By Andrea Zanin
Once upon a time there was a leather jacket.
I found it for thirty-five dollars on the clearance rack at Neon on St-Denis in Montreal sometime in the early aughts. Short, biker-style, enough hardware but not too much. It fit like it was made for me, though it wrinkled in the curve of my lower back.
I wore it home from the store and then I wore it and wore it and wore it. In the summer, laid over my shoulders when the night turned cool. In the winter, zipped sausage-like over a t-shirt, a sweater and a scarf. It kept me warm and kept me safe and kept me feeling like a stronger, more gleaming version of myself than perhaps I really was. The feeling was so good. It shaped to the sharp inward curve of my waist and strained over the equally sharp flare of my hips.
Once upon a time I had cancer. It started with pain, just an always kind of pain, slow and syrupy, and eventually, as the years went by, louder and heavier until I was trapped under it. I cried with relief when they found cancer on my spinal cord because that meant they could make the pain stop. And, with spinal surgery, they did. For a while.
Until it came back. First the pain, sharper and more random this time, no slowness, only fragile quiet followed by attacks so brutal they left me shaking and sobbing. Movement was terror, movement might make it bite.
My body changed with this stillness. Grew heavy and stiff. The leather jacket was shaped to a former version of me, a less painful body. It hung in the closet and grew stiff as well.
Nothing appeared on a scan this time. Two and a half more years went by—years filled with nerve injections and canes and experiments with drugs that didn’t work—before the cancer finally showed itself. They opened me up again, extracted it again, stapled me closed. This time, they would not take any chances. This time radiation would melt the remnants lodged too deep in my spinal cord to slice away. Invisible energy would dissolve this strange glue gumming up my nerves.
Six weeks of daily zapping. Nausea and exhaustion. But eventually, no more pain.
It was hard to trust at first. Twenty-three years of pain doesn’t just… stop. Surely, there must be a catch.
My body grew. I felt weird all the time. Hot flashes, night sweats that soaked the sheets. My blood felt like sludge, moving reluctantly through my veins. My feet hurt all the time. My hair thinned. I stopped bleeding each month. My fingers felt tight, like sausages. Every system in my body was grinding to a halt.
Turns out that, as it melted the dregs of my tumour, the radiation fried my ovaries. Months of waiting on a doctor to believe me, weeks of waiting for tests, months more to see an endocrinologist, months again for the tiny purple pills to come up to full effect. Months of steady expansion. My body was huge. My leather jacket looked like it was made for a doll version of me, for a child, for a me that wasn’t me anymore. Seeing it in the closet, I mourned.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with fat. We need it for our bodies to work, for our brains to operate. Fat is functional, glorious and beautiful, and so are fat people. But I did not feel functional, glorious or beautiful. I felt awkward and unwieldy, like all my organs were taking up too much space, like my food sat in my guts for too long, like I couldn’t bend or stretch freely.
I know why fat folks hate dietitians and doctors: because these professionals truly think losing weight is a kind of mathematics. Ingest fewer calories than you burn, and you shrink. And it is not mathematics. It is genetics, hormones, metabolism, trauma. It is dozens of factors. It is chronic pain and missing spinal bones. I will not starve myself or count calories. I will not give up dark chocolate or cheese. There is nothing wrong with my lifestyle. What’s wrong is cancer, what’s wrong is menopause dropping like a bomb in my body, what’s wrong is bullshit BMI and scales. I don’t care how much I weigh. Pounds are not a meaningful unit of measure. I want to be able to move. I want to digest properly. I want my systems to come back online.
I also know why movies created a thing called the training montage. It’s because the endless grind of transforming oneself, of healing, is boring as fuck. Doctors and pills, stretching against stubborn scar tissue, sweating to rev up a metabolism that’s fighting hard to stay sluggish. Frustration and tears. I want a body I can live with. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be me, a decade older, with more tattoos and a wearier soul. Thicker is fine. Stronger is great. But me. Can I get me back, please?
There is no success story here, no happily ever after. No thinspo or fitspo because shut the fuck upspo. I am not skinny and I don’t want to be. But after three and a half years of caring for this body post-trauma, of prescriptions and MRIs, of cycling every single day I can manage it, of yoga, of Epsom salts and magnesium citrate and digestive enzymes and vitamin B, of blood tests and ultrasounds, things have changed. I am not the me I was at twenty-three on St-Denis. But I’m a me I can live with. I’m a me that can move.
Tonight, I biked downtown, in the city I now call home, and went to try on leather jackets. I heard there was a clearance rack buried in the belly of a Yonge Street mall.
I slipped one jacket over my broader shoulders, and zipped it up over my heftier hips and fuller breasts. This jacket, inky and fragrant, dipped in at the sharp inward curve of my waist and hiked up a bit at the outward flare of my hip, which made it wrinkle at my lower back right over the place where scars now trace the line of my absent bones. Above the gleaming biker-style zipper, the collar brushed against the velvet nape of my neck.
Under the overhead light of the store, my face was sharp, cheekbones older. My crow’s feet crinkled in the mirror, and I said:
I’ll take it.
Andrea Zanin has written for the Globe and Mail, The Tyee, Bitch, Ms., Xtra, IN Magazine, Outlooks Magazine and the Montreal Mirror. Her scholarly work, fiction and essays appear in a variety of collections. She blogs at http://sexgeek.wordpress.com and tweets at @sexgeekAZ.