice turns commanding.
“You need to start looking. Right now,” he says. “You don’t have much time left. What if you need to get something altered?”
What? My dad is thinking about whether I may need to have a dress altered? I instantly suspect my mom’s been whispering in his ear. I’m unsure how to respond, I don’t know what this call is about. I’m a grown woman, for heaven’s sake. I know I need a dress for the wedding.
Frustratingly, my dad is still a formidable force in my life, even though I’m middle-aged. So I chew a cuticle as my stomach-lurch blossoms into a knot.
What does he care, what I wear? Why does he sound so upset with me? Did I do something wrong?
While I try to figure out why he’s concerned about my clothing, he pivots:
“Are you bringing anyone with you?”
Oh, man. My chest tightens; I start to see where this conversation is going. He’s just lobbed an anvil at my heart.
“No,” I whisper, “not bringing anyone.” I am acutely aware that my dad knows my ex-husband will bring his new fiancée. I feel his disapproval crash over me, in waves.
My dad is upset that I don’t have a date because my marriage over. I have no new partner.
“Well, you better go get a great dress. Do whatever it takes,” he urges. “Your mother says she’ll take you to a spa. Get your hair and makeup done, whatever.”
My parents teamed up to manage my appearance. I open and shut my mouth like a beached fish, but I can’t get a sound out. So he keeps talking.
“Make him eat his heart out for leaving you,” he instructs. “You need to make sure you can hold your head up. His whole side of the family’s going to be there, right?”
I don’t answer; I can’t answer. My phone slips in my hand, his words echo in my head, bounce off the sides of my skull, reverberate. Childhood anxieties roar through my veins, pulsing, throbbing, leaving me lightheaded and panicked. I stutter off the phone, collapse into a chair.
All I can now think of is my extended lower belly, pressing on my upper thighs, two rolls of fat folding in on top of each other.
I am deeply, utterly certain about what’s driving his anxiety. I know exactly why my 80-year-old dad is worried that I will not look good enough.
Because for the first time in my life, I am “tubby.”
You see, throughout my childhood, adding weight was — in my parents’ eyes — a failure. A personal disappointment, somehow done just to embarrass them. Constantly implied, occasionally explicit, their messages were powerful and relentless:
I’m not buying you those jeans until you lose some weight. You don’t need that last spoonful. You’ve had enough. Just look at yourself. I’m ashamed to be seen with you.
And throughout my adulthood:
Does your hotel have a gym in it? What’re you doing for exercise these days? You keeping off the weight? Have you put on some weight?
And in the past few years — yes, since the divorce — for the first time in my life, I let the number on the scale increase.
I’ve written that sentence in a way that makes it seem like I’d made a conscious decision to do so, but that’s not at all what happened. In fact, despite the changing fit of my clothes, despite the unexpected reflection I caught in a full-length mirror, I was in pretty deep denial. This new body wasn’t me.
Except that it was indeed me.
And in my 12-pound weight gain, I’d raised the questions I’ve always been afraid to ask: What will happen if I’m not thin? What will people think? Will they still like me? Love me? Now my parents left me terrified of finally learning those answers at my son’s wedding.
A mere week before the event, I marched into Bloomingdales with a credit card in my bag and anxiety in my heart. I did not want to see myself in any mirror, much less a three-way-one. Yet I walked out, an hour later, with a lovely new dress. I actually felt good wearing it.
I was still stung by my parents’ previous implication that I look bad as I am now, and that my former in-law-family would see it, too. You might be wondering why I didn’t just tell my parents to back off; I assure you, were I more emotionally capable, I would have done so. Ending the discussion was the best I could manage, so I declined to report on my purchase to my dad. I told my mother I couldn’t make the spa, too much to do for the wedding, you know how it is. (Their corresponding silences felt ominous.)