What’s Happening to My Body?

Devorah Heitner reflects on the ways she is reclaiming her relationship to her own body while grappling with the legacy of her mother’s poor body image and early death.

Devorah Heitner | Longreads | September 2019 | 15 minutes (3,869 words)

My mother always said she had thunder thighs. On one visit home, I found a picture of little Cindy at about age 10, long before she was my mother. In the picture, her thighs, solid like mine, are turned outward, in first position. I studied the picture, noting how the blue costume cast a pallor on her pale skin. Her arms made an oval above her head. Her brown eyes looked big and nervous. She was not smiling. Maybe all the girls took ballet in the ’50s, in Little Neck, Long Island. The picture doesn’t give the impression that she was begging to do this.

The huge breasts that would later try to kill her hadn’t emerged yet. Just a small rise underneath her leotard. Holding the photo made me recall the sensation of my own breasts budding, stretching me from the inside, my nipples constantly sore, and rubbing, and wrong.

***

The summer after sixth grade, my parents sent me to sleep-away camp upstate in the real New England part of Connecticut, which was surprisingly close to our split-level home in suburban Stamford. At pickup day, my parents stood out in the crowd. My mother’s voice was embarrassingly loud, asking too many questions about the girls in my cabin, whether I’d made new friends. I was dreading returning to my parents’ fighting and our chaotic home, but I also yearned for the privacy of my own bedroom after weeks in a crowded cabin where, once again, I had been shunned by the popular girls.

I noticed how my mother’s thighs pushed out when she sat down. I sometimes tried to make sure my own thighs wouldn’t push out when I sat down, holding my weight slightly off the seat.

On the car ride home, I asked my mother how her hernia surgery had gone. I’d been hearing about this upcoming procedure for weeks, but she said she wasn’t having it done right away after all. “We’ll tell you about it later,” she said, twisting around from the front seat to look at me as my father drove us down the Merritt parkway. This was ominous. My mother couldn’t contain surprises or any kind of news. She often had me close my eyes to try on a planned birthday gift that I’d already heard her describe to a friend on the phone. She never saved stories for later. Something was wrong.

My mom wasn’t preppy like the other mothers at camp pickup day, who wore ponytails and matchy outfits. She had short dark hair, thick prescription glasses that darkened in the sun and covered half her face, and bermuda shorts with patterns of flowers on them. She didn’t like how she looked in shorts, but she still wore them in the summer, tight around her small waist, A-lining out over her backside and stopping short over her knees. The high waists of the 1980s accentuated the curve of her round hips. That summer I noticed how her thighs pushed out when she sat down. After noticing this, I sometimes tried to make sure my own thighs wouldn’t push out when I sat down, holding my weight slightly off the seat.

When we arrived home that evening from camp, my parents sat me down in the kitchen at the formica table. They told me about the cancer, and I went upstairs to my bedroom. In my notebook, I wrote a poem like a numbered list in my spiral notebook: “1) pizza for dinner, 2) mom, lung cancer, 3) summer vacation, over forever.”

I was angry. It seemed unfair that she could get lung cancer without smoking. Without being old. I had conspired with my father to plan a surprise 40th birthday party the year before. She was angry too. After my Bat Mitzvah that spring we quit temple and my mother quit god. My parents found another congregation years later, but I am pretty sure she stayed broken up with god.

***

That fall, her surgeons removed a third of my mother’s left lung. They had to break her ribs to do it. “It feels like I was run over by a truck,” I heard her repeat to a series of visitors at the hospital. A few weeks later, I started walking to Turn of River Junior High for seventh grade. When I’d come home, she’d be sitting in the driveway in a lawn chair, waiting. I was used to my mother working and grew to dread this reminder that she was sick. Or had been sick. Once they took it out, we talked about cancer in the past tense.

After the lung surgery, I had to give my mother showers. I avoided looking at my mother’s body, her dark nipples, heavy round breasts, the dark hair between her legs. I knew my body would change but I wanted it to stay how it was, androgynous and lean. “A skinny malink,” my mother would say.

Our hot water ran low and turned to lukewarm on its journey to the top of the split-level house. My feet gripped the shower floor and I gagged a little from the faint mildew cloud that lingered over the drain. My mother sat on a vinyl yellow kitchen chair my father had moved into the little shower stall. Streams of water ran through her thin hair, making clumps around her ears.

I was 12. Every part of my body was bursting, my nerves vibrating. I did not want to be naked with my mother’s wounded body, or with anyone. I pressed up against the wall so my defenseless body wouldn’t touch her wet skin. After, I left her to dry and dress herself.

Back in my room, on my mint-colored shag rug my feet crunched into the mess of papers and cassette tapes on my floor. I pulled on my cotton underpants and blue polyester bra with the rose sewn into the center and then my black jeans and knit shirt and my black Chinese slippers. I turned on my boombox and put in my little green cassette from Sam’s Cassette-of the-Month club. Life’s Too Good by the Sugarcubes. I turned it up and it was dissonant enough to release at least my mind from that caged space.

Weeks later, walking home from junior high, my friend Rupa and I took a shortcut through the woods and she told me she hated her mother. I stopped walking because I didn’t know you could say that out loud. Maybe all of us secretly hated our mothers. I hated my own so much in that moment that it rooted me to the spot. I knew this made me a terrible person, that I was supposed to be feeling grateful my mother was alive.

***

My mother had been surprised and scared when her own period came, and she wasn’t going to let that happen to me. Her mother slapped her when she showed her the blood in her underpants. Told her nothing. Apparently a poorly explained “Jewish tradition.”


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


She’d gotten me a book the year before, What’s Happening to My Body? All through seventh grade, my mother checked in with me about whether I’d gotten my period. It finally happened in the spring after I turned 13. I was at the public library, where my mother had started a part-time job. After school, I hung out there while she worked behind the desk.

I had studied the diagrams in What’s Happening to My Body, and read about cramps and the heavy feeling that the author called “lead vagina.” The author suggested that you could wrap your tampon in tissue if you didn’t want to come “waltzing out the stall” with a bloody tampon in your hand. That book was pretty thorough. Still, I didn’t have tampons or pads or a real clue. The blood on the toilet paper was shocking. I stuffed my underpants with a nest of toilet paper, pulled up my jeans and then curled back up in a beanbag chair to read. Part of me wanted to forget all about it.

When we got home I was matter of fact about it: “I got my period.” My mother hugged and congratulated me and gave me Advil for my cramps. I felt frustrated that I needed her to buy pads and tampons for me, and annoyed that I now had to carry a purse, which my mother called a “pock-a-book” with her Long Island accent. I hated having to carry things around just in case.

I avoided looking at my mother’s body, her dark nipples, heavy round breasts, the dark hair between her legs. I knew my body would change but I wanted it to stay how it was, androgynous and lean.

She wanted to talk about it, but I felt smothered, resentful of her intrusion. I’d been grudgingly bringing her tampons from her upstairs bathroom for years, but I wasn’t eager for a tutorial. When she yelled out for me to bring her one, I cringed, even if we were home alone. Other girls’ mothers were surely more delicate, more private, I imagined. With my friends it was different. We talked about our periods non-stop. One day we were complaining about cramps and Maya said, “Can you believe it has only been a year? This is going to be going on for a long time…” We all sat silently after that, not believing that this was what we were stuck with.

***

Winter came. Somehow, our family ended up at a New Year’s Party that was themed as a barn dance. We danced together, Cindy and me, her awkward rhythm and side-to-side stepping mortifying for her self-conscious tween daughter. I didn’t want to see my mother shake her hips. She threw herself into it and was thrilled to have me as a partner, as my dad didn’t dance, had never danced. Even though she embarrassed me, I had to admire her bravery. By then I’d stood on the sidelines at several middle school dances, dimly nodding my head to the music.

As I got older and my contours shifted, I began to notice that my body possessed a certain kind of power. My breasts still barely filled a double-A Maidenform, but I could see, in my mother’s full length closet mirror, that my ass suddenly might be sexy. When Guns and Roses sang “Turn around bitch, I’ve got a use for you,” I was horrified but a little bit thrilled. At my tiny eighth grade graduation party, a few of us were nodding rhythmically and pretending not to want to dance by my boombox in the front yard. When “It’s So Easy” came on, I turned around to ironically —, but also experimentally — shake my butt in my black jeans, possibly to the the horror of my sweet, awkward nerdboy friends.

One day, freshman year of high school, I wore a black leotard to school under my ripped jeans instead of my usual dusty cardigans from my favorite church basement thrift store. During an after-school rehearsal for Anything Goes, I walked backstage in a dusty shaft of light past my buddies, two stage crew guys, and I could feel all of us hold our breath as their eyes held onto me for an extra moment before I stepped back into the darkness. No one had informed me about this new air of possiblity, but suddenly I understood.

Equally apparent, though, was my body’s newfound vulnerability, the constant self-consciousness, the ever-present possibility of violence. Before we accepted a ride home from a guy we didn’t know, my new senior friend, Becca, bought a glass bottle of coke that we could smash over his head if he tried anything. We made it home safe and drank the coke.

My mother seemed fine. We thought about her cancer as a dodged bullet; the x-rays to prep for the hernia surgery had saved her life. She was lucky. We were lucky.

But I didn’t always feel lucky. Even in elementary school, when other girls wanted to be just like their moms, I wasn’t so sure. My mother had a lot of anger, even before her illness. She would throw things, have tantrums and yell, threatening to throw me down the stairs, although she never did. I later understood how her learning differences made her life harder, made it difficult for her to find her way around, and undermined her self-esteem. But as a kid I found her terrible handwriting and difficulty with directions to be alienating.

My mom and I had fought a lot before she got sick. Now it was clear we were in crisis mode, and a loving, devoted daughter was required. I attempted this. But I also kept a bag of boarding school brochures that I’d sent away for, and would page through them, again and again. I can still remember the pictures of some of those students. They had everything, I thought. They were rich and beautiful and far, far from home. I was not going to boarding school; my parents were quite clear on that. But I kept those brochures for a long time.

At home, we didn’t talk. We yelled. Sometimes my mother threatened to throw all my stuff out the window. She threw a shampoo bottle at me one time when I had a friend over. She was mad that I’d left the cap off, despite the chaos all around, a mess that our very occasional cleaning lady could barely touch. Other times she wanted to be my friend and tried to buy me CDs. She told me her sister’s daughter told her everything: boys, conflicts with friends, personal stuff. I was barely able to acknowledge my feelings in my journal; I certainly wasn’t sharing them with my mother.

In high school, I started lying. My distracted parents didn’t even make that many rules, but the few there were, I broke. My older friends would drive us to the next town over, to the midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, one of the few activities that my parents had expressly forbidden. So I’d say I was sleeping at Becca’s. For those nights, I’d wear my one black bra in case I ever felt brave enough to take my shirt off. I yelled “slut” at the screen with the crowd, but never danced in the aisles in slips and lingerie like my older friends. I held my breath with excitement when Becca and my other older friends did it, like it was nothing, like they’d been waiting all day to take their clothes off.

That summer, I went to a progressive Unitarian summer camp in Massachusetts. Becca’s friend told me about it and my parents said yes, without a lot of research. It’s hard to believe that in 1990 there was still a camp that was new-age enough to take a bunch of teenagers to a nude beach in Vermont, but there we were, and I loved it.

I’d been studying other girls for years, but it was a revelation looking at the boys, the colors and shapes of them, the hollows in their butt cheeks, their posture, the hair or lack of it on their bodies. Splashing into the frigid lake water in Vermont with my naked friends, I knew that I was safe, that being naked didn’t make it okay for boys to touch or harass. I felt free and comfortable. The bubbles in the lake came up my thighs, arousing me. Maybe I did love nature after all, I thought.

By 10th grade, I knew I was a feminist. I defined this new identity by not shaving my legs or pits, and being direct with boys. I remember saying to a friend who clearly was into me, “Hey, wanna fool around?” and relishing his surprise. Being a feminist meant especially not letting anyone call me and my friends “girls.” We were 15-year-old women all day long.

As I got deeper into adolescence, I began to take on my mother’s shape in the hips — it was more subtle, but my body echoed hers. Mademoiselle said we were “pears,” not “apples.” I switched to Sassy and Ms. because I sensed that the fruit comparisons were suspect. I wanted to be yummy, but I wanted to make my own metaphors. My resemblance to my mother’s form troubled me. I didn’t want to look like her, fleshy and curvy. And I didn’t want to be like her: Angry, financially dependent on a man, consumed by the anxiety of motherhood. My initial take on liberation was to reject her.

***

When I was 17, my mother’s cancer came monstrously, aggressively back in a new form. I had just left home, escaping into early college, the closest thing to boarding school I could find, and then a summer job far away. My father came up from Stamford to see me at my at the World Fellowship Center, a hippie retreat in New Hampshire where I was washing dishes and making beds that July. My grandfather had died, he told me. I had already missed the funeral. “You and Mommy and Leah went without me?” I was hurt. I hadn’t called my mother mommy in years. But it turned out he’d gone by himself. My mother was in treatment again, he explained. This time it was breast cancer.

My mother said she thought she could be attracted to women, too. I looked away again, avoiding her gaze, her missing breast, her scars.

I came home at the end of summer and listened in on my mother’s calls from the extension in my upstairs bedroom. One of her friends suggested I should move back home since my mother was too sick from chemo to drive my little sister to school. I don’t know how they didn’t hear my gasp of terror. I didn’t want my mother to die, but I didn’t want to be pulled back in either. I had freed myself and I wanted to stay free. On my mother’s side of the call, I heard her describe the effects of chemo. “I am losing my hair,” she said. “ALL my hair.” I didn’t want to think about my mother’s pubic hair, what losing this private hair would mean, would feel like. I went into my room and pushed play on my CD player. “Troy” by Sinead O’Connor cycled on repeat until I fell asleep.

My mother grew thin from the chemo. People complimented her on the lost weight. “It’s the miracle chemo weight loss diet,” she’d say, bitterly, shutting them up fast. A mastectomy was required. “I don’t want to do it,” she told her friend Liz one day in our living room. It was planned for a few days later. Liz didn’t answer. We all know she had no real choice.

The next year, when I was 18, I moved to Chicago for art school. Weeks before my December graduation a few years later, my mother came to visit me for the first time. Touring the vast and cold city was exhausting for her. One day, she insisted we go to Lord & Taylor so she could buy me some new clothes with her employee discount. She told the salesladies that she worked at the Stamford store, and kvelled about how I needed clothes for my new job leading tours at Chicago’s Jewish Museum. She was proud of me. I was embarrassed. I wanted a mother who didn’t work in retail. I wanted a mother who would take me around in a taxi. I wanted a mother who wasn’t sick.

This is where I told her I still liked boys, but I also liked girls — on the escalator at Lord & Taylor, in a fancy mall on the Gold Coast. She didn’t blink. Or freak out. “Are you sure?” she pressed.

“I’m sure,” I answered.

My mother said thought she could be attracted to women, too. I looked away again, avoiding her gaze, her missing breast, her scars. The trek through the mall had been a lot for her; her breath was ragged. “You don’t know everything about me,” she said. I didn’t want to think about her attractions, her desire, her body.

She died the following fall. I was 22.

The dresses she bought me at Lord & Taylor are more than 20 years old now. They fit only the body I had then, a girl’s body, newly grown. But they still hang in the back of my closet, the last things she ever bought me.

***

Seven years after my mother died, I helped my father clean out their house, so he could sell it and move in with his second wife. My parents’ closet had been a treasure chest when I was small, filled with clothes for playing dress up, silk scarves, a 1970s Joy of Sex, the pristine spine suggesting it had never been opened. Now it was mostly empty, save a couple photo albums and forgotten suits. My mother’s clothes were long gone, donated immediately after her shiva. I’d taken just a few things for myself, a silk blouse I still wear, a little jewelry.

In one of those albums, I found a picture of my mother fastened in place with little corner picture holders. The image had that perfect ’70s fade, the one that instagram filters try to capture. I stared at Cindy in her 20s, stuffed into a zip-up red jumpsuit, leaning on the car she and my father had driven cross-country after their wedding. In the picture, she had long, shiny, dark hair that I’d never seen. She’d cut it short before she had me at 28, never growing it out again. It was thick, past her shoulders, and lit with sunshine.

I looked at the faded image for a long time, studying her hourglass figure bursting out of the red jumpsuit, and her smile, open in a way I never personally witnessed. Looking at the picture, I could see that she was hot. Gorgeous. A total babe. Maybe not movie-star pretty, but hot, for sure. Did she know it in that moment, and but later forget? I want the woman in the red jumpsuit to tell me the secrets of her shining hair. I want her to smile at me the way she is smiling in that picture.

After I had my son at 33, I stopped wearing shorts for almost 10 years. I even biked in skirts, joking that shorts were no longer age-appropriate. Short dresses were not a problem, but shorts crossed a line. I stopped trying to find a pair that felt right. Then, last summer a heat wave pushed me out the door to Goodwill for some shorts. Short shorts. I planted a camping chair in the sand at our neighborhood beach and let my thighs spread onto the seat.

On that hot, hot day, I skipped my usual swim skirt and swam around in Lake Michigan in just my plain tank suit, dodging between little kids and hardcore older lady swimmers. Pulling myself in long strokes through the freezing cold water, I realized nobody cared about my thighs — except for me, and I adore them. They are mine and they were getting me out past the buoys and back.

As I age, I remember the harsh ways my mother spoke about her figure. I try to choose kinder words when I speak to my own body. I wish I could tell her that her legs look strong — powerful — in that ballet picture.

* * *

Devorah Heitner’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, and other publications.  She is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World and Black Power TV and is currently at work on a memoir.

Editor: Sari Botton

* * *

Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
Gone Gray
An Introduction to Death
Age Appropriate
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine
Barely There
Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest
To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time
Game of Crones
Father’s Little Helper
Whole 60
Conversations with My Loveliest