"Dead man walking" is a phrase used to describe a condemned person walking the hall to their execution. It’s morbid, really; walking to your own unavoidable death. It’s something I assumed I would never experience, not being a murderer and all.
But on a spring morning in 2011, this felt like it was happening to me. Somehow, I was a dead woman walking. But wait, let me explain ...
Instead of making my way to an execution chamber, I was walking to Times Square in my bathing suit. I would stand outside Good Morning America, holding a sign preaching body confidence, and let the whole world see what a 220lb woman in a bathing suit actually looked like.
Physically, I would survive this endeavor. I would walk away from the moment still breathing in and out, my heart still pumping, albeit faster and more frantic. The part of me facing execution that day was never my body, but rather, the image I’d spent years cultivating. Carefully cropped photos, embellished descriptions of my self-esteem and jeans size, every lie I have told myself and the Internet about my size — all of these things would die that day.
There was no last meal. I slipped a white cotton robe over my shoulders, and made the trek to the audience pool outside the TV studio. The news headlines scrolled across an electronic banner above the studio window, and it was so cold, I could see my breath. Producers bustled in and out, and I tried hard to concentrate on their conversations. If I consumed myself with what they had for breakfast, or whose break time it was, or whose daughter was sick that day, I thought less about talking myself out of taking my robe off.
And then I did it. In an ill-thought out moment, I let my robe drop to the wet morning street, and smiled at the camera man standing in front of me. The fear I’d been clinging to in my chest suddenly melted, and warmth flooded through my body as I stood taller. I thought about every girl, woman and mom who looked just like me, and how ashamed we had all been of our bodies.
I thought about my daughter, and how beautiful she was. I thought about how my soft stomach and rubbing thighs I’d spent years cursing were just by-products of a life lived. A life spent being in love and making children. Suddenly, my curves felt earned and I became frantic to convince other women of the same.
Adrenaline had replaced my normal sense of hearing with a high-pitched ring, dulling out the sounds around me. I barely made sense of the horns honking from the street, or felt the hands of the people at my back smiling and telling me how brave I was. I was used to the heavy handed persecution and condemnation the internet dishes out, not receiving that on the street that day began to throw me. Perhaps it really was harder to be mean in person than behind a keyboard?
An hour later I was back in my hotel room. At only 8am, it was an hour most people were just starting their day, and I was sitting on the bed already aged 24 hours into mine.
I expected to open my browser to one of two scenarios. The first being mountains and mountains of body shaming. I’ve seen the comments section of many news sites, and it’s never a mosh pit of love and support. The other alternative would be silence. I was torn feeling that this momentous event in my life may have been done without notice or acknowledgement, and struggling even more with the possibility that I needed it from anyone other than myself.
What I didn’t expect was a third possible outcome: a tsunami of “me too.” My inbox became flooded not only with letters of support and cheers, but of pictures of women in bathing suits. Some of them looked just like me, and some of them looked just like the women I used to wish I looked like.
Four years later, I still get those emails. Pictures of women desperate to be seen in a bathing suit, but not yet brave enough to show anyone but me. So I tell them how beautiful they are, and promise to keep their secret until they are ready to share it with others. I have gone on to stand on any stage and platform that will have me, desperate to give women a sense of normalcy in their bodies and to challenge the narrow confines of beauty.
I never walked to my death in 2011. Instead, I learned I was brave enough to live just as I am.
Photo courtesy of the author