Someone asked in the comment stream if I could say a few words about how I got to the point where I had 160 pounds to lose.
It’s a good question, although I’m not sure that I have a good answer. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t think that nutrition is really a science. I think the real answer is that our bodies are extraordinarily complicated systems with their own self-regulatory mechanisms and ways of asserting themselves that we don’t quite understand on the microcellular level yet.
If I had to speculate, though, I would say that one of the worst things that you can do to yourself is diet before you reach puberty. When I look back at pictures of myself when I was eight or nine years old, I don’t really know why I was dieting. I had a little roll of baby fat around my waist and I was definitely an 85th percentile sort of girl, but if I hadn’t been told—by our family physician, among other people—that I was fat, I wouldn’t have really known it. I wasn’t even a Honey Boo Boo, fat-wise.
Our family physician was a horrible woman, a harridan, a scarecrow, an abstemious Methodist with a pinched face and a pinched manner. I believe she’s still practicing, and for some reason, my mother continues to see her. Actually, I know why my mother continues to see her. My mother, until very recently, struggled with about 30 pounds. She kept losing and regaining them, like most women do, and she thought that if she had our family doctor yelling at her about them, she might be more inclined to lose than gain. This doctor, though, doesn’t yell. She just icily and clinically informs you that she thinks that you are disgusting and you must be cheating on your diet. It’s so much worse than yelling.
In any case, she told my mother when I was seven or eight that I needed to go on a diet—which is when the Healthy Choice hot dogs made their first appearance. I didn’t like this diet very much, but I totally accepted that I was fat and needed it—after all, a doctor wouldn’t lie to me. I internalized the fact of my fatness, and it’s been a part of me ever since. Sometimes, though, I would cheat: cheating would consist of having a single Chips Ahoy when I thought nobody was looking. The results of this diet were mostly to convince me to associate regular eating with deprivation, and cookies with a feeling of both happiness and shame.
The other problem with this diet is that nobody had any idea what “working” would look like. A lot of kids at that age have a little baby fat left to lose. I was an active and happy kid. I spent most of the summer outside—these were the days before child molesters camped out behind every bush—every afternoon in the pool, and in winter, we took our dog for two mile walks: rain, shine, sleet, snow, locusts, etc. I’m quite sure I would have lost the baby fat eventually, if not for this unfortunate quasi-medical intervention.
Once it happened, though, it was hard to reverse. The two emotions I associate most clearly and potently with childhood are hunger and humiliation. I was constantly hungry. Sometimes, I would give in and eat. Then I would be humiliated, because I knew that I would go to school the next day and some bitch would pull back the waistband of my pants and report to the whole school that I wore an adult size 12. (Also, that my jeans were from J.C. Penney.)
I was never a binger. My parents often claim that I was, because they would find some candy wrappers in my room. For a long time, I assumed that I was. But I’ve read a lot about eating disorders since, and I’ve concluded that I definitely did not have the emotions or behavior of a binger. I was just hungry. Always hungry. Candy bars were what was available to a kid who had access to a vending machine, but not much else—this was suburbia at its finest, and there was nothing in walking distance. My parents in these days were going on crazy diets—the Cabbage Soup diet, primitive versions of low carb—and every cell in my body was crying out for non-cabbage sources of energy. It’s hard to remember now, especially since I live at the epicenter of world food culture and you can buy bite-size packets of artisanal goat cheese at the local coffee shop, but food back then was BAD. Casseroles. Baked meats. Everything from a can, topped with those little fried onion strings (from a can). Vegetables were terrible for nine months out of every year. Processed was still king. In a world where you’re alternating between bad vegetables, crummy fruit, and cabbage soup, a Hershey’s bar (however retrospectively plasticky) can taste a lot better than the alternatives. (I recently nibbled on a piece of leftover Halloween candy to see if it still tasted good. It does not. It tastes like a bad SNL impression of chocolate.)
But then the guilt. And I wouldn’t eat for a day, especially if it was the day before or of my Jenny Craig appointment. Lather, rinse, repeat, until I’d routinely convinced my pre-pubescent body that it was starving to death. Of course it responded by preserving every sugary fatty calorie I gave it.
I say “of course,” but this is very much a hindsight “of course.” My parents often get angry at me for keeping this blog, and for writing about my food issues, because they consider themselves personally responsible for every single one of them. I don’t have kids and don’t intend to have them, but maybe I’d feel the same way if I did. In any case, I don’t blame my parents. Not in the least. They responded to their doctor’s suggestion—and all of the dire predictions of lifelong bad health that came along with it—in a reasonable way. I don’t blame parents who put their kids on diets, because they’re doing the best that they can with conflicting information. It’s also axiomatic that anyone who’s intending to send a fat kid to school might as well send them into a minefield, or our modern equivalent of Dickens’ bootblacking factory. Kids between the ages of nine and twenty-one will latch onto any deviation from the norm, but fat is an easy and available one, visible every moment, and already associated by society generally with laziness, immoderation, and self-indulgence. Who would want to send a kid into this mess?
Unfortunately, I think that the tragedy here is that this very reasonable action is also completely wrong, for all of the reasons that I’ve described here. Children are bad at starving themselves—and good for them—so they either quit, or they develop the kind of bipolar eating habits that I’ve described here. I had these habits until I was a sophomore in college, at which time I grew up and started trying to eat reasonably all of the time. And by then, it was too late.