by Eve Mankoff
A weekly massive frozen yogurt pie, topped with whipped cream, might have been excessive. But my twenty-year-old son, home from college, and my other two teenagers bearing their own disappointments, demanded comfort at the start of the shut down in March 2020. My kids grew up making late night runs to The Bigg Chill yogurt shop, and the nostalgia imbued in those flavors was a welcome distraction in uncertain times.
I dug right in with them until there was nothing but buttery crumbs in a pie tin.
Once upon a time, I had a more complicated relationship with food. I could scarcely enjoy it, laden as indulgence was with judgement.
As I have watched them emerge, unapologetically themselves, I have tried to believe that I have created a home where my children, especially my daughter, eschewed that critical voice, the one that had told me to be smaller.
Ten years ago, when my daughter Caroline was eight, we went to a Jonas Brothers concert with friends. The afternoon of the show, Jeannine and I let the kids splash in the Hyatt pool and eat chicken fingers from the grill before dripping through the lobby as they raced to get ready. Caroline and Cole had been friends since preschool but got together less often now because boys play with boys and girls with girls, or so they thought. However, when we, their moms, eager to hang out, enticed them with a live show featuring their favorite Camp Rock stars, they fell back into the easy friendship they’d enjoyed as toddlers.
Back then, Caroline had struggled to relinquish the long, jingly Talking Stick, enamored with the bells inside and with holding court. Cole, more shy, had taken his time to warm up before he shared a few well thought-out words before passing the implement to another child with relief.
The amphitheatre seats rose up the hill and sectioned out like rays against mountain silhouettes. In the front row, Jeannine and I hung back, eager to talk about jobs and frustrating exes. But we found ourselves endlessly distracted, our eyes drawn to the two small bodies bobbing next to us like untethered ocean buoys.
The music rumbled to a start. The lights lifted. The air filled with a hum and the vibration of bodies readying to let loose. When eighteen year-old Demi Lovato’s husky contralto pierced the din, the audience froze, spellbound, by the delicate girl with the giant voice.
But a heaviness gathered in my chest as I took in the child star, her thick hair swirling about, her tiny body writhing, electrified by the adoring crowd, as her voice strained to reach impossible heights. I saw something in her face, in her bearing, that I recognized. Jeannine whispered, “What a powerhouse!” My mind went elsewhere.
New York circa 1987, I was barely twenty, a junior in college. I was on-stage playing a secretary on roller skates in The Memorandum by Vaclav Havel. Let me clarify that I was playing a piece of furniture – I was wheeled off between my scenes. I got the role because I was angular. I was “perfectly cast,” said one review. The play is about conformity. On the stark set, my paper-thin body and white blouse blended in.
Having had an eating disorder since at least age thirteen when I had no place to share an abundance of sad feelings, I learned to contain myself. I was perfect for blending in. But in earlier years, I needed food to distract me, and I just couldn’t stop eating which put me in an impossible bind.
As a teenager Frozen yogurt was on my “yes” list despite its sugar content and calorie count. The limited number of fat-free varieties, before there was every kind of option, saved it from the other list, the off-limits one, whose foods would make me fat. Pizza, nachos, movie theater popcorn, and everything else that my friends consumed without a second thought were on the “no” list.
My caloric intake was always running in my head. The numbers seemed to rise as I calculated what I could afford behind the counter at TCBY (The Country’s Best Yogurt), working out my eating for the day and how I might stay within bounds to avoid the purge. The TCBY store on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica lay across from Fong Wong, a sliver of a Chinese takeout restaurant whose spicy fumes of Sweet and Sour Chicken wafted in and reminded me of a time before I measured my value in how small I could become.
But the truth is, bulimics knew that cold creamy desserts came back up easily. They had no sharp edges or bulk to induce gagging, and caused fewer headaches and less frequent bloodshot eyes. To this day, I eye tiny women ingesting gigantic containers of the cold, milky treat with suspicion, and concern.
When I went to college, I found the East Coast version of my Los Angeles favorite. Tasty D-Lite was sold in narrow shops, every twenty blocks or so in Manhattan, wedged between the stately buildings that characterize the architecture whose beauty and grandeur had lured me to a new life when I visited in high school, desperate to start over, determined to move past obsession. But instead I got worse and I latched onto this food full of nothing.
Tasty D-Lite flavors had names like “Angel Food Cake” and “Banana ‘n Peanut Butter.” They sounded interesting but all tasted the same. However, I didn’t care because they had so few calories. As I trudged from the Upper West Side to Greenwich Village, trying to burn fat, I sucked down quart after quart of the insubstantial stuff, tricking my mind into liking it, tricking my body into thinking it was fuel.
I had traded the binging and purging of my teenage years for a version of starvation. And when I lost my period and my brain started to black out, I thought I had triumphed. Because I was thin.
At family holidays like Thanksgiving, I bounced up to fill my plate wearing my Laura Ashley dress, my hair in two thick braids. But as I walked back to my chair, I felt the weight of eyes on my food, on my little body that was fleshy in spots, and heard words that were repeated year after year: “ Are you going to eat all of that?” Or if I took seconds: “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”
These admonishments came from Aunt Loraine, with her bleached bouffant hair and tar stained fingers, who never had a nice word for anyone, and whom no one told to shut up because feelings were not what mattered.
Then others chimed in, all of them worried about what my body would become. Worried that if I was fat I would never get a man. Because that was what mattered. So as I grew up I learned to hollow myself out, to become devoid of feelings and empty of food.
That night at the concert Caroline’s small soft body gyrated in an open expression of joy. Un-self-conscious, she drank in a near perfect moment. Up late under a blanket of stars, she was so close to Demi, she must have almost felt the warmth of her breath. But next to my daughter, I only felt an uncomfortable tug as I watched the older, celebrated girl, the one on stage who seemed to be trying so hard, who produced that haunting tone, so beautiful but tense that it sounded like it would shatter. Her tiny frame seemed overwrought from the effort to be seen while also threatening to disappear.
In my own life I had a turning point.
It happened in my mid-twenties at a “Hollywood” party, in New York, after the worst of my eating disorder, but before it was resolved. I was with a “Hollywood Guy” who felt safe in that world. His gender protected him from predation, from immolation. He was a success. This man and I grew up together in LA and had a love affair the June when we were sixteen. At that time, we each had other relationships in disrepair so our affair was secret by design. We spent late nights talking on the phone, kissing on his little boy bed, and driving the hills above the Pacific Ocean in my blue car.
In our twenties, we came together in New York, hoping to rekindle what started that illicit summer.
“Hollywood Guy” left the key with the doorman. I let myself in and saw his success, his spacious apartment, the expensive decor. Feeling awkward, I stood next to the coffee table and reached for a decorative book, wondering who this man was. I retracted as his key jiggered in the lock, as though I had been caught. And in walked a person I did not recognize. Not the boy with the open face, but someone more contrived, in his khaki pants and his moussed up hair. However, his hug was so warm… I tried to settle in.
“Um, we have to go to this party. Is that okay? It’s a work thing. I’m sorry.” But he seemed giddy, not sorry, and determined to show me his world, hoping I would fit right in. He so wanted this to work, he had told me this on the phone while I lay on my bed in Providence, where I was in medical school.
Cornered, in his space, I said “Sure. Why not?” Yet somehow I knew better.
Dressed in slimming black under my thick winter coat, I slid into the taxi and off we went to a party. The heavy elevator doors parted. I braced myself to enter the room with the mannequin-thin ladies draped like scarves across the men and on the various couches.
Everything in me rejected this scene, this cast of emaciated ladies surrounding the long table with food none of the women would touch, women who seemed hired for effect, for decoration, and for men who would eat their fill. It became harder and harder to breathe as I took on the dark wood floors with weakening legs. In that instant I flashed back to my own shame about eating, about my mushy little body, around my own family’s table, and the gazes that warned me that I would always be alone if I didn’t control my eating. I gripped my guy’s arm for support as I whispered in his ear that I was done there. “But I have to stay,” he replied. “Just a little bit longer” he pleaded.
I remembered him at sixteen, on his bed, so sure of himself. As we listened to his music, I stretched out beside him to escape my chaos and rest in his natural male confidence. We ate cookies just out of the oven as I pretended to be normal, especially about food.
In 2006, when I was 39, with three young children, Caroline just four, I left medicine to open a boutique in L.A. By then I was in the practice of celebrating women’s bodies, including my own, by offering clothes from zero to plus-sized. One block south was The Bigg Chill store. The owner, Diane, would come in to make conversation or try on a blouse. And I would stop at The Bigg Chill for the treat of the day. She watched my kids grow, their sticky faces wearing her flavors. I watched as her daughter started serving customers from behind the counter. Diane was proud of what she had built, and the customers kept coming. I watched girls and women frequent the shop, some obviously struggling inside their skeletal bodies, and I wondered if Diane thought about frozen yogurt and eating disorders. But I never got comfortable enough to ask her.
Recently Demi Lovato dispensed with comfort and took to Twitter, another stage where so many of us, older now, perhaps addictively gather. There she accused The Bigg Chill of complicity with the diet culture that pervades Los Angeles. Over photos of low-carb snacks highlighted by a cherry-red sign, “Eat me, Guilt free,” she declared that she was triggered. But she also offered more:
“I still to this day have a hard time walking into a froyo shop, ordering yogurt and being content with it and keeping it down.”
For so many years I had lived with the feelings Demi Lovato expressed so simply, so accurately, that even all these years later, I nearly gasped when I read them on Twitter. Right there for everyone to see, she exposed herself, in ways I never could. And she paid a price. Demi Lovato was accused of causing “unnecessary drama” and of being “narcissistic.”
In “Shameful: Women who write about their pain suffer a double shaming: once for getting injured, twice for their act of self-exposure,” Katherine Angel describes a re-wounding that women endure when they bare themselves.
“There is a circulation of shame; triggering pangs of identificatory shame in the reader could lead to convulsions of repulsion and spasms of contempt for the woman who’s committing her shame to paper.(1)”
Share “too much” and the narrative may be rejected “like a baton that no-one wants.”
That was my experience growing up.
At the same age as Caroline was when she danced solo on stage, her body vibrating as she lost herself in music, her feelings pouring out through every gesture, exposing everything, I was told to stop eating, to rein myself in.
As the delicate girl on stage retreated, the Jonas Brothers plunged into harmonies and gazed at the crowd with puppy dog eyes, their faces now massive on giant screens, wholly comfortable with their awesome projection. My daughter’s soft arm beside me was still taut with excitement.
And I was comforted, in that moment, that she hadn’t yet noticed how sometimes girls just disappear.
- Aeon.co. April 23, 2021
Eve Louise Makoff is an internal medicine and palliative care physician. She has had personal and narrative medicine pieces published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, PULSE, the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, CMAJ, and soon the Annals of Emergency Medicine. She is studying narrative medicine at Columbia University.
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