LITMUS TEST By Ashe Vernon


In middle school, the lunch room is
the worst place for feeling invisible; I feel like
everyone is looking at my mouth. I think
if I swallow fast enough, maybe
I can pretend that I never ate anything, maybe
someone will even believe me.
My best friend buys candy from the vending machine
and won’t stop talking about what a pig she is.
Sydney is a runner on the track team–five foot one and
barely a hundred pounds and
her favorite word is “fat.”
It’s her own private joke and
it’s fucking hilarious. I guess I just
always forget to laugh. See–
I am twelve years old and
everyone who has ever called me fat
meant it.
Later, when another friend of ours–a girl who is
bigger than Sydney but smaller than me–
pats her stomach and cracks a joke about
“not being the thinnest little thing,” she
looks straight at me.
And while our other friends laugh, we only nod:
the smiles on our faces looking out from some place
far away and vacant. The difference between us and them is
we are in on the joke and
we both know it isn’t funny.

Seven years later, and the poet on the microphone
is talking about her body–badmouths it, like it’s
a warzone of a country we have no business being in,
like she is a factory of fun-house mirrors and amidst
the mirage of distorted reflection, she’s
forgotten who she really is.
She talks about being fat. She doesn’t use the word.
(Poets never do)
And I look down at my body: the one
I am still learning how to love.
The voice in the back of my head that
I thought I’d finally learned how to shut up,
rears it’s ugly little mouth and whispers,
if she’s fat,  just imagine how disgusting you must look.
It’s funny, right? It’s funny.

A year after that, I stand my brutal body on stage.
What nobody in the crowd knows is that the blue puddle
of my cardigan in my seat means that this
is the first time in years I’ve let this many people
see this much of me. What nobody knows is
I used to be bigger than this and it was everyone’s favorite joke.
But nobody knows. And now, I am five foot two,
only a hundred and sixty five pounds.
I am thinner than I used to be but
I will probably never been thin enough.
And I’m sorry.
I know how it feels to hear women smaller than you
talk about their body issues. I know
how it feels like swallowing your tongue.
I never wanted to be that for anyone.

But this isn’t a contest. And if it were,
we’d all lose, anyway.
We’re already expected to be flawless.
And the inside joke of the beauty industry is
making sure we all know
we never will be.
We expect such violent perfection from our bodies.
I know how it hurts listening to a girl who
doesn’t look the way you think they should
talk about the pain that matters to you,
but we can’t turn ourselves into gatekeepers
for heartache.
We are all hurting.
There’s no litmus test for low self esteem;
no one deserves to hate their body.

The fact that so many of us do
is exactly the problem.

By Ashe Vernon


Ashe Vernon is a produced playwright, an actor, and a poet. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember, but found poetry when she most needed it. She recently graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University with a degree in theatre and gender studies. Before she hits the job market with her oh-so-impressive fine arts degree, Ashe is spending the summer on tour doing spoken word with her best friend and partner in crime. Her first book of poetry, Belly of the Beast, was published by Words Dance Publishing and her second, Wrong Side of a Fist Fight, will be coming out through Where Are You Press, this July. She spends most of her time writing her way out of dark places, and looking to the stars. Ashe has featured in venues across Texas, such as The Standpipe Coffee House in Lufkin, Nacogdoches Literary Readings, and Love Jonz Spoken Jazz, in Duncanville. She has placed first at WriteAboutNow in Houston and her work has been published in Word Dance Magazine, and volumes one and two of the Literary Sexts anthologies. Ashe has no concept of the term “inside-voice” and spends every waking hour with her giant bear-cub of a cat. She plans on moving to a big city and covering herself with tattoos. It’s going pretty well, so far.

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