November 12, 2012

Happily Ever After: American Fat Kids’ Recipe for Disaster.

I love you, Andre the Giant. Anybody want a peanut? Source: John McKeon (Flickr)

Growing up fat sucks.

Even if every kid around is fat—which they never are—it still means feeling lethargic a lot of the time and going out to play morphs into a daunting task.

Many summer afternoons of my childhood were spent in front of the television, my dog in my lap willing me to feel better, a bit of embroidery or quilting I was working on to one side, a bit of junk food I wasn’t supposed to be eating to the other.

I didn’t just feel bad about myself; I felt bad period. Running and jumping and climbing all sounded like too much work, frankly and there were old movies to be watched, books to be read and music to be listened to (and sung…loudly) in the safety of the great indoors.

It wasn’t like my dance card was full. Truth be told, I jumped at every social opportunity that came my way. But I was not popular and we didn’t live around any parks or forests where I could learn to climb a tree without embarrassment, or let my imagination run wild while my legs did some running of their own.

So indoors I stayed, except sometimes, but still—mostly.

Growing up fat seriously sucks. For anybody, anywhere, at any time, it sucks.

But growing up fat in the U.S. in the 80s had to be the worst.

Ah, the 80s. In many respects I got off easy; there was no McDonalds in our house—oh, no. We didn’t do TV dinners and frozen pizzas were served once-a-week, at best. I never ate Hamburger Helper or chicken and Stovetop, though I salivated watching the kid on TV who got to eat dinner twice all the time and stayed skinny. Stupid lucky punk.

My mom (and sometimes my dad) made wholesome dinners every single night consisting of meat, veg and carbs of some sort. But there was so much parents didn’t know then…that many don’t know even now.

Diet soda, for example, was more or less always available in our house. We ate wheat bread but it was still the fluffy processed kind, often topped with Blue Bonnet. Ditto the corn on the cob. Salads were doused—relatively lightly—in ranch dressing and the lettuce of which they were comprised was strictly iceberg. (Not that my big brothers or I would have been keen on anything else.) Rice was always white. Ground beef (and later, turkey) was molded into meatloaf and burgers and stroganoff and taco salads, chicken (always skinless) was grilled on the barbie most of the time and Dad hated fish so it was rarely on the menu.

Still, my biggest problem was never what I ate, but how much I ate. And the quantities that took me far beyond the call of duty were never at mealtimes. I ate emotionally, compulsively, often and in quantity.

But there were, of course, those afore-mentioned books and songs and films. I’ve always been a huge fan of the movies and the 80s was busting out classic after classic. A few of my fave’s (at the time—my tastes have changed a little.  Ahem. I turned 11 in 1990. Just sayin’.):

1. Footloose
2. Better off Dead
3. Ferris Bueller’s Day off
4. The Karate Kid
5. Sixteen Candles
6. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
7. The Breakfast Club (except with this one—my tastes haven’t changed at all with this one.)

There were about a thousand of these movies—movies my friends and I always called “The 80s Comeback Films.” They nailed happily-ever-after maybe better than anybody ever had. EverKurt Vonnegut used to give this great lecture about how a story is formulated and the story pattern he felt resonated with just about everybody was essentially the 80s Comeback Film to a tee.

They even told you what happened afterward, right before credits rolled half the time! You didn’t get left in the dark, with what I now like to call “The French Ending,” in which we have no idea if anybody lives happily-ever-after or if everybody kills themselves.

It isn’t that I don’t like those movies now—the point is that they didn’t define my childhood. Molly Ringwald and John Cusak and Matthew Broderick defined my childhood. And they promised that no matter how far we fell, things would look up and up and up some more. That in roughly the space of three months (or an hour and a half) and by roughly the age of 17, life would rock on every level humanly imaginable.

It was motivational poison.

Here’s what happened: night after night, I dreamed of waking up thin. I dreamed that once I got thin, life would be better. All of the bullies would look stupid (with an awesome soundtrack playing in the background, while it happened), every semi-decent person I knew would laugh and high-five in slow-mo, I would be loved and happily-ever-after would be in the bag.

And morning after morning, I would wake up, still fat, still hating my body and therefore myself, and falling into the same patterns of self-harm that had kept me unfit all those years.

Then, when I was about 14, I started playing tennis. I stopped eating meat. And, well, I left childhood and became an adolescent, which can be incredibly helpful in the weight-loss department all by itself. The next year, I started playing volleyball and basketball and I’d changed schools (from itty-bitty parochial to ginormous public), so I found friends and my social life was burgeoning. Year after year, I lost a little bit more weight and went from being a meat-eating 5’10” seventh grader, weighing in at 215 pounds, to being a 5’11” vegan high school graduate, weighing in at 165 lbs.

Life wasn’t perfect—it never is—but I’ll tell you what: being thinner changed everything. People were nicer, boys were interested, friends were more easily made. Occasional bouts of overconfidence replaced occasional bouts of panic attacks. I felt better all of the time, morning till night; I could dance or hike or swim in the ocean, for hours.

As the years progressed (and it does feel like there’ve been an awful lot of them now), I yo-yoed, but only just. Seven months in the Philippines saw my weight plummet to 141—way too thin but it was only a byproduct of irresponsibility, not intentional weight-loss. Within a few months I was back to a healthy 160-ish and stayed between there and 175 (a big gap for some, but then I’m a tall lady) until I was 27.

Then I broke my leg really badly. Within two years, I was back to 216 and I was miserable.

The double-whammy wasn’t that I’d lost all that weight and then gained it back; it was that the promise had been broken. I wasn’t mad when I realized there was no theme music playing every time I saw an old acquaintance who couldn’t recognize me because I’d lost weight. I didn’t even get annoyed when I found out that just because I was skinnier didn’t mean life didn’t suck a lot of the time. I knew how fragile it all was—I got that.

But Losing Weight was supposed to be the last movie in the Being Fat series. New movies had already started rolling: Falling in Love (and the sequel, Love Can Kiss My Sweet Ass); Losing My Job and Finding the Strength to Get Out There and Pretend I’m Not Dying Inside (working title); even Being a Grownup Includes Losing My Loved Ones to Stupid Arguments or Death.

I had neither the time nor the patience for this re-run and it just destroyed me in about a thousand ways. I was, all of a sudden and all over again, a buck-toothed 13-year old in second-hand clothes, over-teasing her bangs and imagining at rare and uncomfortable social gatherings that there must be some way to literally fold into oneself until nary an eye can cast its judgmental glance upon her.

Granted, by this point in the game there was a lot more projection on my part but it wasn’t all in my head…people really had gotten meaner again.

And so I learned a very important lesson from my second bout of being fat.

There is no happily-ever-after. We all know this logically but I think there’s a few of us out there—maybe from the same time and place, or maybe I’ve got it all wrong and it’s got more to do with the type of person I happen to be—who don’t naturally understand that happily-ever-after is just for stories—not for real life.

It isn’t that we go around admitting this to people (although here I am sharing my secret with potentially dozens of faithful readers), but we really do feel awfully put out that we have to keep at it all the time to have any semblance of a good life.

We’re the ones for whom it never really clicked that, in the words of St. Augustine, “Life is good…” but only, “…when we lead good lives.”

A year and a half ago I started doing yoga. A year ago I started jogging. Two months ago I started swimming. My instinct here is to say, “In the end…” but there is no end. Just like (almost) everybody else, if I don’t keep doing yoga and jogging and swimming and eating right and drinking enough water and getting enough sleep, I’ll be entering round three of my battle with the fattle (hehe…ya’ like that?).

In spite of all of it, I was always wise enough to know there was something a little dodgy about the word “happy.” I should’ve known that morphing it into an awkward adverb and squeezing it into fragment sentence was never going to be a good idea. I should have run for the hills.

I’m running now. And swimming and pulling asanas I never thought I could.

Most importantly, I’m still learning.



Editor: Bryonie Wise

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