Lately I’ve found myself obsessed with other women’s butts. In the mall I stare as another mother bends to retrieve something from the basket of her stroller; in the grocery-store parking lot I stare while someone leans deep into the back of her car to fasten a preschooler’s seat belt; at the park I stare when the mom in front of me squats to retrieve her toddler’s sand toys. I don’t stare at these women the way a man might stare at themthat is, longing to put his hands around a yielding, soft-but-firm, sweet-assed object of desireI stare at them and wonder why I don’t look like that anymore.
I’ve never been the stuff of strangers’ fantasies, but there was a time when I did fine in the foundations department. I fanned out in the right places, was drawn tight in all the others. Not that I ever deliberately flaunted the 21-inch waist, the perky boobs, or the firm (well, firmer) bottom of those bygone days; even in my heedless youth I was both a budding feminist and a good Catholic girl. I was, in other words, a model of decorum, never once wearing a tube top or the cut-off hiphuggers so prevalent in the youth culture of my early teens. Now I sort of wish I had.
These days I secretly relish my only memory of being ogled. I was 16 the time I modeled for my high-school sweetheart a new pair of slacks. Mom had made them for me by a new pattern, and they were clingier than she intended, but looking at myself in the mirror I suddenly wasn’t altogether sure I wanted her to let them out to the looser size I was accustomed to.
Staring over my shoulder and rotating anxiously to the left and right before the full-length mirror in the hall, I asked my boyfriend, “What do you think? Do they look a little too tight to you?”
“Too tight?” he asked, apparently not at all unhappy about this request to scrutinize my rear end. “Well, now let me think this over,” he continued, motioning me to turn around full-circle again. “Nope, I’d have to say those pants are not too tight. In fact, I’d say those pants are just about perfect.”
Walking out the door before him later that evening, I turned in time to see him lean back into the living room where my parents were watching The Price is Right. He winked at Mom: “God, those pants make your daughter’s butt look great!” Then he let the door slam, grabbed my hand and ran for the car.
That boy and I grew up and moved in different directions, both literally and figuratively: He headed south and I headed out, so to speak. These days, if we were ever to find ourselves in the same town, I don’t think he would recognize me from the back anymore, and even if I approached from the front, it would probably be more than better manners that kept him from making salacious remarks to my mother about my behind. As a feminist, I ought to be happy about this tendency to be looked at more from the neck up than from the neck down, but as a former 16-year-old girl, I admit to a pang or two.
How I came to this pass, to this solidity, is no great surprise, of course. For one thing, I am 20 years older than I was when my mother hurled a sofa cushion at the door as it slammed behind my high-school boyfriend’s back. In those years two major forces of nature, time and gravity, contributed significantly to the wider and droopier derriere I now haul around. But in the endand I do mean the endI thought I could stand up to time and gravity. Maybe not forever, maybe not as long as Cher has, or Jane Fonda, but for at least longer than the 36 years of my life so far. Lots of women my age are perfectly comfortable wearing tight pants.
Ultimately, it has to be pregnancy that I blame most for this more expansive state: Three children in six years simply joined together with time and gravity to create a whopping force of nature, one I haven’t yet learned to combat.
Oh, I know how to combat it. Diet and exercise. Exercise and diet. Growing up I didn’t learn these reducing strategies from my female role models, however. When I was growing up, grown women didn’t exercisegrown women wore girdles, great elastic torture chambers that extended, in extreme cases, from the breasts to just above the knees and made standing up the only realistic option at funerals and wedding receptions. I always figured that Protestant weddings were so short because the battle-ax mother of the bride and the tank-like mother of the groom needed to get home and exit their girdlesa process that, in my imagination, always somehow involved sound effects like sproing and plop and soft stomachs that rippled in circles like pond water when a stone is dropped in.
Even girls my own age, after they got past making good use of recesssay, sometime during junior highpretty much stopped exercising entirely, preferring to sit cross-legged in gaggles on the playground, watching the boys play kickball and criticizing the younger girls’ greasy hair.
By a narrow margin of only a couple of years, I entirely missed the jogging and aerobics crazes that began in the late ’70s and early ’80s. By then I was in a cow-town college miles away from either popular culture or a television set. No one I knew had even heard of aerobics, and running was something you did when you were late for a class where the teacher actually called roll.
I know a good bit about the value of diet and exercise now, only because for a living I write for women’s magazines, and women’s magazines make it impossible for even a childhood bookworm and former P.E. flunkie to ignore the target-areas diet-and-exercise strategy. “Flabby Buttocks Firmed in 10 Days? We’ll Show You How!” the cover lines promise, or “The Amazing Cauliflower Diet: Now Lose a Pound a Day and Still Eat Till You’re Full!”
The upshot of all these articles is nothing revolutionary: Eat fewer calories and you’ll lose weight; exercise more and you won’t sag so much. I understand these principles. My problem is that when I eat fewer calories I get very hungry, and most exercise regimens make me feel like a hamster in a wheel. I’m happy to push my babies for miles in a stroller, but I won’t be running while I do it because I can’t visit with neighbors or enjoy the scenery when they go by in a blur. As for target-area workouts, I have to conclude that sit-ups and leg lifts and Soloflex machines are for people with a higher tolerance for boredom. I’m happy to give up ice cream (well, I’m willing to give up ice cream), but real food is another thing altogether. I live in the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world, and I’m against going hungry.
I don’t like carrying around 10 spare pounds from my last pregnancy, and whatever miles of walking and a sensible diet will do for me in the weight-loss department, I’ll do. That’s my pledge. Still, when I look at the new mom in my neighborhood who’s already back in her Size 6 jeans, thanks to a rowing machine, or the woman in Spandex whizzing through the park with her infant in a baby-jogger while I trudge up the hill in my husband’s old gym shorts, I have to wonder: If I gave up ice cream and spinach quiche, would my butt look like that?