I have a terrible memory. I find myself standing in the middle of a room wondering what I’m there to retrieve at least once a day. I have an alarm on my keys that tells me where my phone is and an alarm on my phone to tell me where my keys are. I might add one on my sunglasses too so both my keys and my phone can tell me where they are.
Appointments and childhood memories also slip away more often now if not written down. It’s a problem.
But there is a silver lining.
My husband, Kris, is so used to my poor memory that when I do remember something and surprise him with it months later, it’s a movie moment deserving of rising orchestral swells and happy tears.
This Christmas, I remembered a t-shirt he mentioned months ago just in time to get it wrapped and under the tree. The t-shirt shows a picture of a rhinoceros standing in front of an African sunset with the words “Save the Chubby Unicorn” printed underneath.
He finds it hilarious.
That Christmas morning I won the “Gold Star Wife” award, one I cherish even more than the silent praise I give myself when I get the dog’s name right the first time I call for him.
A few weeks after my moment of triumph, his colleague at work was wearing the same shirt.
“Oh my gosh! Don’t you just love that shirt?” he said. “Sara got me the same one and I chuckle every time I read it.”
“Sure,” she answered, “it fits who I am perfectly.”
Kris paused a moment, confused.
She continued, “A few years ago, I was slim and trim and in the best shape of my life. It makes sense that my husband would get this for me now. I am definitely a chubby unicorn.”
“What did you say?” I ask him later that day as he tells me the story.
“I don’t even know,” he answers, “I was so caught off guard and things felt so awkward, I mumbled something about checking our flight gear before our next call and wandered off.”
“Hmmm…” I respond, lost in thought.
“I would never think this shirt is actually a statement about me,” he says. “It’s just funny. The rhino is the chubby version of the unicorn. Don’t you get it? They both have a horn.”
“Of course I get it,” I answer.
And I do.
And yet I also understand why her mind went there. As women we are so hard on ourselves, especially about our physical bodies. I wrote about how chubby I feel just last week and if the shirt had been a gift for me from him, I likely would have responded similarly.
On our Christmas morning, joy surrounded that shirt. On hers, did it bring shame and self-loathing instead? I doubt her husband was sending her a message, but she created one in her head.
This makes me sad for girls and women. We have been raised so differently from boys and men that where they see a funny t-shirt for exactly what it is, we have learned to use it as a weapon to judge and belittle ourselves.
As I write this, I’m sitting on a balcony in Costa Rica next to my husband. We both are writing and drinking beer, lounging in our swimsuits, enjoying the peacefulness of the countryside. To look at us, you would see near mirror images. And yet there are differences below the surface.
One of us is sucking in her stomach in case it makes a slight difference in her profile.
One of us is worried about the judgement of the people walking by who wave happy greetings.
One of us fully understands the pain behind his colleague’s chubby unicorn shirt assumption. That pain is refined and ingrained over decades with every magazine and tv ad celebrating perfection and happiness with a body that doesn’t look like mine.
One of us lives that same self judgement day after day.
But one of us is also determined to change that, for girls and women everywhere. And for herself. So that one day girls the world over can open that same t-shirt and simply laugh at the funny joke it was meant to be, finally free of the cultural messaging that twisted it in the first place.