A Marvelous Work and a Wonderbra

By Emma Shumway

I am often told the story of how right after birth when I, a 10 lb. 4 oz. Caucasian who looked like an Inuit, was surrounded by petite Latino babies in the hospital nursery. My proud, bilingual parents stood admiring me at the window until they heard the petite, Latino couple next to them talking about “that big, red fat one.” It is a legacy I’ve had plenty of time to ponder. I used to think of myself as the oversized one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-others and blame my body for not fitting into the common shape, size or jeans as everyone else. My body and I journeyed together for too long before I discovered that we are a team, rather than Siamese-enemies.

Perhaps I should blame my poor body image on TV or advertising or Barbies. I did after all, play with Barbies as a child. I owned one Skipper who suffered an unfortunate haircut at my hands and a dye job that could have been called something like Bipolar Barbie or Lobotomy Peroxide Barbie. The top of the doll’s head would rotate 360 degrees, allowing her to quickly change from blonde to brunette. I thought she was exotic and beautiful. In addition, I owned the three-foot Barbie mobile home, whose thousands of some-assembly-required decals left Santa and Mattel at odds in our house for years afterward. But at six, I didn’t focus on Barbie’s ridiculous body shapes (or so I thought). I used them to fantasize about living in a trailer court and being allowed to wear tube tops and dye my hair.

I finally shed my baby fat and cube-shaped, FF-width feet as a preschooler, and spent a few blissful years in the rarefied realm of the runway model: super slim. My feet stretched out to an AA, and it was hard to find pants that didn’t fall off.

Then in the eighth grade, puberty hit me like a Peterbilt truck. In less than two years, I went from no training bra to underwire minimizers that promised to take off at least an inch around the chest (and did so by stowing your breast under the arm, down to the waist, up to the chin, etc.) I never experienced the nubile stage of adolescenceӔI became matronly by age fifteen.

My best friend and I were both overly curvaceous teens. We were bright, witty, and talented, but our shared desire was to be TTSS: Thin, Tan, Sexy, and Seductive. This showed up in many of our notes, letters, and conversations. We obsessed about diets and even wrote one up, complete with graphics. We cut out magazine pictures and made collages and accompanying fantasies, assigning ourselves to whatever model happened to be wearing our favorite outfit. In retrospect, I wonder that we could have spent so much time and energy in the pursuit of skin cancer and loose morals. We both had nearly every advantage an American teen could hope for except the “right” figure.

By the time I was in high school, I was larger than a DD-size bra, and minimizers were no longer minimizing the problem. My mother would tell me, “You need a new bra” whenever she got a good look at me. I got more attention than I needed from boys, because at that age boys aren’t looking for witty repartee or deep gospel discussions; their main interest is bra size. I dressed to hide my body and got very good at it. Most people had no idea what I really looked like. Combined with the fact that I also had no rear end to speak of, I felt like a freak from one of those switch-o change-o books with the bottom half of a fourteen-year-old boy and the top half resembling Mama Cass.

As crazy as it may sound to some, I have always envied women with a “womanly” figure: a slim rib cage and generous hips and thighs”îthe classic pear shape. If we’re being perfectly honest, I gain all of my weight in the middle. I have what you might call a potato, or turnip, or radish shape”îall of which (it dawns on me) are vegetables that are not known for their beauty and are in fact grown underground, unlike the graceful pear which sways and tempts barely above eye level, just out of reach.

My patriarchal blessing, given when I was at my most buxom stage, said “Your body is a gift.” At that point, I saw my body as a necessary evil and a source of dissatisfaction. When my personal scripture discounted my most difficult trial (because at eighteen, what tragedy could be worse than not looking good in a formal?), I thought I only had two choices. I could either believe that this was a pat phrase, given in many, if not most patriarchal blessings, or I could believe that God didn’t really know me or care about what was important to me. I assumed the former and forged ahead.

By the time I returned from my mission, I had been wearing minimizers and giant bras for a decade. I could buy pants and skirts in the juniors’ department, but had to visit the women’s section for tops. I decided that summer to have a breast reduction. I figured that it was going to get me into reasonable clothes and that people would then be willing to stand next to me because I wouldn’t look like I was liable to tip over on them.

I scheduled an appointment with a plastic surgeon and believed him when he made the procedure sound as straightforward as a clothes alteration. I trusted him absolutely when he said I’d have no trouble breastfeeding. I don’t think I asked him any questions. While the operation was a success, I will never have elective surgery again. I had hoped that I would have a better body image once I was more balanced. Instead I felt like I had betrayed my body, which had worked so hard for me, done so much, stayed healthy, gone without sleep, and healed on its own. It was nonplussed with my treatment of it to say the least. I should also point out that the lower body I rediscovered at twenty-four was not the one that had disappeared from view at fourteen. Age and gravity had altered it beyond recognition. It was not the joyous reunion I had envisioned.

I still think that a breast reduction is a great thing in theory. There are women I would like to walk up to and say, “You know, there is something you can do about those. You might want to look into it before you wear out your back.” But I was not one of those women. I didn’t have dents in my shoulders. I didn’t have migraines or back problems. I just didn’t like shopping in the fat lady section and never fitting anything at Victoria’s Secret. My choosing to alter my body was strictly a matter of vanity (I have come to realize from watching people that vanity and beauty don’t always go together).

But age, experience, and love have mellowed my opinions on all fronts, if you’ll pardon the pun. Finding someone else with skin tags and stretch marks to confide in is a great panacea. Carrying and bearing three children helped me to respect what a body can put up with. Breastfeeding is another wonderment (if not as easy as the good doctor thought). The sleep deprivation and constant pummeling of small children leave me grateful for strength and resilience and my body’s ability to repair and regenerate itself. And I am always hopeful and believing in the illusion that is health.

After having friends and family members die of various cancers, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and a pulmonary embolism, I am grateful for a body that functions”îthat aids and abets my wishes and my family’s needs. I am also thankful that my body is such a good and empathetic friend to my spirit. When I take an emotional hit, no one shares that burden as quickly or effectively as my body. At other times it is my body that is the first to feel when something has gone awry with my spirit and signals that I need to make a change.

In fact, once I downshifted my expectations from being a supermodel to being, well, alive, I made great peace with myself. I admire what my body can do (sing lullabies to children for twenty minutes until the Motrin kicks in, or practice the swan pose in yoga) and I don’t worry so much that it isn’t a size eight or can’t do a chin up (which was an impossibility even in the halcyon “super slim” days). Now that I have reached this point, I can see that my body truly is a gift, as my patriarchal blessing said. It is beginning to dawn on me that my body is one of the most important things to be gained from this mortal experience”îit is the reason that I can sense the world, it is the vehicle for enacting my free agency, and it is my only hope for a fullness of joy. I sense that the turnips have as much place as the pears and the celery stalks in the bounty and beauty of God’s creations.

About Emma Shumway

Emma Shumway lives in Provo with her family. She enjoys making soup, knitting, and watching obscure movies from Netflix with her husband.

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