The body issue

I have a problem with people who use the word “issue” when they mean “problem.” It’s one of those precious little avoidance-factor words whose misuse has been made popular in recent years by bloodless yuppies who can’t handle anything that isn’t perfectly hunky-dory. As in “Please don’t bother me! I’m having issues here!”

And I’m channeling my inner George Carlin here. I might be an attractive 50-year-old woman, but here comes the cranky old man: An issue is a topic of conversation. Let’s discuss issues over a cup of tea! Or an installment of a magazine. Did you see the cover of the latest issue of The New Yorker? A problem is a problem! It’s something that’s gone wrong and needs fixing! It’s a fucking problem! You’re not having an issue — you’re having a fucking problem! Accept it and deal with the fucking problem! (And can I tell you I miss George Carlin?)

That said, a friend brought up an issue in her blog not long ago — a topic of conversation that is, indeed, a big and ongoing problem for me, even living as my better gender now. And, in some ways, maybe because of it. And what better way to illustrate this problem than to dredge up from my memory banks the classic National Lampoon “Body” issue from my senior year of high school? (And can I tell you I so miss National Lampoon? The Onion, as much as it seems ripped straight from Lampoon’s “News on the March” section, doesn’t quite do it for me.)

As the cover of the issue illustrates, I look more like the woman on the left and feel more like the one on the right.

A big fucking problem, indeed. And I do sound like a girl, don’t I?


My steadfast friend and favorite bartender and one of my staunchest defenders in the Tower District of Fresno, Miriam, wrote a post about her body a week and a half back in her blog, Now That I’m All Grown Up,  And she started with this graf and then riffed from there:

I love walking around naked. I think I’m sexy. My body bears the marks of motherhood: stretch marks and a scar from which the midwife pulled my child from me. I think it’s part of what makes me sexy.

In short, she loves her body. She loves herself, in the healthiest sense. She earned every mark and scar and, like the roadmap lines on the face of an itinerant musician, they tell a story. And in the era of size-0 models and cheap plastic surgery, she’s trying to instill in her daughter the value of positive body self-image at a young age.

Granted, I’ll never have to worry about biological motherhood, but what she said stopped me in my tracks — well, at least in my seat — and got me thinking about my own body. Let’s just say getting into and out of the shower is naked enough for me. It’s all I can stand to see of my natural self.

I joked with her at the bar that night that I never pictured her naked (I guess I still have some modesty), but Miriam — who is, indeed, an attractive woman — is a beautiful person, a very good and nurturing and patient soul, who’s wonderful with both her own little daughter and with all the overgrown kids she deals with a few nights a week. And I told her I imagined that her naked would be a reflection of the beauty inside.

And I joked with her, as I’ve done with some of my friends, that I’m not sure whether to file my naked self under “comedy” or “horror.” (And maybe because it’s that time of year, I’m having visions of “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” or something.)

It has nothing to do with having that little something extra that girls usually don’t have; that’s not a problem for me — or even an issue — as I never considered ridding myself of it. (And there are indeed some gorgeous girls with something extra out there, with curves in all the right places, natural or otherwise.) But my body self-image is almost the same as it was when I was still a boy. Some things never change. Or, in my case, they changed for the better, then got worse. And now I’m confronting the problem once again.

I bear scars, too, but they’re sure as hell not sexy. They’re the distended stomach and ponderous thighs and stretch marks caused by my own version of pregnancy — gestated over 35 years of chronic depression, three decades of eating and drinking more than I could work off; of nearly as long a time sitting my big ass in chairs at desks; of countless thousands of beers and sodas and scores of tubs of ice cream and an infinite number of cookies and chips and pieces of candy.

They’re the scars of constantly medicating myself — not in the alcoholic sense, but similar in principle: in finding comfort, or trying to, through those eternal conduits of pleasure, my taste buds.


Let’s face it — I was never happy with my body. Now I know there was a good reason for that, but how many people knew about gender matters  in the ’70s? I sure as hell didn’t. I was a skinny, not-macho boy with a feminine sensitivity streak and a big ass that I was always made conscious of. Through high school, I was an ass on a stick.

That was, except for that time around sixth, seventh grade, when I wanted to be a running back on my town’s Pop Warner team and started bulking up — seconds of roast beef on Sundays, etc. — then realized after a couple of months that I wasn’t cut out for it, and was left with a bunch of fat and — gasp! — my first boobs, which really made me self-conscious as I entered adolescence. And gave me incentive to drop the weight, which I did by the time I got to high school.

And if I knew then what I know now, I would never, ever have started with the junk food. My body back in college was perfectly ideal for someone as twin-spirited as I (and I did take ballet and jazz dance my senior year). Even with copious beers and the occasional White Castle run, I was on the go so much, and sitting so little, that my metabolism was running pretty high my four years of college.

I so wish I knew then what I know now — I would’ve saved myself a lot of weight, worry and money. I was probably beautiful back then but didn’t, or wouldn’t, acknowledge it because I’d had it driven so far into my head what an ugly and worthless piece of shit I was, and the internal loop tape of negative self-esteem was already running strong at that point.

Anyway, as my depressions grew longer and darker in the mid-to-late ’90s — and my weight really ballooned — I spent God knows how many nights sitting on the sofa, riveted for hours to any one of a number of the games on my Sega Genesis, absentmindedly reaching for a bag of sour cream-and-onion chips and the dip, or another spoonful from a half-gallon-or-thereabouts tub of Breyer’s. And ice cream was the worst sort of crack cocaine of junk food: The more I ate, the more I had to eat to satisfy my cravings because the cold was numbing my taste buds. And before long, before the switch kicked off, I had downed at least half the container.

And I damn well knew I was doing it, too. And yet, I couldn’t stop the cravings.


When I started my hormone replacement therapy nearly 18 months ago, the best thing to come from it wasn’t starting to grow breasts or my facial hair growth slowing down — it was that it did away with the years of chronic depression. And with it went the cravings. For the first time, I could envision myself losing a ton of weight and starting womanhood with a good-looking body.

On my way to stunning, September 2010. But then a funny thing or two happened.

I had planned to be under 200 pounds by now. (By comparison: I was 168 when I graduated from college in 1983, 320 at the worst of my sleep apnea crisis in June 2007, 283 when I began with the hormones in April of last year.) A summer of bicycle riding and avoiding crap food had me on my way. The accompanying photo was taken a little over a year ago, in late September 2010, heading to the wedding of my friends Megan and Dax. It was the same week I officially had my driver’s license changed, and between that and losing about 35 pounds, I felt and looked like a million.

Well, funny things happen. First, the dislocated ankle in November that kept me off my bike for four weeks — immediately followed by the four weeks I went home to Connecticut for Christmas. Then I tweaked the ankle on the bike again the week I got back to Fresno. Then my bike died — another month off. Then the Easter season came, and with the stress and depression and the suicidal thoughts taking over as my unemployment ran out, I started hitting the candy bins (jelly beans, Hershey eggs) at Target every couple of days, and then I started with the Pringles on my weekly WinCo grocery runs. And, predictably, I got fat again. The photos of me on my 50th birthday? In nine months, I had gone from statuesque babe-in-waiting to Jabba the Hutt.

And I was thinking “Not again.” And, just as in my depression days, I knew I was doing it and couldn’t stop. The anxiety of not knowing where my next buck, let alone my next job, was coming from, became all-consuming, as you can imagine two-plus years of unemployment and the feelings of all-around uselessness would. Throughout my weird summer of 2011, I wrangled with the crap food and lost.


Well, finally going back to work the end of Labor Day week — even if it is an on-call job with no benefits — was supposed to lift my anxiety at long last, after 2 1/2 years out of work, and at least give me some cushion to lean on. But the anxiety hasn’t vanished in a poof of smoke; it’s dissipated some, but not totally. I’m finding there’s residual stress — the unemployment version of PTSD. I’m not back to happy yet — relieved to a degree, but not happy — and it bothers me.

Plus, several people at the office have bowls and dishes of candy at the ready. Tootsie Rolls, Tootsie Pops, Rolos, and bite-sized Milky Ways and Butterfingers. I haven’t delved into the jar of Red Vines on the other side of my cubicle, but I have been bringing my own candy, enough to last me two or three days. More like two days, tops. And now, more than ever, with the Halloween candy in abundance at the stores.

And then, to complicate things, just as I was throwing myself into dropping the weight, I threw out my back two weeks ago. I was gonna take a ride on a Saturday morning, and at the first pedal stroke, I felt something taffy-pull in my lower back, followed by a sharp pain. Shee-it. Felt as if I dislocated a vertebra or something. It’s still not totally right, and it occasionally tweaks if I sit or move the wrong way.  I might not look or feel 50, but these are the days my body tells me otherwise.

With the back, I was off the bike for a week. And coupled with the last (I hope) bout of ozone-laden bad Fresno air of the year and eating the crap I was eating, I was starting to balloon again. And my ankles and feet were swelling, too. The bad air was adding stress to my body and, as in my sleep apnea days, I was retaining water. Not good. And because of the back, I’ve been scared. Another level of anxiety.


Anyway, I’m back on the bike, but taking great care not to put too much pressure on my back — or to go too far; the farthest I’ve gone since is 16 miles, a couple days ago. And a couple of times in recent nights, driving home from work, I’ve talked myself out of going to the store or the drive-thru. Little things that add up if I keep it up.

I’d love to be able to cherish the day when I look in a mirror, naked, and like what I see. I was getting so close a year ago.

The difference between girl Fran and boy Fran is I’m not beating myself — and repeatedly — over it the way I once did. Boy Fran would work myself into a froth of self-flagellation and yet another round, another layer, of self-criticism and self-loathing and want to slink away to a corner, except that how do you get away from yourself? These days, as often as not, I stop myself, ask “Do you really need this?” and then pop the big question I asked myself quite often in the summer of 2010: “How badly do you want it, girlfriend?” I just have to teach myself to do it in the office now.


But Miriam’s blog post — essentially about loving yourself and your body and accepting yourself — resonates with me in a big way right now, and not just because of the weight problem. Especially now that I’m in my second adolescence.

I might like myself a lot more than I once did, but in the morning and before bed, what I see in the mirror isn’t what the rest of the world sees much of the day. I still see a strange male/female hybrid standing before me, in some ways more boy than girl, and it bothers me. I see boobs now, growing thanks to the hormones, and for the first time, they’re noticeable — and unlike my first adolescence, I’m perfectly fine with them. But I also see that — well, let’s not sugarcoat it — that gut!

Plus, I see the trappings of boyhood that I can’t afford to fix at the moment. And they bother me, too. They make me feel, to some extent, that this whole gender trip is still just an elaborate game of dress-up — which it’s certainly not intended to be.

Actually, what I want is a reverse of why the people I read about, or see on the covers of supermarket tabloids, seem to want plastic surgery. They want it so that one day they can hopefully think they’re beautiful. I might want it to better reflect what I feel I already am inside.Then again, maybe I’m fooling myself. Who knows? But I do know I’m generally a lot happier with myself than I was in my boy life.

I have a wish list for if/when I can afford these things, and hopefully sooner than later. Top of the list is electrolysis, the painful process of hair removal — face, neck, chest — so I won’t have to shave every day anymore. Next is hair restoration. I’m still frightfully thin on top, and as much as I like my wigs, there are times I’d really like to rock my own hair again without having to wear a doo-rag. Losing my hair in my late 20s was most traumatic for me — not only as a sign of lost youth, but as a sign, at least visually, of lost androgyny.

And the third thing on the list is liposuction and a tummy tuck. Part of me thinks okay, that’s cheating — you should be losing the weight on your own. Ride that bike! Have some discipline! Step away from the junk food and turn around! The difference between my first adolescence and this one is that I lived a much more active life back then — and my metabolism was consierably higher about until I turned 27, when it went from 60 to 0 in 2.8 months.

I’m not one who believes in excessive plastic surgery — and lipo does scare me some; I’ve heard horror stories — but I know I’ll never be able to atone for all those sins of depression those 35 years. I’d like to come out of my second adolescence with a body, and a weight, I can work with. I’d like to have a fresh start and take it from there. Yeah, I know, so would anyone else. But my situation’s just a little different than many of yours.

(You’ll notice I didn’t say boob job. That’s because the girls are growing nicely on their own — the doc told me I was up to a B last time I saw her — and what I don’t have (yet), I can now flesh out to Cs with simple insert pads. No more birdseed and sandwich bags. Plus, boob jobs are so easy to spot — so perky! So, well, perfect! None of us are that perfect.

And note I didn’t say anything about my face, either. I have very few lines — the small scattering of crow’s feet; some dark circles, which are from my chronic lack of sleep; budding frown lines, which I noticed a month ago and which worry me … and, most prominently, a pair of smile lines. I love those. I worked for them. They’re the scars — and rewards — of having lived an interesting life, and I wear them proudly. I’m not touching my face.)

Anyway, my 35th high school reunion is three years off. Maybe by then I, and my body, will be at some place where we’ll both be happy. Maybe my back will cooperate and I’ll be be able to drop enough of the weight. so that I don’t need to consider lipo. (Besides, the doctor told me when I started with the hormones not to consider any body modification for two years, which will bring me to next spring.) Maybe my body image and self-esteem will finally meet in a much happier place. I say “maybe” a lot, don’t I? That’s a problem.


2 Responses to “The body issue”

  1. Jay Parks Says:

    Thank you.

  2. Life in Limboland, Part 1: ‘He’ — or what the hell AM I, really? « Franorama World Says:

    […] of this pronoun problem is my own damn fault, I’m surmising. I really let myself go to hell. I’ve touched on it before, but I didn’t know how badly I had let myself go. Things, like the pronoun problem itself, that […]

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