By Telaina Eriksen
“I’ve noticed you’ve gained weight. I mean, I haven’t been staring at your body…”
“A lot of weight,” I say.
“I just mean to say… I just want to encourage you… I’m not saying it right, but you deserve to be thinner and healthier.”
I feel the tears spill out of my eyes. So much shame. Ancient shame that I have carried with me ever since my mother slapped my arm repeatedly for salting a saltine when I was four or five years old. Good people aren’t fat. Fat people are ugly and bad and lack control and self-discipline. Men do not like fat girls and if men don’t like you, they won’t marry you, and if you aren’t married, if you don’t have a man, what good are you? The Gospel According to My Mother.
“It’s how I deal with things,” I tell my friend, oversimplifying.
“This fall, I think I know how you felt. I gained a lot of weight, was very heavy for me. I remember thinking, ‘why not? I’m happy with myself’… I’m not saying it right… but I love you. I want you to be happy.”
I am so huge, I require an intervention. I love my friend but I feel like sobbing. Doesn’t she think I know? Doesn’t she know that I always know? Maybe I am naïve enough to believe that some people just accept how I look and aren’t secretly judging me.
I get into my minivan after our conversation. I reach down to feel my stomach, feel the exact proportions of my shame and worthlessness. The exact dimensions of my failure as a woman.
As near as I can figure out and remember, I was sexually molested off and on from the time that I was about four to when I was about nine. When I was nine years old, I had my tonsils out and due to complications, almost died. I was without oxygen to my brain for not merely seconds, but minutes. It felt easy to blame my fragmented childhood memories on that illness.
The feelings I remember most from my childhood are terror and anxiety. Nightmares plagued me. During the daylight hours I constantly sought attention, distraction, love. At night I sucked my thumb and tried not to wet the bed.
Here is a list of the things I need to be doing at this exact moment:
cleaning the house
baking my son’s vegan birthday cupcakes
walking the dog
placing the new boxes of tissue around the house (it is cold and flu season after all)
turning in my grades for the semester
mailing the Christmas box to my siblings in another state
scooping the cat’s litter box
cleaning off the top of my desk
loading the dishwasher
wrapping my son’s birthday presents
being a good friend, wife, mother and daughter
being Zen (while also being understanding, charming, evolved and happy)
making time for the important things
reducing my social media time
My friend feels horrible about the conversation. She texts me right away. Brings over a plant and a lovely note to try to make amends for an offense she did not mean to give. I want to email her and tell her everything is okay. But it’s not okay. Rather than my friend who I loved and trusted, she (for a minute) became my mother. You will never be good enough. You are fat and ugly and unacceptable to me. My mother–the person who formed my internal landscape.
My “me,” my “I” is built on a fault line which I have tried to reinforce with quicksand and shore up with mercury.
I want to hold my empty palms up to my friend and say, “Look. This is who I am.”
My mother took me to K-Mart when I was four years old to have my picture taken before she took me for my first real haircut. In this picture, my long blond hair hangs past my butt. In this picture, I am a normal-sized child wearing a red outfit with little hearts on the pockets.
In the K-Mart picture the following year, I am a bloated caricature of myself. My blond hair has begun to darken to brown. I have gained 20, maybe 30 pounds, a tremendous amount of weight on a preschool child’s frame. The photographer shot the picture from the waist up, hoping that would make the picture (and me) in some way better.
About this time, my mother’s interference with my food consumption began. “Don’t have seconds. Don’t eat that. Put down your fork between bites. Do you want to be fatter? Do you WANT to be unhealthy? You have such a pretty face if you just weren’t fat. Eat to live, don’t live to eat. Wait 20 minutes before getting something else.”
This was all the more confusing because my mother was about 5’7 and weighed over 200 pounds, regularly bingeing on chips and ice cream. If I was fat and bad, she was too.
But she was my mommy. And Mommy can’t be bad.
With all the psychotherapy I have had at this point in my life, I see these lethal grooves marring the smoothness of my young brain. You are fat. You are bad. You are unworthy. You are unattractive. But at the same time, being molested repeatedly and the messages that came with that, seemingly opposite but somehow the same–You are too attractive. I can’t resist. This is what girls are for. This is why girls exist. It’s not my fault. You have all this long blond hair and this sweet pink mouth.
I fell in love with my therapist. Which is pretty common. He fell in love back. I don’t know if that is common or not.
To be loved. I was so desperate to be loved and accepted. To be loved by a member of the opposite sex meant that I would be made whole. I would be married (attaining the intended and perfect state for females), I would have children who would love me and I could live for. I would be whoever this man would want me to be. I would be good and loyal. I would never leave him and I would never cheat. Because he had loved me when I was fat.
Weight Watchers: 8
Medical Weight Loss Clinic: 1
Jenny Craig: 2
South Beach Diet: 5
Counting Calories: 11
Number of Weight Loss/Nutrition Books Owned: 22
Lifetime Pounds Lost: 400+
Lifetime Pounds Gained: 400+
Height: 5 feet, 10 inches
Current Weight: 307 pounds
Highest Weight: 317 pounds
Lowest Adult Weight: 185 pounds (21 years old)
Weight at Birth: 11 pound 7 ounces
Weight at age 12: 185 pounds
On Facebook, I see a buff mom surrounded by her three young children. She wears clingy exercise clothes, her taut abdomen is revealed by a skimpy exercise bra. She asks me, “What is your excuse?”
In 2006, my father died of bladder cancer. I saw the effects of his life choices (smoking) on his health. I decided to eat as a little as I could and work out for two hours a day, six days a week. I ran and ran and ran. My back ached, my right knee and left knee both throbbed from overuse. In 2009, after my relationship with my beloved psychotherapist ended in a series of recriminations, boundary violations and regret, after the death of my sister to suicide, after the death of my brother-in-law to suicide, and after the death of my dear mother-in-law to brain cancer (this was the final awful thing that happened in 2009, the day after Thanksgiving), I decided I just didn’t give a shit. I was so hungry. I needed to eat. My body ached. I ate and ate and ate. Within two years my body returned to its ruined, obese state.
I used to pray in bed at night. I was terrified of the dark. I always whined for my sister to come upstairs with me and the answer from my mother was always the same—she was older and could stay up longer. Curled on my side, sucking my thumb, my blankie draped over my face so that if Something came to kill me, I wouldn’t have to see it first, I prayed. My Lord and My God, please let me be thin. Please make him go away. Please let me be pretty and popular. Please don’t let anyone make fun of me at school tomorrow. Let me wake up and be thin. I’m sorry if I’m bad and deserve to be punished. Please choose another punishment. Any other one. My Lord and My God, please make him go away. And please let me be thin.
The man who sexually molested me told me he loved me. He gave me Sunny Delight in small plastic containers. He gave me candy bars and “pretties” for my hair (elastic bands with ribbons attached to them). He gave me Scooby Doo stickers.
The summer between freshman and sophomore years in college, I walked along Grand River, the main street in East Lansing, Mich. on my way to the Quality Dairy store, to buy chips and dip and orange sherbet to binge on. It had been a long day at work. I felt so lonely, sawed in half. I wanted someone to understand. To feel with me how hard it was to be in this world.
“Heeeyyyyy, fat bitch! Come suck my dick!” Three fraternity boys leered out of an Audi, one honked frantically.
I already did that, I thought. It didn’t help.
I felt shame manifest in all my major internal organs. I should be better. I should be less.
As I touched the Ruffles potato chips before pulling them off their wire shelf, I wished I had the courage to slash both of my wrists and bleed out in quiet and dignified manner in my own apartment.
I knew then that capacity for pain—physical and emotional—is endless.
Men who are maimed or die in war receive medals. They are given funeral plots at Arlington. White gloves are worn. The word “hero” is whispered. Twenty-one shots ring out in the air as Taps is played. He gave his life in service to his country. He loved his country so much he died for it.
When a woman dies or is maimed because of service or love (in those personal wars that happen in the secret spaces of American life) she is blamed. Autopsied vigorously. Her brain is pulled from her head and weighed. She is buried in a brown cardboard box. Forgotten. Her voice frozen somewhere between the fantasy of who we think we are and the reality of what our society does to women bodies.
A woman who dies physically or metaphorically at the hands of those she loves is used a cautionary tale to children. You don’t want to be like her, dear. She made poor choices.
Who on earth could love someone or something enough to die for it?
“You are borderline hypertensive,” my doctor says.
“I do have white-coat syndrome,” I respond. My cholesterol is still low. My fasting blood sugar is creeping up but still in the healthy range at 86.
But I know how tightly I am wound. She is right. My earnestness, my internalizing of personal conflict, my level of stress… I feel the truth of what she says.
I see she has written “morbidly obese” on my chart and I feel the tears again.
“There’s an over the counter diet pill called alli. You may want to try it. If you eat the wrong thing, you have serious consequences. It may help.”
“You will have to go the bathroom. A lot.”
Shitting, I think. She’s talking about shitting. The answer to all of this is to shit and shit and shit.
I am supposed to believe that beauty isn’t a size. That beauty is inside. That beauty is not in some way quantifiable. This is lip service, nothing more. This is a slight of hand, a funhouse mirror to enjoy while your ass is being fucked without lube by American Beauty Culture. Beauty is tall, thin, young, with a big rack. Beauty is white. Beauty is a certain kind of hair and clear, flawless, unwrinkled skin.
People who say that a woman’s beauty doesn’t matter are similar to people who say money doesn’t matter. I grew up very poor. I am no longer poor. Yes, money cannot buy you love or health, but it can sure help you get these things.
Every major study indicates that overweight children become overweight adults. And that 80 to 90 percent of people who lose major amounts of weight gain it all back within two years. Evidently, there is something in our brains that resists losing weight. It is best if normal eating patterns are never interfered with. If normal patterns are interfered with, you are doomed.
I have gained weight and lost weight and gained weight and lost weight. And my friend, with the very best meanings and intentions, is telling me to start this depressing and ridiculous journey again.
If hating your body worked, I would be a size zero. If being judged worked, I would weigh 100 pounds or less.
Weight Loss Books Owned:
Dr. Phil’s Ultimate Weight Loss Solution
Dr. Phil’s Ultimate Weight Loss Solution Food Guide
Take It Off with Julia (a 12-week plan)
Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating
The Serotonin Solution
Feeding the Hungry Heart
When Food is Love
Women, Food and God
Nothing to Lose
Fat is a Feminist Issue
Get with the Program with Bob Greene
A Course in Weight Loss: 21 Spiritual Lessons For Surrendering Your Weight Forever
The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet
Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body
Making the Connection: 10 Steps to a Better Body & a Better Life
The Best Life Diet
Like Mother, Like Daughter: How Women Are Influenced by their Mother’s Relationship with Food—and How to Break the Pattern
In August 2013, my mother’s leg was amputated, due in part, to uncontrolled diabetes.
My mother was also sexually abused.
My psychotherapist would sometimes sit on the couch next to me. He would touch my hair so softly sometimes I thought I imagined it. He said he loved me.
On my left wrist is a white and ancient scar from when I attempted suicide when I was 18 years old. It’s on the inside of my wrist. No one ever notices it.
But everyone notices how much I weigh.
I open Microsoft Outlook to email my friend, “It’s okay,” I write. “I do want to be healthier. I will keep trying.” Oversimplifying again.
I sign it, “Love,” followed by my name.
To receive communion in the Catholic Church, you put your left palm in your right one and hold them up to receive The Body of Christ from the Eucharistic minister. Once you have received Christ’s body, you take your right hand out from under your left one and place the wafer in your mouth. (Reverse this, if you are left-handed.) I don’t attend church a whole lot anymore, but I always loved the moment of waiting, of anticipating, holding out your empty hand. Waiting for it be filled with salvation.
Telaina Eriksen is an assistant professor in creative writing at Michigan State University. Her articles, essays and poems have appeared in Role/Reboot, Fem2.0, Mamamia,The Feminist Press’ Under the Microscope, Hospital Drive, Marco Polo Quarterly, The Truth About the Fact, poemmemoirstory, ARS Medica, and in other online and print publications. She was the artist in residence in May 2013 for the Institute of Sustainable Living and Natural Design in East Jordan, Michigan. She holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles.
Featured image by Tiffany Lucero.