We all have nicknames, official ones to which we respond, some lovingly bestowed, some happenstance, some fleeting. The transitory names are forgotten as quickly as they are created. We don’t bother much about them. At least, that’s what I try to convince myself.
My earliest memories are of little girls constantly in motion. By fourth grade, though, my newly bestowed nickname colored my awareness of who I was, how I looked, and what I could do. Food, weight and appearances began to shape, rightly or wrongly, my perception of myself. Today, I still bristle when family and dear friends lovingly, without malice, call me by that name.
Three Little Girls
My story begins when I was a toddler. I beam when I watch well-worn family movies from that era: three tow-headed girls in fancy embroidered Easter dress, the delicate handiwork of my grandmother, flitting across the front lawn, dancing and twirling, running to and from the camera. Our black and white spotted puppy nipped at our heels in excitement. We three girls seemed like peas in a pod, but we were easily distinguished: Anne, with her pronounced overbite, never entirely erased after years of braces, Janet, the pretty one, sparkly and in charge, and me, Patty, bangs held to the side with a lopsided butterfly barrette. We filled the screen with our exuberance and movement. In another scene (autumn, the juxtaposition the result of my mother’s splicing together thousands of feet of 8-millimeter film), our matching cardigan sweaters were buttoned tight against the chill as we circled the neighborhood boys on our tricycles. The long-playing reel spun endless footage of little girls gingerly toeing a rushing stream near the edge of yet another campground, joining our father in the icy cold water, jumping, splashing and wiggling as we waved frantically to the camera holder, always our mother, the chronicler of our years.
The choreography of our Christmas performance in front of the brick fireplace and holly-decked mantle begins the telling slice of this celluloid journey. Anne and Janet moved in assured rhythm, smiling at the camera, confident and poised. I danced awkwardly between them, twisting my head left and right, trying to imitate their lead, forever one unsynchronized step behind. The twins, barely toddlers, crawled at the edge of the black-and-white film, mischief likely close at hand.
My childhood memories are filled with the Sisyphean task of trying to keep up with my older sisters. Anne and Janet, barely a year apart in age, were often mistaken for twins. My younger brothers, fraternal twins, despised and rebelled against the label. I sat squarely in the middle of the family hierarchy. Forced to be bold and loud or quiet and lost, I defaulted to the latter category. At times, I was forgotten in the melee of our family life.
Swimming with the Big Kids
The ritual of my days changed when I was about four years old. Once again betwixt and between, too young to attend school with my sisters, too old to be entertained with my brothers, my parents struggled with keeping me busy. I taught myself to read by sounding out the simple words in my sisters’ early reader books, the big ones with many colorful pictures. I jumped rope in our back yard and roller-skated on the narrow, cracked sidewalk connecting our house to the tiny garage. I pestered my mother, always exhausted caring for five children, to listen to me count to a hundred over and over again.
Whitman College, where my father was Director of Athletics, tennis and basketball coach, had a dank, small pool in the basement of the Old Gym. Not suitable for the liberal arts students, the college administration made arrangements for swimming classes to be held at the downtown YMCA pool. My father taught various physical education classes, including kinesiology, badminton and swimming, depending on the season and student interest. The use of the YMCA pool by the college and my parents’ desperation coalesced. They came up with a plan.
I would join my father at the YMCA pool when he taught swimming lessons. I would take the city bus, alone, from our house to the YMCA downtown. Can you imagine it? No parent today would dare trust a stranger, even a city bus driver, to shepherd his or her young child, alone, on a several mile bus ride. I guess my parents were out of options. The times were safer (or so we tell ourselves). They trusted me to be brave and smart.
I recall the unbridled exhilaration of that special year: three mornings a week, I sat in the chair by the side door at least a half hour before the bus was scheduled to arrive, my polka-dot swimsuit underneath my clothes, my parents’ contact information on a three-by-five card in my jacket pocket. I patiently waited for my mother to dress the twins (bundled in heavy snowsuits in winter, scantily clad diapers in late spring and early fall), tussle them into the double stroller, then walk me to the bus stop. On the bus, I was attentive, staring straight ahead, tightly clutching my tote bag.
Dad never failed to meet me at the corner of Palouse and Main Streets, waiting patiently for the sometimes-late city bus. He greeted me with a big hug and swung me in the air before we became serious and walked the short block to the pool. I sensed the change in his demeanor as we climbed the stairs to the YMCA.
Once in the pool area, Coach Burgess patiently explained the proper techniques for the freestyle and backstroke to his students, while simultaneously keeping a watchful eye on me. I swam effortlessly, my natural affinity for water and lessons when I was three the keys to my success. I pushed the kick-board, dove for the rubber brick at the deep end of the pool, and splashed the students. The forty-five minute class inevitably ended too quickly. In the locker room, the women students helped untangle my wet hair before I met Dad and walked back to the bus stop.
Fat Lady in the Circus
When I was five or six years old, my sisters and their friends decided to stage a circus. Our yard was large, almost a third of an acre, adjacent to the street corner. Twenty or so kids lived within a block or two of our house. Our central location was perfect for the circus grounds. The girls drew up fliers, assigned tasks, made bags of popcorn and mixed light blue-tinted Mason jars of lemonade. They scoured attics and basements for old Halloween and party costumes for the to-be-designated circus performers. They planned and schemed, certain this circus would find them fame and fortune, if only among the younger set of our neighborhood.
My brothers wore their only matching outfits, yellow-bibbed shorts with each of their names, Bruce and Robbie, embroidered across the front in brown. They were designated the “monkeys,” partly because they stayed in a fenced off part of the yard, to protect them from the high school boys who drove too quickly around the street corner, and partly because they were little dervishes, a handful for my mother and father. The boys reveled in the attention as they ran around like monkeys in a jungle, giggling and squealing and jumping.
Anne and Janet approached me, just moments before the circus was to start. Anne was dressed in her fancy cowgirl’s shirt and hat, speaking in her best Annie Oakley accent. Janet, meanwhile, wore black pants and a shiny shirt for her role as the ringmaster, a prelude to her many years as teacher and school principal. My sisters had a proposition for me, the quiet, middle child.
I was to be the Fat Lady! Anne and Janet chuckled as they belted a fluffy pillow around my waist and pulled Dad’s much too large sweatshirt over my head. They gave me explicit instructions: I was to be stationed just inside the screen door to the side yard. When Janet introduced the Fat Lady to the crowd, I was to come outside, walk down the steps, cross the yard and take a bow. I refused, as only a small child can do, without explanation. I didn’t understand the humiliation but I sensed it was there, waiting for the entire audience to see. I ran up the stairs to my bedroom under the eaves of our house. I threw off the dreaded costume. I crawled under my bed and lay there for the entirety of the circus. I grudgingly came out only after my father coaxed me from my hiding place, assuring me that the neighbors were gone. Oh by the way, Anne and Janet wanted to apologize.
The flickering black and white film slowly fades to pastels as the family pictures resolve to middle-school children canoeing, riding horses in the annual Labor Day parade, bicycling to the Natatorium, the public swimming pool with the concrete toadstool for jumping, playing various instruments in school band concerts. Our parents are young, almost unrecognizable. We children are definitely not as adorable as in the earlier films. I wonder if this is why my mother stopped taking movies?
If one studies the films closely, though, one sees a transition. I must have been about nine years old. I am slightly overweight, more self-conscious and insecure. I conceal myself in big sweatshirts in the winter and swimsuits with frilly skirts to hide my belly and thighs in summer. I waited for my mother to see that I had budding breasts. I hinted that my best friend had her first “trainer bra,” to no avail. I do not smile as much in the photographs. By fifth grade, a chubby prepubescent girl, I hide from the camera’s wandering eye entirely.
I remember eating: going to the corner store to buy Sugar Babies and Tootsie Roll Pops with my best friend. We stashed the candies in the hedge around her yard to snack while we camped outside. Janet scolded me about eating too many potato chips after dinner. My mother paid us girls to bake cookies, a mainstay dessert. I always volunteered, eating chocolate chips while the cookies baked. We ate dinner as a family, having to sit at the table until our plates were clean. I gagged on cold cooked carrots or peas or succotash, dessert withheld until the main meal was finished. When extracurricular activities began to rule our lives, we were relieved from the family dinner. Eating alone in the kitchen, standing up, wreaked further havoc with my love-hate affair with food. I seem to have had no governors. To be honest, I wasn’t obese or fat; I was plump, maybe still baby fat? History changes our images of ourselves. Pictures aren’t always truthful.
I was still active, but it was different than when I was younger. I bicycled in the summers, but by junior high, girls did not bicycle to school—it was not cool. I continued with synchronized swimming, but this non-aerobic sport was outside the mainstream. I played clarinet in the marching bank, but the wool Eisenhower-style jacket, with its form-fitting waist, was lumpy on my frame. I skied, joining the crowd on Saturday mornings to take the school buses up to Spout Springs, a local small ski area. My first skis were too long, remnants from the college’s cross-country ski team. My ski pants were baggy, not the form-fitting ones worn by my friends. My intricate Norwegian-style sweaters were beautiful, but no one else wore handmade clothes. I was an outlier in an otherwise popular sport. Despite my activities, I did not develop a slick, taut body. I missed the girls with whom I’d been a friend in grade school, before the clicks formed and people were left behind. They understood, at least on the outside, this transition, with their make-up, nylon stockings, and stylish clothes. I was not going through puberty easily.
Bomb Shelters and the Genesis of “Fatty Patty”
One day when I was about twelve, in the mid-1960s, my father, my brothers and I were driving home from church. For some reason, my Sunday school teacher was in the front seat with my father. The two men discussed the Cold War and the growing fears about the Soviet Union’s missile capabilities. They mused whether families in southeastern Washington should be concerned about a possible attack. We were far from any potential action but for the fact a large air force base was located just outside of town and the Hanford Site, part of the Manhattan Project in 1943 and home of nine nuclear reactors during the Cold War era, was a mere forty miles away. Soon, their conversation veered to the popularity of bomb shelters.
I inserted myself into the conversation. Although I was so shy in those years that we laughed about the time I didn’t speak to the adult driver, with whom I was the only passenger, on a four-hour road trip to summer church camp, I had something important to say. I reminded my father that my cousin, Susan, and I had toured a bomb shelter in Santa Barbara the previous summer.
The experience had been eerie, the structure hidden beneath a garden of vibrant red, blue and yellow flowers. We had hesitated as we had climbed down the concrete stairs to a small, musty and damp room, lit only by our host’s flashlight. The minimal furniture, several cots and stools, had been only enough for a family of four. The shelves had been stocked with canned food, bottled water, batteries and wool Army blankets. The radio’s dial had been turned to the emergency broadcast station. My cousin and I had stared wide-eyed at the tiny room under the earth. We hadn’t connected our grandparents’ gracious friends with fear of a third world war, total annihilation and destruction. I tried to describe all this to my father, my teacher, and my brothers. The boys were not interested, too young, probably too realize the all-to-present danger.
I remember an “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” program that my sisters and I watched a few years before that day. The premise was promising even for a horror story: a man who loves to read is in a basement library when the world is destroyed by some apocalyptic event. The protagonist isn’t concerned about being trapped. He is elated to be surrounded by books. This seemed like heaven to me, a voracious reader even in grade school. But as the sole survivor begins to select several books to read, he stumbles over some rubble and breaks his eyeglasses. Nearly blind without them, he is devastated. The final scene is the man groping in the dark, trying to find his glasses as the film’s music becomes dark and menacing. Everyone else’s horror became his. The movie was make-believe, but we had chills up and down our spines. We three girls shared a bed that night. We discounted the show, trying to assuage our fears, the imaginings of a brilliant, but slightly off-kilter, filmmaker. The bomb shelter, however, was real.
After listening to my retelling of the summer’s adventure, Dad assured us that we would be safe from harm if the Cold War erupted. I don’t recall why, though. We didn’t have a basement, let alone a specially designed underground shelter. We only had a very tiny concrete well with a shingled cover for a lid. Our family of seven would not have fit in it. Our provisions, jars of canned fruit and vegetables, were on shelves in the utility room in the house. The glass jars would break in any aftermath of dropped bombs. I worried about this dilemma for months. Then, to my utter astonishment, my father caught my eye in the rearview window of the olive green station wagon and calmly said: “Patty, you’d be fine for a few weeks anyway. You’d be like the Eskimos in winter, living off their blubber.”
My brothers laughed, while I turned red with shame. Hot, prickly tears leaked from my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. How could he have said that? I was humiliated. Bruce and Robbie quickly began chanting “Fatty Patty” over and over, hysterical with laughter. Once home, my sisters joined the chorus, unaware of the offensive pain of the rhythmic moniker. My father apologized profusely for his uncharacteristic remark. He was contrite, seeing the profound hurt in my face. Words are difficult to retract, though. Especially when they are truthful. I was chubby. I ate too much. I wasn’t as active as when I was very young. What had happened to me?
Eighth Grade Physical Education Class
My metamorphosis from lively, energetic little girl to subdued and awkward teenager solidified in one solitary episode that remains seared in my mind. Eighth grade, Physical Education class: thirty girls for fifty minutes, three days a week. We changed in the locker room from our school clothes to navy blue cotton shirts and shorts and white sneakers. We warmed up with skill drills, throwing softballs as far as third base, climbing hanging ropes, doing fifty push-ups and sit-ups, attempting basketball lay-ups, all sorts of contortions of the body. We chose teams, shared the gym in winter with the eighth grade boys, and ran laps around the tennis courts in spring.
I seemed always to get “Cs” in skills, “As” in teamwork, participation and clean uniforms. I practiced at home, turning old, rickety sawhorses into hurdles, trying not to throw softballs “like a girl,” learning cartwheels from my mother. Despite all the practice, I was not strong or coordinated enough to successfully complete those drill tests.
Twice a year, at the beginning of each semester, we were measured to determine whether our weight and height fit into a government-designated norm. We sat on the cold locker room floor before taking our showers, waiting for our instructor, taut and strong, to call us up one by one, alphabetically. She called my name, “Patty Burgess,” and I slowly rose. I loathed the gauntlet walk among the lithe and tiny gymnasts, the tall and muscular basketball players, the quick and strong volleyball players. I lowered my eyes, dreading the next several minutes.
I nodded to the teacher as she beckoned me to stand on the scale. I stood still as a rock as she moved the weight until the lever was perfectly balanced and still. I tried to suck in enough air to lighten the scale but the number didn’t budge. The teacher then directed me to the measuring tape stuck to the wall, where I stretched my spine to gain some height, to no avail. After the teacher marked my statistics on her checklist, she called out my numbers: “Five feet, two inches; one hundred thirty-eight pounds.” This was my weight, when the scale barely registered triple digits for many of my classmates. I tried to make myself invisible as I slipped to the back of the class, avoiding my friends’ glances, wanting to be like a turtle who could tuck her head inside her shell. Did anyone else hear? Did anyone else care?
I listened as the ninety-pound girls turned and bounced back to their spots in class after their weigh-ins. Had they similar obsessions? Or maybe theirs were different, not weighing enough, limiting their food intake so they could more easily swing on the uneven parallel bars? What about the basketball and volleyball players? Were they preoccupied with their weight or height? I dared not ask, not wanting to reveal my singular fears.
I was mortified but the numbers didn’t lie. My brothers and sisters’ taunts were confirmed. Fatty Patty carried a dark connotation as I wound my way through these years. I came to believe its power to hurt, to derail plans, to signify who I was. During my teenage years, I found consolation at the YMCA with some of the other “brainy” girls. Not alike the time when I was four years old and swimming with the college students, being a porpoise in the deep waters of the pool was a solace to me.
My friends and I spent untold hours as part of a synchronized swimming group, although we called it water ballet. This sport—arguably more dance and art than athletics—was not yet on the Olympics’ list. We performed balletic moves to jazzy music; choreographed underwater dances; sewed sequins on our gauze costumes; participated in competitions. My hair and skin carried the faint perfume of chlorine; my towels were permanently damp; my skin was wrinkled. I loved the silky water, where I floated and swam for hours with grace and precision. There, height and weight markers were meaningless.
The Magic of Tennis Summers
I fast forward past the high school years, the peer pressures enormous, my self-esteem still flailing, my public persona one of the intellectuals. My imaginary movie spools to the summers of my college years. My father was the local tennis icon and college tennis coach, much beloved and revered by students and “townies” alike. Although it would have been the natural and logical thing to do, I did not take tennis lessons as a child. I did not want to disappoint my father, certain my failed attempts at most athletic endeavors in junior high and high school would spill over onto the tennis courts.
Those summers were different, somehow. I shed my extra weight: defying the common “freshman fifteen,” I lost almost twenty pounds during my freshman year at college. I limited myself to a small chunk of chess or poached egg for breakfast, maybe an apple at lunch, salad (or cookie, never both) for dinner. Some days, I only ate handmade granola. I weighed myself at least five times a day, the scale the barometer of my eating. I stood on my bed to catch a glimpse of my body in the mirror on top of the dresser. I turned this way and that, trying to see every angle. I did not yet see a slender collegiate woman in the mirror. I became “Pat” to college friends, putting distance between “Patty” and the singsong moniker.
I do not remember if I made the conscious decision to learn to play tennis or whether I fell into it as an opportunity to be alone with my father. Regardless of the reason, each summer morning for four years before much of the town was awake, my father and I bicycled to the public tennis courts and practiced ground strokes, overhead lobs, short strokes and serves—and talked.
My father chanted his magic words, “Move, move! Stay light on your feet! Keep your eyes on the ball!” over and over as he endlessly lobbed balls to me. I tried to move quickly enough to hit the balls with the proper forehand or backhand grip so they returned over the net and within the lines of the court—not an easy task for a perennial beginner. After an hour or so of drills and fundamentals, interspersed with Dad’s perennial questions about my current major, what books I was reading, whether I had time to pick huckleberries in the mountains with him, we played a few games before heading home to officially start our days.
These times were precious and mine, alone. My lack of athletic ability did not matter to my father. Over time, I learned to hit a graceful forehand swing. We focused on the fellowship of our early mornings together. We talked for hours about his very strong belief that a liberal arts education was not complete without focus on the body as well as the mind. What I heard was that I could be smart and athletic, an eye-opener for me. In hindsight, I suspect he tried to convey that I was no longer that chubby middle-school child, that I’d shed more than just physical weight by the time of my early twenties, that it was time to let go of the shield of my insecurity and poor body image. This was not an easy task for an identity forged deeply in my psyche.
Law School and Another Transformation
It took many more years before I recognized the silhouette of a long, lean runner when the sun’s angle hit exactly right as I jogged the logging trails of Humboldt County. Even then, the bite (no pun intended) of food obsessions held tight.
After my last college summer, I left the wide-open fields of southeastern Washington for law school in San Francisco. As I departed my childhood home, I felt once again the little girl on the bus after swimming lessons, waving good-bye until my parents were mere specks in the van’s back window.
Three years of intense studying and grueling note taking passed. I cheered with my classmates after the last lecture. My husband, my proud parents and grandparents attended graduation ceremonies. Next on the to-do list was the dreaded California bar exam, the last roadblock to being able to practice law. My academic record spoke well for predicting my likelihood of success on the nation’s toughest bar exam, so my apprehension defied all logic as I contemplated the task ahead. I would have studied twenty-four hours a day if I could have survived without sleep to ensure its passage. My insecurities and apprehensions swung into high gear.
My days were filled with intense studying, the evenings with three-hour preparatory classes, the weekends with group review sessions. I rarely took breaks; my time with friends and family suffered. I was relentless in my schedule. I did not want to fail. I was competitive, within myself, not dissimilar to all those years in school as teacher’s pet, Honor student, Phi Beta Kappa. This time it mattered, though.
After two weeks of this head’s down focus, the theory of diminishing returns struck. Coming up for air, I regained a semblance of sense. Without a respite, my studying would be for naught. I would not be able to assimilate all the data vying for attention in my brain. Sitting for hours on end, reading books and outlines and notes, was contrary to the necessity, maybe genes from my father, to move my body, to be active, to be outdoors. The solution was simple; the unintended consequences were powerful.
I needed physical, heart-burning, muscle-toning movement, a trifecta of activity to counter-balance the sitting and studying. I remembered my father’s words during my college summers. I assessed my options. I already bicycled to and from school, hauling a backpack heavy with expensive law books. I no longer cared that it might not be politically correct for a “girl” to ride a bike. I didn’t have a car and only used bus transportation in the rainy weather.
My first “Eureka!” moment occurred while watching the intrepid swimmers in the chilly, shark-infested waters near Fort Point in the Marina district. Why not resurrect my love affair with swimming? I located a community pool, only a mile or so from our tiny apartment, with a mid-day lap swim schedule. I converted my sculls, leg lifts and water ballet movements to the freestyle and the breaststroke. I fell into the easy rhythm of swimming twenty-five meter lengths. The methodical, effortless swim was the perfect antidote to stuck-in-the-chair studying.
I soon yearned for something more, an alternative sport for those times when the pool was closed or the perennial San Francisco “June gloom” lifted. I wanted to reconstruct the unbridled joy of my childhood activities before I believed I could only be successful in the world of books. I decided to run at the ¾ mile dirt track circling the polo fields at Golden Gate Park.
I was definitely a novice. I wore flat-bottomed Ked sneakers, my husband’s ubiquitous khaki shorts and a baggy cotton tee shirt. My form, placing one foot in front of the other, repeatedly, yard after yard, was uninspired. The concepts of proper technique, cross-training, hydration and nutrition were not part of my lexicon. Today, I would be considered “retro”; then, I was merely uninformed.
My first few sessions were embarrassing. I barely managed a full circle before I collapsed in the inner field. My legs burned, my calves ached, my breath pounded. I persevered, though. The number of loops slowly but steadily increased as the summer progressed. My concentrated foot after foot placement became more natural. My breathing was less labored. I started to register my distance in miles, not yards. I had only to compete with myself. I could measure the incremental improvement. I discovered a lightness that was undeniable and unrepeatable elsewhere in my life.
I did not tell my friends, even my then-husband, much about this solitary activity. I wanted to keep it to myself, cherishing my growing strength, my endurance, and my focus. I began to eat more regularly, although still sparingly, afraid, so afraid, of gaining weight. I was not yet able to connect being physically active and needing nutrition, the fear of the scale and the ever-present mirror too formidable. Even though the taunting “Fatty Patty” slowly receded into the background, disconnected from any possible resemblance to my evolving physical appearance, I could not entirely shake the etched image on my brain of someone different than who I was becoming.
Fatty Patty Redux
Five years passed after law school graduation. We moved from San Francisco to the northern California coast, living among the Redwood forests, dairy lands and coastal hills. I continued to run with joy and abandon. I gathered together an intimate group of friends. I became a lawyer, helping senior citizens and the poor.
I eschewed food, every day struggling, winning the battle but maybe losing the war as it continued to absorb too much space in my thoughts and actions. Paradoxically, my husband loved to eat and I liked to cook. I baked salmon with avocado, stuffed inch-thick pork chops, sautéed crab. We had friends over for dinner, fancy holiday meals, handcrafted desserts. I prepared the meals but I did not eat them, barely nibbling on the edges.
I was six months pregnant with my first child when my oldest sister, Anne, and her family stopped at our house on their way to Disneyland. I eagerly anticipated their visit, to show them my home, to become acquainted with her two sons, my nephews, to reconnect after too many years apart. As soon as I heard the car’s tires crunch on the gravel driveway, I hurried outside to greet them. Anne was gathering suitcases from the trunk of the car when she looked up, smiled, and boomed, “Hey, Fatty Patty!” I caught myself short: the feared “f” word. My visceral reaction was swift, the red in my eyes fierce, the childhood memories exploding to the surface of my consciousness. I concentrated with all my might to respond kindly, “Hi, Anne. How was the drive?”
I was uncomfortable being pregnant. I missed running with my friends, certainly the physical activity, but even more, our fellowship of the times together. My gait became the awkward waddle of pregnant women everywhere. I cringed as I stepped on the scale at the doctor’s office, the nurse making a permanent record of my bi-weekly weight gain. I had a difficult time “eating for two,” knowing I needed nutrition for my unborn child but overwhelmed with having to constantly think about food. To have my sister, who barely knew me as an adult, label me with that epitaph was almost too much to bear.
Surely Anne’s comment was made in gest, a way to reconnect with her little sister. Yes, I had a basketball-size belly, like most pregnant women, but the rest of me was slender. I was scared about being pregnant because of the physical changes that having a baby brought. She hit my worse fears immediately on the head the second we saw one another. I over-reacted.
What if I had greeted her with “Hi, Annie Oakley," her childhood nickname ? She’d likely have been thrilled that I remembered her childhood obsessions, training her horse, being a member of a girls’ riding group, seating tall in her elegant cowgirl outfits in parades. Even today, her Facebook pages are full of pictures of cowboys and horses. She was, and still is, proud of this part of her childhood while I dreaded the reminders of my past where I did not quite fit the mold of a young teenage girl.
I appreciate that my father’s “Eskimo” comment was also intended as a light-hearted tease. He reminded me of our special times together, our enduring walks and talks, our road trips. He despaired that a childhood slight, which he gravely regretted the moment the words fell from his mouth, held such power over me. Unfortunately, the children’s ditty that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” is not always true. Words are powerful. They can heal, but they can also wound. Fatty Patty is the trigger for me. I wish it were not so.
I am now in my sixties. I have not been chubby for many more years than I was. I was slender in college; underweight during the year I lived in England, barely choking the over-cooked roast pork and beef, the soggy vegetables. Some might say I am too skinny, today. I still would likely not pass the school physicals requiring sit-ups and push-ups, but I can ride a bicycle for a hundred miles. I can swim for one mile and run for 26.2. I can climb tall mountains. My childhood demons should be buried for good. There is no reason for them to exist, to trail me all these years. They do, though, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Was I (am I?) anorexic? The disease wasn’t discussed much or even acknowledged when I was in college, when I almost stopped eating. Or later, during all the years of my comments, “I’m too fat,” or “I ate too much earlier today so I’m skipping dinner,” or “I’ll just have the salad” when we went out to popular restaurants. Or, when I looked in the mirror, standing naked, wondering if my thighs were too thick or my stomach protruded or my arm muscles were slack.
Today, eating disorders are more likely focused on teenage girls or twenty-something young women. Health care professionals are just beginning to pay attention to middle-aged women, whose children are grown, whose careers are winding down, who are becoming invisible, who do not eat. I don’t think I have an eating disorder, but then, one should likely not diagnose one’s self.Do I still count calories? Yes. Do I still see a fat body when I stand naked in front of the mirror? Well, maybe not fat, but certainly not thin. Do I complain about “being too fat,” or “eating too much”? Yes, not as much as when I was younger, but sometimes, depending on the situation and my stress level. Do I cringe, ever so slightly, when we’re out for dinner, and the menu overwhelms me, the choices too many, imagining the calories and potential weight gain? Yes, unfortunately I do.
Will my image of my body change? I have no reason to believe it will. I wish I were wrong. I have carried this albatross for too long.