Spring: Chubby Child Body
|The author's First Communion -- Age 8|
I will never criticize a child for being overweight.
No child ever chooses to carry extra weight – for reasons that are not yet completely understood, some people are genetically predisposed to carry extra pounds, and others have a flaw in their appestat which can throw appetite control out of kilter.
To blame a child for something that she or he has little control over is cruel and inhuman, and yet overweight children are harassed by other children and even by adults who may believe that they have the child’s best interests at heart.
If any blame can be assigned, let’s point the finger at the fast food industry that markets unhealthy food to children and, perhaps, the parents who give in to the incessant marketing.
A child does not yet have the psychological tools to fend off the blizzard of ads propagated by the fast food industry.
Hell, most adults are easily manipulated by cagey advertisements – just look at those clever beer commercials convincing consumers to drink famous, albeit piss in a can, beer brands –.
In the end, it’s up to parents to say “no” to quick fast food meals, to buy healthy ingredients, and to reserve junk food for occasional treats.
Yeah, yeah. I know all the arguments: parents are busy and tired after a long day, and cooking is a hassle (yes, it is), and the kids are whining for pizza – it’s just so easy to have a meat-lovers’, triple cheese pizza delivered for that Tuesday night dinner.
I’ve been there.
But there are ways to cook healthy and tasty meals without slaving for hours in the kitchen and encouraging children to snack on whole foods, such as apple slices and carrot sticks.
In general, children are bombarded with mixed messages: to fit in, they must eat what their friends are eating – no one wants to be that kid whose mother sends a can of tuna to a birthday party because the kid is on a diet. And, yet, if a child is fat, he or she is likely to be shunned or poked fun at.
A lose/lose situation.
During my childhood, junk food and fast food joints were just beginning to dot the American landscape, so other than Dairy Queen or A&W, these places were barely on our radar.
My grandparents, who raised me, rarely stocked empty-calorie foods, such as potato chips, sugary pop, and ice cream – these foods were reserved for special occasions: picnics, birthday parties, and holidays.
On the other hand, we did not eat particularly healthy foods: My grandmother Mo cooked with lard and bacon grease. When we went out to eat on Friday nights, we ordered fried fish and French fries – I never experienced grilled or steamed fish until I was an adult.
We slathered our iceberg lettuce salads with a mix of ketchup and full-fat mayonnaise.
While it may be nostalgic to wax poetic about healthier eating back in the day, don’t believe it.
It’s a myth.
The point is, my body was a constant source of daily discussion and criticism, mostly by Mo and some of my other family members. The overall message: I was not okay because of my weight.
I was a chubby child – not fat, mind you.
Still, I was teased horribly, mostly by boys, some of them strangers, some of them family.
I’m not sure why I became a little chunky and why my grandmother panicked about my weight, except that in the 1950’s, chubby children were a rarity. Most of my friends were all bony and angular, rails, with stick arms and legs, and I was rounder and fleshier. Back then, it was important to fit in and not stand out in a negative way, and any excessive weight was not a positive attribute.
I suspect that if my grandmother had not made a huge issue about my weight and made sure that I was being served healthy foods at meals and allowed to enjoy occasional treats without all the food drama, I would have grown out of my chubbiness.
Food would have never become such a persistent aspect of my life.
But back then, the approach to weight loss was simplistic: you put less fuel in the engine, you will eventually deplete it. The idea of deprivation and its psychological effects, especially on children, simply were not widely known or researched.
A long-ago visit to the doctor’s office has changed my life in a most profound way, launching my 55-year battle with weight.
In “Are You Thin Yet?” (an essay I wrote in 1990, published in 1993 in a thematic anthology about food issues), I explored the pain of my childhood as a chubby girl:
“Are You Thin Yet?”:
“Are you thin yet?”
Those words, arriving one day – cloaked in a birthday card and sizable check from a great aunt in California – will remain forever grooved in my mind.
So will the words that followed:
“I hope so because, if not, you’ll have to spend your birthday money on fat clothes, and we know how ugly they are. And you have such a pretty face.”
Happy 13th birthday.
I’ll never forget the pain from that cruel and cutting message, perceiving, somehow, that love and acceptance were doled out according to how close I could get to my ideal body weight, that fat was a sacrilege, a dirty family secret to be eradicated like a communicable disease, even if it meant sacrificing a little girl’s self-esteem.
At 13, I was a shell-shocked veteran of the diet wars, having already embarked on reducing regimens, ranging from the downright fad diets (“eat sugar and lettuce for every meal for one week”) to the downright dangerous (amphetamines prescribed by my family doctor who himself weighed in at a whopping 300 pounds).
I was an expert in attack strategies required for tackling those extra pounds, having begun several years before the vicious cycle of food deprivation, weight loss, bingeing, weight gain, guilt, more food deprivation, more weight loss, more bingeing, more weight gain, more guilt, a cycle that has stalked me throughout my adulthood.
I started picking up unwanted pounds when I was eight. At first, my family teased me about being “pleasingly plump” and “a whole lot to love.” Yet, as I look back on old pictures, I wasn’t overly obese; perhaps I was simply going through a stage where my height hadn’t yet caught up with my weight.
I’ll never know, however, because my family would not accept me as I was, and (with the best of intentions, I’m sure) started me on my diet merry-go-round.
First, they tried “scare tactics”:
“If you eat those potato chips, we’ll need a derrick to get you to school.”
Then it was “let’s-hide-the-food-from-the-kid-and-maybe-she-won’t-notice” approach.
I noticed all right and took steps to compensate by raiding my piggy bank and sneaking down to the corner grocery store for Reese’s Peanut Butter cups; I could always depend upon my good friend chocolate to fill that empty spot in my stomach. Once, when I was home alone, desperate to fill that void with something warm and soothing and yet too frightened of fire to light the pilot light on the stove, I heated Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup in the electric percolator.
So by the time I had received the fateful birthday message, I was still not thin, even though my family and doctor had tried just about everything, including thyroid pills, even though my thyroid was (and still is) perfectly normal.
By now, the verdict from my family, peers, and media was obvious:
I was not okay.
I was fat; therefore, I was stupid, oafish, somehow sub-human, unfit to play with “normal” children. And they let me know about it, too, calling me “Fatso,” “Jeffer the Heifer,” “Fatty-fatty, two-by-four, couldn’t-get-through-the bathroom-door.”
I hated myself, and, even though I was raised in a staunch Catholic family, I once considered selling my soul to the devil “if only I could eat all the peanut butter cups in the world and still lose weight.”
Instead, with my immortal soul intact and my self-esteem shot to hell, I began, in earnest, my self-imposed cycle of food deprivation, etc.
By high school, I was still not thin, but my regimen now included days of total fasting, followed by sheer bouts of gluttony. I was completely out-of-control, and, except for periods of self-imposed exile into “Dietland,” remained out-of-control on into adulthood.
In 1986, I embarked on my last regimented diet, a grueling journey through the Optifast Program, certainly the hair shirt, the sack cloth and ashes of all programs, The Ultimate Food Deprivation Diet, the Just Punishment for the Fat, my last crack at formal self-flagellation: for 12 weeks I ate no solid food, limited to drinking 70 calorie milk shakes six times a day. During that three months, I became totally obsessed with food; I counted the days when I could finally put one bite of poached chicken breast into my mouth; I had sexual dreams about food, bacchanalian banquets where the line between good taste and raunchy sex blurred; my senses sharpened, my eyes grew gaunt, my temperament developed a steely edge.
Was I thin yet?
Of course not, because the minute I stuck that first bite of real food into my mouth, I was fat again, no matter what the scale told me.
In a matter of weeks, I was fat again, simply reinforcing what my head had known for years.
I finally gave into my old enemy food, eating whatever I wanted, feeling guilty after every bite and every binge, hating myself more and more. I was mired in a four-year feeding frenzy.
August, 1990: I found myself facing 40 – and still not thin yet.
For the first time in my life, I actually considered suicide; however fleeting the thought might have been, the possibility was frightening enough to send me scurrying for professional help. I know this revelation will shock my loved ones, including my husband, but I have to tell my story like it is.
Two months later, after receiving some excellent psychotherapy in conjunction with a workshop on overcoming food obsession, I’m finally coming to terms with my love/hate relationship with food. Most importantly, I’m discovering that I need to learn how to love and accept myself – no matter what my weight is and no matter what others (including my family) think about me – unconditionally and without reservation.
I’m not quite there yet, but for the first time in my life, I feel hope, real hope.
Sometime in late September–I’m not exactly sure why or how–I made a decision to toss away all the diet baggage I’ve been carrying around for all these years. Now I ignore all the diet gurus and their snake oil remedies and have vowed to get on with the rest of my life.
Also, I have given myself unconditional permission to enjoy the foods I love, in whatever quantities I desire, and whenever I want – guilt-free. Moreover, I have called a moratorium on foods I never really liked in the first place but felt I had to eat because they were “thin” foods for “unthin” people.
In essence, I have thrown out all the old diet rules. After all, generally speaking, people who are naturally slender and have a positive self-image don’t put themselves through a lifetime of agony over food.
And, now, neither will I.
Am I thin yet? No, but, hey, I’m a heck of a lot happier now than at any other point in my life. Even at slightly under 200 pounds, I am able to look at myself in the mirror and see someone I could genuinely like – even love.
Will I ever be thin?
I honestly don’t know. I do know that ever since I have purged myself of useless guilt, I have not binged. I’m not sure what significance this has in the long term, but I now realize that my future success must be measured in the way I feel about myself, not by the scale or public consensus.
I wish I could say I have lived the second part of my essay, but I have never been able to reconcile what I wanted to believe about throwing off all diet rules with my actual body and reality.
So what happened after I made the momentous decision to give myself “unconditional permission to enjoy the foods I love, in whatever quantities I desire, and whenever I want – guilt-free”?
I ballooned to 230 pounds.
At the time of this essay, I had bought into the anti-dieting movement and was determined never to diet again.
Of course, that didn’t happen; the siren song of thinness kept calling. I eventually took up dieting again, off and on. It simply didn’t occur to me I was dieting all wrong – that I was approaching it as temporary nuisance.
In the past few years, I have had to redefine the very word “diet” to mean “permanent lifestyle change,” not as a temporary state to be endured until I could eat that piece of pecan pie again. Now I realize that I can have a slimmer body and eat my pie.
Don’t get me wrong. While I no longer agree with every aspect of the anti-diet movement, it does offer some important positive messages:
Celebrate yourself and your accomplishments, no matter what you weigh, and live life in the present – the only advice I can offer to others.
I’ll never allow others to define how I should feel about myself and my body. If they define me by my weight, then it’s their problem, not mine.
I am fortunate that The Worst Diet in the World did not turn me into an amphetamine addict; in fact, it may have had the opposite effect, for, in general, I abhor pills and only take them when I absolutely must.
Had I been another kind of person, the consequences could have been dire, but instead of turning to pills, cigarettes, or alcohol, I turned to food.
I no longer blame my grandmother or even the doctor for The Worst Diet in the World; the best science of the time indicated that diet pills could help overweight people, including children, lose weight.
I know my grandmother loved me and wished only the best for my welfare; she simply did not have any experience in dealing with overweight children, so when my doctor prescribed thyroid pills and amphetamines, she accepted his professional diagnosis and treatment.
Any success is all up to me now, and I have chosen to move forward and to look back only when I can learn something from the past, not to assign blame.
(Acknowledgment: “Are You Thin Yet?” originally appeared in Eating Our Hearts Out: Personal Accounts of Women’s Relationship with Food, edited by Lesléa Newman, The Crossing Press, 1993:204-206.)