Coming out of the dieting closet.
My mother enrolled me in Weight Watchers when I was twelve.
It was something we'd do together, she explained to me over breakfast one morning. I looked doubtful. It would be fun!, she proclaimed, a exaggerated smile of excitement brightening her face. A way for us to spend time out of the house one night a week. Just us girls.
I was overweight when I was a kid. I started putting on weight around the age of ten, when I became sick with asthma and pneumonia. While in the hospital, where I was pumped full of steroids for two weeks, my family brought food more enticing that those served by the nurses - pizza and candy and soda and sometimes even McDonald's. Between hacking and wheezing and breathing treatments, I'd share my M&M's with my brother, who was skinny as a whippet and spent most of his visits scowling jealously in a corner.
I gained weight in the hospital, and in the months afterwards, when exercise was restricted. Athletics didn't interest me, anyway. I was far more inclined to read Anne of Green Gables novels in the cozy nest of my room than throw a softball or run laps around a track. The seclusion was a comfort.
The fact that I was overweight didn't occur to me until my mother pointed it out. She's tsk as I poured my morning cereal, fussing over bits of Cheerios that sploshed over the side of my bowl. There were complicated diets concerning calorie counting and journals tracking everything I ate, diets that I mostly ignored. Until Weight Watchers.
Back in the 1980's, Weight Watchers meetings mostly revolved around the weigh-in. A scale loomed in the center of a room contained in the cave-like recesses of a musty church basement. The aroma of stale coffee permeated the air. Every week, my mother and I climbed onto that scale, often in front of a throng of people awaiting their turn on the gallows. I was the only kid there.
I felt sort of special, because of that.
When I lost weight, the Weight Watchers staff would make an announcement to the room. "Two pounds lost!" they'd squeal. My mother beamed. There was applause, hugs, nods of approval. When I didn't lose weight, a yawning silence prevailed. The lack of response humiliated me.
At home, between meetings, my mother and I would plan our meals. We'd pour over Weight Watchers cookbooks, dissecting the caloric difference between turkey meatballs and spaghetti squash and fat-free sauteed tofu. When I made a sandwich for lunch, I'd weigh single servings of turkey on a food scale as she hovered nearby.
"That's too much," she's declare, peeling off a slice. I'd stare at her glumly.
I lost thirty pounds at Weight Watchers. My mother was exceedingly proud of my accomplishment. She called me slim. To this day, I don't think there's another word I find more chilling. Slim was reserved for the emaciated models who stared vacantly from the pages of Seventeen magazines, deadened looks in their eyes as they gazed off at some point in the distance. Slim was the style of jeans I could buy at The Limited after losing weight. Slim slithers from your lips, serpent-like, a warning of the danger to come.
At Weight Watchers, I learned that I was good at losing weight. Counting calories and fat grams became an occupation. I enjoyed the mathematical simplification of determining what I could and could not eat. Food became either "good" or "bad." There were rules. If I followed those rules I felt powerful, in control, a teenager in size 0 jeans zipping through the day on a haze of flavored seltzer and saltines and fat-free turkey breast. When life became overwhelming I'd retrieve my calorie count book and methodically track what I'd eaten that day. That way, I could cope. I could distract myself from orchestra auditions and less than perfect grades and boys who wouldn't call and my parent's divorce and my brother's underage drinking.
I could cope.
Eventually, I became so good at dieting that it landed me in the hospital - this time, for anorexia. Ironically, it was the same hospital I'd stayed in when I was younger. Some of the nurses recognized me.
"Don't I look slim?" I crowed, to anyone who would listen. My clothes hung off me. My head was too big for my body.
They looked away.
For a long time I believed the only thing I was truly good at was not eating. While my mother attempted diet after diet, eating gallons of cabbage soup and grapefruit and miniscule Jenny Craig frozen entrees, I skipped meals entirely. As she battled against weight gain brought on by menopause and middle age, I got more emaciated. I entered treatment center after treatment center, "recovering" and getting discharged and relapsing again. Nothing made me feel as strong as starvation did. Nothing gave me as much confidence. Without it, I literally did not know who I was. Anorexia made all my decisions for me.
I'm coming up on the fourth anniversary of my last relapse and subsequent inpatient treatment stay. I am more than a little embarrassed and ashamed about the 20+ years I spent being sick. There is nothing glamorous about heart damage from laxative abuse and low kidney function and chronic dehydration. There is nothing admirable about missed holidays and birthdays and lost friendships because of time spent arguing with hospital staff over meals I had to eat. I actively don't dedicate much time to discussing my years spent languishing in treatment centers, gaining and losing weight and getting sick and better and sick again. For one thing, my psychiatric rap sheet is really nobody's business. After so many years of being known as The Girl With Anorexia, I don't want to associate with that identity anymore.
There are other reasons I don't like bringing up my eating disorder that are sort of the last vestiges of anorexic thinking. My worst fear is that someone will tell me that I look too fat to have ever been anorexic. Or "But you don't look like you have an eating disorder..." Which we all know is a load of bull. An eating disorder is a mental illness. It doesn't always come with a heroin chic look.
A lot of my real-life friends don't know about my anorexia history. And some of you, faithful readers of my blog, haven't know either. Truthfully, the creation of Dress With Courage was part of my recovery process. There is nothing more humbling (or terrifying) than posting photos of yourself on the internet for all the world to see. Maintaining a personal style blog keeps me accountable. It's an incredibly effective technique for staying healthy, humble, and out of treatment.
My daughter turns twelve this week. She's smart, and eloquent, and funny, and loves math and science and music and drawing anime and arguing with me about her bed time. She's also overweight, a solid kid blessed with the same sturdy eastern European stock that I am. She's not happy about her body. I know, because she's told me. But I'm resolved to teach her that there are so many more things that she can be good at other than dieting. Dieting is a bad word is our house. It always will be. And I'm determined to keep it that way.
What's your dieting history? Did you grow up with female role models who dieted?