My entire life there’ve been skinny people and people like me — overweight people. I recognized at an early age how much more that distinction was about than weight, especially for women. There are the girls who grow up cute, whom boys tease out of affection, who never worry about what they eat, who don’t fear being weighed. And then there are the girls like me, who just don’t fit — into their clothes or into certain social circles. One of my clearest childhood memories is of sitting on the swings at the playground when I was seven or eight and watching as a bevy of little boys chased one of those little girls I wasn’t. I knew even then that she had powers I never would.
At nine, I went on my first diet. I don’t remember if it was my idea or my mother’s, but at that point I must have been the first third-grader ever to enroll in Jenny Craig. (This was before the childhood obesity epidemic.) We had tried somewhere else before that, some weird place where fat kids were given workbooks that taught us how to eat right, but, please — I wasn’t even interested in doing my homework in third grade, much less nutrition worksheets. Jenny Craig, however, worked — for a while. The prepackaged foods took all the work out of it, and I shed the pounds that so offended the bullies in school. At last, I thought, I was safe! But I was also nine, and my understanding of healthy eating amounted to, “I’m skinny now, so I can eat whatever I want.” Soon after I stopped my weekly visits to Jenny, the weight came back. And so, within three years, I was back at her door.
My second round with Jenny was a charm. I attended classes on nutrition and how to eat slowly and stop when you’re full. I read the pamphlets, kept a food diary, ate the packaged meals. Forty or so pounds later, my life started to change. I was now a “pretty girl.” Teacher’s pet. Honor student. And the only thing that had changed was my appearance. Without my realizing it, my personality split – there was the girl everyone thought was beautiful and graceful, the girl people thought was fat and ugly, and the person I’d always been underneath. (And I still struggle playing them all.)
Looking back, there are things I know my mother could have done differently. I certainly didn’t need Lunchables or Chef Boyardee and microwavable brownies — all those unhealthy things kids enjoy and that save parents time in the kitchen. She could have taught me all the things Jenny did. But she was the one safe space in my life. There were landmines everywhere — bullies on the school bus, ignorant teachers in the classroom, trouble at home — and while food was my escape, my mother was my protection. I could cry to her when bullies beat me up and count on her to call their parents and the school. I could count on her to take a walk with me. And when we separated from my dad for a short period of time, I believed it was all an adventure.
When I tell people I started dieting at nine they get this look on their face as if they want to call child protection services. “Your mother supported that?” they ask, in shock. But I think nothing of it. Of course she supported it. I was unhappy and she wanted to help. I’d be more shocked if my mother saw my weight and my unhappiness growing and handed me a chocolate bar. Through all her efforts — failed and successful — she taught me that I have the power to change.