I am four years old. I am taking ballet class. I have to get up early on Saturday morning to go to ballet class at Karen Sachs’ Dance Academy. I hate waking up early and I hate wearing itchy tights, but I love ballet class. I feel graceful and powerful when I dance, even if I can’t yet touch my head to my outstretched knees like the other girls in my class because my belly gets in the way. I love my pink ballet slippers and my pink ballet bag with my name monogrammed on the side. I have fun, and move joyfully.
And something else keeps me going. I want to be the fairy princess.
At the end of each class, our teacher plays a soothing classical song that puts us all to sleep. We have to pretend to be asleep until the fairy princess – a girl from the class who gets to wear a plastic crown and special tutu – taps us on the head with her sequined wand in the shape of a star. When the fairy princess taps you on the head with her wand, you wake up and are free to go home.
I desperately want to be the fairy princess, but I am never chosen. I get up every Saturday morning, tired but full of hope that today is the day, but I never get to be the fairy princess.
One day, I pluck up the courage to ask my teacher if I can be the fairy princess next week after being sent home by someone who has been the fairy princess twice. (I keep count.) “We’ll see!” she says, not looking me in the eye.
Next week was not my week. I never got to be the fairy princess.
I am six years old. My stepfather’s mother gave me $50. I am not sure why I was given this money, but I keep it in my ballerina jewelry box with all of my plastic clip-on earrings and Tinkerbell nail polish. One Saturday, a friend a few houses down tells me that the ice cream truck is on our block and will soon be on our street. I run in to ask my mom for some money, but she tells me I can’t have any.
I remember what’s in my jewelry box. I grab the $50 and go out to meet the ice cream truck.
I buy a Good Humor ice cream cone and so much candy. I am overwhelmed, because I have never had this much money for the ice cream truck before. I buy all of the candies I’ve wanted to try. Fistfuls of Fireballs, jawbreakers, Ka-Blooey candies that turn your whole mouth blue and stain anything that touches them, candy buttons, candy necklaces. I give some of the candy I’ve purchased to my friends and take the rest up to my bedroom and hide it in the toy box in my closet with my Barbies because it occurs to me that I have done something wrong. I sense that I was not supposed to buy candy, definitely not with that money, and definitely not a stash so huge to keep me flush with candy for several months.
My mom finds the candy. She is upset with me. She is so much more mad than I expected her to be; I get in trouble. I feel ashamed. She takes my candy. I cry at the injustice of it all (it was my money!) and also out of shame. I am not sure why I feel so ashamed of myself.
She takes my candy and gives it to my siblings.
I am seven years old, and my favorite outfit is a neon green tunic with ruffles at the bottom, with a pair of lacy white bicycle shorts. The tunic hits me mid-thigh and the bicycle shorts go just above my knee. I wear this outfit with several pairs of big slouchy socks and my light-up L.A. Gears. I wear my hair in a half-ponytail with a colorful scrunchy. I feel so fashionable in this outfit. The lace makes me feel sophisticated. It’s something I could see Clarissa Darling wearing on “Clarissa Explains It All,” which is my favorite TV show.
My mom told me I couldn’t wear the outfit anymore. She said another grown-up said something to her. The tunic is too short, she said, and the lace bicycle shorts are too revealing. She makes me get rid of the outfit.
I never get to wear it again.
I am eight years old and at the pediatrician’s office. I hate going for my check-up. They make me strip down to my underwear in front of my mother and the doctor weighs me, pokes me and examines my body. It is embarrassing and I dread it every year.
This year, my mom and the doctor discuss my weight. They talk about me like I am not even in the room with them. My mom tells the doctor that I keep gaining weight and she is worried. The doctor confirms that I have gained a lot of weight and asks questions about what I am eating, what sports I play, if I eat too much. My mother says I sneak food. I hate this appointment. Why doesn’t anyone ask me any questions? Do they not see I’m sitting right here, in my underwear? My cheeks flush red and my eyes well with tears.
I refuse to strip down to my underwear for future appointments. I doggedly insist on wearing a t-shirt for all exams. My doctor is baffled. My mom says I am just “sensitive about my weight.”
I am 10 years old and we’re on vacation in Ocean City, Md. I need a new swimsuit because we discovered mine no longer fit. We go to one of the many stores that sells swimsuits and I am instantly drawn to a two-piece swimsuit; it’s black and the top has a splash of hot pink, neon green and florescent yellow flowers. These are all of my favorite colors, and I love it. I also think of how annoying it is to go to the bathroom with a wet one-piece on, and think it would be so much easier if I just had to pull down my bottoms. It seems like the best choice.
My mom tries to sway me toward boring one-pieces in subdued colors. “Wouldn’t this be more flattering?” she asks. But none of them have the bright neon flowers. They are all one color, like blue or black. The two-piece is clearly the better choice.
I try on the two-piece. I think it’s great. The top comes to just above my belly button. I come out of the dressing room. She frowns. She says, “You can see your stomach.” She furrows her brow further. “What if people at the pool make comments about your stomach?”
It has not occurred to me before that people might make fun of me for wearing this swimsuit. And I like it so much, I make my mother buy it for me, but her comment about people teasing me for my stomach is a bell I cannot unring. I wear a t-shirt into the pool, with my stomach and the neon swimsuit safely hidden away.
My brother and I are fighting. I hate fighting with him because he is older than me and always thinks of mean things to say more quickly. He makes fun of my “double-chin.”
I cry and slam into my bedroom. I look in the small mirror I’ve taped onto my wall, which is from an old jewelry box. (The one where I hid the $50.) I examine my face.
He’s right. I have a double-chin. I refuse to go down to dinner that night. I vow not to leave my room and not eat until I have lost enough weight to only have one chin.
I get hungry. I stare at my face and try to contort it so my chins are less noticeable. I find that if I hold my neck very straight and jut my lower-jaw out, my second-chin is less prominent.
I am 34 now. I still use this trick.
My brother has a friend over. It’s dinner time. I come downstairs and start to sit in my chair. It is an old, rickety dining room chair that has shifted every time I slam myself into it for years.
Today, the chair finally breaks when I sit on it knee-first.
My brother’s friend leaves, but when we are at the bus stop on Monday morning, he’s looking at me and whispering to another boy. They’re both laughing at me. He told everyone at school that I was so fat I broke my chair.
I’m on the softball team. I hate softball. I hate running, I hate dirt, I hate the heat and I find the game boring. I’m not friends with any of my teammates. I don’t think they want me on their team. We get our shirts for the year – mine is so tight and uncomfortable. It’s tight on my arms, it stretches across my belly so that you can see the outline of my belly button, and you can see the outline of my nipples. I do not want to wear it, and I cry and tell my mother that I want to stop going to softball.
“Why?” she asks. “I’ve already paid for you to do softball this season.” I tell her that the shirt is too tight. She says it was the largest one they offered. I tell her I want to quit, but she will not let me. “I’ll talk to the coach,” she says.
For the rest of the season, I wear a plain men’s t-shirt in our team’s color, yellow. (We were called The Yellow Jackets.) My shirt does not have my name or a number or anything printed on it. I don’t look like I’m part of the team. My teammates know that I’m wearing a different shirt because the team shirt they gave me didn’t fit me. I am miserable, and start refusing to run at practice. I don’t want to be there. I don’t want to be anywhere. I just want to disappear.
I am in fourth grade. I go to the nurse’s office a lot, because I get dizzy and my throat burns a lot in the morning. I get dizzy because I refuse to eat breakfast, and my mother makes me drink these chalky Instant Breakfast shakes. I refuse to eat breakfast because it makes my throat burn. I do not yet know that this is called acid reflux.
One day, the nurse comes in to talk to me. She is a woman in her 50s, with thin, graying curly hair. She wears white scrubs and her large hips struggle against her white pants. She is fat. She wants to talk about my weight. She tells me I should ask my mother about Weight Watchers. “But I don’t eat that much!” I protest. She tells me I have such a pretty face. “You would be so pretty if you just lost the weight!” I cry and she hugs me. I do not want her to hug me, and I do not want her to talk to me. I just want her to leave so I can lie down on the blue plastic cot.
I never tell anyone about the nurse’s recommendation that I join Weight Watchers. When I get dizzy or my throat burns, I hide in the bathroom at school instead.
I am 23 and in love with a friend of mine. He often rides his bike to my house and sleeps in my bed. We fall asleep with my back against his front. He kisses me on the forehead. He says things like, “None of my friends have ever let me get this close before.” He tells me how smart and incredible I am. I am certain he likes me back, but we never do more than cuddle.
I write him an email. I tell him how I feel. He takes me out to Denny’s one night. He tells me he is attracted to me and he does like me a lot. “But I can’t date a fat girl,” he says casually. His words are lasers that sear through my skin and burn the most secret, hidden parts of me. “My friends would make fun of me.”
I am 25 and my first boyfriend just dumped me. I have decided that being thin and beautiful, at long last, is the best revenge. (And maybe he will want me back if I am smaller? He dumped me because I was too needy, too demanding of his time, too much. I think being smaller will help.) I am determined to shed the parts of me that are too lumpy, too unfeminine, too much.
I join Weight Watchers and purchase a membership at my local gym. I count my Points diligently, often eating less than the Points I am allotted. I spend hours at the gym a few times per week. My calves burn and my heart races and I am miserable. But I must keep going. One more mile. You’ll never get anyone to really love you if you don’t do 30 more minutes on the treadmill.
I’m at the doctor’s office for a sinus infection. Only a nurse practitioner could see me that day; I have never met her, but I need antibiotics or at least some industrial-strength decongestant so I can sleep. She is so thrown by the sight of my size 22 body that she insists I must lose weight. I am confused. I feel my cheeks burn like they did when I was younger and my mother and pediatrician talked about how much I ate, how I was too much.
She tells me that if I do not explore weight loss surgery, I will die. “But you took my blood pressure, and it was fine,” I insist, meekly. She said I might be fine now, but that won’t last forever. Soon enough, she says, I will have hypertension and diabetes and joint pain and have a heart attack or stroke. I may lose some toes. She has seen diabetic patients, did you know you might even lose your entire foot? I am not sure what to say. I have been dieting and exercising, and this is the smallest I have been in years. I do not have diabetes. This woman has no blood work on file for me. But I believe her, even as I hate her, because she has spoken my worst fears.
I go to a weight loss seminar at a local hospital, one of the leading ones for bariatric surgery.
A man speaks. He is in his 50s, still fat, but less fat. He has clearly shrunk. He wears a large, tent-like t-shirt and I can tell when he moves that his skin is hanging off of him in curtains, like wax on a melted candle. He shows us his dinner, a small sandwich on a King’s Hawaiian bun wrapped in foil. He tells us that he must drink protein shakes every day, and they don’t taste like McFlurries. He says he will be taking vitamins every day for the rest of his life. He is walking a fine line of trying to weed out the women (we are all women in this seminar) who aren’t serious while making sure we know the surgery is a positive, life-changing thing. He doesn’t sound happy, but insists he is. Because he’s finally losing weight.
A woman near me says she doesn’t think she can give up soda forever. I decide that everything I’ve heard is a fair price for being thin. I proceed, but the surgery center calls me a week later to let me know my insurance won’t cover anything. I am devastated.
I am working in a big city. I am 33. I have a good job, and I am doing well at it. Each day, I walk across the street to Whole Foods for a $16 salad. The city is full of thin, attractive, powerful people. The streets are clogged with important men in suits, walking and talking. We play a game of Chicken – they walk forward, on their phones, and pretend not to see me. They will bump into me if I do not move out of their way. Their path doesn’t waver. I dutifully moved out of the way for them at first. Then I test them. I don’t move. I keep walking. They almost bump into me. I force them to see me, and they are startled. They are inconvenienced and angry. But they’re not sure why they are angry, so they cast their gaze forward again, and keep walking.
I giggle internally and marvel at how the body that I have learned is so hard to miss, so big and obtrusive, could be so invisible to so many.
I am 34. I am at my highest weight ever. I am in the shower, running a loofah over my body, with its soft skin and curves. I look at my belly and frown. I think, Maybe I should join Weight Watchers again. I am getting married in 6 months – what if I keep gaining weight and my wedding dress doesn’t zip?! I think of everyone looking at me, being on display, being photographed. I panic. I think back at the body I had at 25.
I take an inventory of my life at the moment. I am getting married, to a man who loves me, belly and all. I have a good job. I can pay my bills on time, and just bought my dream car, a robin’s egg blue Volkswagen Beetle. I write for work – I am a professional writer, even if I mostly just write blogs for SEO. I have a house that I share with my future-husband, my cat, our newly adopted dog. All of these things happened, and I’m fat. I’m healthy. I realize that being thin was not required to achieve any of these things.
One night, I look through old pictures online of me and my friends when I was in my mid-20s. I feel pangs of sadness looking at them. I was so thin! My legs were so much smaller, and my stomach was so much flatter. I examine them closely. Even my feet were thinner. My face looked more like my face, how I picture myself in my head. I miss having a sharp, defined jawline. My face now is so soft, so squishy.
I stare at a photo of myself. I was so cute, and I didn’t even know it. I hated myself. I punished myself. I blamed all of my problems, from my string of crappy go-nowhere jobs to the poor treatment I received from the mean boys I fawned over to my inability to pay bills on time, on my body. I am overwhelmed with compassion and sadness for her. She was so sad, so unhappy.
I am filled with love for her, and for me. I realize that I never had a good sense of what my body looked like any way, and my body has withstood decades of blame for things it had nothing to do with. I realize I can’t see myself as I am, after so many years of shame, sadness, and blame. My body is a structure that has stood firm, through war, bombs, cities falling and being built around it. It is a beautiful, towering ruin, a symbol of strength through adversity. It has had every weapon ever invented used on it, and yet, it stands.
I wonder what I will think when I look back on photos of me in 10 years.