I learned that “fat” was a terrible thing for a woman to be when I was six.
My adoptive mother, five-foot-four and somewhat endomorphic, succumbed to that peculiarly eighties obsession with thinness and signed herself up for an intervention at The Diet Center, tiny me in tow. A graphic poster on the wall cautioned against the horror of coating the “normal” female form with fat. The blue, hour-glassy inner part was “OK”; the extraneous yellow layer surrounding it, “not OK.” Brochures and pamphlets packed with colored charts, the only reading material to browse while I waited for her consultations to be over, told me that it was “good” to eat plain dry toast and half grapefruits sans sugar, and “sinful” to eat chocolate.
Snacking between meals was verboten even before the dieting, and meals themselves were often fraught with difficulty due to the intersection of my mother’s rigidity and my stubborn pickiness. A glass of milk, for instance, meant to round out a bowl of oatmeal, had to be poured over the oatmeal to create a sickening gruel, rather than sipped alongside the otherwise-slimy-but-bearable mush. A serving of octopus or beef tongue, despite my horror and regardless of my pleading, was to be finished no matter how many hours it sat getting ever-colder on the plate. First world problems, to be sure, but traumatizing nonetheless.
I began to sneak food: anything I could get my hands on; often hot cocoa powder mixed with maple syrup and chocolate chips: baking items were always on hand, if not real snacks. I ate sugar straight; licked seasoned salt off my palms.
By age ten I had reached my adult height of five-foot-two and had “blossomed” early…. and I was decidedly chubby. Certainly not enormous, but by no means slender. Uncoordinated and the opposite of athletic or graceful, I fell into a shame /no exercise/ever fatter spiral. My best friend’s preschool-aged brother pronounced me “Chumpy Checker” and taunted me daily in a sing-song voice; an older boyfriend mentioned his friend had commented on my “thick thighs.” I was devastated.
My older brother, the epitome of athleticism himself, constantly mocked my plump frame and burgeoning womanliness. I recall the nickname “Hippo” being tossed around among my lithe, blonde cousins, with whom I spent summers on Cape Cod, me swimming in an enormous men’s T-shirt and sweatpants, more often than not.
At my all-girls’ school, where being thin and especially being good at sports was essentially synonymous with being popular, I dreamed of someday, somehow, scoring a goal or hitting a home run or doing anything to earn my peers’ admiration. I believed that if I was just thin, I would be OK. By the time I was thirteen I was dieting constantly, often attending meetings, counting calories, and tracking our half-dry-english-muffin breakfasts as a mother-daughter team (one of our only activities of mutual interest).
I ate myself into obesity during my time as a stay-at-home mom in an unhappy marriage (which I dove into right after high school, convinced that I was lucky that anyone wanted my size-eighteen ass). I drowned the sorrow of my reality in whole batches of Bisquick muffins slathered with butter; in family-sized bags of potato chips eaten alternating with value packs of peanut butter cups.
When I finally left my husband I lost twenty or thirty pounds (along with the additional two hundred thirty or so) almost effortlessly, but still I struggled with hating my body. I straddled the line between “plus” and “regular”-sized and left fitting rooms in tears more often than not. When I found yoga and discovered that there was other exercise I did enjoy (!), I managed to drop down to a societally-respectable size eight, but still I hated my body. Because when you’re short, a size eight is still decidedly chubby by today’s standards (just ask Amy Schumer!).
Never mind that this body brought a beautiful, compassionate young man into the world. Never mind that it’s held friends’ hands in times of darkness and brought love through music to the ears of the dying and joy to the living. Never mind all of its capacity for love and its warmth; this is what I concern myself with, its fatness? Is that really the measure of my worth?
At almost forty, with a grown child; dear friends; fulfilling pursuits; love… can I not learn to stop self-criticizing, to stop believing that somehow life would be better if I were thinner? Can I not learn to love myself no matter my size? Can I learn to forgive those who contributed to this obsession, however unwittingly… most notably, can I forgive myself? Can I teach myself to believe that I am OK even with this subcutaneous layer obstructing the perfection of my hourglass? Would that I could go back to be in that room with that six-year-old to show her on that poster the two parts of a woman’s body that actually matter:
Her mind and her heart.