One Sunday afternoon when my father suggested we go to his health club in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel, I said, “No, why would I wanna go there?” I made a face.
“Come on,” he said, as we walked through the lobby and stood under the awning outside our apartment building on West 76th Street. “Ya neva was there. Try it! Maybe ya’ll like it.”
I made another face. But to humor him, I said, “Okay, but just for a little while. You know I hate the Ansonia!”
“Ya won’t feel like yer in the Ansonia.”
A little while later when we walked downstairs to the small empty gym in that huge basement--where the gay sex club Continental Baths, then the swingers club Plato’s Retreat would be located--I looked around at the exercise equipment and said, “This place looks like a dungeon!”
The only things I recognized were bikes and barbells.
“Here, why don’ ya sit down on this one,” he said.
I suppose he chose this particular barrel-shaped machine because it was nearby and required no effort on my part. This fat jiggling device had rotating rollers. Each roller had a row of hardwood balls that hurt as they “massaged” my butt and thighs.
“This is stupid!” I said, holding on to the wooden handles at the sides. I didn’t like my father looking at me while I jiggled. His looking didn’t feel fatherly. But I couldn’t even formulate that thought then. It existed within me in a wordless sort of way.
I was far from fat but I thought my body was developing much too rapidly. That was much worse than being fat! Why can’t I stay flat-chested like some of the girls in my 6th grade class? I wondered. My body embarrassed me. Embarrassed? Who am I kidding? The word “embarrassed” doesn’t begin to describe the shame I felt about my burgeoning breasts and hips. It would take many years for me to recognize how lovely my face and figure were in snapshots taken at that time.
In my father’s health club, when I saw the look of approval on his face, I closed my eyes tight so I couldn't see him. He stood at least a yard away. With my eyes shut, I still felt him looking at me. Is it possible the look I had seen in his eyes was innocent? Is it possible his smile merely expressed his delight at seeing me exercise? Maybe so, but that doesn’t mitigate my excruciating shame.»
Photo by A.M. Kuchling
Every day my body seemed to grow softer, rounder, fuller. Every day my body looked more like my mother’s. What could be worse! I thought, disgusted. More than anything, I wanted to forget I had a body. If I’d been given a choice, I would’ve opted not to have one at all.
Years later, some doctors claimed that internal organs were damaged from too much “jiggling” though recently in my quest on the internet, I discovered a few people who still covet the vintage machine I used in 1956.
“Turn this thing off!” I said, angrily.
Flipping the switch, my father said, “Ya gotta exercise to be healt’y an’ strong,” as though I was still seven years old. He didn’t know what to say to a daughter in puberty.
Roberta Allen is the author of eight books and a visual artist who has exhibited worldwide, with work in the collection of The Met. Allen has just completed a memoir about her family called DIRTY GIRL. She also teaches Micro Memoirs at The New School and conducts private writing workshops. Her website is robertaallen.com.