Friday, October 30, 2015

Playground Lies

I think I’ve been fat all my life. 

I haven’t, of course, and when I look back at photos of myself throughout the years, I realize I really only had one pudgy year in my childhood—third grade. Third grade, I think, must be the hardest grade.  I know that because a little third grader told me so.  It would take some work for me to remember what kind of trauma is typical on a Terrible Third Grader Kind Of Day, but let’s say you lost your lunch money, fell in a mud puddle in front of the whole class, threw up in the lunchroom and forgot to turn in your homework. All on the same day.  

I think that’s the kind of day Charity had when she dissolved into tears in my living room one afternoon and proclaimed,

“Ten is the hardest age ever!” 

On that particular day, I was twenty-seven, the mother of two small children, living in the foreign land of Florida which, everyone knows, is inhabited by child-eating alligators and giant mosquitos, and seldom saw my husband who walked into burning buildings for a living.

I had a little bit of trouble relating to a muddy ten-year-old.

But, now that I look back on being fat all my life, I realize Charity was right.  It’s hard to be ten, it’s hard to be a third grader, and it’s hard to think you’re fat whether you are or not.

When our kids were small, we had a list of things we taught them never to say to anyone, especially if they were trying to insult somebody. We didn’t say “shut up” in our house. We never told anyone they were stupid. And, worst of all, we never called anyone “fat” even if they were. Especially if they were. I knew from personal experience that being called “fat” is an identity  wound you may never overcome, and I didn’t want my kids scarring each other with the label or reminding another already scarred person of how they’d, no doubt, already been labeled.

Every one of those misdemeanors was a crime in our home and would get you sent to your room without dessert—so the punishment would fit the crime.

For a couple of years when he was about five or six, our son had an imaginary friend. And then he had two of them. We’d hear him talking in his room and find out later how silly we were to think he was talking to himself, when he was in the company of Roy and Ernie. Who could only be seen by our son.

Sometimes Lee and Roy and Ernie got into arguments. That’s a trip.  Watching your five-year-old arguing with his three-year-old sister is one thing. Watching him argue with two invisible kids can send you running to the Yellow Pages.

One afternoon we were all in the car—my husband, myself, our son, our daughter, and Roy and Ernie—only I didn’t know Roy and Ernie had come along for the ride until I heard our son, Lee’s, voice begin to rise from the backseat.

“No, I didn’t!”

“Yes, you did!”

“No, I didn’t!!”

"Yes, you DID!!”

His voice rose louder with every punctuated sentence, his head turning side to side as he took turns arguing individually with Roy and then Ernie and then Roy again. Until, finally, one of the two silent partners lobbed a pre-emptive strike voiced by our ventriloquist son:

“You’re fat!” we heard him say, and then he crossed his arms, put on his really mad face, and stopped talking.

“What’s going on?” I asked, with a mixture of amusement and anxiety.

“Ernie called me fat,” he said angrily.

Now, I don’t know if you have some inside scoop as to the ins and outs of a conversation like that, but since Ernie and Roy were kicked out of the car that day and never heard from again, I think it’s safe to say that problem took care of itself. I’m just telling you about it because calling someone “fat” in our house was paramount to an assault with a deadly weapon. It was a really bad idea and our kids knew it.

Unfortunately, no one told the people I grew up around how deadly it is for a kid to be thought fat in the third grade. 
“You’re so fat, I bet you wear a bra!” boys yelled at me on the playground.  They were right—that year my mom bought me a training bra.  Training bra.  What does that even mean? Do they still have those? I knew I was too young to wear one, but since t-shirts apparently weren’t doing the trick (do little girls still wear those, either?), the nice lady in the department store sold my mom a training bra for her little ten-year-old daughter.

When the class picture came out that year, I had, unfortunately, been seated on the front row instead of hiding safely on the back one.

“You took up two chairs!” the boys laughed again. And even though I didn’t really take up two chairs, in my mind I agreed with them that I sure didn’t look skinny where I sat in that photo.  What a shame that little kids can spend their childhoods comparing themselves to one another and grow up believing they’re not good enough.

So my mom took me to the doctor who listened to our fears of how fat I was and put my ten-year-old self on a diet of carrot sticks (which I hate to this day) and a half sandwich for lunch. No more cookies or hostess cupcakes to make the other kids jealous at school. It was all serious business for me to lose weight.

My grandmother, of course, had the perfect solution for helping me get thin.  It’s the same answer most people come up with today when they figure out I have some weight to “release.”  (I just heard that description of weight loss efforts.  I like the sound of it much better than Biggest Loser.)

“Just tell her no more seconds,” she said matter-of-factly.  

 I considered that plan for a minute, and then asked,

“Can I have thirds then?”

At least she had a good sense of humor, even though she had no idea how hard it was to be ten years old in the 1960’s. She grew up in the 1910’s when people washed their laundry in a galvanized bucket, scrubbed their own floors with horse hair brushes or something, baked their own bread in a wood burning oven, and chopped wood for the fire that kept them warm all winter.  If I’d been as lucky as her and lived at a time in history like that, I’d have been a skinny little kid, too.

My dad said I was fat because I watched too much television. I did watch as much television as I could, but that consisted mostly of I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and Let’s Make A Deal, which came on once a week. Maybe I was fat in the third grade because we lived in a retirement trailer park where there were four other kids to play with. 

We made the most of what we had, though, and I got pretty good at kickball and avoiding the cars that interrupted our games. I rode my bike sometimes and skated up and down the rows of trailers. Sometimes we played at the playground with the two swings and a slide, and in the summer there was a swimming pool to swim in when it wasn’t sixty degrees outside where we lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. I guess that means we swam once a week. If we were lucky.

So I went on the doctor’s diet at the end of the third grade. Then I went to summer school for fun during the month of June because I got to take an art class and a science class and a class on dinosaurs. But the fourth class was required of everyone—P.E.  I hated P.E., which I thought stood for Punishing Eula because she’s fat.  In P.E. I got to do fun things like jumping jacks and running around the track—over and over and over again. I still hate P.E., too.

And when I started the fourth grade, I weighed ten pounds less than when I left the third grade.  I also was several inches taller. 

 And that’s my point.   

What no one seemed to understand when I was a kid is that children—even babies—get growth spurts that begin with eating more than  normal, putting on a little weight and then growing taller and going back to their normal appetite.

If grownups don’t interfere with this natural circle of life, kids might grow up with a fairly healthy self-image. If all the adults in a ten-year-olds life agree with a child’s peer group of third grade authorities, then a growing kid may spend the rest of her life in a self-imposed prison of unworthiness.

Maybe I was born at an unfortunate time. It was the decade of Twiggy.  Ever heard of her? She made a skinny, boy-body famous by wearing it when she was a girl. Suddenly curves were out and boobs were a no-no.  With her bobbed, slick hair and androgynous looks, she most resembled, oh, I don’t know, let’s say Justin Beaver today. Only she was a girl and he isn’t.
And once a girl like me hit puberty, she couldn’t compete with Twiggy’s supermodel look. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t deflate the curves predestined for me by heredity and sexual orientation. And since I blossomed earlier than my friends who were doing a much better imitation of Twiggy than I was, I stood out like a sore thumb.A swollen, sore thumb. 

I was different than everyone, it seemed. I couldn’t compete with my mother’s cheerleader, Southern belle story of having a “twenty-one inch waist” when she met and married my dad at sixteen. I couldn’t compare with the Miss America pageant contestants we watched every fall on TV. I sewed for and dressed countless Barbie dolls who flaunted their lopsided figures and mocked my poor self-esteem.
And now, forty-five years after a doctor first put me on a diet as a ten-year-old, I’ve been on and read so many diet plans I think I qualify as the world’s most defeated professional dieter.

But do you know what’s really sad about that? When I look back over photos of myself between infancy and age forty-five, the only year of my life where I really was pudgy was that one year as a kid when I first believed the boys on the playground. 

I was slender on my wedding day when I felt I wasn’t. I was slender through two pregnancies and bounced back to a healthy weight, though I chased an elusive desire to lose “ten more pounds.”  I ate like a pig that whole, busy time my kids were growing up and never gained an ounce, but I hid behind everyone in family photos for fear someone would point out that I was “fat.” There’s hardly a single photo of me in all our family albums where it looks like I even have legs. I’m always standing behind someone skinnier than me.

How does a girl get over a lifetime of believing a lie?

By replacing it with the truth. One painful step at a time.

There were wounds that set me up to believe that third-grader lie. Many of them have been healed and many others are currently being healed. We all have them. We’ve all been hit by lying arrows that want us to believe we’re inferior, we don’t measure up, and we’re a disappointment.

But those are lies. Playground lies. I don’t know what lies you heard during recess, but make no mistake, they’re deadly.

The problem isn’t what we eat. The problem is what we believe. And it may be time to kick Roy and Ernie out of the car for calling me fat.

Out of the mouths of babes.

With thanks to Brian Talbot for the use of the wonderful picture seen above. Brian's work, including the site for this photo, can be viewed at

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