Body Image, and My Bat Mitzvah Video

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, my boyfriend came home with me for Thanksgiving dinner. The meal went smoothly, but as expected there were some sticky moments. Like when my boyfriend and parents agreed it would be just the most wonderful idea to watch my bat-mitzvah video!

We gathered around the television and watched as visions of my painfully pre-teen self flashed across the screen. On the one hand, I enjoyed this trip down Jewish milestone lane. Although I’d love to forget the braces, the awkward limbs, and bad hair-cut of my adolescense, I was also proud. I enjoyed the opportunity to root for this miniature version of myself and imagine that the “little Leah” could sense the loving presence of her future self, watching as she chanted the haftorah. I also loved the way the video made my parents smile and my boyfriend say, “wow, you were really great!”

On the other hand, it turns out there’s nothing like a little backward glance to shake the foundation of your current reality. Like at most bnei mitzvot during my “era,” the videographer walked around to all the dinner tables at my party, taping each guest’s special bat-mitzvah message to me. (Do they still do that??) It was mesmerizing to watch people I’ve completely lost touch with say things like, “Oh my God – I’m so glad we’re friends! Congratulations, and you look amazing in your dress!”

The videographer also taped the speeches – the kind where your parents and favorite aunt tell you how wonderful and amazing you are. The kind where they say you’ve got only the brightest of futures, and will make a big impact on the world.

As a “freshly minted” Jewish woman with all her ambitions still ahead of her, those words made absolute sense. Of course I was going somewhere, that’s what people had told me my whole life! But 12 years later – embarking on a new and vulnerable career as a writer and hovering on the fence of being “just out of college” and a fully-accountable adult – they held a far greater weight. Have I made the big impact everyone promised I would? If not, am I heading in that direction or just floundering about and wasting time?

At everyone’s insistence – I also tried on the dress which still hung in the closet, pressed and waiting. I’d loved that dress – it was my first grown-up halter dress. I loved how it hugged my slender body (I’d recently grown about 6 inches, putting me at 5’8 and about 115 pounds) as I danced the funky chicken and was lifted up on a chair with people dancing around me. 12 years and about 35 pounds later later, I struggled just to get the dress past my hips and was only able to zip it up while holding my breath.

Although eating disorders run in one-half of my family (the Jewish half), I’ve always had a relatively decent body image. There were moments when I agonized over what I thought were zaftig thighs and swore that I’d lose 10 pounds. Still, I never really acted on it – eating frosting out the can and then running to the bathroom the way some of my friends in dance class did.

But all of a sudden in my family’s living room, I felt like Cinderella’s ugly step-sister straining to fit my gnarled foot into the little glass slipper. Rationally I knew I shouldn’t still weigh what I did as a 13-year old. But it was jarring to have such a tangible evidence – a dress, a video – that I was grown up.

–Leah Koenig