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Fat Looks Better When It's Tan

My mother is sitting in her yellow mesh metal-framed lawn-chair, the rotating spray from the sprinkler catches her toes every three to four minutes. Her thighs are pink as uncooked hotdogs. Specks of sunlight shine through her straw beach hat and onto her chest where they disco dance with her freckles. My baby sister is asleep in her playpen under the canopy of the crab apple and cherry trees.


Our neighbor Joy walks across the street carrying mason jars filled with freshly made Lipton Sun Tea. “You're plenty pink there, Dottie,” says Joy.


Oh, it’ll turn tan,” responds my mother, “And you know what I always say, ‘Fat looks better when it’s tan!’” They laugh.


I look at my thighs. At twelve, they haven’t got much shape. Beanpoles, my dad calls my legs. My towel is soaked as ripples of sprinkler water wash over me from head to toe on the return trips from mom’s side of the yard. My ankles and calves are covered with short green specks of freshly cut grass.


Mom hasn’t lost the baby weight nearly two years since my sister was born. She’s taken to wearing bathing suits with skirts. Wheat germ, brown rice and carob chips replace the Velveeta and Chips Ahoy that were staples of my early childhood diet. Prevention Magazines fill the bathroom rack. Bold black and yellow fonts shout at me as I pee: “Why Dr. Burkitt Likes Bran”, “Scarsdale Diet Secrets”, “Grapefruit or Cabbage Soup? What’s the Best Diet for You?”

My father grumbles about the good old days when Sloppy Joes on Wonder Bread buns were a typical dinner. The next night mom makes “Soy Joes” that are mostly mushrooms and tomato sauce served on whole-wheat buns. It doesn’t go over well. We’re all famished.


Children are starving in Africa,” mom reminds us. She pins a photo of an emaciated child with a swollen belly to the fridge as a reminder, but we are pretty certain that little boy wouldn’t enjoy mom’s cabbage stuffed green peppers either. My brother and I have rebelled against the spelt bread and almond butter sandwiches that Mom puts in our lunch boxes. No one wants to trade their Cheez Puffs or egg salad with us. We spend our allowance on Snickers and Zero bars at Little Sue’s Mini Mart.


I find my mother’s stash of peanut butter cups under the sink and eat them all. She knows I know about the clandestine candy but she doesn’t say anything, embarrassed I’m sure that her little secret has been discovered. Later I find a new stash in the crock-pot atop the hutch. Again, she says nothing when they slowly, but surely, disappear.


I’m thirteen and I’m in ballet class. The mirror is there to ensure our posture is good and our toes are pointed, but I’m not looking at myself. I can’t keep my eyes off Carol Connor. My long, skinny legs give way to a natural, youthful pudge around my belly, cut in half by the elastic of my tights. Unlike me, Carol has breasts, a flat stomach and hips. I can’t keep my eyes off of her. I wonder if this magical thing called puberty that Judy Blume keeps promising is heading my way anytime soon. I hope it will make me look like Carol. But after a year of dancing side-by-side with her, Carol gliding into perfect Jetés, her breasts gently bouncing on the landings and me, jumping and touching down with a thud. I still don’t need a bra.


Mom makes her own yogurt, covers dinner salads with bean sprouts and serves them with bran muffins. One month, butter is bad for us, and the next month she subtracts the yolks from our scrambled eggs. We sneak to the neighbor’s for Doritos and Ho-hos. I look forward to my babysitting jobs at the Sutton's because Mrs. Sutton always leaves TV-dinners in the freezer for me to microwave. Mom says the radiation from those frozen meals will kill me if the Salisbury steak doesn’t get me first.


Eventually, mom inexplicably gives into the grumbling in the house and starts buying the things we like to eat. The Grape Nuts go stale in the back of the pantry and we’re devouring Fruit Loops. I am back to eating my favorite lunch of liverwurst and mayonnaise on white bread with a hostess blueberry pie for dessert.


When I am seventeen, I am chosen to represent my High School on the local department store’s Teen Board. At the first meet and greet they take our measurements. We’ll be modeling the latest fall fashions in a runway show. As a Seventeen Magazine devotee, I am excited. I’d been a regular in the dressing rooms at the local mall and I think of myself as pretty average in my Levi's corduroys. But as the measurements of my fellow models are taken, the costumer calls out “Julie is a size 3; Megan, size 3; Anna will need a size 5; Leilani’s a size 1; and Suzanne will need a 9.”


I realize just how much bigger I am compared to my peers. Mom and I always laughed at the tiny sizes on the racks. “Why would they make Jordache jeans to fit 5 year-olds,” we joked. I didn’t realize that actual people fit into them.


There weren’t plus size models back then, but it seems obvious to me that I have been selected to demonstrate size diversity. I am only two sizes away from the largest size that they carry in the Junior department, a 13. I start watching what I eat. Mom seems happy that I appear to be jumping aboard the carrot and celery train.


Until carrots and celery are practically all that I eat. And people begin to notice. “You look good! Have you lost weight?” “Oh my gosh, you’re so skinny!” It feels good. My clothes loosen. I go down a size. Then they stop noticing.


Obviously, I need to lose more weight to hold their interest. But to do that, I need to eat less. Signing up for even more after school activities allows me to skip dinner. “We’re grabbing a pizza,” I tell my mother, or “I’m eating at Chrissie’s.” Only I’m not eating. I offer to make a run for more poster board when the pizza is delivered to the Pep Club meeting. I take the long way home until I‘m certain the supper plates have been cleared.


If I eat anything, I need to work it off. If I have a cookie, I chase it down with 100 sit-ups. If I splurge on French fries at an after school rehearsal, I run three miles. But with school and clubs and practices and rehearsals and my job, I’m running out of time to run.


Purging is far more efficient. And you can actually eat more. Two slices of pizza, stick your fingers down your throat and get back to work, guilt free.


I pick out a prom dress, white and strapless. Lace and chiffon. Size 5. I feel beautiful.


I am in a non-stop whirl of senior activities, Teen Board fashion shoots and waiting to hear from the three colleges I applied to. I am fueled by my exquisite self-control and purpose.


In three months, I have lost thirty-five pounds. I begin to wear baggy sweatshirts to hide my bony hips. Mom is concerned. She takes me to my pediatrician who tells me that if I lose any more weight, we may have a problem. The next month I put rocks in my pockets and wear ankle weights under my MC Hammer pants. When I step on the scale, I pass inspection.


The week before prom, I try on my dress. It won’t stay up. My breasts have shrunk to their pre-pubescent size. Mom takes me to get it altered. I see the worry on her face, but she doesn’t say anything. We go to lunch at Ashworth Drugs. She knows their pimento cheese sandwich and chocolate shake are my favorites. At least they used to be. She watches me as I eat, taking tiny sips and nibbling around the edges, chewing more than I need to. I excuse myself to the bathroom as she waits for the check.


Even with the alterations, we have to use a safety pin to keep my prom dress secure. My boyfriend takes me to the elegant Velvet Cloak Inn with its New Orleans-inspired wrought-iron railings and crystal chandeliers. It’s a lovely, romantic dinner and surely the most expensive date we’ve ever been on. Before we head to the Marriott for the dance, I stick two Lee Press-on Nail covered fingers down my throat and regurgitate my three courses, careful not to splash the second iteration of Caesar salad, lobster sauce and chocolate cake on my frothy white dress.


That night I realize things have gone too far. My boyfriend, in all his earnestness, worked extra hours to pay for a meal I flushed down the toilet. The small sizes I can now fit into don’t look good on my bony frame. My relationship with food is as tenuous as my relationship with my mother. Things that were supposed to stay down and never come up are beginning to surface.


In her trademark, passive-aggressive parenting pattern, Mom leaves newspaper clippings about the death of Karen Carpenter, just a year earlier, on my bed. After years of struggling with anorexia, Karen’s heart just gave out. In photos of the iconic singer with the crystal-clear voice, it becomes clear to me that it is possible to be too thin. Beyond twiggy-thin. Less than-a-size-zero thin.


While this is about food, it is also about something deeper. It is about exercising control where I never felt I had it. It is reflective of more than the image I see in the mirror, a funhouse mirror where a too-fat girl looks back, even though the scale clearly says I’m not fat.


In the mid-1980s there is little access to information about or support for anorexia and bulimia.  I attempt to exorcise my eating disorder demons when I leave home for college and develop a somewhat healthier relationship with food outside my mother’s fluctuating parameters. Though, once the seeds are planted, distorted self-image and a complicated connection to food sprouts up like an unwelcomed weed throughout a lifetime.




There’s the guilt that accompanies an un-purged binge. There’s the guilt when a purge isn’t prevented. There’s the ordering of salads on dates when you really want the pasta. There’s the time when you order pasta and beat yourself up for the indulgence. There’s the turning every window you pass into a mirror and never being happy with what you see. There’s the wedding dress you still wish fit differently three decades hence, and then the baby weight that takes a little too long to come off.


And then there’s the baby. You swear she will grow up loving her perfectly precious body in a way you didn’t. That little girl who looks so radiant in her tiny leotard, twirling across the dance studio floor with pink and yellow scarves in her fists, giggling at her image in the mirror with her fellow ballerinas. If only she could always value her body as much as she does in this moment, for what it can do, for how it jumps and gets her across rooms and up mountains, holding her smile, bright and strong, three feet in the air.


You vow that you will never critique your own body in her presence or use that triggering four letter word, DIET, in your house. You encourage healthy eating but never make any food off limits. You think you’ve done pretty well, yet she sees you grimace in the mirror when you don’t know she’s looking. She notices that you keep that beach cover-up on. And she is bombarded by more images of what the media finds beautiful than your Seventeen Magazines ever taunted.


And you catch your exquisite now teenage daughter frowning in the mirror. “I hate my body,” she says. “What do you mean?” you ask. “My thighs and my rib cage are way too big,” she grumbles, “And my butt is too flat.” “I’m sorry you feel that way, but that isn’t what I see at all,” You struggle to find the words, to reflectively listen when she is hating on what is most precious to you. You revert to your truth but it comes out cliché, “You are beautiful inside and out.” She rolls her eyes.


She moves the food around on her plate with her fork and takes very few bites. She dances for hours every day and then runs for miles. She is taking a psychology class in high school and announces to you one day, “I think I may have an eating disorder.”


That stomach of yours, the one you are constantly aware of being too large as it rolls over the edge of your jeans, catches your falling heart. But you are awed by the self-awareness she has at seventeen. She begins therapy. Body dysmorphia and exercise anorexia, they say. You read books, trying to focus on her recovery, ignoring how much of yourself you see in them.


She decides to major in psychology in college and comes home for Christmas break her freshman year, a woman of the world. She has more knowledge than her parents ever had, of that she is certain, as she educates the family at the dinner table with her newly acquired wisdom on counter-hegemony and ampliative inference. Later that night, when you tuck her into bed, old memories of your baby girl flood back as your hand caresses her brow. “Mom,” she says, “I’ve been doing a lot of reading and I really think you might have an eating disorder.” And you realize then, that the cycle carried from mother to daughter to daughter could really change with the next generation, but now it is you that needs to take a good look in the mirror and do the work.



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As shared at Story Salon's EQUAL TIME on Wednesday, March 27, 2024.


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