My momma’s arms encircle me. I cuddle into her embrace, cherishing the warm softness of her skin, the peppery-coconut tang of her lotion that filled me with a sense of security. She smoothed my cropped hair behind my ear and whispered that she loved me. I responded exuberantly, brimming over with affection for my momma, “I love you too!” I remember her curves, deep, strong curves that swayed like the ocean when she walked. Her legs were sturdy tree trunks that supported life filled branches. I loved my momma’s feather soft belly that I sunk into when I rested my head against her. To me, my mother was beautiful. She was strong, elegant, and beautiful, always beautiful.
When my parent’s told me that my momma was getting surgery to be smaller, I did not understand. I wanted to know why she needed to be smaller. My parents never really explained. My grandmother stayed with us while my momma was in the hospital. My grandmother was strict, and harsh, but she was nicer than usual. She knew my siblings and I missed our momma. When Momma came home, she was weak and in a lot of pain. I was not allowed to cuddle against her, though I so wanted to.
She lost weight quickly, drastically, and cheerfully. I was disturbed. I missed my momma’s depth, her strength…her beautiful curves. I used to sit at the edge of her bed while she changed in the mornings, after my father went to work. I saw the scars from the operation. I did not understand why my momma had traded her elegant fat for screaming red scars. I did not ask her about the scars. My momma was happier than I had seen her in some time. As time passed, this happiness faded. I forgot about the surgery and the scars. I came to accept how my momma had changed.
My family sits around the dining room table. My two eldest siblings are absent, grown and moved out already, while I am only in third grade. My brother sits across from me, smiling and goofy like always. I smile back; a secret conversation passes between our facial expressions. My father clears his throat and looks to my mother. She clears her throat and I watch the loose skin around her jaw wobble with the vibrations. “Phillip, Megan, we need to talk.” I put down my fork. I’m filled with the familiar sense of pre-lecture dread.
“You’re father and I think that we need to tell you both that we are worried about you.” My mother looks at us sternly. I scoot my heels nervously across the floor. The rubber squeaks slightly and I can’t stop a small, lopsided smile from creeping over my “serious” face.
“You two look like you are gaining a lot of weight recently…you especially, Megan.” I flush deep, humiliated pink.
“We have decided to do something about it, even if that means we need to put you both in a rubber suit in a sauna.” My dad’s attempt at humor makes my reddening face hot with shame. Both my parents looked at me directly. Suddenly, a terrible wheedling thought surfaced in my mind. They were only mentioning Phillip to spare me feeling bad.
I took their words to heart, and so began my foray into the dieting world. I knew dieting was a bad idea, especially at my age. Mainly I knew that to say you were dieting meant that people would know that you thought you were fat. People could never know that. Only stupid girls cared about their weight. I was smart, too smart to believe the magazines and television when they told me what girls were supposed to look like. Secretly, I was no better than anyone else at fighting off those messages.
My parent’s conversation at dinner with me only helped solidify thoughts I already had. I was fat. I needed to do something about it. I joined the girl’s volleyball team and stopped eating sweets. I cut down on my portion sizes. After school I would run laps around my yard until I felt sick and then I would run two more. To my disbelief and frustration, I continued to gain weight. I tried to hide it by dressing in clothes too big for me, but I could not fool myself.
I come home from school one day and I see my mother sitting on the couch. She is in running clothes and looks tired. “Where have you been?” I’m only in sixth grade, but I am already a straight forward talker. “At the gym,” she replies. She goes on to tell me that she thinks it would be great if we bonded over her newly found diversion. I agree, thinking in the back of my mind that it wouldn’t hurt for me to lose a few pounds. She tells me that she is excited for me to be her motivational workout partner. “You can keep me on track.”
The gym is not something I enjoy, but I go religiously for a while. Every day, I spend thirty minutes working with the machines and stretching with a community of woman all at least twenty years my senior. Sometimes they look at me curiously, but none of them question me being there. My mother stops going as often, because the machines are hard on her body. To compensate, she joins the gym’s diet program. She brings me a long.
The first night we fill out a questionnaire to see what sort of nutrients is our major issue as far as weight gain. I score highest in calories, while she scores highest in carbohydrates. She frowns at my results for a moment and then says to the leader, “trust me, she needs to work on her carbohydrates too.” By the end of the meeting we have our meal plan set up. We are to replace one meal a day with protein shakes, and to eat salads for lunch. I am looking forward to the diet. I spend the car ride home guiltily envisioning what my new body will look like. I do not tell anyone at school what I’m doing. Part of me still knows that admitting you are fat is wrong.
I go through a couple of weeks with the new diet, but I feel tired all the time. I hate the powdery protein shakes that taste acidic like stomach acid. I begin to get tired of salads, and I’m hungry a lot. I feel weak when I exercise so I stop going to the gym. My mother complains that I’m not holding up my end of the bargain. She says that since she is paying all of this money I should at least do it right. I go through the motions, drinking chocolate powder shakes, taking salads to school for my lunch. I don’t lose any weight, but I feel ill. Eventually, my mother gets a call from the leader of the diet group. We are supposed to meet with her to discuss things. The woman says I can’t participate in the diet anymore because if a doctor found out the gym could get into trouble. My mother is annoyed, but she agrees.
It’s a beautiful day, school is over, I have just finished tenth grade. It’s the 4th of July. I am excited to spend the day running around downtown with my boyfriend. I am going to watch my nieces in the parade. I dress carefully, I select Capri pants, a white t shirt, and a red ribbon for my hair; denim blue, cotton white, and sequined red, the colors of our nation. I ride my bike downtown and embrace my boyfriend. We walk hand in hand while the parade traipses by, sirens blaring, children cheering, it’s a beautiful day.
That evening, I go to church with my parents and my boyfriend. Our church is having a fair for the holiday. I get my face painted, and I walk away from the booth covered cheek to cheek in a garish green butterfly. I strut back to my parent’s table, swelling with happiness. My father intercepts me and says in his nonchalant-fatherly voice, “Megan, I think you should know that your shirt is way too tight for you. It makes it obvious that you are overweight. Also, your boobs are really obvious; I just thought you should know.” I look at him, and I have no words. I am taken aback. I feel betrayed. I am embarrassed, horrified, and ashamed. I feel disgusting. I crumple to the floor in front of my church congregation, and I begin to sob. I try to back under a table so that no one sees me. My mother comes over and pats my back. I push her away. I see my boyfriend walking towards me. I stand and I run. I push past people at the doors and I tear into the twilight, sliding over the gravel parking lot. I run to the corner. My mother catches up to me in her car, my boyfriend is in the back seat. I can’t look at him as I climb through the passenger door.
The car is silent. My mother reaches towards me and strokes my arm. I jerk away, flinching from her touch. She glares at the road, “Maybe you didn’t want to hear it, but it’s true, Megan. Someone had to tell you.” I stop crying then. I look at her pure anger on my face, now it’s her who flinches. I open my mouth and hot, angry words spill out. “If you had a problem with what I was wearing, if any of you did, you should have said something this morning before I left the house, before I ran around like an idiot all day, feeling like I was pretty and like I looked good!”
I see my boyfriend in the back and he is looking at me. His face is a mask of sympathy and compassion. I melt a little, I soften. “I just want to change, that’s all.” I stay in my head for the rest of the car trip home. I think about dieting, about my tendency to throw up after I eat. I think about not eating. I think about running in circles until I can’t feel my feet. I think about how if you think you are fat then you are stupid. I know I am fat, I don’t feel stupid, but I do feel ugly, and I feel betrayed. I feel suffocated. I feel like who I am is not okay, I feel like when I am older I should get surgery like my mother did, back when she was my momma.
I don't want anyone to mistake my intentions here. It was not that I was raised badly. My parent's intentions were good. They wanted me to be healthy, they also wanted me to be happy. No, their methods were not the best in this area, but I believe wholeheartedly that they meant well.
I am publishing this story for a few reasons. My first reason is that I think it is important for people to see what is happening to youth as far as body standards. My struggles with my weight were very heavily based in what the media told me I should look like. That continued to what my peers told me, what my family told me, what I told myself I should look like.
I feel a personal story helps people see that these messages are real.
I want to ask you all to think about how this story could be anyone's story. What are the messages we send with our actions and our words?