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My Role Model

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She’s not my sister. Whenever we went anywhere together, which was soon after she was born, people would watch us for a little while and then say, “You two must be sisters!” It’s not that we look alike—in fact, as she once said, she’s my photo negative. She’s a smoldering dark eyed counterpart to my blonde/blue—but our habits are so similar, we seem to have come from the same womb. Every time I see a pair of little girls giggling together over something, I think of her. We spent so much time together growing up; our collective memory boils down to key words. If I really want to get her, all I have to do is whisper “Grampa’s toenails,” and then watch her go into spasms of grossed-out glee. I’m even allowed to call her by her nickname, which she’s all but extinguished everywhere else in her life. I get to call her Sam.

We are, actually, related. We’re cousins, in a world that seems almost to have forgotten that connection, unless someone is telling a redneck joke. My father and her mother are brother/sister, and quite possibly the same person who just keeps sneaking into the other room to put on or take off a skirt. Their father flunked diplomacy 101, along with any other parenting course he didn’t take. He did manage to instill his views in his children, and they kindly passed them along to us. Societal pressure removed the trait of bigotry, but not the chauvinistic leanings of a Puritanical New England farming family. Growing up she and I were well loved, but always sketched within a frame that our parents provided: if we were thin, we were okay. If not, we might have a pretty face, but also a lot of work ahead of us if we ever wanted to be successful (read: married with family, dog, and house). They truly believed that if you harp on a girl about her weight long enough, she’ll naturally want to be a stick figure. I think they thought they were doing us a favor. Instead, our upbringing turned out two women who believe, deep down in our hearts, that if we ever lose weight and stop obsessing about food, we’ll die. Really, actually die. That’s our support system you’re talking about. Cut off my left arm to save my life? No problem. Threaten to take away carbohydrates forever and well, I’ve got to sit down awhile and think that one over.

Recently Sammy told me she’s been reading up on the subject of weight loss, and well-known psychologists claim that our fat is a self-imposed security blanket, protecting us from the evil that men do to attractive women. If I am invisible to you, you cannot hurt me. Ah yes, very wise. But say, who needs to worry about evil men when Cosmopolitan and Vogue are still publishing every month? There are more than plenty of stick-thin women out there making it very difficult to hold a decent self image, once you’re buying jeans with a double-digit size. Yes girls, that starts with 10, a size I haven’t gotten into since I was about that age, but which now just barely covers one of my legs. I haven’t bought a fashion magazine in years because they only make me angry, and you wouldn’t like me when … etc., etc. But there’s no escape from what society is doing to women. Am I the only one who watches CNN and wants to send over a picnic basket? The description “talking heads” has never been so literal. Hollywood starlets are so frail that they are all beginning to resemble Jessica Tandy from behind, clutching a gigantic handbag so they won’t blow away. And yet I fear I am being bitter, envying the easy way they sail around in their skinny jeans. No doubt they don’t have to consider whether or not they’ll fit in a chair, or if it might fold up on them and cause them to die of shame right in the middle of Macy’s. At times like that, I wish to be someone else—and often, I wish to be Sam, even though she struggles with weight the same way I do. She has that air of confidence about her. As well as I know her, I never suspected she fought the same demons I have, in the exact same way. Now that I know, I am so glad … that sounds terrible, but true. There is someone down here in the trench with me, and I already love her!

My role models have evolved, and I wish I could share them with young girls and women everywhere. My almost-sister Sam, with her incredibly generous heart, her connection to nature, her spirited sense of humanity and hilarious wit, is the kind of woman I hope to be when I grow up, even though I’ve got a year or two on her. She is trying very hard to lose weight now and so will I, but for our health, not our image. We have to believe that we are safe, all danger behind us, and that we can get to a size that keeps us healthy and active for our young children’s lifetime. We are going to support each other, at her very brave request, and be honest with one another about what it feels like to go through this. Many women have been here before us, and they are our role models, too. Each of you who fight the good fight, but especially my own earth spirit, my meant-to-be-sister, Sammy. You are the most graceful woman I have ever known.

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