I’m 32 years old and, aside from a few years in High School, I’ve been fat my whole life. My mother likes to say I’m a “sturdy girl.” This pleases both of us, because it forgives my fatness and conjures shared images of my hearty forebears digging potatoes from the icy ground and building craggy border walls with stones hefted up in their thick arms.
For my mother though, the knowledge of our peasant stock has never been quite enough to quell the embarrassment of having a seriously overweight daughter. As I was growing up, she liked to reassure us both that when I hit puberty I would thin out. Unfortunately, although I reached my adult height of 5’8” in my Freshman year of High School, I spent most of that year drinking Oreo milkshakes and watching TV with a box of Corn Pops on my lap, so instead of finding myself in a new, svelte adolescent body, when I stepped on the scale that winter I learned that I weighed 200 lbs. I had passed the threshold of chubby and had entered the realm of the fat. Although I didn’t fully grasp the consequences of this, I knew Fatland was a dangerous place to live, in terms of my health and in terms of my social standing. I was scared, and should have asked for help, but I was ashamed, so I did the only thing I knew how: I told no one what the scale said and ate to soothe myself into oblivion.
That Spring my three best friends decided to join the Crew team. I feared exercise, but not as much as I feared being left out, so I found myself panting and sweating through daily jogs, rounds of circuit training, and endless stints on the rowing machine. Between all these exercises we learned to row actual shells on the water, and it was my unexpected love of rowing that kept me on the team. Moving my body in unison with my teammates as we skimmed our oars through the water, propelling the boat rapidly but placidly down the hallowed corridor of the Charles River in Cambridge—the unity, teamwork, coordination, and sheer beauty of the act appealed to me like no solo exercise ever could. I didn’t give my weight much thought during this time, but when I weighed myself a couple weeks into the season I was surprised to see that I was down to 192lbs. I was excited, and started weighing myself every morning when I woke up. I’d strip down to my underwear and stand on the bathroom scale, proud to see the numbers slipping down. By the time we carried the boats up the dock for the last time that spring, I weighed 185 lbs. The crew season had ended, but my desire to lose weight had just begun.
I’d had experience with dieting before, but it had always been my mother imposing a diet on me, and these regimens always ended in angry tears. I needed information to kick start my own attempt, so one of the first days of my summer break I biked to the public library and checked out a stack of diet books. The first book I opened explained that at its most basic level dieting is about expending more calories than you take in. The math was pretty simple: The average woman burns about 2000 calories a day, and a pound of body fat is about 3500 calories. The book recommended women who want to lose weight eat 1500 calories a day netting them a deficit of 3500 calories, or 1lb, over the course of a week. I stopped reading there. As a fat 15 year girl armed with basic math skills and a perfectionist streak, I realized I could improve on that formula. I decided that my daily life would include a jog (-300 calories) a Nutri-grain bar (+140 calories), a coffee Frappuccino (+190 calories), and enough of my dinner not to rouse suspicion (+200 calories). I would run a deficit of 1,700 odd calories a day, and drop a pound not once a week, but every two days. Perfect plan, right?
That summer I’d sleep until noon and then shuffle down to the dark cool of my basement to watch reruns of Roseanne and Grace Under Fire. Later I’d walk to Starbucks for my daily Frappuccino. I’d usually jog at dusk after the sun had set. I saw my friends a couple times a week, taking the bus to the more urban part of my town, but most nights I lolled around my house reading Steven King books and watching MTV until 2 or 3 in the morning, daring myself not to eat though my stomach roiled with hunger. I was kept motivated by that moment each morning when I would shuck off my clothes, climb on the scale, and see that I’d dropped yet another pound. One night at dinner my brother asked, “Why aren’t you eating your chicken?” and before I could answer, my mother said proudly “Rachel has become a healthy eater.” That was not only the one time that summer that my family mentioned my eating habits, but also the one time in my life where someone declared that living off of Frappuccinos and Nutrigrain bars made me a “healthy eater.”
In late August I cracked. It wasn’t anything specific that put me over the edge, but after eight weeks of gnawing hunger I felt faded and miserable and done. The grim determination that comes with obsession was fading as I noticed my calves were slim and muscular and my clothes were loose to the point of falling off. Ready as I was to eat again, I was afraid I’d gain the weight back, but even more than that, I was afraid I’d disappoint my mother. I decided to sit her down and tell her the truth: I’d been starving myself. I hoped this conversation would have a prophylactic effect. If she knew I had been starving, she wouldn’t be as disappointed when I started eating again. We talked late one evening, me sitting on the floor of the living room in my pajamas and my mother on the couch with her knees tucked under her. When I finished telling her about my summer of starvation, I told her I was hungry. She led me into the kitchen, handed me an apple, and started making me a tuna fish sandwich. Then she told me if I wanted to diet, I should aim for 1500 calories a day.
By the time September rolled around, I weighed 158lbs. That would turn out to be my adult low weight. Still, the junior anorexic routine never reared its head again. One thing never has changed, though: my mother is never prouder of me than when I’m losing weight. Although I long ago learned to untether my self-esteem from the size of my body, my mother hasn’t, and because of that, part of me will always want to be truly thin, partly for me, but mostly for her.