When I’m eight, a new girl enters our community: Karen Fenstemacher. She isn’t hard to spot or forget because she’s very fat, weighing at least 140 pounds.
Though at almost 90 pounds I’m a “husky,” a “Butterbean,” and a ” little pig,” she is a “Fatso.”
My grandmother tells stories about Karen and the weekly fellowship youth suppers at church on Sunday nights. I don’t attend those suppers because I’m stuffing my face full of kosher bologna/salami sandwiches slathered with cream cheese at my other grandmother’s apartment. To complement the sandwich, I eat Golden Flake Barbecue chips, a whole kosher pickle, and for dessert, a cinnamon roll and/or an individual cup of Barber’s ice cream with nuts, chocolate sauce, and cherry topping. Of course, a King-size Coke washes it all down.
Does anyone try to contain me? Did they want to? Is that even possible?
Karen, however, is “contained”:
“Her mother told me not to let her have more than one helping of whatever we served,” my grandmother continues. “One hot dog or plate of spaghetti. But the poor child would eat hers so fast that she’d be back in the kitchen before we finished serving the other children. She’d beg for more, and it just broke my heart to say no.”
“Do you ever let her have any more?”
“No, I promised her mother! Oh, the poor thing would cry…but she’s so fat!”
I pity Karen, but only momentarily, for then my grandmother adds with a wink:
“And you know what else? She always asks about you, where you are! I think she likes you!”
So Fatso likes Butterbean!. My grandmother isn’t the only one who thinks so either. Everyone teases me:
“Isn’t Karen your girlfriend? Don’t you want her to be?”
The truth is that Karen is sweet and smart. Yet I don’t want a girlfriend in third grade.
No guy I know does.
Especially not a fat one.
What if she weighed half of what she does? Or even three-quarters? Would I take a chance then?
But then, if she were skinny, “normal,” why would she like me?
As I work my way through adolescence, I start “leaning out.” My hair grows past my shoulders; I talk my mother into buying me one of those skinny-ribbed, zip-up thin cotton shirts. I pretend that my stomach doesn’t poke out from its confined space—that I’m not a victim of “Dunlop’s disease,” an affliction that my best friend’s daddy explains to me as “when your stomach dun-lopped over your belt.”
I suck mine in, hold it tight.
And though she buys the shirt for me, my mother can’t hold back her assessment:
“It won’t fit you right. You just don’t have the physique for that shirt!”
It’s too hippie-ish for her taste anyway. She’d prefer me in a blue Oxford button-down, or a half-sleeve white linen dress shirt. Something classy; something “Southern.” Something that will contour to my flabby torso.
Of course, she serves these remarks with a large portion of fried chicken, brown gravy, homemade rolls, and mashed potatoes. Of course, I eat it all, with seconds on the chicken.
Of course she’s right about the shirt, as the sad pictures from my life then will forever attest.
What is in my stomach? What gets stuck there? It will be decades before I am enlightened about the body and its spiritual ties. Before I remember that my default position whenever I felt fear, blame, or humiliation was to cower in my room, and when asked “What’s the matter with you,” to whimper, “My stomach hurts.”
I realize now that it has been hurting all my life. That the food I put into it doesn’t satisfy. That my stomach’s shape focuses all my attention. That my stomach has never been mine anyway. No doctor or nurse or daddy detached it. Detached us. And while I have been sustained by the food my mother gives me, she’s never fed me the pure emotion of love. No wonder that for all the years I lived at home, I just couldn’t get full no matter how much I ate.
Casting aside my skinny-ribbed short forever, I adopt a flannel shirt, which I wear for all occasions, along with ragged jeans and thick-soled boots. I’m living my Neil Young hippie dream, certain that my wardrobe and sense of style will compensate for any vestige of weighted shame.
I hold onto a 34-inch waist throughout high school, but during my first year of college, I grow into a 36. That year, the constant cafeteria food abuses me, as do the late night jaunts to Pizza Hut and IHOP. After the blandness of college food, when I go home I relish vegetables that I’ve never even considered smelling before: collard greens, sweet potatoes, squash, field peas. My jeans are still bell bottoms, so the pounds of flesh I’m adding aren’t so noticeable at first. But when straight legs come back in style, I can no longer hide my newly-padded identity.
I keep covering my body, hiding it. I don’t know who I am and refuse to look for or at myself, as if I’m scared of what I might find or see. What I might discover about what’s happened to me.
So I begin skipping breakfast, walking everywhere. I refuse late-night runs for pizza or barbecued chicken sandwiches. Soon, I’m able to fit a 34-inch jean again, just barely. When I look at myself in the mirror, I know I’m a fake-34. I know the degree to which I suck in my stomach, and when I crave humiliation, I let that stomach sag for all it’s worth.
And then I pinch the extra inches until I wear red blotches below my waistline.
My stomach-suck carries me safely through college. I graduate academically, but my body lags far behind my mind. The following fall, my parents move me to my grad school life where I know no one. Before they leave me behind in a sketchy studio apartment, they take me to A&P, my mother’s grocery store of choice. She selects food items that I don’t begin to know how to cook, stocking my tiny, non-frost-free refrigerator with meatloaf ingredients, chuck roasts, breads, and Stouffer’s lasagna. I see how full my poor refrigerator is—how its whirring gears are working too hard for its age and health. I also see that soon, the straining stuffed appliance will be me.
Being far away from home actually proves good for me. My new campus is nestled in the foothills; my Teaching Assistant duties are so far-spaced that I get much of the exercise I need just rambling from class to class in the ten minutes I’m allotted. My food budget straps me, disciplines me; I avoid pizza joints and delis. My clothes hang more comfortably, and my dating life soars.
But I’m still self-conscious about romantic relationships. I believe girls still see me as fat, even when, after a few weeks of dating, one girl insists, as we’re sitting at a bistro sipping red wine, that I unclasp the third button down on my white linen shirt.
“I love looking at your chest!”
Is this really me?
Though I obey her, I reject her soon after. I don’t believe any positive physical attention paid to me can be genuine—can come without some buried weight. I have no history for this positive reflection. And if I believe it, where will that leave the years of food and nourishment? The years I ingested love, supposedly, through my mother’s cooking?
Then I meet someone who seems very ready for my challenge, and maybe my own instincts, deep within my body, are ready for her too. She is cheerful, optimistic, always happy. Fearless. She’s on her own, too, far away from home and family. A few months after we start dating, she gives me a trial membership to an exercise club. I try that workout world a few times. The exercise itself feels good, but after my trial period ends, I balk at committing to a three-year membership and paying forty dollars a month to a corporation that wants me to believe that they believe in me.
I am not a fitness whore.
“But it might be good for you,” my girlfriend says. “Being active and healthy, you know?”
Her metabolism is the exact opposite of mine. She’s a doer: loves kayaking, hiking, rock climbing, playing tennis and volleyball. Being active will bring us closer, she believes.
In the several weeks I take to decide this issue, I grow shapeless again. And heavy. Heavy, heavy me. I could walk out on this relationship. I could conform to past images and reflections. But I don’t. I choose not to. Her voice, her optimism and interest in me—an interest with no heavy baggage attached—beckon me.
So I join the club. I walk on ellipticals for forty minutes. I use Nautilus weights, and take aerobics classes several times a week. I begin feeling…good, hopeful, about my weight, about my girlfriend, about our future. Has anyone ever shown this much concern about me? About the picture of a healthy me? A me who can be loved for himself and not as compensation for or absolution from guilt?
A few months later, we get married. We are in love, and I think I’ve overcome my insecurities, my feelings of shame about all that I used to weigh.
One night, waiting on her to come home, I violate my own principles. I see her journal lying open on our bedside table. I move closer. I see my name, and then I see myself as she saw me “back then.”
I don’t remember anything else that she wrote, just my name and the word “FAT” next to it. It hurts to know the truth, even when I feel past it all. I say nothing about my transgression and vow to stay fit and trim.
I continue working out faithfully. I shape, sculpt, and trim my body, but however hard I work, I can’t fit into the European-styled briefs she buys me. She accepts what I can’t change, doesn’t criticize me when indulge in frozen yogurt. She knows I’m working on me, and she encourages me, always.
I think about her journal, that word, but I see how she looks at me now. I believe in our growing intimacy, and I refuse to let one word control me: control what I choose to believe about me.
But naturally, our world isn’t always a family menu just for two.
In the early years of our marriage, for health and ethical reasons, my wife and I give up all red meat. This in itself proves a challenge for my mother to digest.
When my parents are visiting, my mother insists on cooking while we’re at work. I come home one evening to a very concerned wife, a not-unfamiliar aroma, and a beaming mother:
“They had pork tenderloin on sale at the Fresh Market today. There’s nothing like a good pork tenderloin!!!”
My wife is Iranian, though she wasn’t raised Muslim. Still, most Iranians don’t eat pork no matter who they are or what God they believe in.
So when we sit down to dinner, my wife serves herself a generous portion of potatoes, stewed vegetables, and bread. She then looks right at my mother and says,
“Jo Ann, I just can’t eat that meat. I know you worked hard and meant well, but I can’t eat pork.”
My mother sinks a little then. And then she looks at me.
“Uh, I really don’t think I can eat it either,” I say.
“Well, just don’t eat it then. I guess I can’t do anything right!”
Later, my wife suggests that we all go out for ice cream. There’s a Swensons in town, and hoping this will lift everyone’s spirits, she and I lead the way out.
Seated in the festive Swenson’s air, we pour over the six-page dessert menu. My mother finds a tempting item and points it out to me:
“You ought to get that! Why not?”
I look at the picture of this “dessert.” For a moment, I waver.
It’s the most enormous ice cream sundae I’ve ever seen. They call it “The Kitchen Sink.” Would eight scoops of vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate ice cream smothered in whipped cream, chocolate, caramel, and butterscotch syrup, nuts, cherries, and God knows what other forms of sugar, be enough to compensate my mother for a neglected pork dinner?
I look at my wife and then at our waitress.
“Just a scoop of vanilla with pecans, please.”
I don’t know what lies ahead for my health condition. I am responding to Prednisone, which has reduced my protein seepage dramatically.
I have also gained ten pounds in the past week.
I face myself again in the bathroom mirror. My stomach is sagging, all added weight accumulating there. For a moment, that old word returns. For a moment, I feel it. Yet, I refuse to say it. I refuse to be it. For there are new words, too: words like “responding,” and “healing kidneys.”
Words like “You’re good, healthy,” and “I love you.”
I keep looking. And then I see what I’ve been searching for, what this journey has been for. My mind relaxes. I smile. I am healthy. The voice I hear is my own. For the first time, I feel like I’m “me.”
- Girl in the Window