You’re a beautiful girl …

“You’re a beautiful girl, but there’s nothing pretty about fat.”

This sentence spilled out of my grandmother’s mouth one summer. She’d cornered me in her kitchen, my bikini-clad body still prickling from the chill of an open refrigerator door. I’d just popped a deviled egg in my mouth, my absolute favorite, when she hit me with that little piece of her truth.

The mayonnaise filled hors d’oeuvre was meant for my grandfather. The old-fashioned party snack was his favorite too, and always ready for deployment in case of protein emergencies. I had a habit of sneaking them. When grandma crept up behind me, I was prepared for a lecture, not a blow to my self-esteem.

When grandma came at you, there was always a preemptive strike to soften the blow of an incoming truth-bomb. During these moments, I would brace myself by conjuring the voice of Samuel L. Jackson in my head — that moment from the original Jurassic Park movie where he goes, “hold onto your butts.”

Before her bit about fat and its attractive qualities, she prepared me for impact with a little warming.

“Hun, I’m going to tell you something someone once told me. It hurt my feelings, but I needed to hear it and I think you do too.”

As I stood in my summer uniform — a navy terry cloth string bikini — she aimed skillfully at her target and fired.

“You’re a beautiful girl, (uncomfortable pause) but there’s nothing pretty about fat.”

Boom.

There was hardly time to swallow my stolen egg.

Strategically placed triangles of fabric were all that stood between me and her words. A complete silence took over the room. My cousin, previously unnoticed by my grandmother, melted down on a nearby sofa, sinking out of sight.

That moment, the one where my grandmother told me I was fat, has since become my favorite insult.

The bit about fat not being pretty was a masterpiece. Reminiscent of a trend in dating from the early 2000’s, a pick-up tactic called negging, where a man wins over a woman through veiled compliments meant to shatter her self-esteem. Start with something positive and qualify the compliment with something negative. I will forever hear those words when I look in the mirror. Bravo, grandma.

She turned my skin into Teflon over the years with her generous peppering of truth — nothing sticks to me. Insults slide off my epidermis like a perfectly fried egg freed from a frying pan.

For a time, before my crusty layer of protection developed, I let it control me. I took her up on the offer to pay for an infamous diet system consisting of shelf-stable food only fit for an apocalypse. Every one of those meals smelled like dog food.

In her day, it’d been the Drinking Man’s Diet, which consisted mainly of vodka and steak. No emphasis on health was made, just maintenance of fun without the sacrifice to your waistline, and by god, make hard liquor a “free food.” I followed suit with my own well-intended, yet misguided, efforts. I tried injecting myself with a hormone, twisting my body in the mirror so I could prick my own butt-cheek with needles kept cool in the refrigerator. I tried “apple days.” Exactly as the name implies, you eat nothing but a few apples over the course of an entire day to cut calories. Took me several years to eat another apple after that misfire. I cycled through personal trainers, something more modern than the jiggle belt she still had in one of her community gyms. If you’ve never experienced a 1950’s fat jiggling machine, you’re not really missing all that much.

I even swung back in the complete opposite direction. After the dieting wore me down, I let myself go. Much to my grandmother’s chagrin, I gained weight in a fit of unhappiness until I no longer recognized myself. Oh, you think I’m fat now, do you? I’ll show you! And then, in tried-and-true fashion, I bounced back through near starvation. The ritual of woman completing itself. A time-honored tradition of self-repeating abuse to one’s body in the name of beauty.

Unfortunately, she never saw my bounce back. She died of old age as I practically starved myself to be the thing she’d always wanted me to be. Thin.

What I failed to see in my grandmother’s vanity was her desperation to save me. Her looks had been the one thing she’d been able to control about her life.

Her father died young and her mother was prone to bouts of hysteria. In modern terms, she was completely overwhelmed. Raising three children on her own in an era where women could scarcely earn a living chipped away at her sanity. She baked pies and ironed neighbors’ shirts for extra cash. She became severely depressed. There were multiple attempts at suicide throughout the course of her life. One summer, while my grandmother spent time with an aunt and uncle, her mother checked herself into a mental institution. What started as a vacation, turned into an awkward obligation for an already cash-strapped family. There was no home for my grandmother to go back to. Her crusty shell developed out of survival.

By the time I came into the picture, my grandmother had moved up in the world. She was on husband number two, sprung from an affair she’d had while married to her first husband, an abusive, gambling-addicted alcoholic. I never even knew he existed for the first eight or nine years of my life. I pieced the story together over years of innocent conversation, so I am sure my version is the abridged story. It’s also not one I could tell while she was still alive.

As a child, my grandparents, the ones I knew anyway, were shiny, towering, untouchable figures. My grandmother’s best friend, a young Austrian woman, who’d also gone from mistress to 2nd wife, described her presence best. The first time she met my grandmother was in a crowded restaurant. This woman walked through the door, her red bob haircut pierced by a streak of blonde pouring defiantly down the front, and every head in the room turned. Their eyes followed her journey from front door to table. She filled the space with her presence.

She was the kind of woman who wore rhinestone studded Mickey Mouse jeans in the 70’s before Disney themed attire was a fashion statement. She only drove convertibles. She once flocked an entire Christmas tree baby blue (and then black, and then gold, you get the picture). She had a 24-karat fake nail made for her thumb and big toe after sacrificing a real nail to an unfortunate salon-born fungal infection. Nothing about my grandmother blended. When she entered a room, the room blended around her.

She wanted me to know there was value in looking good. It had been her currency. It had saved her from an unstable childhood. It saved her from a cruel man who beat her in front of her children, and then begged for her love and forgiveness. Her words on my body sunk in and stained me. They revealed too much about her own truth. They revealed her hidden insecurity, one I never imagined as the little girl enamored with her glamorous grandmother. Until that point in my life, I’d never been made to feel ugly, less than, or unworthy. She made sure I felt valued. She empowered me with the strength she’d earned and wanted me to feel instinctively. She wasn’t putting me down, she was saying: you want to hold onto feeling good about yourself? Put down the deviled egg.

There’s nothing pretty about fat.

Despite her intention, it didn’t feel motivating to hear those words, and it was deflating to realize they lived inside the strongest woman I knew … and broke her. Her deepest, darkest secret, the one buried below infidelity, was her inner vulnerability.

Above my bed hangs an oil painting of a young nude woman reclining on a chaise lounge. The flawless skin of the young woman’s breasts glow like snow-capped peaks against otherwise tanned skin. Next to her sits what can only be described as an old hag. The time-ravaged woman beside her is cloaked in darkness, her face barely visible in the shadows. She’s wrapped up, exposing nothing more than what she absolutely must.

These two figures lived in the long hallway leading to my grandmother’s bedroom before she passed. I’d sneak into her room sometimes and stare at it in fascination and horror as a child, so of course, I inherited it for my own home. My grandmother used to say she turned more and more into that old hag every day. Now I look at it and think the same, only the words don’t belong to me. I’m not really all that afraid of morphing into a wrinkled version of myself. I’ve morphed plenty of times already and survived. The words are her’s, I only repeat them because it feels good to hear her inside my own head.

Women are a vessel, we are filled with superficial opinions of physical beauty. Some belong to us, but most of them were given. Small gifts we never wanted, and yet we smile, accept them, and place them inside of ourselves to discreetly fester.

We pass along these gifts to our daughters. Usually through our cunning tongues, words swallowed like tiny capsules, an outdated tincture to cure whatever ugliness ails us. Swallowing my grandmother’s dogma about life and womanhood made me tough, but I stopped taking the pills of her truth. Now I let her memory, and her words, remind me of how strong we have to be to hold all of our insecurities. There’s a world of doubt swimming beneath every beautiful face I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Not all their doubt belonged to them, most of it they were told to carry.

As my grandmother would say, you’re a beautiful girl… and I think that’s probably where it should end. You are a beautiful girl. Hard stop.

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