Until about fifteen years ago, I had a core self-image at odds with contemporaneous photographs of me. It’s true I tried to be photographed only when I was looking as good as I thought I could look. The better explanation, however, is that my sense of self really was out of whack with what other people saw — perhaps because it had developed so young that it shaped much of what I thought and did when I grew up, which in turn only reinforced that initial perception of my central identity.
I certainly remember clearly the day I became aware of how I looked. It’s among my first recollections — right after sitting comfortably on a big rock in the sun, helping my mother feed ducks on a pond, commanding a ball that had rolled across the room, “Ball, come here!” — an important lesson in discovering limits to my powers — and toiling slowly up a steep hill behind my nursery school teacher. Unlike the ball that refused to be summoned, my memory of that day still comes to me whenever I call it up.
I have just turned five. My mother has bought me a red plaid skirt with pleats to wear for the first day of kindergarten. A white cotton puffed-sleeve blouse goes with it, and a red wool cardigan sweater. I have never had a three-piece outfit before. She says I look very nice in it.
Dressed in my new blouse and skirt, I wait in her bedroom near the full-length mirror on her closet door while she gets her sewing box from another room. The puffed sleeves of the blouse, edged with piping, are too tight. She is going to let out and hem the seams underneath, so the piping shouldn’t dig into my arms.
To my surprise, I see another girl has entered my mother’s bedroom. She is wearing a red plaid pleated skirt like mine. She has a round face and double chin, and a belly that sticks out so the pleats of her skirt don’t hang straight. Although the puffed sleeves of her blouse dig into her arms uncomfortably, the way mine do, she is beaming at me, as if she wants us to be friends. Who is she, anyway? What is she doing in my mother’s room? How can she look so happy when she’s such a fatty?
Then I understand. My sense of self starts here: with the recognition that the foolishly smiling little butterball in the mirror is me.
Awareness that I was what was then known as “chubby” didn’t bother me too much as a child. Shopping for clothes could be an ordeal, as my mother stubbornly insisted on looking in the regular Girls’ Department even when the salesladies suggested that “Chubbette” sizes would be a better fit. But that only happened once or twice a year. Also, I didn’t like the summer I spent at sleep-away camp, because I was always chosen last for team sports since I was not good at anything but swimming. It was only the one summer, though; I refused to go back ever again. And it did hurt when a snotty boy I barely knew asked in seventh grade assembly whether I would burst like a balloon if he stuck a pin in me.
But in high school, by which time it had become clear the pediatrician — my mother’s revered Dr. Elitzak — was wrong in saying it was baby fat and would go away all by itself, she began to help me (a charter member of the local Clean Plate Club) by curtailing some of what, obedient to his recommendations, she had been setting before me at meals. No more quart of whole milk a day. No more nutritious milk puddings for dessert. No more two slices of bread in my lunch bag; instead of sandwiches and cookies, I carried strips of cold meat and raw veggies and fruit. A thin slice of cake only on Sundays. Slowly, I dropped from an embarrassing size 16, to a 14, to a 12. Which was pretty good for someone who was by then 5’7″.
[Note to the young, or relatively young: Those were the days when “Miss” dress sizes ran from 12 to 20 or from 10 to 18. No such thing as size 4 or 2 or 0 or 00! It doesn’t mean the clothes were larger. Only that the numbers have shrunk, to make fashionistas feel thinner.]
Size 12 or no, I still thought of myself as a person who might at the moment look thin but really was fat, since her apparent thinness was not natural but entirely dependent on will power which might give way at any moment. From the time I went to college a sylph, until my late sixties, when I was finally able to come to terms with how I really looked and pretty much stopped obsessing about it — I waged a fierce and unending battle with weight. Most of that time, especially when younger, it was with the same ten or fifteen pounds, which I gained and lost over and over again. (Always with at least two sizes of clothing in my closet, for the next swing of the yo-yo.) I used sometimes to joke that I had lost thousands of pounds in my life. It wasn’t entirely a joke. Only an exaggeration.
My ten or fifteen (or later twenty) pounds, when they were with me, never stopped some men from finding me attractive, or kept me from getting jobs, or interfered with my health. But I always wanted them not to be there. I was always happier when they were gone. I had a central belief that informed every part of me and distracted me from concentrating on other things: Thin is good, not so thin is not good.
This is no tale of anorexia. Coupled with my overwhelming desire for slenderness has always been a great love of eating just about anything you can name, except okra, and a total inability to throw up at will. [I know because I tried once or twice after I had read about it. No dice.] But what a waste of energy and purpose! I mean, it’s not as if I had unsuccessfully devoted my life to social change and the greater good, or science, or the arts, or even something as crass as making money!
There were also several extended occasions in my fifties and early sixties, as real life became extremely difficult, when the urge to eat — more or less kept down so long — rebelled. It scored triumph after triumph, and I ballooned beyond “overweight.” [If I showed you a picture, you wouldn’t believe it.] But I never ever could persuade myself, defiantly, that Big Was Beautiful. So each time, I managed — with great difficulty — to deflate.
There are many other undesirable results of a life driven by the scale and by thoughts of what may be eaten, what was eaten, how to atone for what was eaten, what-the-hell-stuff-yourself-with-as-many-calorically-bad-but delicious-things-as-you-can-because-today-is-shot-anyway-and-you’ll-begin-again-tomorrow. But we all have our “what if”s.” Which we are entitled to keep to ourselves.
Although I do sometimes wonder whether the chubby little girl I was might have grown up to wage more meaningful battles if there hadn’t been a mirror on my mother’s closet door.