Are You Sure You Should Eat That?
I can’t remember the first time I was asked that, but I was young. Very young, maybe six? Seven? And, I felt it far before the words were said aloud. The looks. The awareness of every cookie, every second helping. It was another person in the room. It was a bully at the dinner table. It was a perfect reason to begin sneaking food. And sneak I did.
Let me say this now. Internalize it. No one changes because you shame them into changing. Did you get that? No one. Especially a child. And if they do, it doesn’t take. It’s not out of self-love. It doesn’t come from a place of strength. It doesn’t last. It’s bullying. It leads to more pain.
I have been fat-shamed by my mother, my father, my grandmothers, boyfriends, work colleagues, strangers, Weight Watcher’s Group Leaders (I know, totally insane.) All of these people were wrong. At the time, I felt I was wrong. I internalized their words, their looks, their comments. I believed I was bad, ugly, unlovable, fat, gross, disgusting. Are you getting the picture?
I thought about these things a lot. Food, my body, my weight, exercise. I obsessed. I had been doing this since I was eight on a fairly consistent basis. I was never severely overweight, maybe ten pounds, fifteen, or not at all, or I was underweight from restricting. I’d fluctuate a lot. As a young adult, I’d go on international business trips and fear weight gain, starve myself and come home a shell, jeans sagging at my hips. Later in life, after decades of obsession, pregnancies, chronic illness, thyroid disease and medication weight gain, I’ve been up to thirty pounds “overweight.” And by overweight, I mean heavier than the weight at which I feel best. Not my “this is what you should weigh based on your height” weight. At that weight, I’d be skeletal. The heaviest I was, and this is common for a lot of women, was post pregnancy.
By the way, you, you who rolled your eyes at medication weight gain. It’s real. Don’t even. I stopped the medication, lost twenty pounds. I also almost lost myself in a depressive relapse while I tried other options. Nothing worked. I went back on the medication. I gained eight pounds in a month. A month. It’s real.
I have lost weight, consciously, with great care because of my history, never, well almost never, restricting any foods but rather practicing moderation, portion control, exercising. But this is not a post about weight loss. See, I got side tracked because. Because, fat-shaming. Because, ingrained there is something wrong with my body. Enough. This has got to stop.
I do remember the first time I found my voice. The first time I stood up to a shamer. I was in my twenties, living in Philly, boyfriend, job, apartment, doing well. I was thin then. I didn’t think so at the time, but I was. See, we, and you know who you are when I say “we,” measure our memories by our body size. I was in good shape, exercised regularly, probably too much, bingeing was mostly under control, laxative use too. I was also happy though. My boyfriend and I played volleyball a lot, doubles tournaments, sixes out at the Belmont Plateau (the same plateau in Will Smith’s “Summertime,” yo). I was active, healthy, pretty stable, but I did only have indulgences that smack of an eating disorder (I didn’t think I’d use those two words, but you gotta own it. Right?). I didn’t allow real down-and-dirty indulgences. I didn’t eat normally, without judgment, without consequences.
My indulgence was almost an obsession. I saved myself for this. Skinny Delights on Spruce Street. It was a pleasant walk from my apartment, about twenty blocks round trip, nice Rittenhouse Square neighborhood blocks past brownstones and places of my youth that had become places of my young adulthood. I felt independent and strong and grown up. Also, it was near my boyfriend’s, so that was convenient. It was near my old high school. It was in my ‘hood. It was mine.
Skinny Delights served sandwiches with sprouts, soups, and other healthfood type items but I only had eyes for those glorious soft ice cream air pump machines. Dispensers of my delicious indulgence. What would the flavor of the day be? Would it be peanut butter so I could swirl with chocolate, or would I just go with my usual, the vanilla/chocolate swirl? I was a regular. And, I’d always order a large. With jimmies. Chocolate jimmies. Calories, I think, total, 250ish, no fat. I’m sure the sugar content was through the roof. Didn’t care. There was a lot of air in that giant swirl, but the bigger the better for an eater like me, especially back then when I was still restricting other foods. Skinny Delights, I loved you. And then, I was fat-shamed. Or portion-shamed. Or some kind of shamed and I spoke up.
We sat at our favorite table by the window. I was about to dig in. And a little man sat at the table next to us with his wife. He was older, he seemed “old” to me then, but I’m sure he was in his forties, fifties at most. And he looked over at me, and he looked at my cone, and as I brought it to my lips he made eye contact with me and said:
“Wow. That is huge. Are you really going to eat all that?”
And everything sunk. I mean through the linoleum, through the concrete, into the Philadelphia sewage system below Spruce Street, into the Schuylkill River.
I wanted to die. I wanted to throw the cone in the trash. I wanted to throw the cone at him. I didn’t think I could eat it. I felt sick. I looked at my boyfriend. He knew. He was a quiet guy, but he knew. He also knew some of my history, my issues. He saw I was upset. I think he said something like “let it go.” I remember thinking, I can’t let this go. This is not let go-able. I tried just eating. I tried ignoring the little man sitting at the table next to me. I sat, I thought, I was humiliated. And then I got enraged. How dare he comment on what I was putting in my mouth?
Finally, finally, I found my voice.
“Excuse me,” I said trying to get his attention. At this point I’m sure at least three minutes had passed maybe more. I don’t know, I was suspended in time.
“Sir, excuse me.” He looked up. “That comment you made before, about my ice cream cone? That was none of your business.”
“Oh, I was just joking, I mean it was really big. Come on, I mean it was so big.”
“Right,” I said, “It doesn’t matter how big it was, we don’t know each other. You are not my friend. You don’t get to comment on what I eat. You have no idea how a comment like that might make me feel. You don’t get to talk to me about my food.”
He stammered a bit, said he didn’t mean anything by it, was just joking, something like that. It didn’t matter because I had found my voice. I had stood up to my shamer. He was embarrassed, and I hope he learned and never did that again. Ever. He did apologize, I think, although he made sure to mutter something like “just joking” to his wife.
My boyfriend smiled. I don’t think he ever quite knew what to make of me, I was a lot to take in, and he was a quiet guy. Amazing guy, but quiet. He definitely smiled. Proud. And I got my appetite back. That was a good cone. Peanut butter swirl.