Here's something I remember from school.
When we finished our GCSEs, my friends and I had a party. Some of us were staying on for sixth form and A-levels, some of us were moving to other places for A-levels and NVQs and the like, and some of us were heading out into the grown-up world of work. (On a side note, I can't believe that it's nearly ten years later and I still haven't headed out into the grown-up world of work. Those guys overtook me years ago. They have jobs and husbands and babies. I am still living in halls. These are the things I worry about when I can't sleep at night, at the ripe old age of 25.)
Anyway, back to the party. It was because we were all going in different directions, and everything was changing and oh my God we'll never see each other again ... it was a very grown-up affair. We had party food and party games and plenty of alcopops. I'm pretty sure someone's parents had gone out for the evening, giving us a house to ourselves. One of the girls had organised a kind of awards thing in advance. There were categories, and we all voted (secretly of course) for a winner of each category. It sounds a bit like what they (you?) do in American high schools - 'most likely to graduate top of the class', 'most likely to go to prison', etc.
The only category I remember was a kind of 'open' one, I think, where we wrote down the thing that we liked most about each member of our group and submitted it to S, who was organising the whole thing. I'm not sure if there were different categories for physical quality and non-physical quality. I'm not sure whether the results were collated and the top one chosen, or whether we all saw all of them in the end. I do remember that I had a little laminated bit of paper afterwards which said Best Listener on it. It still gives me a warm glow to this day, but I guess that must have been something slightly different, because I also remember the disbelief on J's face and her disparaging laugh when she read what I'd written for her. I'd said that her best physical feature was her figure.
Now, in my defence, my intention had been pure. We were a ragtag bunch of teenagers, comprising for the most part all the flotsam that had been rejected from other, cooler groups of kids. I hope that wouldn't insult anyone in our group. I am pretty happy with that definition for myself, but maybe the others wouldn't be. To be fair, some of them were cool in the sense that they had friends outside of our group, fitted in at parties and weren't bullied by the other kids. Most of us weren't that kid. We were the other kid, the one who came to our group for refuge from normality, which had in general been pretty rotten to us. None of us sailed blithely through secondary school unscathed. J, now that I come to think of it, may have been the closest we had to a cool kid. She was brash and confident and sensual, full-bodied, loud-voiced. She was the polar opposite of me, and I thought she was absolutely marvellous. I have a photo of us together at one of our sleepovers. I'm shy, in a vastly oversized t-shirt. J is wearing nothing but a hot-pink bra.
Her scornful dismissal of my clumsy accolade made my heart hurt. I had meant, as I stumblingly tried to explain in front of our whole group of friends, that I loved how comfortable she was in her body - how unselfconscious, how carefree. I did love her figure, all the lovely rolls and curves of it, but I also loved how much she inhabited that figure. How present she was in her beautiful body. That didn't seem radical, back then.
It still upsets me to think of the way she received my words. I think she genuinely couldn't believe that I found her figure attractive. Perhaps she was only embarrassed that I'd mentioned her figure at all, thinking that maybe I was making fun, or that even if I wasn't, my comment would open her up to judgement from everyone else - that our friends would be thinking "great figure? J?" and be looking at her to see if they concurred, appraising her.
It obviously wasn't my first exposure to the ugly, complicated relationship that many women have with their bodies. If it had been, I probably would never have been driven to make that comment in the first place, because J's apparently comfortable habitation of her non-thin body would not have been radical. I wouldn't have noticed it, because it would have been normal. I might even have been comfortably inhabiting my own non-thin body. Instead I was hiding myself in vastly oversized t-shirts, and I thought J's seemingly thoughtless exhibition of her own body meant that she knew that she was beautiful, and thought nothing of having the eyes of others on her flesh. It wasn't just the bra, of course. It wasn't like she was roaming the school halls in her bikini - she wore uniform like the rest of us. But that was just it. She didn't make a big deal of what she wore or didn't wear. To my frightened mind, it was just that easy for J. She had somehow magically escaped the widely-cast net of body shame that so many of us floundered around in, and despite her decidedly non-socially-condoned curves, she was comfortable in her skin.
That was the quality that I tried to capture in my unfortunate tribute. I saw that J's body wasn't the conventionally-attractive type, and I thought she was happy with it, and I loved both her body and her happiness. I wanted her to know that I thought she was beautiful, too. But I hadn't counted on the insidious, ubiquitous nature of body shame, which can turn even the most innocent or well-meaning remark into a barb. Perhaps J's dismissive laugh was to deflect attention from something that she couldn't believe was true, and didn't want anyone else to consider. Perhaps she was simply embarrassed. Or perhaps she was secretly flattered, but didn't want to appear arrogant in front of our friends. Either way, I doubt that J has a little laminated bit of paper in an old box somewhere which says Best Figure. I kind of hope that she does, though.