Puberty is rarely kind and mine was no exception. I raced past voluptuousness and landed in the realm of fat. Not that I thought of myself as such. My reference was Diana from Anne of Green Gables who happily indulged in sweets and grew up to find love and blissful happiness in her provincial life. Chubby wasn’t desirable, but I didn’t think of it as particularly awful either.
In contrast, the world around me ascribed significant importance to a standard of female beauty. I don’t remember being aware of how big I had become, but, by my 14th birthday, an intervention was called for.
I agreed to enroll in one of those “full service” day spas. Doctors, dieticians, trainers, and beauticians were all part of the team employed to get me back in shape. Or a smaller shape. Or something. Puberty is shapeshifting anyway, and I had no clue what my normal was supposed to be.
Every afternoon after school, I went to the spa where I spent hours working on myself. I was expected to exercise in the aerobics and weightlifting gym, but I have only vague recollections of wall-to-wall mirrors and blue mats that needed to be wiped down after each use. Mindless 10 to 15 repetitions of boringness. I am pretty sure my waist-length hair was always loose. I think it’s safe to assume I rarely broke a sweat.
Then it was time to move on to the third floor where I stripped down to my underwear and was subjected to vacuum suction, freezing bandages, and full-body heat machines that looked like old iron lungs. Ostensibly these would suck, freeze, or melt the fat off of me. I was a sceptic. Even at 14.
I didn’t complain, though. Despite the discomfort – even pain– and extreme temperatures, it was my favorite part of the daily ritual. All I had to do was lie down and read or eavesdrop on conversations.
The spa’s clientele was all female, so I’m not sure why there were so many Playboy magazines on the third floor. Maybe it was so all the women parading around in their underwear would be inspired – or shamed – by the picture-perfect models. All I know is that no one told me I couldn’t read them, and I’ve always been a curious reader. I picked one up because I had an idea that they weren’t quite appropriate. I don’t remember being particularly shocked – or even interested – in the pictures. But the articles? Ah… the articles…
In hindsight, it was the perfect environment in which to develop a body complex. By all rights, I should have been haunted with insecurity over my stretch marks, dimpled thighs, and rounded curves. I was measured– and deemed excessive – all the while looking at images of unclad women with perfect bodies, flawless skin, and flowing hair. It’s deliciously ironic that a magazine known for objectifying women and reducing them to a checklist of measurements and traits had such a liberating effect on me.
I read Playboy for the articles… and only later did I realize what a superb choice I had made. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t think they would believe me.
Recently – or a million years ago, time seems irrelevant now – I mentioned it to a friend who did the math and told me, “You were reading Playboy when it was a literary magazine that happened to have nude pictures in it.”
What a revelation.
Although Playboy articles are a recurring punchline, the magazine truly was a launching pad for writers. It took me decades to rediscover these authors, but I had already been contaminated by the words of Margaret Atwood, Murakami, Jack Kerouac, and Ursula Le Guin – to name a few. I flipped past pictures to read about birth control, gender roles, grassroot politics, domestic abuse, power dynamics, art, high fashion, and trendsetting. I especially loved profiles of people who shaped their worlds and were interviewed by writers who asked unusual questions (at least they were unusual to me). Those stories and articles transformed what could have been a time of beratement and conformity into one of awakening. Not sexual. My sexual awakening came from novels, not a magazine.
Perhaps the contrast itself is what struck me most: food for thought and brilliant writing sharing space with images that are, in many ways, the antithesis of what those words conveyed. The dichotomy. The truce.
I do not remember feeling frustrated with the paltry results of the spa’s treatment. In a place where the sole focus was to transform women’s bodies into their best shape, I found aspirations. Not to look like one of the featured models, but to think like the men and women portrayed in the words framed by nude pictures.
While my culture, language, profession, roles, and interests are multifaceted and, at times, chameleon-like, I have always been undeniably female. Not that anyone with my curves could ever pass for anything other than a woman. And if there, at times, detriments and setbacks, there are also strengths and power that are inherently female.
It wouldn’t occur to me to defy the standard or condemn those who lived up to ideals that were not mine to impose or challenge; however, I was wary of limiting myself. I had little interest in a feminism that felt antagonistic and I didn’t want to be anything other than what I was, but perhaps I was beginning to understand that I didn’t have to be any less than what I could be.
These articles became part of the library that has inspired me to believe that language can help make sense of the world we live in – regardless of the images that frame our ideas. My body has retained the excesses and softness that would never have been featured in the pages of the infamous magazine, but my mind was undeniably broadened by the scope of what I read in its pages.
Amy Marques grew up between languages and cultures, and learned, from an early age, the multiplicity of narratives. She is a collector of stories and has penned three children’s books, barely read medical papers, occasional blogs, and numerous letters. Her work can be found in Flying South, Branching Out: Brilliant Flash Fiction Anthology, Ariel Chart, and Flash Fiction Magazine.