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Archive for April, 2008

Chapter 7: Stalemate

The lessons of the valiant Laura notwithstanding, adulthood brought my internal schism into full development. I may have come to terms with being tall, but that only gave me room to obsess about being fat.

Fat. Never has there been a word more rife with angst than this one. Never has there been a word so devoid of real meaning, since there are such conflicting opinions on what constitutes the condition. And never has such a small word caused so much terror in the hearts of so many women. You might as well have cancer. In fact, I’ve heard some cancer survivors count weight loss as one of the positive side-effects of treatment.

My early adult years were spent preoccupied with fat: avoiding fat, losing fat, punishing fat, gaining fat, preventing fat, comparing fat, despairing of fat. My body has known more than a 100 pound spread over the years. As my daughter would say, “that’s an entire cheerleader!”

The parade of diets is endless, of course. Early on it was fasting. That was handy because it could be combined with religion. I could mask my eating disorder with the facade of spiritual discipline, and lose 20 pounds in the process. I’m pretty sure I had God fooled the whole time, of course. Various other schemes were less extreme and more effective.

My very first diet was protein and water only. I lost 20 pounds over the summer, and only stopped when I passed out in the bathroom and my mother made me quit. After that, I was always aware of eating, constantly vigilant about food. Like the millions of eating-obsessed women and girls in our country, the whole food world took up a lot of mind space.

My days went something like this: get up in the morning and plan how to be good that day. Under-eat at breakfast, and resist hunger until noon. Stick to something low-cal at lunchtime as well, but when 3pm came along, I was in trouble. The hunger pangs would increase by that time, and the temptations would present themselves with intensity. Some days I would manage to resist all the way through until dinner preparation, when the act of handling food became too much. Snacking while cooking was my body’s cunning ploy, a lame attempt to fool the diet police and satisfy the body’s hunger at the same time. By the time dinner arrived, the need to overeat was irresistible.

But that was only half the drama. The chatter from the diet police inside my head was merciless, starting immediately after the dinner dishes were done, gaining in intensity and cruelty just before sleep. The was always plenty of evidence for conviction, as well as heartfelt promises to do better tomorrow. Always do better tomorrow. There’s always tomorrow.

I think this cycle is very common. Some of you may wonder, “so what? Isn’t that how everyone eats/thinks?” Maybe. I don’t know. You can tell me if you wish. I think millions of people successfully control their weight using this little mind-swirling regimen, hardly noticing what they’re sacrificing in the process.

My most successful weight loss projects were low-calorie schemes. One time I went on a strict 1200 calorie diet and lost 30 pounds. I was very thin, to the point of worrying my friends. 5’10 1/2″ and 135 pounds on my large frame. The diet police were giddy. I got concerned when I kept thinking I should lose another 5, and when that little pouch around my belly button started looking like something more to lose, and I became afraid of food, I decided to ease up a little.

After two births, and a 25 pound gain, I decided to try Weight Watchers. I was very successful, reaching my goal weight and becoming a lifetime member. Except for the part where I nearly passed out from hunger every day, it was a good plan. Somehow it never occurred to me to allow myself more food in honor of my height and frame.

Eventually I gave up the struggle, and, long story short, gained a ton of weight in a short amount of time. The mental vacation was quite pleasurable, but the body truly suffered. It takes a lot of denial to gain 60 pounds in 9 months. Yikes.

After a few years I rallied and come up with another scheme or two, usually involving large amounts of money. I thought maybe if I spent more money trying to lose weight – another program, a special doctor – maybe that would work.

Oh, and let’s not forget Dr. Atkins! Another successful weight loss scheme that backfired.

You get the picture. Eventually I lost the ability to lose weight altogether. My body simply refused to budge.

Stalemate.

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With Apologies

As someone who has lived with engineers and cats for over 3 decades, I offer this with affection. And apologies to those who came here looking for something… else.

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Chapter 5: A Compromise of Sorts

Dear Laura gave me a lasting gift, for every time I tried it on, it fit perfectly. Every time I stood tall instead of hunched over, every time I held my head high with my shoulders back, I felt whole and fine, like I’d come home.

The boys were still scared shitless, of course, especially the ones I was inclined to obsess about: the blond-haired, blue-eyed trumpet player who stood all of about five foot five, and the upper-class football player/track star who, although he had better bulk than the trumpet player, was still a good inch and a half shorter than I. But I digress…

I began to be ruled by two conflicting imperatives. They went like this:

1. Stand tall, don’t be ashamed, throw your shoulders back and flaunt it.

2. Don’t be too big to play. Don’t take up space. Keep it small and maybe you won’t be alone.

Eventually marriage offered me the perfect compromise, one I deliberately chose. I fell madly in love with someone who offered me the best of both worlds. He was of average height, which for some reason I preferred, but he wasn’t scared or put off by my stature. He was mystified that it bothered me at all. This gave me the green light, if I wanted, to throw my shoulders back and flaunt it.

On the other hand, he generated a large presence. He took up a lot of space in a room. He was energetic and confident, enthusiastic and goal-oriented. He was going places, and he wanted me to come along. And best of all, he was perceptive as a tree stump. He didn’t get subtlety, nor did he feel inclined to read minds. Not one to ask, “what’s wrong, honey?” he was easy to hide from if I chose. I remember when the advantages of such a relationship began to dawn on me. I could be adored, but not scrutinized. I could go ahead and stand tall, but be as small and invisible as I chose to be, whenever it suited me. I remember thinking, “I could hide anything from this guy. Huh…” as the wheels began to turn…

Poor guy, he was set up from the start to play the foil in this inner drama of mine. He never stood a chance. Luckily he’s made of some pretty tough stuff.

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Chapter 4: Laura’s Inspiration

Puberty is just too cruel, don’t you think? Mine is too pathetic to write about today in any detail. There are so many moments, still so very vivid in my memory, that I know are significant:

– getting my period

– my first bra

– 7th grade gym class

– swim suits

– being 5’9 in the 8th grade

– the teasing

…I hope I’m not setting off a wave of Post-traumatic flashbacks.

If only the energy of adolescent angst could somehow be harnessed, channeled, and put to good use, we could light up the entire eastern seaboard.

Today, however, I’m here to tell you about Laura. Laura arrived at West Junior High in the 9th grade.  I remember the first day she came into Mr. Putnam’s English class. She was tall. God she was tall. Taller than me even. She must have been almost 6 feet tall. That first day, and throughout that entire year, she was skittish as a young doe. I felt sorry for her because of her obvious anxiety, but in keeping with the stringent rules of adolescent pack behavior, I left her to fend for herself, lest she prove toxic in some way to my fragile social standing.

I don’t remember when we became friends, or how exactly. I just remember that something about the way she held herself changed after 9th grade. She stood tall instead of hunched over. She held her head high atop that long, slender neck, and when platform shoes came into style, she wore them. Being a dancer, she had a lovely graceful way of moving, almost like a giraffe – elegant and musical, but natural and wholesome.

The boys were scared shitless.

I was totally impressed.

I loved going places with Laura – me in my Earth Shoes, she in her 4-inch platforms. Next to her I felt like Jana Gerken. She set me free from scrutiny because her presence commanded attention. Free from the noose of my own self-consciousness, I could breathe when I was with her.

Laura and I were great friends. She taught me to tap dance. She introduced me to my husband. She went to Jesus Christ Superstar with me.

We watched meteor showers together, drove to Brookings together, sang in the choir together, and obsessed about boys together. She was a great friend.

Her lasting gift to me, however, was her attitude about her body. She made a feature out of her height. She somehow made peace with her stature. It helped, I guess, that she didn’t also struggle with her weight, but for me, the height was something I knew I could never escape, could never change.

I would always be tall. Laura taught me to wear it with a little class.

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Phyllis George, Miss America, 1971 Phyllis George, Miss America, 1971.

I was there, cheering her on. Well, not there in Atlantic City, but there in our living room, caught up in all the excitement. I was riveted to the pageant that year, fascinated that such a lovely creature could be named Phyllis, same as me. It was inspiring, I think. Or not. I didn’t really know what to feel. I knew I could never be as beautiful as Phyllis George, but I was relieved that someone not my grandmother’s age could represent the name Phyllis with style. I struggled with my name, too, in case you didn’t pick that up. (Why couldn’t I be a Debbie, or a Julie? I really liked the name Julie.)

I was mesmerized by Phyllis George. Another perfect creature, and I couldn’t help feeling envious as well as a little proud.

Sometime during her reign, I read a mini-interview with her in a magazine. During the interview she admitted she often felt awkward about her appearance, saying she really hated her nose, and often wished it were different.

I was stunned. Incredulous. Phyllis George had just been crowned the most beautiful woman in the country, and she couldn’t be satisfied with her appearance.

I knew then that if Phyllis George couldn’t feel beautiful, there was very little hope for the rest of us.

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Chapter 2. Egon Dzintars and Jana Gerken

When I was a child I never saw one of those height and weight charts the doctors were quick to show me for my own children. The one with the percentile scores based on age, height, and weight that they show parents during regularly scheduled well-baby exams.

In my era a visit to the doctor meant something was wrong, and there wasn’t money to pay for it. We’d never heard of health insurance, so I doubt very much if my mother was privy to the height/weight percentile chart, since well-baby exams weren’t a regular part of her universe. But she didn’t need a chart to recognize I was big for my age.

“She’s big for her age,” was a sentence I heard at least a hundred times during my school years. Mom said it to friends often enough for me to notice. It might not have carried any significance with me later – after all it was just my mother’s opinion – if it weren’t for Egon Dzintars and Jana Gerken.

Egon was the biggest kid in our grade, the standard bearer for the upper limit. I’ll bet anything Egon rode on the 99th percentile, if not higher, on the height and weight chart. By all accounts he was a big kid. I was mortified by Egon because from kindergarten to the 6th grade, for each of our 7 years at Meadowbrook Elementary School, I stood next to him on the bleachers at every performance. Every Christmas program, every choir concert: me and Egon, side by side in the back row. Me and Egon, same size.

Humiliations galore.

Egon became the icon of my hidden distress, so of course I was forced to despise him.

(Egon is a great guy, by the way. He had his awkward moments in grade school – didn’t we all? – but he weathered it well. I enjoyed visiting with him at our last high school reunion. He’s a doctor with a lovely wife and some beautiful kids, a good sense of humor, and I think a boat. Whatever suffering he may have incurred from my disdain didn’t leave any obvious marks).

And then there was Jana Gerken. She came to our school in the 5th grade. With her long, perfectly straight, perfectly blond hair, her little fishnet stockings, her miniskirt with go-go boots, and her petite little child-like frame, Jana was the poster child for perfect – in my world, anyway. She was everything I wasn’t. If Egon was the icon of my distress, Jana was the icon of … well, my distress. I remember looking at her perfectness one day and marveling at the injustice of the universe. But that night as I went to bed, I prayed, “Dear God, let me wake up short (like Jana Gerken). Amen.”

Bookended by the twin icons of my distress, I was trapped in my own private, pre-pubescent torture chamber.

Lord have mercy on all the children.

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Chapter 1. Too Big to Play

As far as I know I was normal at birth. No one ever told me otherwise. It wasn’t until that one spring day, after I’d just turned 5, that I discovered I wasn’t as normal as I might wish to be.

It was a rare moment, looking back. We were up in the neighbor’s back yard. The moms were visiting, watching the kids play in the grass. This time, though, my big brother was there, along with his good buddy Riley. Riley Larimer was a good natured, freckle-faced 11-year-old, whose presence meant fun for everyone. He and my brother were wrestling with the little kids. Us little kids, of whom I was one.

I was the oldest of the little ones that day – the ripe old age of 5. Ready to rough and tumble with my brother, whom I adored, I was taking advantage of a rare gesture of sibling generosity. I was carefree and exuberant.

Have you ever been there? Wrestling with a pack of juiced-up kids, jostling and tumbling, tickling and tackling? If you have, then you know that occasionally one of these exuberant bundles of energy can body slam you something fierce. That was me that day, with Riley.

I wish God would at least install some sort of signal, an alarm that sounds in life’s pivotal moments. The fact that we only realize the significance of certain events in retrospect is one of those design flaws I’d like to see corrected next time around. Had there been an announcement “Alert! The life of this little girl is about to be permanently shaped by misunderstanding. Take care,” I might have had a different relationship with my body.

But then again, nah. It was inevitable.

Riley took me aside, and with excruciating kindness, informed me I was too big to play that day.

Too big to play.

So innocuous. Such innocent words, delivered with such kindness. Who knew they would move right up into the core of my being, guide my perceptions, control my emotions, and split me right in two? Who knew? And who could have stopped it?

47 years later I am astounded by the impact of that moment, as I take inventory of the transformation I’ve been through this year. Stunned by the import of one little incident, awed by the fragility of the human spirit. And its strength.

Too big to play became my life script, the play book for my relationship with myself. And I didn’t even know it.

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