The following is an excerpt from It’s Messy: On Boys, Boobs and Badass Women by Amanda de Cadenet, available on Sept. 19. Copyright Harper Wave, 2017.
A few years ago, Chelsea Handler asked me if I wanted to guest host her E! talk show “Chelsea Lately” while she was out of town. I was honored—as the only woman in late- night TV, Chelsea was a huge inspiration to me—so I wanted to say yes, but I was also mortified.
“I can’t,” I told her. “I weigh 200 pounds.”
“You’re going to tell me you’re not going to do this because of how you look?”
Chelsea was indignant. “You of all people? You can do this.”
“I can’t go on TV looking like this.”
“Yeah, you can,” she said. “You got this.”
So I agreed to do it. On the day of the taping, I put on not one but two pairs of Spanx. It was like full-body Chinese foot-binding torture. I could hardly breathe, let alone talk. This is the time when you get to walk the talk, I thought. This is the time that you practice what you advocate for everybody else, which is that no matter what shape the outsides are in, confidence starts with how you feel about yourself on the INSIDE.
That might sound like an oversimplification, but it’s the absolute truth. You can be your skinniest weight and dying of self-loathing, or you can be pretty fucking good with yourself when you’re 200 pounds.
I went out there and hosted Chelsea’s show with my head held high, and you know what? Even though I couldn’t really breathe, I killed it. I refused to let the number on the bathroom scale stop me from living. I’d let that happen too many times before, and I wouldn’t do it again, not when the stakes were so high. Showing up and saying yes for that opportunity allowed me to be reminded that I am capable of hosting a live late-night TV show, something I hadn’t done since I was eighteen. Stepping outside of my comfort zone in such a huge way reinforced the belief that I am not the sum total of my physical being and the number on the scale, even though the world would have me think otherwise.
But for a long time, I did obsess about my body. In my own defense—in defense of all women—it’s no wonder we’re so caught up in our appearance. The fact is external feminine beauty is highly valued, and we are constantly given the message that a slamming body is the most valuable thing a woman can possess. The most beautiful girl in the room not only gets the guy, she lands the job, gets better service at a restaurant, rises through the social ranks before her friends. Doors open for the beautiful woman that may not for a female who is twice as smart but half as beautiful.
I wish it weren’t true, but I have witnessed this phenomenon play out too many times to deny it. Of course, you don’t have to live by this belief system—God knows I try not to—but it’s important to understand the rules everyone else is playing by, especially if you want to win at the game of life. Or at least, give a wholehearted effort.
From the ages of 12 to 35 my body, not my mind, was my primary currency. My ideas, my humor, my curiosity—none of those were valued as much as my body, which preceded me into almost every room.
As a kid I trained to be an Olympic gymnast. My schedule was rigorous. Four hours a day, Monday through Saturday, I was at the gym. My body was like a boy’s, narrow hips, flat-chested, wide shoulders. When I was 12, I badly injured my ankle and was forced to stop training immediately. It seemed like literally overnight I grew huge boobs and a gorgeous bubble butt. With no time to prepare for this new “me,” I was now responsible and accountable for a super curvy figure and had no idea how to handle the effect it had on the opposite sex.
“The fact is external feminine beauty is highly valued, and we are constantly given the message that a slamming body is the most valuable thing a woman can possess.”
I continued to wear the same clothes as always—mostly T-shirts and overalls. But the changes to my body were plainly visible even in my tomboy attire. One day I was walking down a London street and passed a construction site. Some workers started whistling. I looked around to see who they were whistling at.
“Want to show me your tits?” one of them shouted.
Is this guy for real? I thought, What makes you think I would show you my boobs?
The power my new body conferred was becoming impossible to ignore. At my boarding school, the required uniform was a shirt, tie, horribly unstylish skirt, and an extra-large sweater. I personalized it—shortening my skirt and shrinking my sweater until it had just the right fit. As if by magic, I could give my teacher a boner by sitting in the front row in my too-short skirt and too-tight schoolgirl sweater.
I had become the teenage girl whose body made grown women uncomfortable and men salivate. Pretty much every man I came into contact with gave me the side-eye: teachers, cops, waiters and bartenders, shopkeepers, my friend’s boyfriends, and eventually their husbands. My body was the first thing that people responded to, and for a girl who felt largely invisible before then, I have to admit I was not upset about it at all.
Adolescence might have been the first time my body drastically changed, but it wasn’t the last. It happened again when I was thirty-five, after the birth of my twins. Prediabetes and thyroid issues were just two of the aftereffects of a twin pregnancy. So I did what so many postpartum mums do. I frantically dieted, hoping to drop the extra weight. But to no avail.
It was a major struggle to lose a single pound. I tried everything, from the Atkins diet to “cleanses” to the keto diet, although instead of burning fat, I simply put on an additional 10 pounds and got the worst breath ever. I tried the go-to diet: protein and veggies plus exercise. Nothing worked.
And as time went on, I became more and more desperate, so desperate I tried a crazy diet called hCG, which claims to “reset your metabolism,” causing you to lose a pound a day without hunger. But you’re also not allowed to ingest any fats or do any exercise. Sounds easy, but it’s really not. On hCG I lost 2- pounds in a month and was able to enjoy about a week of fitting into my size 29 pre-twins jeans before gaining it all back in half the amount of time it took me to lose it.
It’s safe to say I learned from that experience. I am now committed to avoiding the D-word for good. It’s become a word that, to me, is more offensive than douchebag, dickhead, or dumbass.
Diet. I hate that fucking word. I’ve banned that word from my house; no one can utter it in front of my kids or in my presence without getting shut down immediately.
“No one gets to tell anyone else how to look, how to feel about their body, or how to live. No one gets to write the script for us.”
Accepting my body is an ongoing challenge. The truth is that I miss wearing the many awesome outfits gathering dust in my closet, and some days I’m just not ready to never see my “previous” body again. Even after all this, I was somehow waiting for my body to return to normal until one day a friend said, “What if this is just your new normal?”
Maybe my friend is right. What if a healthy body looks like my body? I think about that whenever I’m really struggling with how my body has changed.
The media rarely shows accurate representations of women, especially the messy parts and the bits that are unsexy and unglamorous. The overall message we’re given time and time again is that We Are Not Okay. We need to look like Her. We need to have a life like Her. We need to have Her marriage, Her pregnancy, and it all needs to unfold in a well-ordered, culturally approved sequence.
As someone who did it in the wrong order for reasons no one approved of, I can tell you it doesn’t have to be that way. No one gets to tell anyone else how to look, how to feel about their body, or how to live. No one gets to write the script for us. If I believe in anything, it’s that we have the power to create our own lives.
So how do we go forward, loving and living in our bodies if we are not the size the world insists we must be in order to be considered valuable or indeed viable?