[I wrote this piece two years ago on Christmas Eve. It was the first chapter of my book-in-progress. Though the book has fallen away for other projects, I've always loved this piece. And I am extra super grateful and proud that there is no way these kinds of thoughts would interrupt my presence now. A lot has shifted in two years. Perhaps most importantly, I have grown self-love and compassion. Those are my default thoughts now. Praise spirit (and hey, lots of personal growth books & workshops) for that! Love to you all.]
It’s an unusually balmy Christmas Eve in Connecticut. My fiancé Charlie and I are walking on the side of the road up a steep hill. This is our shortcut back to his parent’s house after taking an unknown trail on our walk through the woods. There’s almost no space between the brush and the road and cars are zooming around the corner faster than it seems country twists and turns would allow. They feel reckless. Wreckful.
If I were on the passenger side of one of these cars, with Charlie driving, say, I would be reaching for the side door unconsciously, barely keeping myself from doing a full impression of my mother, complete with audible breath intake and foot tapping on invisible brake. But here on the hill, Charlie walks in front of me, stepping off the road into the brushy grass when a car comes too close, my signal to follow his lead. We are in a sort of line dance with him protecting me - and it works. Though the cars feel close, there is nothing particularly dangerous about our trek. Still, this walk is troublesome.
The central problem is that it’s hot, the road is steep, I’m sweating, and for the life of me, I don’t feel the freedom to take off my sweater and expose my arms on Christmas Eve. There’s something improper about it and my mind is traveling over every societally, personally and relationally objectionable part of a young fertile woman brazenly wearing a camisole on the side of the road. It’s a useless thought exercise, but I can’t help myself, I follow it.
Most obviously, the side of the road is a historically unsafe space for a woman to walk with or without an outfit that invites attention. If I were alone, would I even be having the debate of whether or not to take off my sweater? Of course not. I mean, I’d practically be “asking for it.”
Asking for what, exactly? I don’t expect, even alone and wearing a camisole on the side of the road, to get abducted and raped in mid-daylight on Christmas Eve in small-town Connecticut. What I actually would be asking for, I think, is negative, judgmental attention - and this is what I want to avoid. I consider that a portion of why I don’t remove my sweater is for my fiancé’s benefit. It’s his hometown, after all. There could be people he knows passing by. He could be judged for accepting the company of a woman so daring as to go bare-armed on Christmas Eve. His name could be brought up in living rooms.
“Yes. Little drummer Charlie! Well, not so little anymore, I suppose - but, spotted on the side of the road with a girl whose burgundy bra straps were hanging out of her skimpy shirt!”
“And I thought I heard he got engaged this year? Well.”
With images of wealthy Connecticut Moms in my mind, why risk him being judged in association with the inevitable judgment of my female body?
It’s getting hotter. My breathing is blocked and heavy from a lingering stuffy nose and the incline. I’m in good yoga shape, but walking hills is always tough for me. My legs, the most (commercially) pleasing part of my body - natural thigh gap and all - were not built for hills. I have a flat bottom and skinny thighs that have little horsepower. Admittedly, because I am vainly happy with their thinness, I have not spent much time “working” on them. For women who aren’t bodybuilders, working out, or, “working on” a piece of the body is generally focused on making it smaller. My legs don’t need to be smaller, thus, their training has been neglected.
On a less trafficked road, just moments before this one, I unzipped my sweater and let my shoulders go bare, no problem. “Charlie!” I laughed, pointing ahead. “Look at that silly little gate in front of that house!” The sweet temperate breeze licked my sweat, producing the natural cooling effect of the body’s regulation system. An open field to the left and a little house on the right, (with one of those one-section gates poised cutely, but uselessly before the walk to the door) stretched out before me. The swirling, artful thoughts of our conversation in the woods danced behind me. I flash back on an earnestly in love couple scheming about how to spend even more time together.
“We should do a project,” said Charlie. “I could capture the sounds, you could capture it in words. I want to travel.”
“I know! Me too. Where should we go? And how could we get someone to actually pay us to do it?”
We meandered through the woods talking about artistic possibilities and, despite a gnawing concern that Charlie’s reputation could be hurt rather than helped by working with his future wife, I was blissful. My favorite thing in the world to talk about is the logistics of new creative projects. It was refreshing to be out in nature, thinking about the important things after a day of holiday time with Charlie’s parents. In the woods and on the side road, I was bare-armed, free and flowing.
But when we turned the corner to ascend the busy hill, my sweater came swiftly back on, a protective impulse from the speed, eyes, and minds of the passersby. Side road freedom turns to self-preservation and then anxiety as I become more and more entangled in my restrictive thoughts and clothing on the hillside.
Only when my arms are at their wiriest, thin and ropy muscled - as they are when I forego dairy, grains, sugar, and alcohol for a month and exercise almost daily - am I not troubled by them. A body dysmorphia so thorough, from my brief stint with pro-choice anorexia, (a largely online colony that mistakenly views anorexia as a lifestyle choice rather than an illness) means that uncovering an arm any fleshier or softer than an adolescent boys’ makes me anxiously self-conscious, looking into all reflective surfaces and narcissistically analyzing any lingering glances or mildly disgusted faces to determine the offensiveness of my fat.
My reluctance to remove my sweater is not simply fearing the judgment of a neighbor’s split-second thoughts of lust, or “slut” on this Christmas Eve, the almost birth of our Lord and Savior. There is indeed, still, a not-small part of me that is fearful of the word “fat.” It is not a word that has been put upon me by others (to my knowledge), but it’s possibility is a self-censorship that keeps me away from situations where my darkest fears might be confirmed - casting calls for films, jobs that compare women based on appearance and any instance where a bare arm seems gratuitous, and thus, open for judgment. This just one of the ways I have been brainwashed.
I am hot. I am sweating. I am getting anxious. But I will not take off my sweater. I will not risk exposing my fat.
Ahead of me, Charlie takes off his sweater to reveal a simple grey t-shirt, sweat marks coming through the back in light splatter-patterns. I marvel at how easy this decision must have been for him. Charlie’s legs are stronger than mine, used to running and always good at climbing, ”man thighs,” I call them (aware that, yes, I am indeed objectifying his body through gender norms) as we tumble onto the covers at night, not quite ready to sleep. Their power took him far up this hill, his heat building more slowly than in me, and when it got hot enough, he took the sweater off. One moment of decision. Done.
It reminds me of the time that I shared my tendency of going into bodegas at night during college, wanting something, but internally fighting myself into passivity. I’d stare at the expensive juices, the ice cream cooler, the chips, the deli, and protein bars, weighing the pros and cons, the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” made ever more complicated by my intense frugality and dislike of using debit cards for purchases under $5. I’d leave the bodega without buying anything, wondering how sketchy I looked on the scale from crazy-woman to thief, aware that if I had a skin color other than white, I would likely have been accused of stealing.
When I reported this behavior to Charlie, he said, “Wow. I have never done that. I just know what I want and I get it.”
To know what you want and then obtain it, no deliberation needed? Incredible.
To feel hot and remove an article of clothing without analyzing how you might be judged, or assaulted for doing so? Sweet Heaven.
All the brain space you must have to think big thoughts when not constantly consumed by the little ones!
All the time you must have to yourself in public when you are not being hit on, mansplained to, or both, simultaneously!
Charlie is aware of his white male privilege. He listens to my concerns, and sympathizes, trying to understand - but he doesn’t fully comprehend my experience.
And I, more often than I’d like to admit, envy his.
I grab the sides of my zippered sweater and fan myself by swinging them in and out. I thought we would be at the top of the hill by now - we are not. In a few minutes, we’ll come to a side road without cars. “I’ll take off my sweater, then,” I think.
I power through the last stretch, incredulous that my ridiculous inner monologue has lasted this far up a hill.
“Just take off the fucking sweater!” I scream internally. “You’re such a drama queen.”
We finally turn the corner off the main road into semi-seclusion and I take off my sweater, but only for a few moments. My hands quickly find the solution of unwrapping
my scarf and turning it into a shawl to cover my shoulders. I perform this action with grace, sureness, like it was a move I had premeditated, but I hadn’t. My mind settles down into easy conversation with my fiancé, who, as far as I can tell, is none the wiser of my personal dilemma on the hill.
And for this moment, I will spare him the feminist analysis of my struggle. It’s Christmas Eve, and bless him, he hears enough about it every other day of the year.