By Kara Waite
Birth control didn’t make me fat, but the teacher who confiscated my pill pack said it was probably to blame for my weight. I wanted to tell her I hadn’t needed a prescription to pile on the pounds. Instead, I said nothing and went back to the county health department after school for another free sample. I needed it because my boyfriend, with whom I’d not yet had sex, said he didn’t like condoms. This was not, at the time, a red flag.
Even at fifteen, I was still, in so many ways, a little girl. Actually, I was never little. I burst out of my mother and into the world at a substantial weight of 7 lbs. 9 oz. (22 inches long), and save for a few periods of alarmingly rapid shrinkage, I’ve been growing ever since. In fact, these days my ass is easily twice the size it was back then – back when what I saw when I looked in the mirror was not “slightly pudgy” so much as Jabba the Hut.
The first time I went on a diet, I didn’t know it was a diet. I just knew that, instead of enjoying those shrink-wrapped slices of Velveeta out in the open, I needed to do it in my bedroom closet. I remember the way they melted and stuck to the roof of my mouth, the way they felt sliding down my gullet in un-chewed lumps after I’d wrapped them around filched Hershey’s Kisses and swallowed fast because I thought I’d heard someone coming.
My grandmother was the one to inform me that my weight was problematic. “You need to watch what you eat,” she told me. This made some sense because, unlike the mouth she was always telling me to watch, my food was at least something I could see without looking in the mirror. So I took her advice literally and started making artwork with my lunch. I’d bite my crackers and turkey into shapes – Christmas trees, my initials, a basketball and a hoop. I watched and I watched and I watched. I squinted and studied and nothing happened.
Well, except that I, of course, ate my creations and got fatter.
It wasn’t just that I was fat. I was tall, too, but no one cared about that. The day we got weighed in P.E. the entire class gathered round the scale, watching the nurse slide past eight-five, past ninety, past ninety-five, not stopping till she hit one hundred and six. It was of no interest that I was taller than any of the boys, taller, in fact, than even the nurse. No one wondered or worried about the view from five-foot-two. My weight, on the other hand, was the source of much preoccupation and discussion.
“One hundred six divided by two is fifty-three,” said my best friend, “you’re two of me.” It didn’t occur to her that this was the wrong thing to say and it didn’t (fully) occur to me either – not then, anyway.
The next week, the circus came to town and we went with her mother and my grandmother, two women who wore their bony asses like Olympic medals. They bought us each a bag of peanuts and, because I was ungraceful in addition to chunky, I dropped mine. I begged for another bag, but my grandmother said no. I asked my friend to share, but, being eight-years-old, she also said no.
“She won’t give me any,” I whined.
“She needs them more than you,” my grandmother said, pinching my thigh, poking my belly, and laughing. My friend’s mother snickered, too, and, not wanting to be left out, so did my friend.
Sometimes it is as if we have spent our entire lives absorbing unspoken protocol for a moment like this. I did what I was expected to do – what, to this day, is my default response to my body: I diffused the situation with humor.
“Us elephants love peanuts,” I said, and, like all little girls who follow the rules, I waited for my reward. It came in the form of a collective giggle. A giggle that reminded me to suck in my tummy as the trapeze artist released the bar. A that giggle prompted me to yank my shorts down over my wide thighs when I got up to use the restroom during intermission. A giggle that confirmed what my crude eight-year-old intellect had already begun to suspect: my body was a joke. I’d been right in thinking it was not right.
When I was thirteen, I lost twelve pounds in one week on the Cabbage Soup Diet. My grandmother gave me $50, bought me a new bathing suit, and took me to the movies to see My Girl 2. I ate ice chips instead of popcorn. When Anna Clumsky came on screen, my grandmother yanked the loop of my now loose jeans shorts, “Keep going,” she said, “and you’ll look like that.”
Diets, by nature, necessitate a preoccupation with food and rules about it. Nothing But Skim Milk and Bananas on Day 5. Potatoes, But Only After 3PM. What began as a hyper awareness, bloomed into obsession. An obsession that got so bad that I called and asked to talk to the priest and get the name of the company who made the communion Eucharist so I could get the nutrition information. Even the body of Christ, which I’d ingested by mistake in the first place, had to be noted in my intake journal.
I was fifteen and a size eleven. This made me a bad person by nature, a savage wildebeest with no self-control, no sense of decency. But I learned that existing on eight orange segments, half a cup of cottage cheese, and sixteen Saltines a day could be a form of penance.
What my grandmother would say: “You’ll never be skinny. You’ll always be inclined to look a little heavy, honey, but you should try.” What I’d hear: “You will never be good enough.”
This is why, the first time a boy – a real boy I’d later love – saw me naked, I kept my hand over my belly. “Do you have cramps?” he asked. “Like, does your stomach hurt?”
What I thought: everything hurts.
My grandmother’s weight-loss incentives were as bottomless as the pit of this stomach – this hunger.
“If you lose twenty pounds, I’ll pay for a . . .” computer, a car, a trip to Italy, a week at horse camp, college education.
She never offered the thing I wanted. But the boys did.
Fat girls, with few sad exceptions, are what tenth grade boys refer to as stacked. That is to say: I had huge breasts, and where huge breasts go in the halls of a small-town high school, adoration and offers of payment to touch them follow.
“Grandma,” I asked, “if I were to lose ten pounds would you buy me a push-up bra?”
“Make it fifteen pounds.”
I let boys tell me I had a beautiful face and soft lips. I let them put their hands inside my shirt and up under my push-up bra in the dark, empty band room. And the auto-shop. And the coat room where they kept the anatomy skeleton. I let boys touch me in the backs of trucks parked in the desert in the middle of the night. But the one place I never let a boy touch me was in public.
Some of them tried, too. When they reached for my hand in the hallway, I’d put it in my pocket. At the movies on group dates, I’d shrug from their grips. I’d cross my arms over my chest and lean forward. I made it clear that they shouldn’t want me for more than a few minutes, a few hours tops, and only someplace dark and secluded.
I made myself their secret, their processed cheese food, their chocolate, their Nutty Bars, their Drumsticks, their peanut butter and graham crackers. I was a thing they could only enjoy in private and never admit to liking in public.
They touched me and then they left me and even though I’d asked – begged – them to go, I ate. I stopped at Dairy Queen for M&M blizzards and inhaled Hostess cupcakes at the bus stop. Then, in the alley behind our house, I threw them up.
What I threw up, the dog ate and it made him sick because chocolate is bad for dogs. What I thought I felt at the time was shame, but what I really felt was guilt. I guess they are just means to the same end. What is shame but guilt over something you didn’t even do?
Anyway, the dog got sick and so, because I adored that dog, I stopped making myself sick. Instead, I started starving for real. Then I started dating for real, dating a real boy who took me on real dates, to places where other people could see us. My conceding to this had nothing to do with me and everything to do with him – his body, his patient assistance with my math homework, his mother who’d been my teacher once and the first person besides my own mother to call me pretty.
The real boy asked me to go to a dance and my grandmother bought my dress, which was iridescent pink, a size too small and necessitated halving my already meager portions of cottage cheese and oranges.
I was fifteen and a (snug) size twelve. My life is a series of numbers: ages, weights, dress sizes.
The real boy was tall. He was older. He had name (Andrew*), a beat-up SUV, five o’clock shadow, and a scholarship to the local community college. He listened to indie rock and wore Chucks. He bought me a Fiona Apple CD, a copy of The Bell Jar, and, one time, flowers. He liked the way my hair smelled and said I had the smoothest hands he’d ever held.
He took more than he gave, though, for example, my virginity.
He didn’t stop there (see also: complete control of my life, half my stash of feel-up money, and every good memory I had of his mother).
But first: my virginity. Every night for six months, we’d drive out to the desert hot springs and sit in his truck. Every night for six months, he’d say that we were either friends or we were fucking and that was all there was to it. I was a smart girl (all fat girls were smart, they had to be). For as long as I could, I called his bluff (which I knew was a bluff because I’d known him my whole life), replying that if we weren’t friends then we certainly weren’t fucking. Then we’d make out and I’d give him a hand job.
This went on and on until one night, it didn’t.
One night, thanks to a recent bout with the stomach flu, I’d squeezed into a pair of my skinny sister’s fattest fat jeans. Between that victory and the cloyingly sweet strawberry wine from Boone’s Farm, I felt as pretty as I’d ever felt. So I took off my shirt and my bra. Then I sat there in those Levi’s 501’s, which were high-rise enough to give me a muffin top, and allowed myself, however, briefly, to allow someone else to look at me. I didn’t hide or suck it in or contort. Even though the dome light was on in his truck, I didn’t care. I let him see this thing I’d been trained to believe was so hideous, this gut that I’d been conditioned to imagine looked like a busted container of biscuits, dough trying desperately to escape its confines. I let him see. I let him see me.
Then I let him run his hands down my sides. I let him unbutton my button fly. I let him do what he wanted, simply because he wanted to do it. Because being wanted was what I wanted, and being wanted felt good.
I know that I was underneath him, but I think the rest is just something I tell myself. The staring at the rip in the fabric on the ceiling. The hooking my pinky through it, and tearing until the hole was twice its original size. I’m sure that part’s just an overt metaphor my subconscious has used to replace the simple facts of the matter: 1. I was too drunk and disengaged to remember much of anything except, 2. it hurt like hell, and 3. he wanted me.
Afterward, I wore his shirt (which I’d thought would be too small but actually fit like a dress) and rode on his back down to the spring. I asked and asked and asked if I was too heavy, if I was hurting him, which, incidentally, were the same things he’d wanted to know only moments before.
“You’re not too heavy,” he said, “you’re actually pretty light.”
I knew this was a lie, but it was a lie I wanted to listen to until I felt the hot bubbling spring hit the backs of my bare thighs. Until he’d stepped off the last of the slimy stairs and we were submerged. Until it no longer needed saying because, in the water, even a girl like me is weightless.