Unicorns Aren’t Real: An Extended Metaphor

By | December 10, 2008

By now, if you haven’t heard about Oprah’s hand-wringing over her spectacular-though-unintentional comeback into the squishy open arms of Fat (welcome back, baby!), well, you probably don’t read very many size acceptance blogs. But I’ll break it down for you: Oprah’s regained weight. This confounds and saddens her. (Lather, rinse, repeat.)

This old fairytale reminded me of another old fairytale, though probably not one you’ve heard before.

When I was a wee lass, at eight years of age – coincidentally, around the same time that I was first becoming aware of my size, and the fact that I was bigger and had a belly when my friends did not – I loved unicorns. No, that is putting it too delicately. I was obsessed with unicorns, in the way that only a small girl in the mid 1980s could be. My room was decorated with unicorn posters. All my school folders were unicorn-emblazoned. I spent countless hours reading about unicorns in books from the library. I knew everything there was to know about unicorns. I daydreamed about them constantly. I was past the age where I still believed in Santa Claus, but I knew unicorns were real. I knew. I knew someday I’d find one, a massive, muscular white horse with a flowing mane of silk, and a single glimmering, spiraling horn. My unicorn would be able to talk and would become my best friend. My unicorn occasionally also had wings, because while I was generally uninterested in pegasuses (pegasi?), I very much liked the idea of a unicorn that could also fly. How I would find this unicorn-companion was beyond me; I was aware that though unicorns absolutely positively did exist, they were very rare. I probably thought that I would find mine purely by virtue of my unwavering conviction; that so long as I believed it would happen, it would. So long as I trusted in the legend and had faith, I had a chance of making it come true.

In 1985, the circus came to my town. I was a lucky kid, because every time the circus came to town, my dad would make sure we got to go. It was Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and this year, there was something new, something remarkable, something I would never forget.

The circus would be exhibiting the world’s only living unicorn.

Oh, you can try to imagine my excitement. Imagine the most excited thing ever – like an overcaffeinated Jack Russell Terrier puppy – and then mutiply it by ten, and you might come close. My father, who raised me after my parents’ divorce and who was therefore intimately aware of my unicorn fascination, was probably almost as thrilled as I was, and built the anticipation daily leading up to the big event.

The circus day came. We went. I barely enjoyed the show; I was all on pins and needles, waiting for them to reveal the unicorn, waiting for the moment when all my faith would be justified. I remember almost nothing of that circus save my anxious anticipatory fidgeting. And then finally the moment came – a float came out and circled the arena slowly, a float bedecked with all manner of dazzling decorations building to a peak, like a tiny rolling mountain, and at the top were two unicorn-tenders and…. the unicorn.

Except it was not a unicorn.

The brilliant white stallion of my daydreams was missing, as was the glimmering spiral horn. Instead, I saw a largeish, long-haired, white goat, with a single thick and cylindrical horn, painted gold, perched awkwardly on its head.

For a moment, I tried to believe. I felt a flicker of panic as I realized what was taking place. I tried very hard to squint and make it real. But I just couldn’t do it in the face of this damning evidence. It was not a unicorn. I was being duped. I didn’t need an expert opinion; I didn’t need a genetic profile or a peer-reviewed study of the origins of the animal on top of that float. I could see it with my own eyes, right there, in front of me, in three dimensions. Fake. The unicorn was a lie.

My heart was broken. My father leaned down and jostled me – look sweetheart, it’s your unicorn! – and not wanting to disappoint him, I smiled and said yes, yes, it’s amazing, Dad.

But I knew. In that moment I knew then that unicorns weren’t real, with a final, cold certainty I never had when I was trying to believe they were. If unicorns were real, the circus would have no reason to create a fake one – and an appalingly bad fake one at that. Unicorns were a myth, and always had been, whether I believed in them or not. I cried, quietly. I mourned for weeks afterward, keening silently over the loss of my belief, over the realization that simply wishing for something doesn’t make it so, no matter how hard you wish.

The moral to this story – the moral I’d share with Oprah Winfrey or with anyone still fighting to become a fantasy self, still struggling to believe that they are exclusively and personally responsible for their alleged moral and disciplinary failures to force their bodies into a certain shape, to fit a certain arbitrary ideal, to satisfy the fairytale ending in which the heroine loses the weight and lives happily ever after and Never Has To Diet Again – the moral is this:

Unicorns aren’t real.

It hurts. I know. It hurts to let it go. It hurts like fucking hell. It hurts because of all you’ve invested in that belief. All the effort, all the conviction, all the sacrifice. I know. I know how realizing that the circus unicorn was a fake ripped through my tiny eight-year-old soul; I know how coming to terms with the fact that I will never, ever look like a model – even a plus size model! – was brutal and excruciating and frequently sent me into spirals of self-loathing and despair, even for a long time after I thought I was over it. I KNOW. But unicorns aren’t real. And trying to believe that they are even in the face of pretty convincing evidence to the contrary is both futile and a disservice to yourself.

The world doesn’t need unicorns for me to see beauty and magic in it. And as I get to demonstrate to myself daily, I don’t need to meet a certain standard of slenderness in order to be a happy, healthy, satisfied individual with a fabulous life.

Though it may not have been the one I’d set my sights on originally, that’s the truth I’ve earned. And I can live – cheerily, contentedly – with that.

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