My daddy called me “Tootsie Roll,” and though I was a normal sized little kid, I realize now that it didn’t take too long before I saw myself slightly reminiscent of how a tootsie roll looks – rather thick. It didn’t help that when I was in junior high and I asked Daddy if I was fat (which I wasn’t since I remember weighing 98 pounds in 8th grade at 4’11”), his response was, “A man needs a woman who can pull a plow in hard times.” Now granted, my dad was from a different era. Born in 1902 and fifty when I was born, he was in his early 60’s when I was asking those questions. I knew he loved me and I knew he thought I was as sweet I could be, but at that age, you want the one man in your life to say, “You are perfect.” Now I must admit he did say things like, “Not fat, not thin, just right.” But I guess when you’re growing up in the Twiggie era, thin is all that’s in and if you’re 4’11” with a slightly stocky build, thin is simply not in the picture. When I tried again to elicit the “thin” answer, my Dad’s response was, “You are perfectly proportioned.” This poor man did not know what I needed or wanted to hear. He was telling me the truth as he saw it and all those answers were absolutely correct. I am slightly tootsie rollish, and I could pull a plow if need-be, and I am fairly well proportioned for this short stature. But thin? No, never, not once, never did happen, never going to happen unless I get very ill in which case I will not be very happy to finally have the body that I have always longed for but have never been able to achieve.
It didn’t help that my two best friends in junior high and high school were not only tall and thin, but also exceptional pretty – beautiful – is the word that really describes both of them. And I, seven inches shorter and not too different weight-wise from them and not ugly, but more cute than pretty and certainly not beautiful, got a big dose of three’s a crowd with the boys in school. My old friends who were boys – most of us started in K and stayed through 12 together – were particularly fascinated with my well-developed breasts at the ripe old age of eleven – ah, now wasn’t that quite a gift for a girl who would rather be climbing trees than buying that necessary undergarment? But after everybody figured out that I wasn’t interested in them being interested, I went back to being just good ole Len. That was the deal. Good ole Len as the side kick to Jane Anne and Mary Anne who honestly could have been gracing the cover of a fashion magazine by the time they were thirteen and who were enjoying the spoils of that kind of beauty early on with good-natured laughs about it all. But me, I was that other girl, the one who was nice, had the good personality, but who was not, well, as fashionable in that super thin late 60’s mini-skirt kind of way, which also included super straight long hair parted in the middle. Of course, mine was short and curly, wouldn’t you just know? And I had the glasses – oh yes – those lovely cat-eye glasses in middle school that my hometown friends even today still tease me about when we’re going through a yearbook and who wouldn’t? They were god-awful.
Oh, and the complexion. Did I mention I had a standing appointment for three years with the dermatologist? This was arranged before my 8th grade English teacher pulled me aside one day and asked what my parents were doing about “my face.” Yes, and then I gained almost 20 pounds between eight grade and ninth and so I was no longer even perfectly proportioned. Oh Lord. No wonder I headed straight to the doctor for “diet pills” and was encouraged to do so by my mother AND my dad. Three years later and down to a regular size, Miss Peppy, as I was often called, watched as the mother of my best friend had a stroke in her early 40’s. Beautiful Mary Anne’s mother – Mary Anne who was also taking diet pills for no good reason – said to us, “This is what’s going to happen to you girls if you keep taking those pills.” Alas, I went cold-turkey and for the next six months my hands shook. I didn’t gain weight, though, much to my happy surprise. Probably because Miss Peppy was a cheerleader by this time and getting a fair amount of exercise.
The gist, I battled an imaginary weight problem – and a real self image problem – for years. Many years. I look back now at pictures taken when I remember thinking, “Oh not a picture today, I weigh 114 instead of 110.” Now I see that I was slim and healthy and pretty and I didn’t even know it. I had no clue. Instead, I thought I was chubby and slightly homely.
Now, I weigh 129, down from 140 and I still feel overweight though Weight Watchers puts my ideal weight at my “older” age at 125. I want to get there. I plan to get there. Still, I’m happy at where I am.
How do I see myself now? It’s tough to say. I can’t say I think of myself as pretty. I wish I did, but I don’t. A man at Starbuck’s just the other day took my coffee order and said, “Oh, you have such a nice face.” I thanked him and felt that moment of elation. A nice face? He thinks I’m pretty. By the time I got to the car, I’d decided he meant you have a “nice” face, as in you’re a nice person, a decent and kind human-being. Not pretty at all, simply one more variation on “Good ole Len.” How very sad to even admit that inner monologue at this late date in my life.
I have three daughters and of those three, one looks a lot like me. Through her, I am able to see real beauty. She has the same clear olive skin as I have (yes, the dermatologist did work, thank god), and she has dark brown, oval shaped eyes that give her a slightly exotic look. She has a big open smile and a slightly square jaw and beautiful cheekbones that give her face lovely definition. She is also smart and funny and laughs a lot. She is more aware than I will ever be of just how pretty she is though she isn’t haughty or overly sure of herself or remotely vain. She simply has a more accurate sense of self-image than I do. And I hope I have helped make that so though all three girls say that I have spent too much time and energy on thinking I was fat.
Alas, here I am at this age and I must say that I am not quite to the place where I can say, “Oh, yeah, I used to have this problem, but not anymore.” I still have it and want to let it go and embrace this body that carries me around. I want to be proud and pleased with what I see and though it might be hard to believe from what I’m writing, I don’t feel overly neurotic about all of this – I simply have never really gotten to that next level of self-acceptance. I am grateful that I am healthy and I am strong and can still pull that plow if need be. And I do know that I am loved.
I also to this day love Tootsie Rolls, so surely that’s symbolic. I know my daddy loved them, too.