I recently came across a picture of myself in my late teens. I immediately recognized the plaid kilt and olive green sweater I'd worn as I posed in my mother's living room. My hair was long and straight and I slouched a little in the "not quite sure that being tall was acceptable" stance leftover from junior high when I was called "White Wilt."
However, when I looked below my skirt, I did a double take, thinking my contacts were blurry.
"Wait until you see this" I sang out, running to share the photo with my husband.
After one quick glance, he said, "What's wrong with your legs? They look like matchsticks."
I wondered where our brains were in the mid to late '60s when thin was everything. Why did my friends and I try to emulate Twiggy? We skipped breakfast, drank diet Metrecal shakes instead of eating lunch and then went to the dining hall for our one official meal of the day, where we sometimes ate three pieces of pie as some convoluted prize for working to stay thin earlier in the day. If we had any strength, it was in denying ourselves food.
Looking at my legs in that snapshot also triggered a memory from my early 30s. It was summer and I was walking along the main drag in Stone Harbor, N.J., a seaside resort. A car drove past me; the driver then slammed on the brakes and backed up. Expecting some jerk to offer me a ride, I laughed with relief when I saw that the driver was my younger cousin, Doug. "How did you know who I was from the back?" I asked.
"I'd recognize those legs anywhere," he said.
What happened to my legs between 20- and 30-something years old? I suppose the answer is two things: I got tired of not eating and I developed an affinity for exercise guided by newer friends.
After graduation, I met a girl who loved ballet. Eventually, we found an adult ballet school where we took as many classes as we could. I soon became addicted to the feeling of using my muscles in defined movements and stretching my limbs as far as I could. Flexibility came naturally to me, but in order to gain the strength I needed to complete combinations in the floor work, I soon realized I had to exert real effort during the barre exercises. Luckily, friendly competition with my classmates pushed me to work every relevé, plie and battement to build muscles on my Olive Oyl legs.
After months of work, we started rehearsing for some local performances. One of the ballet numbers we eventually performed was a western. Hours of rehearsing can-can kicks that skyrocketed above my shoulders really paid off. For the first time I could remember, I felt proud while holding up my black skirt and swishing the hot pink ruffles underneath to display my shapelier legs adorned in black fishnet stockings.
My new friend, Pat, who worked in fashion, taught me that no matter the shape of my legs, high heels make everyone's legs look better. When she came to class straight from work, I would quickly snag her discarded heels and prance around the studio in my pink ballet tights striking poses in front of the huge mirrors. Finally, some of my adolescent self-consciousness evaporated.
My ballerina friend, Donna, taught me another helpful tidbit. "In order to be selected as a Rockette, Flo Ziegfeld required that a dancer be able to hoId quarters between her calves, knees and thighs," she said. This test became a huge incentive for me, even though I never aspired to dance at Radio City.
Once I valued muscle over thinness, I soon found myself orchestrating my movements both in class and in life with purpose. I walked taller as a result of the physical strength and grace I acquired in ballet. No more slouched shoulders and hips.
My change from stick figure to muscular also reflected society's changing attitudes toward beauty. Years after the ballet school closed, aerobics classes soon transformed my friends and me into even stronger women. Although I was never an athlete, I began to devote myself to athleticism, including biking and hiking. Eventually, I even taught aerobics classes.
However, the change that really developed my legs came in my early 40s when my friend, Joanne, encouraged me to begin lifting weights in a circuit training class at the gym. Repetitive squats and lunges while holding weights along with using the leg machines further defined my calf and thigh muscles.
Confirmation came one day as my mother-in-law, who had admired dancers like Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth and Gwen Verdon, sat in my kitchen. I noticed she was examining my legs below my hot pink short-shorts. "The backs of your thighs have beautiful shape to them now," she said, "They're not flat like some women's and your calves are nicely defined. Whatever you're doing, keep doing it."
Oh, how she would have laughed at that picture of my toothpick legs.
Now, that I am older, I have graduated to longer shorts and skirts to cover the baggy knees that I have inherited from my grandmother and to conceal the cellulite on the back of my thighs. However, I am proud that my legs are still strong enough to squat down and pick up my elderly neighbor, who just had hip replacement, when she falls.
I don't know if that test Donna taught me all those years ago truly reveals "perfectly" shaped legs as Ziegfeld believed, but in the privacy of my house, I often stand before a mirror to see if my legs still meet at the calves, knees and upper thighs, and say a little prayer of thanks when they do.
And, I never miss an opportunity to wear heels, even if it's just to dance around at home.