In my home today, “fat”, is a prosecutable term. Now, I do understand that it’s a perfectly appropriate adjective to employ when one is describing a Red Robin onion-straw burger, or Hello Kitty’s inexplicably disproportionate head, yet I still catch myself wincing. Commonplace kid insults in the vein of “big, fat, meanie” or the (apparently ageless) “Yo mama’s so fat” jokes, are met with the stink eye that only a mom can properly give. You know the one. (I have a particular bias against the “Yo mama” wisecracks, but that’s not really the point now.)
I’m particularly vexed when I hear such taunts directed toward my daughter, though they’re being flung her way via her puerile younger brothers. It’s true, she doesn’t run out and buy a scale to contemplate her weight, or begin furiously jogging in place until her legs founder, (as I would have once done upon hearing such barbs), still my disquiet persists.
The nagging concern that the very intimation of the f-word will be damaging to her in the end. My husband tries to ease my mind. Points me to the actions of said daughter who either coolly unplugs her brother’s video games at the most critical point, or ably tackles them to the ground. Either action, of course, necessitates swift and fierce retaliation. This is comforting to some extent, and I think we’ll be fine as long as they all grow out of such behaviors before anyone can be tried as an adult.
I’ve always known that my unnatural discomfort with the corpulent and well-padded, stems from being raised by parents who were endlessly absorbed with their own appearances. Their self-worth ebbed and flowed with the amount of admiration displayed regarding their carefully cultivated beauty. The pair adhered to a strict zero tolerance policy towards anyone who did not also strive, with similar self-centered hunger, to achieve ultimate excellence.
Dining out was considerably preferable to our little trio play-acting happy family at home, thus occasions were ripe for mercilessly mocking the undeniable transgressions of anyone my parents determined to be aesthetically unpleasing. To wit, most of the general population.
“That’s it lady…open wide. I don’t think you have enough on your plate there, tiny. Don’t stop shoveling it down. Want a feed bag? That’s exactly what you need. Keep on eating.” My dad. Vicious upon spotting an overweight woman who had the unmitigated audacity to eat. How dare she!? Didn’t she know how repulsed we all were by her? My father always insisted he couldn’t finish his dinner after seeing another “pig” at her “trough”. And eating in public, no less!
Looking back now..I’m not sure any of his tirades were ever directed at a man. I didn’t consciously process all the underlying messages in his vitriol as a child, but I think I pretty much followed the overarching theme. Only the slender, the near perfect..right dad? Only they had the right to eat. But if anyone else must eat, for GOD’S sake, do it in private. It’s gross. Just like all fat people were gross. Just like I would be gross if I got fat.
One of the most important things that I remembered from these dinners out with my parents was this: If we were watching others, then others were watching us. We are being watched. We are being judged. We could be found wanting by the highest caste in our society. That of the THIN. And if one is not ranked among them? That one has no business anywhere near a kitchen.
We’ve all heard the statistics haven’t we? Ad nauseam. About how those digital numbers under our red, white, and blue toes are rising faster than the economy has been falling. Yet statistically, the emphasis on BMI and body fat, HDL and saturated fats, natural sugar versus aspartame, has done nothing but fuel confusion and shame. Who benefits?
Well, the dieting industry that pulls in between 40-50 billion dollars annually certainly isn’t faring too badly. Especially given the fact that 95% of dieters will regain their lost weight within 1-5 years. So, if we can’t turn to diets..what can we.. ah, eating disorders..those work. Don’t they?
Absolutely! Albeit, in the short run. You could drop weight..if you can stand the pain. The shame. The inconvenience. The lying. The exhaustion. But give it a shot. Lose that pesky muscle that was holding you back. Your ability to sleep, walk straight, carry on a coherent sentence. All roadblocks to your true genius.
If you’ve got real grit? If you can hold out past the hair loss and yellow skin and organ failure ? You’ll make it to the end. Where you’ll die. But you’ll die THIN! Congratulations! Because no one, no one..can call you FAT. Little grave plot. Sound crazy? In the midst of my illness, I distinctly remember shouting to someone, “I DON’T CARE IF I DIE AS LONG AS I LOOK THIN IN MY CASKET!” I assure you, that was not the first time someone whispered/uttered/wailed those words.
While spending the first couple of months going through the inpatient portion of treatment for anorexia, I was among peers. There were some bulimics there as well, true. But I think they were the minority. They were women who, for the most part, were admitted at a normal weight, or even slightly above. My friends who fell in this category often mentioned feeling especially “huge” given the population they were currently a part of.
Who wouldn’t? As I prepared to leave inpatient and go to the next level of the program, I was within spitting distance of my goal weight. I realized I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable mingling with the other anoretics. In particular, with the new admissions. The women who were just entering treatment and were therefore, the sickest. The smallest. The secret envy of all.
Leaving the protective bubble of inpatient was unnerving, but I wasn’t headed home. Not for a while. I had one more stepping stone on my path before tackling the real world disorder free for the first time since childhood. After all, I’d been with Ed since I was 12. And while he nearly killed me, there’s comfort in the familiar. In knowing the monster under your bed. I thought I was nearly strong enough to take on the great unknown with God by my side and Ed under my feet. I just needed the how-to guide.
It took the form of residential treatment. That’s what it’s called. A small gated community. Women live in houses with each other, sans staff, and we cook for ourselves (following a menu), go shopping with a dietitian, take on more responsibility. We still had groups and therapy and weigh ins. But if you were going to restrict or purge or cut (and people did), then you were going to and that was that. Sink or swim on your own.
It was our decision if we were going to break the rules about using caffeine or diet products. Our conscience to deal with if we were going to sneak in Splenda and Diet Pepsi (sweet elixir..), substitute real coffee for decaf in the communal canister and hope the staff was too dumb to figure it out (they weren’t), our choice to get drunk off cough syrup and be sent home.
Meals were mostly unsupervised, though the staff usually heard about it if someone threw their bacon (still in the frying pan) out the back window shrieking “I’m not paying thousands of dollars to get f*#^ing FAT!!” , or if, in fact, it was a piece of carrot cake clogging up the toilet and “DON’T BLAME ME, I ATE MY DESSERT!” No honor among thieves.
Here’s what I did not expect about residential treatment. The addition of a group called “EE’s”. Emotional eaters. Large women. Large. And believe me when I say, they were none too thrilled about settling down in a neighborhood of “crazy skinnies” either. I mean, seriously? What kind of idiot throws away perfectly good bacon? Clearly, we were each others crosses to bear.
Us crazy skinnies (inwardly delighted to be called “skinny” anything), were confronted with our worst fear. Two of my housemates were EE’s. And I would look at the pats of butter melting on my breakfast toast, and the plop of lardy mayonnaise jiggling on top of my sandwich at lunch time..and I knew, I knew, I was just a bite away from becoming them. They were the nightmare that haunted me all my life.
As for the EE’s, we represented all the nasty, stuck-up, vain girls who had mocked and belittled them from their earliest years through college. The ones who hadn’t needed to struggle with weight (haha), who always got the guys, the popular friends, the opportunities. What on earth, I wondered, were the powers that be, thinking?? Putting us together like this? A disaster waiting to happen. Tick-tock.
And it was really uncomfortable in the beginning. For the first few days, we circled each other suspiciously, as if waiting for the other to strike the first blow. We all sat silent, almost petulant, during group time. Unwilling to let ourselves be vulnerable in front of the other camp.
We weren’t like them, and they weren’t anything like us. We knew it even if no one else seemed to . Eventually? I was the one who broke. Quelle surprise. I’ve no problem sharing. And my mantra from the day I arrived in Arizona, half carried off the plane, thousands of miles away from my family, was: “I’m not here to stay sick.”
With that running through my mind, I simply began to speak about my day. Triggers and temptations, triumphs and testimonies, as if we had all been having a running dialogue rather than sitting there like stone gargoyles for the better part of a week. Opened up. And an amazing thing happened. Everyone else began talking too. Not at once. It was gradual. It takes time for people to feel safe with one another. Especially wounded people. But it did happen. And when it did, it changed me.
Carrie* easily had two hundred pounds on Shannon*. To an outsider, the two women couldn’t seem more different. Shannon enjoyed the comfort of public sympathy while Carrie was used to scorn. Though Shannon was clearly ill, the sharp protuberance of her clavicle or hip bones inspired jealousy in many. Carrie? Well, she inspired disgusted glares and sneers of derision. Welcome to the world we live in, right?
I knew that people who were overweight and obese had their own issues. Their own demons. That’s undeniable. What I didn’t know, was that their demons came from the same dimension of hell as mine. Knew the same tricks. Shouted in their heads the same wicked lies. Left them drowning in the same pool of shame, self-hatred, and despair.
With our heads spinning, and us.. unable to make sense of the chaos, we simultaneously turn to one of our only constants. Food. Only then did we diverge in the way we chose to abuse it. But we all made that decision somewhere along the way. To hurt ourselves. To damage. To mar. And with that, we affirmed what we’d known in our hearts all along. We are weak. We are worthless. We deserve whatever we’ve got coming to us.
I became particularly close with Carrie. I think the friendship surprised both of us. She was very anti “crazy skinnies” and I was bouncing around, trying too hard to prove to the EE’s that I would most certainly not have been one of the girls making their teen lives a misery. We both had to settle down a bit. Learn to listen. Try to understand.
She asked me questions she always wondered about anoretics. The raw stuff. The “Why the hell would you want to look like Shannon looks?!” , kind of questions. I like those. I appreciate real. Get gritty. Ask me the difficult questions. I’ll be honest.
And she did as time went on. I asked her some pretty bold stuff as well. Because I never really understood. I despise the feeling of being full. I mean..HATE it. I wanted to know why she didn’t throw up? That had seemed a reasonable system to me for so long..or just starve? What’s the problem there? We talked about food and control and loss of control and love and sex and our parents and our fears.
The night before she was discharged, we sat on our back patio and watched on of those glorious Arizona sunsets together. I took her hand and when we prayed, I didn’t occur to me that I was praying for someone who was “different” from me. Up until that time, I had a clear demarcation line in my head. Established long ago in childhood, I could feel a tangible “Heavy” and “Not Heavy” grouping to my friends. I would alter myself accordingly.
My heavier friends made me a little anxious, especially in my younger years. Don’t mention food or watch anyone eat or comment on my body or comment on their body or mention exercise or mention diet or look disgusted or offer to help with losing weight or even say the words losing weight or do anything that lets this person know that I know how different we are. That I’m just better. Because it’s not her fault. Except that it might be her fault. Thanks mom and dad.
But. That night? It was just Carrie and I. And I saw who she was apart from the confines of her physical body. I know that sounds crazy and New Age , but it was a turning point for me. She was beautiful. She was damaged. She had her arms reaching toward God, asking Him for healing. She was me.
The circle of friends I am blessed with now, is diverse in every imaginable way. Shape and size, culture and race. Background of affluence. Background of poverty. I see a unique loveliness in all who have a piece of my heart. I can say that with all sincerity. It wasn’t always the case.
My interpretation of what was acceptable and what was not, couldn’t exceed the confines of my pink Barbie box. No forgiveness for flaw. Nor blessing over blemish. It was what I knew. And after all these years, there haven’t been great strides towards acceptance for beauty of all sizes. Nature versus nurture at its finest. We’re not born feeling superior. Repelled by variance. We learn that as the years pass.
It’s a sad dichotomy, really.
How much of our innocence dies…before we even begin to live.
Having a heart to heart with a new friend recently, she describes her lifelong battle with her body. With being overweight. She awkwardly tugs at her waistband, her eyes dart around restlessly. She’s trying not to give me that up and down body scan but I see it anyway. Her tone is hesitant when she says, “I know I can’t understand what you’ve been through..and what you struggle with. I mean (she’s embarrassed now), I have the opposite problem.”
There it is again. I think of Carrie. I think of every silly joke and all the laughs shared with her and some of the other “EE”‘s in treatment. I remembered the times we cried together. But then I heard the voice that I often hear when I sit down to a meal even today. That heartless jeering, “That’s it lady…open wide. Don’t stop shoveling it down. That’s exactly what you need. Keep on eating.” That voice, I put in a different place. Far away. It doesn’t belong with my happiness. Or my heavenly Father. With my restoration. I take the hand of my friend. Not the opposite problem, sister. Not the opposite problem at all.
It’s not a very kind world out there. I wonder..What if, every time we looked in the mirror, instead of groaning or sighing with exasperation, we thought something positive about ourselves? Thought of what God sees when He looks at us. Even if we only did it for a day.
How would it change how we feel about ourselves? The people around us? See, the more that we, as women, torment and push and punish and force and cry and demean and belittle ourselves..tell ourselves we’re just not quite good enough? The more responsibility we bear for being just another cog in the machine of manufactured magnificence.
Who knows where such measures might lead? If, one day, we’re able to look beyond numbers, if we could see beyond size and weight and what others tell us we should find attractive, and teach our daughters to do the same? We might have hope for a more tolerant tomorrow.Try it. Gaze into your mirror. Admire the sparkle in your eyes. The strength of your jaw. The muscles of your biceps. We could create the butterfly effect that saves lives.
Start fluttering those radiant wings, my courageous comrades.
*names have been changed