The View From the Top

I wish I could pinpoint the moment that I lost it.

When I feel like being particularly dramatic about it I say that I dealt with it for as long as I can remember, but that’s not true. I remember I time when I thought I was pretty darn cool. A time when I was a careless kid who knew she was going to do big things. A time when I wanted to know everybody and be known. A time when I would waltz into a room with confidence and energy—and a smile that nobody could forget. A time when I barely had time to look at myself in the mirror, let alone time to have an opinion either way about what looked back at me. I had too much to do. I was boundless.

And then I started giving myself bounds.

Maybe it’s when I went from being an easy 90 pounds with no fluctuation in my figure to be found to suddenly having some extra weight in places I wasn’t used to. A little jiggle here. I new tightness in my clothing there. Nobody told me how to own this. Nobody told me it could be incredibly sexy. I thought I was doing something wrong.

Maybe it was the day my favorite jeans—the ones with the rips down the front and fake patches in bright fabrics all over them—wouldn’t slide up over my thighs anymore. But I love those! I thought to myself. This was clearly not good. [i]

Maybe it was when the guy who I had foolishly started to measure my self-worth by—the big shot in school who was somehow smitten by me, found me fun and attractive, was the first person to ever use the word sexy when referring to me, making me think Maybe I am worth something—went off to college and left me behind, in favor of other, surely cooler and hotter, young women. [ii]

Maybe it was the moment that everything else in my life was up in the air too—I was off to college, no direction, no friends nearby, no idea who I wanted to be. So instead, I decided to try and become who I thought everyone else wanted me to be.

I don’t know exactly when it was, but at some point, I totally and completely lost all confidence and love I had for myself. [iii] While I managed to get almost perfect grades my first semester, I saw only the one A- I had received. While I managed to make a great group of friends—and already had girls excitedly asking me to room with them the following year—I saw only the people who were liked by more. While I was managing to keep myself alive without the help of my parents for the first time in my life (a feat I don’t think college freshmen get enough credit for), I saw only the pounds of the dreaded freshman fifteen changing the way I saw my body. You can do better, you can be better, better, better, better…

And it quickly went from “You can be better” to “You are the worst.” This tiny thing that I don’t even understand where it came from grew inside my until took over: my eyes clouded in grey, my brain thinking only critically, my heart reengineered to pump the thick black tar of hatred through my veins.

What I can do is pinpoint the moment when I knew I had no choice but to find it again.

It was at the end of a semester when my self-hate had been at it’s fiercest—a semester full of faceless men who I looked to for validation, full of pinching at the fat at my hips and measuring my wrist with my thumb and middle finger, [iv] full of taking my anger at myself out on the people who only really wanted to love me, full of self-secluding myself socially because Why would they want to hang out with me? A semester of looking for someone to make me believe I was beautiful, inside and out. A semester of trying to ask for help, but not really knowing how.

It was at the end of a stressful finals week where I had only sustained myself on french fries filched from the campus greasy joint, partially out of feeling too overwhelmed to find any other food and partially out of my body’s cry for fat and quick energy when I refused to give it much else.

And after all of this—when I was on the end of every rope I had—I took myself to see Black Swan. All my friends still had studying to do, but I wanted to see it so I went by myself. Sitting there alone in the dark theater watching Natalie Portman’s character brutally rip herself apart, something inside me snapped. Because I knew that, at least emotionally, I had been doing the same thing to myself. [v] And I knew that, just as nobody could save her when she was so dead-set on torturing herself, nobody would be able to help me until I was ready for it.

I went back to my apartment in a daze and then spent all night sobbing in my roommate’s bed while she sat bewildered, rubbing my back. And then, the next morning, I said to myself Enough. It’s time to make this right.

I wish I could say recovery was as easy as that, as waking up and looking in the mirror and saying Wow, I’m so beautiful and awesome—how did I not see it before? But it’s not. That morning was just the start of an uphill journey, a path that I had to walk. Nobody could trek it for me. Nobody could magically get me to the top. I had to do it, step by step, and that morning I work up with the determination to do whatever it took to get to that place.

Over the break I went into battle mode—but it was a very different battle than I had been fighting before. I enlisted my bewildered roommate for support, explaining to her while we took a snowy road trip the ways in which I had been hurting, and asking her to cheer me on as I tried to get better. I spent time thinking of ways to love myself more, to care for my one body more. I channeled positive thoughts—you are beautiful as you are, you are kind, so many people love you—even if I didn’t really believe them, I thought them and said them over and over again, trying to convince myself. I scoured the web for people who had dealt with the same thing, and found blogger Gala Darling’s cannon on radical self love. Radical was exactly what I needed to get over this.

I returned after the holidays with mechanisms in place to keep myself honest. I started a Radical Self Love Bible. I took the Body Warrior Pledge and started doing daily activities from Beautiful You. I had mantras. It was a project to say the least, and it was more important than any project I had ever taken on for school.

I opened up with my other roommate, who was used to hearing my self-pitying, compliment-seeking comments of the past. [vi] This was a different dialogue: “Hey, I’ve been really hateful towards myself and it needs to stop so I’m going to be doing some self love activities around the apartment. Don’t think I’m weird, I just need it,” I mumbled, feeling vulnerable. Instead, she started doing some of the activities with me, supporting me more than I think she realized.

I kept working at it. A few months down the road I started cautiously dating someone, afraid of throwing myself in too fast and relying on his validation for my self-worth. He said, “I wish we had met sooner.” “No you don’t,” I replied, thinking of how destructive I would have been to a relationship only four months prior and realizing that I now thought of myself as someone worth dating. “What’s your favorite thing about yourself?” he asked innocently during one of our get-to-know-you question sessions.  I looked at him seriously and told him everything I had been through and where I was trying to go. He had nothing to say but still kept his arm around me and still wanted to see me the next day. I felt more powerful.

I realized the more I talked about it, the more control I felt over it, so I talked more. Over the summer I told a former boss and mentor, who cried and hugged me and told me in her sing-song voice how beautiful I was and how much she loved me. I went on a hike with my dad and explained everything, start to finish, as we climbed single file up to McAfee’s Knob. Walking ahead of him, I couldn’t see his face, but he worried aloud and wondered what he and my mom could have done differently. [vii] He asked if there was anything he could do now. “No,” I said, “I’m doing much better.” And I realized it was the truth.

And slowly but surely, I climbed that mountain.

Several months later, I would find myself lying in a bunk bed in a Madrid hostel with the boy from above, elated to catch up from our time apart while studying abroad, but even more elated to be able to report, “I think I did it.”

It’s not that I never had bad days, or days when I doubted myself, but I approached them in a way I hadn’t before. A way of understanding to be imperfect is to be human. A way of knowing that I was doing my best to live in this wild world. A way of thinking my best was actually pretty damn great.

Instead of always seeing the ways I was failing, I saw the ways in which I was succeeding.

Fast forward three years to last month, when I was sitting at a wedding listening to the minister advise the bride and groom to love each other like they love their own bodies, because nobody could hate or hurt their own bodies. It was a nice thought, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Far too many people aren’t in a position where that would be sound marital advice. Far too many people are in abusive relationships with themselves—be it emotionally or physically.

I’m proud to say I’ve managed to win over that side of myself. I’m not sure it is or will ever be gone entirely, but it stays to itself. But my heart goes out every day to those who haven’t—for those who can’t see the beauty in themselves, for those who have chosen to take action against themselves with eating disorders or self-harm.

I want to help you just as much as I wanted to help myself that morning after Black Swan, puffy-eyed from crying but strong with resolve.

I want to help you understand that it’s all in your head, and that you can’t get better until you make the decision to flip that switch and do so. Hating yourself can feel so helpless, like you’re no longer in control of your thoughts. Take back control.

I want to help you find the power that lies within you to do this. It’s there, I promise. Anyone who can feel such strong hate has just as much capacity to feel love. Anyone who can take control of his or her body in a hurtful way has just as much control to do so in a caring way.

I want to convince you to take the journey up. I’m not saying it will be easy. Some days will be treacherous, some will be awe-inspiring. Some days you’ll have people walking behind you, keeping you company and keeping you going,  some you’ll be going solo, having to be the one to push yourself to take each step. But the beauty of an uphill climb is that, as long as you keep going, eventually you’ll reach the top.

And let me tell, the view up here—well, she’s stunning.


[i] This was when I really started fighting. I fought with those jeans for months: It started with sucking in, then laying on my bed and tugging and tugging to try and get them on. I kept those jeans tucked away for months, trying them on occasionally to see if anything had changed.

[ii] At no fault of his—this was all in my head.

[iii] It’s important to note here that this was not just about my body—though that was the most obvious way it presented itself. The ways in which I wasn’t loving myself were vast: I focused all my energy on my shortcomings rather than my positive traits, I always felt others were better than me and strived to be them, I needed the acceptance and validation of others to accept myself, I expected utmost perfection from myself. And, yes, there was plenty of body hate to go along with it.

[iv] The latter being a habit I have yet to kick…

[v] “I want to be perfect,” says Nina to the artistic director as she’s begging for the role of the Swan Queen. “Perfection is not just about control,” he replies, “It’s also about letting go.”

[vi] “I feel so fat today.” “Ugh I look so horrible.” “I’m not good enough/cool enough/hot enough for her.” This kind of talk is far too popular among friends. If you hear it, stop it.

[vii] Nothing. I have the greatest parents in the world—and this had nothing to do with them.

Photo of McAfee’s Knob courtesy of patrick yagow.

Mixed Media

I can’t remember the first time I found it.

It might’ve been the first day, when I perfectly articulated my new address in Italian. It might’ve been the first week, when I wandered home with new friends after a night out in our new city.

I was studying Art in Florence. We learned from the masters, who chiseled tradition with primitive hands and ingenious intuition—but my most vivid memory was the work of someone I’ll never know.

Once I found “Toothy”, I couldn’t shake it (I also couldn’t name it, until my friend mentioned it looked like a tooth). On morning jogs, I dodged Vespas, horses, and tourists when it leapt into my view—simple, one singular curve and a dash for a mouth.

When I discovered a bustling Panini shop, I spotted it in the alleyway, with the phrase scribed alongside, “Buoni Panini!” (Great sandwiches!)

On Saturday afternoons we shopped for things we couldn’t afford, and it popped up outside a designer’s boutique. It was impossible to overlook.

DSC04784

“Man, that thing is everywhere.”

“What?”

“Right there—haven’t you seen it? What do you think it means?”

“Uh, oh yeah, that’s really weird. It’s a shame people vandalize this place.”

In the middle of the Renaissance center of the world, I was captivated by an image most people condemned.

Everyday, I searched for more. I walked miles in 100-degree weather, sweat dripping down my back, and nowhere to hide from the sunlight. I’d crisscross bridges, wander through alleys, stumble through piazzas desperately scanning the walls for just one more glimpse.

I’d scribble down the address of each  Toothy sighting in my notepad and continue on, hoping to discover the artist’s trail. I’d imagine a hooded figure slinking through alleys before the first baker was up in the morning, carrying nothing but a spray can. I’d find a few scribbled ones, and I’d visualize the artist spotting a stranger in the night and darting off before he could be seen.

One humid afternoon, I found myself wandering along the river. The sidewalk was very narrow beside a busy street, so I had to keep looking down to get my footing. At one point I looked up and saw it. It was neon green—all the ones on this side of the river were—but it was scribbled across a window. A window.

I was fuming, and it wasn’t just the sticky air. I had been defending this artist’s work in my head—something I thought I understood. I argued that this alarming image enriched our daily commutes with its fleck of color and jarring expression. I believed Toothy was my personal Florentine Art exhibition, much cheaper than the Uffizi and Accademia down the road.

But this puke-filled monster dominated the window, a once transparent surface. It destroyed the view of the Arno to anyone looking out. This was no longer a dash of whimsy, but an obnoxious obstruction.

That night, I went home and told my artist friend about this ugly sighting.

“Where was it again?”

“Across the bridge. Along the water. It ruined a perfectly good window, it was all scribbled and shitty looking.”

“Really? That’s my favorite one.”

I just stared at her. She glanced out the window beyond our dinner table.

“Nearly dusk. Come on, I’ll show you how beautiful it is.”

As we approached the image, I rubbed my eyes. I saw it and stopped. It was beautiful.

When I walked by it the first time, my eyes were blinded by the sunlight. Sweat seeped through my eyelashes. It was the color of a migraine. But when I saw it in the moonlight, I discovered a whole new Toothy. Reflected through the glass was a duplicate image. I saw it repeated, but this time with black outlines. The reflection looked like an alter ego—much like the one the writer embodied on his nightly runs.

It was starting to make sense again. This image, just like all of the art in this city, is not stagnant. Tradition was founded here, but it was not fossilized. It evolves with its surroundings—the light, the era, the mood of the viewer. Sometimes it’s lost on you. And sometimes, art just makes sense.

In a city nearly buried in artistic convention, I found change. And that’s one memory I’ll never lose.

DSC05154

The Seduction of Snapchat

“I love Snapchat,” my friend tells me as we sit on her sunken couch. “I do it all the time.” She is slightly ashamed, like she has admitted to some off-color habit, something not to be revealed unless in deep confidence. Later, she snaps an excellent video of her lifting her old, overweight cat up and down. The caption: “Kitty Kettlebells.” Twenty-odd people receive it.

Evan Spiegel and Robert Murphy, the two Stanford grads who developed the application, tapped into something special with Snapchat. Known to have suspicious origins as a tool for sending easily disappearing nude pictures, Snapchat has morphed into a widely accepted means of communication. There’s an irresistibility in its ephemeral quality.  The way arbitrary images and videos flit into our consciousness for seconds at a time before exiting our minds eye forever speaks to an even newer way of communication that I’m not sure anyone has really explored yet. The future is now, and we’re sending out four-second pictures of our dogs with hats hand-drawn on them.

As I edit this piece, I’m snapchatting. The last one was a selfie, with the caption “I’m going to push you off a cliff,” sent to a friend in response to his enthusiastic picture of a snow-covered ground. Every time I walk onto a train car in the morning, I catch people making goofy faces into their phone. I’m periodically hit, throughout my day, with videos of funny stuff happening at a friend’s workplace, or pictures of cute dogs, or photos of a Red Lobster menu captioned, “Dreams do come true.” I live for this shit.

There’s no true importance in knowing that a friend of mine is ironically enjoying Red Lobster. Most snaps sent are arbitrary shots of peoples’ days and lives, there for seven seconds and then gone forever. That is what makes it an absolutely perfect mode of communication. It allows us to be intimate and distant all at once. It’s an ideal middle ground in a world where people simultaneously spill their guts on the Internet and don’t bother to look up from their phones during dinner.

People of my parents’ time bemoan the fact that no one interacts on a personal level anymore. I’ve always been of the mind that it’s fairly useless to complain about the way culture and advancements in technology collide; the juggernaut is barreling down the road, and there’s no stopping it. We communicate through screens now. That’s the way things are.

But Snapchat is different; it’s almost a response to that impersonality. Its unqualified transience—the potentiality of losing the picture or the video or the message—forces us to truly focus for those six, or eight seconds, on what the other person has sent us. We’re in that instant. I’m here, with you, and your drunk roommate, and your breasts in the bathroom mirror, and the video of you kettlebelling your cat; I’m enjoying a moment with you, no matter how incredibly banal. Triviality is the true spice of life; let’s share it together.

So keep sending snapshots of your pets, or videos of weird guys on the bus, or nude pictures (solicited ones, mind you, don’t make it weird) with abandon. Because it’s fun. And because it makes you laugh. We’ll see how some 45-year-old at Time Magazine frames it in a few months—whether it will be the downfall of modern communication, the representation of increasing superficiality of the millennial generation, or both.

In the meantime, I have snaps to respond to.

Lost Beagle Sassafras

Adventure called
and your dog ran away.
Your precious Sassafras was gone.

You cried and cried
and blanketed the city with fliers
of bright yellow and red
that offered
Reward for safe return.
Have you seen me?

Have you seen me?
it asked, and offered the clues
Very shy
Female beagle mix
Distinctive,
Mostly white,
Flag-like tail
carried
high
over
back.
findlostbeaglesassafras.blogspot.com.

We first saw the flyer
clinging to a telephone pole.
You really went to town
with that staple gun.
The flyer,
safely tucked into a page protector,
was built to withstand all elements.
And withstand it would.

That bright yellow flyer
diffused through the boundaries
of your own neighborhood.
To this day
I’m not really sure
where the heck
you really live
because the way you carry on about it
Sassafrass was capable
of running a marathon through Rock Creek Park
and still having the energy
for a little lunchtime window shopping in Georgetown
and catching a movie at Uptown
that very same day.
Sightings in Adams Morgan!
Sightings in Chevy Chase!
This dog is everywhere
and all at once.
You sure think a lot
of your dog’s exploratory capabilities.

Through springtime gusts
and April showers,
Through summer storms
and autumn blusters
it gripped tightly to that telephone pole.
Months passed
before the first signs of fatigue appeared.

One by one,
your tired flyers
withered
and slumped at their posts.
Staple by staple,
they lost their grip
and hung at odd angles
until they just couldn’t hold on anymore.

We mocked your perseverance.
We ridiculed your belief.
We took one look
at the sea of bright yellow flyers
and shouted,
She’s Never Coming Home.

At first
I wondered
if possibly
your tenacity
would wither with your fliers.
Would you grow tired
of maintaining hope?
Would you hear us laughing
and you think to yourself,
they’re right.
they’re right.
I give up.

Give up, though,
you never did.
Your poured your heart
and emptied your checking account
into this quest.
findlostbeaglesassafras.blogspot.com
is current and up to date.

And that’s why,
three years later,
I’m left with no choice
but to admire you.
You and your unwavering affection
for your Lost Beagle Sassafras.
You and your refusal
to conceed.

And even though
I really
really
don’t like dogs
or pets
or domesticated animals of any kind,
I must admit
that someone as dedicated
and tireless
and hell-bent as you
must have lost something
really worth fighting for.

In light of that fact
I’d like to tell you
I’m sorry for putting you down.
I’m also sorry
for dressing up as Sassafras
that one Halloween
and posting the pictures all over Facebook.
That was a dick move.
I hope you find your dog.