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“Stacey, no one your age should have that tire around their stomach like that; I mean, can’t you just,” my father gesturing with two hands, squeezing the air to mimic a smaller waist.
“Can’t you just,” still squeezing the air.
“You know, Stacey, guys like girls who are in shape,” my cousin always said.
“You better watch what you eat; you know your genes,” uncle Harold, without a miss, said at every holiday dinner. “Remember your genes,” he would say, smiling that I-told-you-so smile.
“Wow, you look great. Moving to LA has really had an influence on you. I think this is the best I’ve ever seen you look, Stacey.”
“Wow, you know, I’ve never seen you watch what you eat before,” he remarked. “This is a first.”
My parents divorced when I was six. It was 1982: the start of an onslaught of sophisticated television ads, quick and easy meals, the gift of the microwave, and the snack food craze. Most likely with engineered coincidence, it was also the age of the phrase “watching your weight,” dieting fads, exercise classes, Jane Fonda’s workout, and “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” with Richard Simmons.
My mom bought every snack food under the sun. We had all the Keebler elves and their relatives living in our cupboards. Animal crackers covered in icing and candied dots; a variety of individual chip packs. Capri Sun juice boxes, cocktail size wiener’s filled with cheddar cheese, Miracle Whip, and Nestle chocolate-flavored milk powder which seemed to taste better straight out the tin with a spoon than with milk.
Kraft cheese slices and Kool-Aid single packs that were filled with fruit-flavored powder and a white candy stick. Lick and dip, lick and dip. Repeat. The infamous Tang orange juice, another fruit-flavored powder, where, on the TV commercial, astronauts were drinking it in space. This must have been why all the fun food in the 80s was in powder form: we all could feel like astronauts floating in space, or maybe we could be astronauts one day floating in space, eat this, and you, too, can be an astronaut.
Ah, the sublime in the subliminal of TV ads.
I came home every day to an empty house. I can’t recall if my mother was there or not, but I do know she was never around. We had a big brown cupboard outside the kitchen entrance, and every day I’d come home and scan the array of goodies with fervor.
I usually chose the Keebler crunch twists in nacho cheese first. When we were out of the twists, I’d go for the Frito-Lay variety pack of chips and have one of each. I always left the plain potato chips for last, my mother’s favorite ironically. After I scarfed those down, I’d reach in the cupboard again, grab a few chocolate swirl cookies and a Fruit Roll-Up. I usually tore it into pieces, or when I felt like it, I would wrap it around my finger, like all the kids did, but after a few licks, I’d eventually just bite the whole thing off. I didn’t have the patience to wait.
I always ate like it was a race; the faster I ate one thing, the faster I could get to the next. I later found out this was called stress and emotional eating, and I’d become a master at it throughout my life. “Eatin’ up your feelin’s again,” a friend would say to me with endearment.
But the truth is, no one wins this race.
I’ve struggled with my weight from the ages of 10 to 46. I carried most, if not all, of it in my stomach. A pouch, a paunch, a tire, a roll, a potato sack, my stomach was even given the name “the monster” by one not so endearing friend. And last but not least, “You’re with child, congratulations, mazal tov to you,” a total stranger once exclaimed.
My stomach veers out; it does. It extends on its own naturally. My mother always told me, “Sorry, dear, you were born that way. Mine does as well, and I’ve hated it my whole life. No matter how many sit-ups, or how little I ate, it never went away.”
Mine only ever went away when I was living in London right after the millennium, when I was taking ecstasy every weekend, dancing for 48-hours straight. I was dancing everywhere. From the kitchen floor straight into the clubs, back into the kitchen, back to the bars. With hardly any food in-between. It was the first time I could sit down in a chair and nothing was there to fold or hide or suck in. It was the greatest diet I had ever been on, and I looked and felt fabulous. I was 26 and finally thin.
After my parent’s divorce, my mother got a tummy tuck and boob job. This was not a common choice in those days; it was very modern for the time. My mother didn’t need these surgeries. She wasn’t fat. She had boobs, smaller than bigger, but she had them. She was just like all the girls I had come to meet later in life: the girls who had nice bodies were the girls who had body issues.
I remember her lying in her bed on her 70s puke-green-colored sheets and burnt orange bedspread with big staples in her stomach and under her breasts. This was modern technology right in front of me. They stuck straight out of her skin and looked just like staples from the stapler in our kitchen drawer.
I remember touching all the raised metal across her entire belly, from one end to the other. She seemed proud of what she had done, despite the pain and time it took her to recover. She told me they took the fat from her belly and put it into her boobs. A mind-blowing accomplishment in medicine and science, we had all thought.
This was my first lesson in love: how one looks equates to being loved.
I love pizza. I love Mexican food. I like to eat pizza and Mexican food once a week if I can. Do I care that I don’t have a flat stomach because I love pizza and Mexican food? I try not to think about it.
But, can I trade in pizza and Mexican food for a flat stomach? Would the big, brown cabinet be empty?
I pull my shirt up in the mirror and give her a long hard look. I pinch the fat on each side to see if she feels pretty good or not good at all. Do I love her no matter how much I can pinch? Not always. I love her more when there’s less and less when there’s more.
The monster quest is real. The quest to accept and love, to take care of this sweet, sometimes little, sometimes big, pie in my middle.
Throughout my life, she has been hungering to quell my scattered mind. She has been feeding me when no one was there, calling to me when my heart hurt, holding onto all the bread and cheese, corn shells, and sour cream.
It’s not her fault; she didn’t know. She was only crying out when no one else was there. She would say, love is not known for you out there but in here. I will comfort you in the chaos, feed you in the pain. But, she didn’t know.
She is attached and burrowed down deep. Her walls protect me and keep me safe.
The weight of this burden does not have to rest in you, my sweet. Thank you for your elasticity, your loyalty, and comfort. Your lining can tell my thousand stories. Thank you for speaking through me, as I take another bite; I no longer have to fill you up.
This complicated relationship is real: me and my stomach. It’s a commitment for life; we are in this marriage together.
My vow is my promise: to have and to hold you from this day forward. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, to nourish and nurture; from this day forward until death do us part.
I love you, my stomach, my tummy, my middle, my forever. You may squeeze me.
Now, let’s go eat.