I often have the experience of passing for normal to the untutored eye. If I’m coping well enough to be out in public, engaged in mundane errands, there aren’t any obvious signs of abnormality. Of course, once I open my mouth for anything more complex than “paper or plastic” the masquerade could crumble.
Right now, I am writing in a public place, and it’s strange for me to think that the people around me probably see me very differently from the way I see myself. My appearance, what I’m wearing, what I’m doing, all send certain messages to them, just as theirs do to me. I know I’m stating the obvious, and I also know that they might have baggage I can’t sense. But I do quite often have the feeling of being covered by a very thin cloak.
Perhaps my sense of feeling alien is increased by how much my appearance has changed. We are a visual culture, and when I was very heavy it influenced the way people viewed me. Being in a normal weight range–one that I have only briefly visited back in my twenties–changes that dynamic. Part of it is the regrettable prejudices and misconceptions about people of size, and I am sure some of it is also just a response to the changes in my own body language.
Whatever the origin, I now have another reason for feeling like an alien masquerading as an Earthling. Inside my head, I still weigh at least 130 pounds more than my outsides reflect. Combine this with the fact that I’m still filled with uncertainly about whether I’ll be able to keep the weight off, and I feel as if I should be wearing disclaimer posters wherever I go.
A couple of months ago, I walked into a therapy session and demanded to know what I look like. I’d been writing in the coffee shop before the session, and noticed a man casting glances at me over his laptop. I had seen him when he’d walked in, and yes, I’d looked. I’m used to looking, casually; just some aesthetic appreciation. But he wasn’t supposed to return it! Taken aback, I wanted to know if I was misinterpreting what I saw. The question led to me examining my uneasiness about being seen as attractive by a wider range of the population. Do I want to be attractive? What does it mean to me? Would it be okay for me to have fun with it?
Many years ago, I took a couple of ballroom dancing classes in college. I loved it so much, and for a long time I wasn’t physically capable of exploring it more. Now that getting some healthy activity is so important, it’s a great excuse to make it a priority. I signed up for a casual adult school class, and it’s met three times now. Besides being fun–and allowing me to visit my deep gratitude for being able to do it–it’s an amazing way to explore my issues about my appearance and my gender identity.
Ballroom dancing is traditional, even archaic, in its gender dynamics. In a mixed-gender couple the man leads, and a good male ballroom dancer leads firmly and unapologetically. The woman responds to cues and participates in two-way communication through touch, using traits that are anthropologically viewed as being strengths of the feminine gender. It’s also a sensual pursuit, in which a woman is encouraged to move fluidly and gracefully. In short, I’m given permission to embody a very feminine part of myself.
The class switches partners frequently, so I’ve danced with about a dozen men. After years of close contact with only one male, I’m being exposed to the pheromones of many, and even though I don’t plan to date any of them the fact remains that we’re interacting on an archetypally sexual level. I feel sensual, graceful and very feminine when I dance ballroom, even at this crude beginner stage. After what feels like decades of living from the neck up, it’s quite a change.
What I’ve just written probably has my readers either deciding I’m completely perverted or running off to sign up for a ballroom class themselves.
So there I was last Tuesday, doing the foxtrot with a nice gentleman as Frank Sinatra played on the speakers. I wore a dark blue blouse with embroidery at the collar, my hair upswept. We had the basic step down well enough to be able to appreciate the music and fall into that romantic, dreamy vibe foxtrot can give. Can you understand that I felt a little like the character from The Prince and the Pauper? That I wondered what he saw when he looked down at me? That the idea he might think he’s dancing with a pretty woman is just WEIRD?
In twelve-step programs, they say to fake it till you make it. They also say to suit up and show up. I think this class is good for me; that after years of seeing myself as an invalid it’s useful for me to get out of my comfort zone and learn to see myself in new ways. It’s a major part of integrative recovery: seeking and using new, non-destructive ways to get some pleasure out of life. So I’ll keep it up, and hope to meet some of my fellow recovery types on the dance floor someday.