Friday, January 27, 2012

Open Letter to a Fat, Suicidal 13-Year-Old.

Kim Brittingham, Age 14.
I recently received an e-mail from a 13-year-old girl. She reached out after reading my memoir, Read My Hips.

She wrote:

For the longest time i have hated myself so much that i would cry when i got undressed. And i would wish that 'If I can't be skinny, i might as well be dead.'

I had even tried puking up my food after I ate, starving myself, diets, everything.

I had even gotten to the point where i was going to commit suicide because i decided that if i was fat that I didn't deserve to live.

Here's part of my response -- to her, and to the world that she and I live in.

You know, I remember being a teenager like it was yesterday. As an adult, I sometimes feel like I have “dual personalities” – in a good way. I remember the point of view I had at 13, but I can see it through the more experienced eyes of a 41-year-old.

Sometimes my friends and I talk about things we thought when we were in middle school or high school, and we always end up making a similar comment: “When you're a kid, so many things feel like such a HUGE deal. You never realize how COMPLETELY INSIGNIFICANT this stuff will be later."

The culture we live in is not kind to fat kids. And I won’t lie and say it’s kinder to fat grown-ups. It’s not.

But here’s the good news. When you’re an adult, you have contact with LOTS more people than you do when you’re in school. And you WILL find people who see you as a COMPLETE PERSON. Not just a fat girl, or a thin girl, or whatever size girl you may be.

And there’s even better news. When you’re an adult, your brain changes. And that means the way you experience life can change, too.

You know how a two-year-old child isn’t capable of understanding WHY she shouldn’t jump around and scream in a quiet room, no matter how many times you explain it to her? Because her brain hasn't developed to a point where she can understand those concepts.

Teenagers’ brains aren't completely developed, either. This might be one of the reasons why things can seem so drastic and terrible when you’re a teen. Things that we adults sometimes look at and say, “What’s the big deal? It'll pass,” or "So what? What do you care what he/she thinks?"

Once you’re out of your teens, you’ll be better able to separate your own experience from the chatter of stupid people outside of you.

For example, when I was your age, I used to care SO MUCH how people perceived me, and I put a lot of importance on clothes. The clothes people chose to wear served as a form of social shortcut. You could tell what someone was all about -- or at least what they wanted you to think they were all about -- based on what they wore and how they wore it.

And I wanted people to come to all kinds of cool conclusions about the kind of person I was, based on the clothes I was wearing.

Unfortunately, most of the time I couldn’t afford to wear the kind of clothes I really dreamed of wearing, or they didn’t come in my size, or my mom wouldn’t let me wear them, or I thought they didn’t look good on my chubby body. But still, I had this whole self-identity organized in my head, and it was based on a collection of imaginary outfits.

But now, it all feels so silly to me. I mean, I still appreciate beautiful clothes, don’t get me wrong. But here’s what’s changed: I’m more interested in EXPERIENCING an exciting life. I don't want to merely LOOK like I live a certain kind of life. I don't even care what an exciting life is supposed to look like. I make the rules about what makes a satisfying life for me.

Nowadays, instead of caring soooooo much about what other people think when they look at me, I care about what *I* think and feel about the things I'm seeing, hearing, tasting, touching.

Does that make sense?

Kim Brittingham, Age 12.
Because life is short. It seems long when you’re 13, but it’s not. So I want to see, hear, touch, experience as many wonderful things as I can while I’m here. Including loving other creatures and being loved by them.

I want to feel happy and excited as often as possible. And there are all kinds of things that make me feel that way. Melodramatic old movies. Propelling myself through the water of a swimming pool. Jumping into frothy waves in the ocean. Traveling to foreign countries. Losing myself in my writing. Teaching writing classes and watching my students thrill to their own achievements. Playing with my sewing machine. Helping my writing friends with their books. Talking about mind-blowing ideas with my friends. Touring old Victorian houses. Scouring flea markets for cool old stuff. Watching the History Channel. Sleeping late in clean flannel sheets. Baking pineapple bread. Petting animals.

And as I’m doing all these things, sometimes I feel giddy, or proud, or silly, or amazed, or satisfied, or content, or passionate, or curious, or deliciously tired, or I want to cry with happiness or make someone else happy.

These are all the things that I live for.

I couldn’t care less what some jerk thinks about my legs, my arms, my belly. That jerk who thinks I’m too fat to live is missing out on a LOT. Because if she looked for and found happiness in as many places as I do, she wouldn’t feel the need to judge or change other people. That jerk doesn't live as richly as I do. Pitiful thing.

So I’m asking you never to consider killing yourself again. Ever. Because life does get better.

You don’t have much control when you’re a kid, I know. But I want you to hang on, and get to adulthood. Get to a place where you're free to make more decisions for yourself. And when you do, I hope you’ll make the choice to live a good life. Because it *is* a choice. And part of that choice is to refuse to let miserable, empty people make YOU unhappy -- and that includes the people who create TV shows, commercials and magazine articles suggesting that only very slender people deserve the good things in life.

And by the way, you can live a bunch of lives in one life, you know. You can be a business woman and a swimmer in your twenties; a mother and an inventor in your thirties; an archaeologist living in a vintage trailer in your forties; a lady who lives on a cruise ship in your fifties; a surfer and a talk show host in your sixties; a bicycle repair shop owner and a Chinese cooking expert in your seventies; a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English to children in Africa in your eighties.

You have SO MANY POSSIBILITIES ahead of you.

Promise me you’ll hang in there, because I want to find out what you get into in the next 70, 80, 90 years!


Kim Brittingham

Thursday, October 27, 2011

4 Seventh-Grade Girls Discovered in Art Teacher's Closet

By Kim Brittingham

When I was in junior high school, I had an art teacher named Mr. Loften. I was thinking about him yesterday and marveling at just how cool this guy was.

What got me reminiscing was a writing exercise. I'm taking a class at Gotham Writer's Workshop, and yesterday our instructor asked us to "remember a place from your childhood that was special to you, and write a description of it."

My fellow students opened their notebooks and immediately began scribbling, but it took me a while to get started. A special place from childhood? We moved so frequently when I was a kid, all over the country. I learned early on not to get too attached to things, not to let places be "special", when you'd only have to leave them again. My attachment was to my books, and to the stories I created in my head. Those were my special places -- portable places.

Still, I wanted to challenge myself to meet the exercise. I groped backwards in my mind from one address to another, my memory flitting like a porous stone skimmed across the surface of a pond, barely touching down before bounding away again.

And then I remembered Mr. Loften's closet.

You know, sometimes I think back to gutsy things I did and I can't believe that was me with all that nerve. Like when I went to high school in Long Island, and I used to play hooky by renting a limousine to take me into Manhattan for the day. I earned the money working at Ponderosa Steakhouse. I did it over and over again. I never got caught. I'd have the driver wait for me while I disappeared into museums and Bloomingdale's. And as an adult, I tried finally to confess all to my mother. She didn't believe me.

I was fifteen years old. I was pulling off a Ferris Bueller before there was a Ferris Bueller.

Where did I get the nerve? Because I'll tell you something -- I was no Ferris Bueller.

And maybe more importantly -- how can I channel that nerve today? Every day?

But back to that typical junior high school in Tennessee, where I was no more self-confident or popular than I would later be in high school. However, I did cultivate a small circle of friends in junior high. My family stayed longer in Tennessee than in any other state -- twice as long. I was lulled me into a sense of relaxation and belonging, and I dared to become attached to people, and to the place.

My special place within that place was Mr. Loften's art room closet.

Mr. Loften was a tall man whose hair was disappearing from the top of his head, but continued to grow thick and black at the sides. Thinking back, he reminds me of a famous portrait of Edgar Alan Poe I've seen dozens of times since. He wore a long white lab coat for a smock, usually open at the front and largely defeating its purpose. He wore thick, gnarly fishermen's sweaters underneath.

I can't believe a shy kid like me had the guts to ask a grown man, and a teacher, no less:

"Can we hang out inside your closet at lunchtime?"

Who was "we"?

- my best buddy Simone Shanker, a strangely macabre child with long black hair, alabaster skin, a high rounded forehead, and what my little brother referred to as "upside-down eyes". "Noooo, they're Bette Davis eyes," my mother would kindly correct him. Simone looked just like Carolyn Jones in The Addams Family TV series, and the popular girls would snap their fingers when she walked by and sing "duh-duh-duh-duh (snap, snap), duh-duh-duh-DUH! (Snap, snap.)"

- Amelia Johnson, a tiny, lovely buttercup of a biracial girl who'd been cast out of top society for being difficult to define and wearing clothes from K-mart. She spoke softly, her skin was a soft shade of mocha, and her baby-fine afro framed her head like the softest halo.

- Dani Moore, a tough little trailer park Peppermint Patty with freckles galore, a crusty nose and a favorite pair of boy's overalls.

At lunchtime, there weren't too many places you were permitted to be, and I'm quite sure that was done of purpose. You were either in the cafeteria, in the adjacent teacher-monitored restrooms, or milling around in the small fenced pen of dead grass outside.

I guess none of those options appealed to my 12-year-old cosmopolitan sensibilities.

"Please?" I begged Mr. Loften. "We won't hurt anything. I promise. You know us. We're the good kids. Instead of going to the cafeteria at lunchtime, we'll just come here. To your closet."

"My closet?" repeated Loften. Not so much in disbelief -- more like seeking clarification.

Mr. Loften had a huge classroom, a long, open studio with rows of 1950s wooden work tables whose plain, battered legs bellowed in protest when pushed across the glossy speckled floor. One long wall was lined with a countertop with multiple sinks and cabinets above and below. Student artwork was displayed everywhere. A "diver down" flag hung high above the chalkboard. On one end of the room there was a single entrance from the hallway. On the opposite end, a storage closet.

And here's how I described that closet for yesterday's writing class exercise:

It was a tall box, a small footprint with a soaring height. An unstained scaffold of shelving lined two cinderblock walls, crowded with jumbo plastic jars of paint, sweet and sour; stacks of colored construction paper, flannel-like against the palm; spattered coffee cans rattling with brushes of every width. There was a window in the closet, licking yellow sunlight down the center of the space. It was warm and close in spring, and cool and close in winter. Its door was heavy and trustworthy -- the room kept our secrets. Ever utterance tucked itself between pads of newsprint, every dream or confession or pop song sung off-key found its place to curl up between tins of turpentine and hand soap. Little slipped under the slender gap between the floor and the door. Only a prim lip of fluorescent light from the outside in.

We must've walked into the closet during art class one day, stayed a while, and decided we liked it. That's all I can figure. And I don't remember, but I can imagine being the ringleader who said, "Hey you guys! Wouldn't this make a great clubhouse?"

And it became one. Because Loften took a moment to consider my request, rapidly stroking his giant palm with a sudsy paintbrush, painting his hand grayish-purple with its excess, and said:


He said yes to our plan.

He said yes.

That's right, all you Lacoste-wearing zombies with your bland country club agendas and upturned noses! You melamine-tray-carrying hillbilly bully suckers with your faces turned lamely towards the light of an open door to a grassless nowhere! We've got a place of our own now, and it's hipper than a Lower East Side junior studio -- and twice. as. big.

Loften said yes. He said yes to three pre-teen girls disappearing behind a smooth blond door with gap-toothed grins and cans of Hi-C. He said yes to muffled giggles and guffaws, and AM radio sing-alongs.

One day during a particularly lustful rendition of the theme from The Greatest American Hero, the door swung open and a thirty-foot-tall eighth grader stood peering down on us.

"Mr. Loften!" she shouted. "There are seventh graders in your closet!"

Beyond her, an eighth grade art class was in full, messy swing. We'd always known they were out there -- we just never cared.

"I heard them!" she said. Other eighth graders began to look lazily over their shoulders. "I heard singing in here. There are kids singing in your closet, Mr. Loften!"

Another big kid, then an even bigger kid fell in behind her and squinted into the closet.

A girl with an intimidating head of white-blond, shampoo-commercial hair demanded of us, in a voice thick with the disgust of a well-tanned housewife encountering a stink bug in her kitchen, "Why are you guys singing, in a closet?"

Mr. Loften and his billowy white smock hustled up behind the growing crowd of glinting orthodontic sneers and stretched out his arms as though conducting an orchestra, or gathering wayward chickens. "Back to work everybody, back to work. Come on."

"But Mr. Loften, these seventh graders are..."

"I know, I know," he said quickly, herding the polo shirts back to their places. "Never mind them. This is class time and you all have a project due."

He leaned into the door and shut us back in again.

How cool was Mr. Loften?

Yeah, we sang sometimes. But never that loudly again.

Mostly, we talked about the lives we wanted to live when we were grown-up. Writer's lives, in New York City. Well, that was Simone and me, anyway -- Dani lived for the day and any opportunity to go barefoot, and Amelia had some lavender crepe-de-chine, Disney-princess vision of getting married someday, and nothing more beyond that. I did not relate.

And Simone made up scary stories that held our unblinking attention. And sometimes we acted out spontaneous skits based on the Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari sitcom Bosom Buddies. We cast ourselves as Kip and Henry's neighbors. The closet was our hip New York apartment. Sometimes we argued over who would date Kip and who would date Henry. I was predictable. I always wanted Henry.

That closet was a special place, and Mr. Loften was a special guy. He took a chance. He let us be. He gave our creativity room. I wonder if he ever snuck over and leaned in close to eavesdrop. I wonder if he ever chuckled at what he heard. I'll bet he smiled at least. Smiled before spinning back around and announcing, "Just fifteen more minutes of magic, people! Fifteen minutes of magic!"

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Girl Enters Roller Rink, Turns 90.

By Kim Brittingham

If you've been following my home blog for a while, you might remember a while back when NBC Universal offered me my own video series. They called it "Big Life" but we never shot any episodes beyond the pilot.

I'll never really know why NBC Universal decided not the move forward with my series, although my theory is that my anti-diet stance was just a little too progressive for them, and probably didn't gel too well alongside their favorite baby, "The Biggest Loser". (You can read more about my experience with NBC Universal in "Video Star", a chapter of my book "Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large".)

I was supposed to be scripting my own episodes for "Big Life" based on my own convictions, but it didn't take long for NBCU to start nudging me in the direction of things that didn't ring true for me. When it came time to talk about episode #2, I was encouraged to write a script that took me into a Crunch gym for a workout with one of the network's preferred fitness experts -- a personal trainer.

I wanted nothing to do with the idea, because there was nothing about it that felt organic or true to me. I never did enjoy going to a gym. Historically, I've found gyms mind-numbingly boring. I'm much more interested in finding engaging activities -- like biking and swimming and fencing and tennis -- that make fitness feel more like fun than drudgery.

In fact, one physical activity I've loved since childhood is rollerskating. As a teenager I frequented roller rinks the way oily Hustlers flocked to discos. Rinks were underage nightclubs with cardboard pizza and flat soda, where controversial romances took wing during "slow skates" and where New Wave girls like Dina Adams and me begged Flock of Seagulls requests at the DJ booth.

Rollerskating had been easy to learn in those days, and although I was certainly never a skating artist, I was more than capable of holding my own. I could join a racing pack like the best of them. And when the DJ started playing funk after 10 PM, I wasn't some stiff little white girl, ohhhhh no. This is where I could claim maybe a liiiiiittle artistry. Just a tad. But I'll let the Gap Band take most of the credit.

Rollerskating went the way of rug-hooking and making potholders on a lap loom, it seems. I'm not sure why. So for most of my adult life, I didn't get on a pair of skates.

But when my friend Jeffrey told me about a still-existing roller rink about a half-hour from my home, I got newly enthused. We drove to Jackson, NJ for $2 family skate night.

I couldn't wait to get those ratty, clammy rental skates on my feet. As I laced up, I watched as kids of all ages circled the shadowy rink to Lady Gaga, and couldn't wait to get back out there. I marveled at the number of mullets and stiffly sprayed bangs that showed up one night in 1983 and apparently never went home. I was amazed at the chubby little girls in pink legwarmers, jean jackets and side-ponytails and realized, wow, everything really does go 'round in circles.

Skates on, I leapt up from the carpeted bench and wobbled. Whoa, okay, I laughed. Must remember carpet does funny things under four wheels.

But soon enough, it became apparent: it wasn't the carpet. It was me.

I'd gotten...older.

And my rollerskating muscles were gone.

I pushed my legs forward on the polished rink floor and my ankles SCREAMED IN AGONY.


They were on FIRE.

I found myself reaching for the wall. I laughed again, but more of a panting-laugh this time. "You''d think I'd never skated before," I huffed to Jeffrey. " go on and skate without me. I don't want to...hold you back."

Jeffrey did some kind of Olympic pirouet twenty feet into the air and as he landed, angels sang and he glided away in a pink mist.

I made it haltingly to the next "off-ramp" and collapsed onto a bench.

My knees were crying like orphaned babes. My butt was tensing up like it expected to be punched.

I looked at all the skating kids, all the skating grown-ups, my 50-something skating friend Jeffrey, and Methusela flying by in some lagenlook get-up and a cute pair of white low-risers with purple glitter wheels.

And I felt painfully frustrated.

I watched their bodies moving and I knew how to move like that. The muscle memory remained in my body, but my body just wouldn't go. It was how I imagined it must be to lose one's legs yet still remember how it feels to run -- wanting to propel one's self out of that chair and start pumping forward, but there are no legs to stand on. Just the phantom memory of muscles moving, feet springing away from the earth and landing again.

It was the first time in a long time that I felt physically incapable of doing something I wanted to do.

With a little practice on the carpet I was able to eventually get back on the skating floor and push myself pathetically around the rink, half a lap at a time before I had to sit and rest again. Every time I tried to push a foot out away from me, the way one would when skating, my leg parts said "uh-UH!" Instead of a fluid leg movement like tracing butterfly wings on the floor, I jerked forward, putting halting little bursts of power behind each foot.

"Oh man, and now they're playing Rick James!" I cried out wistfully to absolutely no one, determined to be determined, and not lame. I bit my lip, resolved not to shed a tear over my shocking new limitations, but to keep it positive and fight my way back to 1981-ish skating condition instead.

Yes, Jeffrey and I did return to the rink, but our visits aren't frequent enough for me to improve much. So in between, I've started going to the gym.

OH my GOD, it's TRUE! Kim Brittingham is going to a salty-smelling, musclehead GYM and doing things on machines that need to be wiped down afterwards, a gymmy-gym gym!

And I can scarcely believe I'm saying this myself, but -- I'm NOT HATING IT.

I'm not hating it for three very specific reasons.

1. It's an '80s theme gym that plays obscure, heavily synthesized music and teen angst movies. Can you say, "Kim's Gym"?

2. I'm starting very slow and gentle, on snort-worthy amounts of weight and at speeds that induce merely a "calorie-burning" heart rate (not the beefier "cardio"). Kiss my grits if you don't like it.

3. I have a definite PURPOSE. My goal is to SKATE AGAIN. To be able to carry my body around the rink multiple times without stopping, smoothly, gracefully, and with a modicum of style.

When Jeffrey jumps up excitedly from the bench and shouts like a seventh-grade girl, "I'm sorry, but I just have to skate to this!", then darts out into the rink away from me, I want to be able to dart right out behind him. Because I always knew I'd be eternally fourteen in spirit -- but with the foolishness of youth, I never believed it when they told me my body would stop keeping up.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ghosts at the Merchants House Museum NYC, Somerton SEPTA Station

Did someone say ghosts? Ghosts at the Merchants House Museum? Check. Ghosts at the Somerton train station on Philadelphia' SEPTA? Check!

Someone on Facebook today asked, "Have you ever seen a ghost or experienced a haunting?" What a delicious question.

Maybe I have.

I'll let you be the judge.

The Mystery of the Merchant's House Smoker

First, a story about the Merchant's House Museum in New York, an exemplary antebellum house which has been on television for its alleged paranormal activity, most notably on "Ghost Hunters". I adore this place.

Some years back, I attended docent training at the Merchant's House Museum. Early on a Sunday morning we were having a docents' meeting, in the hours before the museum was open to the public. For a few minutes before we gathered in the basement kitchen, some of us early-bird volunteers killed time roaming through the house. A couple of women wanted to look at a new exhibit that had been assembled in one of the bedrooms. I wandered into the master bedroom at the front of the house and looked out the windows and into the street below.

Sniff, sniff.

Who's smoking?, I thought. There's no smoking allowed in here.

No paying visitors were in the house yet, so it couldn't be a guest's careless faux pas. And the staff certainly knew better than to light up.

I moved my face closer to the window pane and peered down to the sidewalk, expecting to see a lone smoker, or perhaps a pair or huddle of them, standing directly below. There was no one.

It was a strange sort of smoky smell, too. Not quite like cigarettes. More like the sweetish pipe tobacco an elderly relative used to smoke when I was a little girl. I think he was my father's uncle, a red-cheeked man with a model railroad running through a cardboard-and-plastic utopia in his basement. I hadn't seen or smelled anyone smoking a pipe since.

The smell was crisp and sharp at first, like tobacco just lit and repeatedly puffed to its fullest aroma in a quick sequence of dove-gray clouds. Then it faded, gradually and so gently. It was infuriating. The harder I sniffed, the less of it I smelled. It couldn't be traced, it couldn't be followed.

I have no explanation for it.

It's interesting to note, however, that I was standing in what had been the bedroom of Seabury Tredwell, owner of the house from 1835 until his death, after which his daughter Gertrude inhabited it until her death at ninety-something years of age. Might Mr. Tredwell have been a pipe smoker? Was this what they call evidence of a "residual haunting", an olfactory recording of a moment in the distant past, in replay?

Phantom Girl of Somerton Train Station

It was a bitter cold Saturday night in the late '80s. This time of year, if I'm not mistaken -- January, February. My friend Kurt picked me up at my parents' house to go see a movie.

In those days, we lived near the Somerton train station on the R3 West Trenton Line of SEPTA, Philadelphia's commuter rail system. There's a short stretch of road that runs parallel to the tracks at one point. Then the road veers off to the left and the tracks disappear into a short tunnel under an overpass.

Kurt's car sailed around a curve in the road and we briefly rode alongside the tracks before they were out of sight. We came to a red light at Bustleton Avenue. We were silent for a moment when Kurt turned to me and said,

"Did you just see what I saw?"

I met his eyes.

"You mean the girl standing on the train tracks who totally doesn't look like she belongs there?"

His eyes widened. "Uh-huh."

"Kurt," I whispered, urgently. "We need to go back around there. Right now. Hurry!"

The girl we'd both seen had hair hanging below her shoulders, and she was wearing one of those straw boater hats with a red-white-and-blue striped ribbon around it. The cheap kind you might see at a political rally. She was holding a balloon, and standing in the middle of the train tracks. Not on the platform, not on the side of the road. Just standing there, completely serene, with her feet planted firmly between the railroad ties. And despite what had to be temperatures in the teens or twenties at best, she was wearing 1970s-style short-shorts, a sleeveless shirt, and knee socks.

Kurt glanced quickly into the rear-view mirror and over his left shoulder, then put the car in reverse and turned around.

We drove past the station again, slowly. He rolled down his window. We craned our necks in every direction looking for her.

He inched the car alongside the tracks a little further, and we squinted through the darkness. We looked back through the tunnel opening, we studied the shadows around the little train station building that was still standing back then, but has since been demolished.

The girl, whose appearance didn't make sense in the first place, had vanished.

Kurt rolled his window back up, sealing out the unforgiving winter air. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" My voice was the only sound above the whoosh of heated air blowing from the dashboard vents. Kurt's eyes were open so wide, his dark brown irises were like two drops of ink at the center of white salad plates. He nodded slowly.

"Let's get out of here," he said simply, and we did.

I always said I would eventually do some digging; try to find out if a girl was killed on those tracks. Maybe you know a librarian or research guru who'll find this mystery irresistible.

You'll let me know if you learn anything, won't you? Be sure to get in touch if you had a similar paranormal experience or ghost encounter at the Somerton train station or the Merchants House Museum!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Body Odor Etiquette: When Your Friend Smells. BAD.

Body odor and etiquette are the topic of the day here at Kim Brittingham's blog, yes indeedy.

So, you've got a friend with offensive body odor. What are you supposed to do?

Should you inform them of the situation, gently, so they can do something about it? Or should you keep your trap shut, to avoid hurting their feelings? What's the kindest possible move?

Well don't ask me. See, I used to have this friend, a woman I'll call Rita. When I first met Rita I noticed a slight unpleasant odor about her person, but I didn't think much about it.

It's easy for me to dismiss and forgive these smallish, smelly social infractions because I have a paranoid belief in my own stinkyness, the seeds of which were planted in the 8th grade when a mean little girl named Dana told me I had B.O. Back then, I probably did. No one taught me how to use deodorant; I had to figure it out for myself (it was the next thing I did after asking my mother what "B.O." stood for). But since that day, I've asked many an intimate companion to "smell me, just smell me. Tell me honestly, do I smell?" I try very hard to keep personal odor in check.

So anyway, my unfortunate 8th grade incident and that resulting hypervigilence have made me more readily forgiving of others who do stink a little. I always think, "that could just as easily be me!"

But eventually, Rita's odor required no hypervigilence. It got a little worse each time I saw her, until it was a bold, sour cloud traveling with and around her. And I wasn't the only one noticing anymore.

One day Rita and I decided to scare up some cash by sharing a table at a local flea market. She asked if she could sleep on my sofa bed the night before, so we could get an earlier start together in the morning. I told her no. I lied. I made a lame excuse, and felt like a jerk about it. I'm just not that kind of lie-teller, game-player, y'know? I'd rather just shoot straight. But I didn't want to hurt Rita's feelings, and I didn't want my one decent piece of living room furniture contaminated with that awful smell -- and it was awful. It made me think of rotting vegetables, and the smell of certain varieties of baby food my mom used to serve to my siblings when they were infants -- peas, maybe. Like peas and milk that's turned. No, not inside my sofa bed. I just didn't have the confidence Febreze could handle it.

The morning of the flea market, I loaded my sellables into the back of Rita's van and took the co-pilot's seat beside her up front. I'd never been inside Rita's vehicle before.

The stench was nauseating. And I mean this literally. Rita's bad smell filled the space of the van, in concentrate. The second I sat down, I could feel it crowding around me like a lecherous ghost, clinging and stifling, licking at me, laying upon my skin. I wondered if I'd carry it with me into the flea market, wondered if people would smell it and think it was me. I felt the urge to vomit rising from those deep pink trenches under my tongue, and I swallowed hard. The market was only three minutes away -- I could hold it.

At the market, I tried not to sit too near Rita, without seeming to be avoiding her. I took walks to "exercise my legs", went to the bathroom often, browsed at nearby tables. Every time someone came to our table and just casually touched a finger to something Rita was selling, she shot up from her chair and hustled over to them to be of saleswomanly service, and each time she stood, the stench wafted anew into the air -- a knock-out bullhorn of odor. I watched with a heavy heart as some people made contorted, sickened faces as they walked away from her.

At this rate, I didn't think I could tolerate being around Rita again. She suggested subsequent get-togethers, meeting for coffee. I made more dishonest excuses, and couldn't bear doing it.

I talked the situation over with others.

"If I tell her she smells bad, her feelings are going to be hurt. There's just no way they won't be," I said. "But if I don't tell her, and she continues to go around smelling like that, it could be really bad for her. She hasn't made a lot of friends in this area yet, she's only lived here a few months. She wants to make more connections, she wants a job. But is she turning people off and she's not aware of it?"

"You have to tell her," everyone agreed. "It won't be pleasant for her to hear, but she has to know."

"I'm kinda worried about her too," I said. "I've heard some diseases can cause foul body odors. She's had a lot of health issues in the past. What if something's wrong internally?"

"Even more reason to tell her," they told me.

Besides the fact that almost nobody likes to smell bad, I thought Rita might be especially sensitive to the issue, because she's a very fat woman. She was already self-conscious about the size and shape of her body -- I didn't want to add another layer of shame. And it's hard enough to win acceptance when you're obese; almost impossible when you're obese and have an alienating issue like body odor.

"But if anybody can tell her in a kind and gentle way, Kim, it's you," my friend Stephanie said. "Who better?"

So I did. It took me several weeks to get up the nerve, but what finally pushed me to act was the picture of Rita in my mind, wondering what she'd said or done to make me upset, wondering why I was ignoring her. That was unacceptable to me. I didn't want to be responsible for making her feel so unceremoniously rejected, and besides, I wanted Rita for a friend. It was the smell alone I couldn't stand.

I was too big a coward to call her on the phone. I didn't want to hear any hurt that might be in her voice. If she cried, I didn't want to hear it.

So I sent the kindest, most diplomatic e-mail my heart could compose. I told her I couldn't stand the thought of hurting her feelings, and how hard it had been for me to broach the subject. I told her I was worried that the odor might be a symptom of something internal gone awry. I reminded her that as a fellow fat woman, I was mindful of keeping certain fleshy places clean and dry, powdering under breasts and bellies and such, and that I understood how some places on the body might be difficult to reach if you were apple-shaped like she was. I offered her links to web sites that offered extra-long back brushes and other grooming products for large people . I reminded her that I wanted her for my friend. I told her I wanted her to have every opportunity for friendship and employment in her new community, and that I would hate to imagine anyone being distracted from her wonderful qualities by a mere odor that might be easy to take care of.

Rita did not take it well. She said she felt humiliated. She even remarked that it was ironic I should say these things to her, considering I did so much fat-positive writing. That comment, I didn't quite understand. Fat or thin, if you smell unbearably unpleasant, I'm going to tell you so I don't have to lie about why I'm not hanging around with you anymore. I guess it was the hurt talking.

"You couldn't possibly have said it better," friends told me. "She'll come around some day."

But she hasn't, and I don't think she ever will.

Several months later, I posted a Facebook status update for the singular amusement of my friend Stephanie. She was coming over to write with me, and I warned her I was a mess and I didn't plan on showering for her, either, so she'd better be prepared to take me as I was. I think the Facebook status read, "A true friend will come over and tolerate your unshowered STANK." Rita, whom I hadn't heard from since the "you smell" e-mail, saw it, and simply commented:


That made Stephanie angry. "Unfriend her now! Unfriend her!" she raged from my dining room table. "I felt sorry for her before, but not anymore. Okay, so the news was hard for her to take at first. But now she's giving you 'TUDE? Look bitch, we're all fat around here, but I'd sure as hell want to know if I was choking people everywhere I went, so I could DO something about it. Unfriend her, Kim, unfriend her today!"

I did unfriend Rita, mainly so she wouldn't have to see any future comments that might be hurtful to her. And frankly, I felt I could live without her sarcastic comments, too. And Stephanie's tirade made me think maybe Rita was being ungrateful after all. Sure, I might be really embarrassed if someone told me I smelled. But if they delivered the message as kindly as I had, I imagine I'd eventually get over it and be able to face my friend again. I hope I'd at least refrain from being snippy.

Is this one of those things that can never be taken well? Are we damned if we do, damned if we don't, no matter who we're dealing with? If you don't tell a person they smell, then they're left to think poorly of you when you suddenly stop spending time with them. If you do tell them, they're left to think poorly of you for embarrassing them.

It seems like a no-win situation, but there is one potential positive outcome. If the message was heard, and Rita has started doing things to eliminate her odor problem, then she wins in the long run. Unfortunately for me, the messenger gets demonized either way.

Welcoming feedback and other anecdotes on dealing with a friend who has body odor. What's your advice on body odor etiquette? Do you deal differently with a friend who has body odor and also happens to be fat?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What's Gourd-geous: Life Lessons from the Pumpkin Patch

Every autumn I make a visit to my favorite farm in Colt's Neck, New Jersey. I am never alone. The company changes from year to year, always some joyful, chaotic combination of friends; some with children, from wobbly, chubby-cheeked toddlers to aloof college freshmen who'll gladly sacrifice their cool for the irresistible innocence of this ritual.

The farm is popping with pumpkins of every variety, butternut and acorn squash, rows of apple trees dropping their cheerful fruit onto the lush carpet of grass below. In spite of muddy fields, sunburnt noses, and poopy diapers, everyone enjoys themselves here. And everyone gets to take a little of the day's magic home with them, to carve and set proudly alight on Halloween night, or to cook up for dinner.

Pumpkins and produce aside, however, it seems everyone gets a special kick out of choosing their very own gourd.

Gourd selection is big fun, at any age. I know, I've witnessed this. Grown-ups and children alike know exactly what they want when they see it -- thee gourd to grace the ledge of their cubicle, or to set in the center of the kitchen table and vocally distinguish to anyone who'll listen, "That one's mine! No, not those two, those are my brothers'. That one right there, I picked out that one, it's mine!"

This past Sunday was my annual pumpkin farm n' orchard day. The weather was brilliant, crisp and sunny, the fields smelled like heaven. I strolled slowly around the perimeter of the farm, noticed an old white clapboard farmhouse I'd overlooked in years past, and picked three varieities of apples I'd never tasted before.

And as we were leaving, I paused with my girlfriend beside an old wooden flat-bed wagon resplendent with little gourds. Adults and children were crowded around its perimeter, pawing enthusiastically through the pile of greens, golds, and shades of fire.

There were gourds shaped like geese with long, curling necks and beak-like stems. Some gourds looked uncannily like oranges and eggs. Some took smooth shapes, pleasing to the hand, like droplets with tapered handles, like maracas; others had flanges like hardened wings or fins, like a child had pinched their flesh like Play-Doh and pulled it outward. Some looked like spaceships; others like cauldrons burping foam. Some gourds were pinstriped. There were gourds that were hilariously phallic, balls-and-all. Other gourds looked like they were so happy to be gourds that their joy was erupting from beneath their skin in knobby, popcorn-like clusters, as though the meat of the gourd itself were giggling. I wanted them all.

On the opposite side of the wagon, a little boy of about six had found his gourd. "Mom, I want this one!" he declared with complete confidence. I smiled to myself.

His mother took a quick look at her son's gourd and in two seconds, determined it was not the right gourd for him; that it wasn't the kind of gourd he should want.

"Ew, no honey, it's warty. These here," she waved a hand over a small section of giggling gourds, "These are all too warty. You want to pick one with pretty colors, see." Prid-dee CULL-lerrrrs, she emphasized.

"See, like maybe this one," Mommy said, picking up a style of gourd she deemed acceptable. She showed it to the little boy, made sure he saw it and understood which aesthetic should please him. "Yes, this one is -- oh, wait, no..." she stopped and threw the gourd back into the pile. "Not that one. That gourd had an imperfection," she said sourly. Let's keep looking."

The woman's teenage daughter chose a gourd and sought her mother's approval. "Ma, Ma, how 'bout this one?"

"Yes, see Jonathan?" The mother took her daughter's approved gourd in-hand and showed it to the boy. "Prid-dee CULL-lerrrrs."

As they drew away from the wagon, the father and husband of the group, who'd been hanging back, leaned in for a lazy look over the gourds. Like a beaten, exhausted man, in zombie-like monotone, he droned, "The perfect gourd. The perfect gourd." Then he too withdrew.

And the boy, who would one day be a man, perhaps a man capable of love, perhaps a man with the potential to choose a partner based on the mysterious urgings of his heart, walked away from the pumpkin farm with the gourd his mother chose for him.

The gourd he truly wanted, a gourd "too warty", less than "perfect", was left behind.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Only Thing I've Ever Stolen.

When I was in eighth grade, my friends and I went to the mall almost every weekend. There wasn't much else for a thirteen-year-old girl to do in Bristol, Tennessee, at least not in the early '80s.

We had a nice big Rite Aid in our mall, and it was a required stop on the teen mall train. There was a rack of magazines right inside the door, and each week a portion of my five-dollar allowance went towards one of those bubbly teen celebrity magazines, like Bop, Superteen, 16, Seventeen, etc. (I was a "Duranie", you see -- that's pop culture slang for "Duran Duran fanatic" -- and I couldn't miss a single issue of any of the aforementioned publications. Because Duran Duran was in all of them in those days. How else could I keep up with John's favorite colors [red and black] and Simon's nickname [Charlie] and Nick's favorite kind of weather [gray and rainy]?)

Boy, y'know, it's amazing. I could stretch a five-dollar bill from one end of the mall to the other in those days. I remember paying $1.25 to get into the movies. Then maybe $1.25 for the magazine. That still left half my money for hair styling products, a treat from Orange Julius, or a couple of 45 records.

Anyway, so one day my friend Charlene and I were walking through the Rite Aid, and suddenly a rack of mascara packets fell on top of me. It was one of those spinning racks, and some genius had placed it perilously high atop a tall display case. Bubble packets of pink-and-green mascara tubes on cardboard backs rained down on my head as the rack tipped over. A Rite Aid sales associate rushed over to put the rack upright and slide the packages back on their skinny aluminum display rods. Charlene bought herself a flatulent can of fluffy hair mousse. We went back to my house and played with our hair.

As I was about to remove my white blazer with the big patch pockets (almost identical to the one Duran Duran's John Taylor wore in their famous all-white photo session), I noticed one of the pockets was weightier than it should have been. I put my hand in, and pulled out a brand new package of mascara.

"Oh my god!" I shreiked. "Charlene, look! This must've fallen into my pocket when that rack fell over!"

"Woo-hoo!" she cheered. "Free mascara for you!"

But I was horrified. I held it tentatively in my hand, out away from my body, like it was a gun.

"I can't believe I walked out of Rite Aid with this in my pocket. What if somebody had stopped me! They could've arrested me for shoplifting! And I didn't even notice it was there!"

As odd as it may sound, I felt something akin to survivor's guilt. Or like a woman who'd murdered for the joy of it and who remained twenty years unsuspected and unpunished.

I couldn't even bring myself to use the thing.

"Here, take this," I said to Charlene. "You use it. Take it home with you."

As if by keeping it I'd be cursing myself to a peculiar sort of transparency that only the employees of Rite Aid could detect. I'd innocently step inside the doorway for a look at the latest Bop and a girl in the signature blue apron would point and scream,

"Thief! Mascara thief! I see it written on her brain!"