Bearing the Weight of my History

This is an “oldie-but-goodie.” I wrote this in fall 2005. I have performed it on stage and on live radio and I find that its message keeps coming back to me because I work with young women and I am always considering the way we talk about our bodies. Enjoy!

My body looks like Russia. It is immense. It spans a hearty portion of the Eastern Hemisphere. There is very little room for neighboring start-up republics on its borders, and when I was younger, I feared I was doomed to live like a frozen wasteland forever. Everything about me kept getting bigger. In fourth grade, my breasts resembled onion domes. By sixth grade, they were the size of St. Petersburg. These days, I think my breasts may be out to take over the world. You could hide nuclear missiles in there! I don’t recommend it though. You may not be able to find them again.

On the map of my body, stretch marks climb over my hips like rivers trying to reach both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. The space between my legs, though not as barren as I feared it would be, seems to get lost between the snow-crested mountains of my thighs.

I inherited this Russian body from my foremothers. They handed it down with their recipes for matzo-ball soup and knish. I can still see my weight-conscious family members frowning around the table, examining my expanding waistline as they examined their own, while my great-grandmother, who sat on the other side of the table, encouraged me to take another helping. What, you should want to deny your heritage? This recipe was my grandmother’s! Eat! Enjoy! We are a zaftig (full-figured) people, that’s how we survived hard winters in Russia, and now, ha! We use food as a way to survive everything! We kvetch (complain) about how big we are, and then we eat more because we’re upset. Nu (so), it’s in our blood. What can we do about it but thank God that we have hearty appetites and big hearts to match.

I tried to listen to my great-grandmother’s words, but it’s awkward to be the largest country. I don’t mean to take up most of the space in Europe, but at least I’m nice about it. I only occupy the spaces no one else wants, the cold, lonely places where the nights are white and the darkness envelops the day. I’m clumsy about government too. My immensity gets in the way, and I seem to trip over everything.

You’d think I would do something about this. I’ve tried. I stopped eating for awhile, in hopes that I could slim down to the size of Italy, or maybe even Chile. It worked at first, but my heritage stuck out in strange places. My waist and hips lost their gargantuan dimensions, and my face took on that sexy angular look, complete with the hollow eyes and sunken cheeks that many people associate with third-world starvation. My breasts, however, never shrank down to normal size. Russia evacuated most of my body and the entire population took refuge in my chest. They threatened to secede and become countries of their own.

Eventually, I grew tired of trying to be the size of Switzerland. I could squeeze into smaller spaces, and at last I was pleased with the country staring back at me in the mirror. But the truth is, I never really fit into that shrunken frame. I was sick all the time, dizzy from my efforts to battle off sinister invaders like bread, cheese, potatoes, and even carrots, those dangerously carb-laden vegetables. I’d wanted to train for a marathon, but my body couldn’t seem to handle it. When I started to pass out after running too many miles without enough fuel, I decided that I couldn’t avoid my Russian heritage any longer.

I gently allowed my body the time it needed to grow again. At first, it was kind of fun – I enjoyed all the food I’d denied myself for so long, though I consumed a hearty serving of Jewish guilt with every bite. But after awhile, as my body regained its Russian proportions, I began to wish that there was anything I could do to abandon my genes – or squeeze into smaller ones.

My great-grandmother’s age finally crept up on her in the fall of my freshman year of college. She died at the age of 98, and I wrote poetry for her all morning, this woman who represented my past. She was one of my few family members who could tell me about Russia as she remembered it – a legacy far bigger than my body snuggled between the bodies of my foremothers and the daughters of our future.

These days, I still kvetch about my size. Having a Russian body means that shopping is devastating, my breasts hurt when the car goes over speed bumps, and every time I eat, I know that I’m feeding the Russian peasants who live in my thighs. Some days, I still look in the mirror and bemoan my figure, even though it is part of my past.

But other days, when I look at the curves of my breasts and hips, I can hear my ancestors laugh with full-figured good nature as they sit together over elaborate meals, passing the kugel and the stories across the table. This is where we enjoy old recipes cooked up and often exaggerated for flavor, this is where my own experiences collide with my history, and this is where my future will be –   served up with a sizeable portion of memories, and shared with my zaftig, loving, Russian family.

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