Saturday, March 30, 2013

Good Enough, Or Adventures in Plus-Sized Dating

I don't date much. In the span of about 10 months in 2009, I went on about five dates (and two of those were "we didn't really say they were dates but we both knew they were; I could tell by the way smiled an extra 3 seconds at an unfunny joke" type dates). This whirlwind of romantic activity had never happened before, and has not been repeated with such fervour since.

I've often lamented that I hate dating. I get nervous and awkward and, especially if I like the guy, my teeth chatter and feel like I'm going to vomit. My topics of conversation go down weird bunny trails so before I know it, our delightful conversation about some book we mutually enjoy has turned into a systematic recounting of all the ways to effectively poison someone in the 15th century. I adopt a laugh that is not mine, I never like my hair, and I'm too afraid that my lipstick has smudged to even listen to what he's saying.  And who can ever figure out what to do with their hands?!

Part of my fear of and discomfort with dating undeniably stems from the Christian culture I was immersed in throughout those hormonal teen years. I can't count how many Bible studies and "Q & As" about healthy, Godly dating I attended between the ages of 13 and 18; and I can't tell you how much of the advice ranged from the unrealistically chaste ("Don't kiss anyone until you're married!" - a discussion that left me feeling overwhelmingly guilty for snagging that peck from Ben Adams at the water fountain in grade one) to the extremely vague ("You and your partner should decide in your own relationship what constitutes 'going too far'" - a piece of advice that any young Christian can use to justify their actions: for example, "I feel like God really wants us to have sex, even though we're 14 and don't have protection and we're in the woods at camp and people could easily find us and this is really not an ideal situation in any way.").*

So while trying to make sense of this contradictory and confusing information while hormones were a-ragin' (and while we're at it, shout out to all the youth pastors that suffered through these years with us and tried their best to answer our awkward, unanswerable questions), I also was dealing with being fat.

Being chubby when you're a pre-teen is sort of ok. You look cute and innocent like a little cherub, and adults always say things like "oh you'll lose your baby fat soon!" Not only were these presentiments wrong, but when puberty hit I was suddenly covered in acne, sporting bleach-blonde hair with brown roots (because nobody told me dye jobs were supposed to be maintained), and wearing clothes from Northern Reflections at the age of 14 because nothing from anywhere else fit me and we didn't yet have an Old Navy. To add to this recipe for singledom, I was smart and highly in-tune with my emotions, which doesn't make you deep, mysterious, and sexy in high school; it just makes you a weirdo.

And all of this is by no means unique. Everyone suffers - albeit in varying degrees - throughout adolescence. It's a rough time for everyone involved, and we should all give ourselves pats on the back for making it through.

But there was an undercurrent of dialogue in my teen years that worked its way into my brain. It has wormed into my subconscious, nested, and built a nice little home for itself, where to this day it resides and whispers its mantra over and over:

Fat girls are unlovable.

I came to know this truth in many ways. TV shows and movies proclaimed us roly-poly ladies to be excellent best friends and sources for advice, but not adequate romantic partners. Friends and family advised that men are visual creatures, and if only I lost weight or wore clothes that were more slimming, I might get one to notice me. People congratulated me on my periodic weight loss, as if I had finally accomplished something worthy of acknowledgement. Boys would befriend me, tell me their hopes and secrets, and then ask me if my friends were dating anyone.

So, faced with this only possible reality, I politely stepped down from the role of romantic lead. Knowing that I wasn't allowed to be attractive or - heaven forbid - sexy, I gracefully accepted the position of friend and confidant. I could never expect a man to want to date me, so I stopped thinking it would happen. I would slide into the role of "buddy" with any guy I met, because I knew he found me as physically repulsive as I found myself. All of this was going on subconsciously, because I held hope that by being friends with a guy, he would eventually get to know me and look past my exterior to see my soul, which maybe he could then learn to love.

It sounds crazy, but I legitimately didn't realize until about a year ago that being fat doesn't equate with being repulsive.

The problem with this sort of thinking is that it reduces both men and women to empty shells. By telling a woman that it is being a size 6 that will make her a valuable romantic partner, we are saying that legitimately nothing else matters about her. It doesn't matter if she is pretty or funny or intelligent or charming or kind. It also reduces men to brainless droids who only care about sleeping with the women that society says they should. It suggests that they don't value kindness or intelligence or a sense of humour in a partner, as long as she's great arm candy. It also says that if a man asks a fat woman out, she should be grateful that he has given her attention and say yes, regardless of his personality. It's just a disaster all around.

I read this really great poem today by Rachel Wiley called "10 Honest Thoughts On Being Loved By A Skinny Boy" (which you can read here or watch a video of her reading here). It's a poem about feeling insecure in her relationship because she is fat and her boyfriend is skinny, and society dictates that those two body shapes do not belong together, and she is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. One stanza reads (warning: profanity ahead! Proceed with caution):

The phrase "big girls need love too" can die in a fire
Fucking me does not require an asterisk.
Loving me is not a fetish.
Finding me beautiful is not a novelty

I think what's so great about this poem is that I'm starting to believe this. I'm starting to believe that I don't always have to occupy the dreaded friendzone. I'm starting to believe that, in addition to my brain and heart, a man can love me because of my body and not just in spite of it. I am starting to believe that I am good enough to be more than a novelty.

I'm starting to believe that maybe - just maybe - I am dateable.


* note: this did not actually happen to me. I hate the outdoors.

Current book: Mere Christianity - C.S. Lewis
Current TV show: Girls (season 2)
Current nail colour: OPI's "Tickle My France-y"

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Book Review: The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes

You know what? February is a short month. Also, February is a busy time when you are a grad student. Scratch that; every time is a busy time when you are a grad student. So you'll forgive my forgetting that I actually have a blog until this week. A quick recap on what's happened in the past four weeks: I wrote some papers, I presented some of said papers, I went home and marked some other people's papers. There's been a lot of 8 1/2 x 11 in my life this past month.

I've been meaning to post a review of Julian Barnes' 2011 Man Booker Prize winning book The Sense of an Ending since early January when I finished it, but I wanted to let the story settle and when it had, there just wasn't time. But since there will never be time, I'm doing it now, while my coffee is still hot and my fingers are agile.

I've been a devoted Julian Barnes fan since I read England, England in 2008. He is a philosopher first and a writer second, and he is preoccupied with questions of memory and nation and history. It was love at first read.

I read some of this other stuff, most notably A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, the 1/2 chapter of which is absolutely breath-taking, but the other 10 are sort of underwhelming. He was beginning to lose some of his charm.

The final nail in the coffin came when I read his quasi-memoir Nothing to be Frightened Of. It is a meditation on art, death, the afterlife, and God, among other things. It was ploughing through this dense read that lead me to declare Barnes an absolutely brilliant writer, but a terrible storyteller.

So I took a long break from Barnes, decidedly avoiding his books for more satisfactory narratives. That is, until I started hearing an incredible amount of buzz this past fall about his newest novella, The Sense of an Ending. This struck me as significant, because I had never heard anyone outside of a very small cohort who had taken English 4080 at MUN even mention his name. I did some googling and discovered that it had won the Man Booker Prize. And while I don't often place a lot of weight on literary prizes, I decided it was time to revisit an old friend.

And let me tell you, friends; it was worth the wait.

As with all of Barnes' books, the first page hooks you immediately:
We live in time - it holds us and moulds us - but I've never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing - until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.
I mean, if you don't think that's both beautiful and profound, then you are wrong.

The Sense of an Ending is a love story, in a way. It's the love story of the friendships of youth; it's the story of a forced love that goes wrong, a marriage that functions much better after it ends, the untangling of the memory of love from an untimely death.

I love this book. I love it because it is the perfect balance between beautifully crafted writing and a plot that drives the reader forward. It's both sensational and real, comforting and sad. The narrator is searching for redemption from the past in present circumstances that seem unforgiving.

It's fantastic. It's the sort of book you read with a pen - and those are my favourite kinds.

I also appreciate that this book is a novella. I love that Barnes didn't try and stretch this short story over 400 pages, but rather kept it to the perfect size that it needed to be told properly. If you've not read any of his work, or any Man Booker Prize winners, this might be the place to start.

Number of books read in 2013: 5
Current TV series: The Thick of It, series 2
Current nail colour: OPI's "My Very First Knockwurst"