By Teri Carter.
Mary is skinny. Mary has a trick. Mary shows up late for lunch, which means she has no time to order or no time to eat. Both work. Mary’s just turned 50 and she is always talking food: You would not believe what I stuffed in my face at that barbecue! Your bag of Cool Ranch Doritos is in danger. I’m ordering a cheeseburger and fries! But Mary, who owns an investment firm, is an expert at moving her food around a round plate and she always gets a to-go box for her barely-touched burger and fries. Can’t wait to pound this down at midnight. She thinks we believe her, so we pretend we do. We all have our tricks.
In an August 2012 article for Forbes, Lisa Quast quotes a research study: 45 to 61 percent of top male CEOs are overweight, compared to only 5 to 22 percent of top female CEOs. Then, in her closing paragraph, Ms. Quast goes inexplicably blasé: “As for me, I’m off to the gym with my husband for weight training and a two mile run. Then I’ll probably have a veggie salad for dinner so I can keep my body mass index at the low end of the normal range. As these studies demonstrate, thin is in for executive women – although I’d prefer to think if it as ‘healthy’ being in.” Her ending leaves me cold. I go back to the beginning.
It’s summer, 1973. I’m eight. Except for me, all of the females in my family are tall and skinny-legged, so elegant in their summer skirts. But I can’t stomach the feel of my sweaty upper thighs rubbing themselves raw, so I declare myself a tomboy. “I hate skirts!” Aunt Sandy takes me aside and instructs me to sleep without my panties on. She says, “If you’re going to wear pants all day, you have to air it out at night.” When I figure out what she means, I imagine myself curled on my side, exposed. What if I throw off the sheets? What if my brothers or uncles walk in? What if someone sees my bottom and I don’t know it? Then I wonder what will happen if I don’t “air it out.” Will I smell bad? Will I get sick? Will I be called names? For the rest of the summer I sleep in my panties and feel the shame of it, my first real secret. I smell the damp crotches before I bury them deep in the laundry. My body, I’m learning, is something to worry about.
Mary reads Elizabeth Strout’s AMY & ISABELLE. There’s a character named Fat Bev. She stubbed out her cigarette. She wasn’t going to complain, she wasn’t a kid anymore. But an ache stayed inside her…. A deep red hole she threw Life Savers into and potatoes and hamburgers and chocolate cakes, and anything else. Did people think she liked being fat? Jolly Bev. Fat Bev. She didn’t like being fat. But that dark red ache was there, like a swirling vacuum, a terrible hole.
It’s fall. I’m ten. My new stepsister is nine. We’re playing flag football with the neighbor boys and my brothers start calling our sister “Tubs” and poking her in the butt and belly when she’s not looking. They yank on her sweatshirt. They shove. By Halloween all of the boys laugh, mostly behind her back, and call her Tubs or Tubby or The Tub. I pull my baggy sweatshirts tight around me, make myself invisible, go quiet. I never, not once, defend her. I fear the nickname they will think up for me.
Another Mary, age 64. Mary hides food. Mary has nine kids and 17 grandkids and she feels like there is never anything, anything at all, just for her. While her family sleeps, Mary watches scary movies late into the night and, with the volume on high for cover, pulls out her stash of homemade oatmeal cookies or hot tamales or Charlie’s chips or, her favorite, the Tony’s Canadian bacon pizza she’s stashed in the bottom of the freezer. If she thinks she can get away with it, by god, she fries up a whole chicken.
I’m 14. At the dinner table my father grabs the bowl of mashed potatoes, but before spooning them into a pile on his plate he says, “What are those things poking out of your shirt? Extra buttons?” My brothers make eyes and laugh too loud. I hunch in, tuck my arms around my body. I say no thanks, I don’t want any mashed potatoes. After dinner I’m doing the dishes when my father comes up behind me, reaches around, and gives me a hard noogie in the chest.
Mary reads Jane Smiley’s A THOUSAND ACRES. Ginny is making breakfast for her father when she realizes – and he realizes – that she’s forgotten the eggs. Ginny panics. I smiled foolishly, said I would be right back, and ran out the door and back down the road. The whole way I was conscious of my body – graceless and hurrying, unfit, panting, ridiculous in its very femininity. It seemed like my father could just look out his big front window and see me naked, chest heaving, breasts, thighs, and buttocks jiggling, dignity irretrievable.
I’m 18. Summer. I show up late to my mother’s farmhouse for Sunday dinner. “You look awful,” she says. “When was the last time you ate?” I laugh and say something like An hour ago, Jesus! and open the Frigidaire. It has not been an hour; it has been four days. And when I did eat, especially if I ate the wrong thing, I was learning to puke. How good it felt to be stuffed full and then hollowed out. How controlled. Thus begins my bulimic decade, the years my obsession with the skinny runneth over.
U.S. News and World Report recently ranked 32 diets. The DASH diet – Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension – is number one. According to Allison Aubrey, in her January 2014 article for NPR, “Here’s the skinny: It’s similar to the Mediterranean diet (which we’ve reported on a lot recently) in that it emphasizes a pattern of eating rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry and nuts.”
My friend Mary’s son just graduated from college, and for the next 4 months he’s hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, solo, from Seattle to Mexico. Mary tells me about the boxes of food and supplies she’ll be mailing every six days, and all I can think about for the rest of the night is what it might be like to live on trail mix and olive oil for an entire summer. How blissfully skinny I would be come Fall.
I’m watching Breaking Bad with my husband. The wife, who has recently given birth, brings home a take-out spread of burgers and fries and fried chicken for her family and a big fight, long in the coming, is about to erupt at the table. My husband says something about the fight, that he saw it coming. I watch the mom nurse her baby and say, “Look how skinny that mom is. No way does she eat like that.”
When Mary was a kid her mother would leave her to-do lists on the kitchen table – make bed, fold/put away laundry, call grandma, get mail, start supper – and sign the notes, simply, Mom. Mary’s mother has never said, or signed, I love you. Before she dies, Mom gives Mary her favorite cookbook – St. Augustine’s 120th Edition – with her famous chicken and dumplings recipe inside. On the flap: To my daughter. Christmas 1997. Love you. Mom.
Now, Mary makes her mother’s chicken and dumplings every Christmas Eve. Mary boils the chicken for hours until it falls of the bone and gets out the rolling pin, the measuring spoons, the flour, baking soda, butter, eggs, salt, pepper. She rubs her fingers hard over her mother’s words. At the table, her family goes on and on about her dumplings, their favorite new tradition. Then, late at night, husband and children long asleep, Mary leaves her bed and warms a heaping bowl of leftover dumplings and sits in front of the Christmas tree, white lights twinkling, and eats and eats and eats until she can’t stuff down any more love.
I’m 20. Late winter. An older gentleman with a well-shaped beard – a regular at the Sunny Hill café where I work – comes in for biscuits and gravy. He tells me he’s a photographer. “I’d love to take some pictures of you.” He tells me I have a great smile. At home I look in the mirror and make smiles, try to see what he sees. After a few weeks, I borrow my roommate’s blouses and sweaters and scarves (without telling her) and I go to the man’s apartment. It’s dark outside. It’s dark inside. I have chills and I don’t want to do it now, but it’s too late. He takes a lot of pictures. He gives me $20. I never see him again.
Once a month, Mary loads up her dogs for the hour drive to the beach. On the way home she stops at Burger King off the Sand City exit and orders her dead mother’s favorite lunch: an original chicken sandwich, mayo only, and a large order of fries. Sometimes she cries while she eats. When Mary gets home she carefully buries the red and yellow Have it your way! bag in the bottom of the trash.
I’m 25. A newlywed. My husband says, “Are you going to eat that?” and “Did you work out today?” and “Don’t forget, we have Steve’s wedding coming up,” and “I thought you said you were cutting back after the holidays.” I make an appointment with Jenny Craig. The rep weighs me. The rep explains the meal plans and pricing. The rep watches while I fill out the paperwork and says, “You only need to lose, like, ten pounds.” I write her a check and drive home with my boxes of meals.
When I leave my husband a year later, my grandmother scolds me for not sticking it out, for not trying harder. She says, “But he takes good care of you. He doesn’t beat you, or anything.”
In 2013, Marion Bartoli wins Wimbledon, the most prestigious tennis event in the world. Twitter blows up: How is Bartoli a professional athlete and fat as fuck. This Bartoli chick is a fat slob. Oh fuck off Bartoli you fat French cunt. Get a boob job with the money you won, ugly bitch. That’s it Bartoli, there’s your [championship] plate, now get back in the kitchen and make everyone a sandwich. Bartoli is fat and annoying – perky nips though!
Mary reads a story aloud. A preteen girl is in the doctor’s office with her mother. The girl is big for her age, has large breasts, and the doctor tells her to lie back, to lie still, while he rubs first her breasts and then her nipples, too slowly, right in front of her mother. Her mother says nothing because this is how the doctor handles her body, too. Mary stops reading. A man in the room expresses doubt. “I don’t know if I believe that scene with the breasts. All the doctors I’ve ever known would be so shy, I’d even say timid, during an exam like that.”
A woman says, “I went for an exam at the Army hospital in Germany, where the doctor grinned and told me I was blushing and that I was really pretty.” A woman says, “While I was still in the stirrups and leaking, my doctor leaned in, patted the sides of my thighs, and said, That’s too much wiggle. Tell me about your exercise routine.” A woman says, “I went for my exam once, and when the doctor was done he slipped off his latex gloves and said, Well, that was fun. Want to do it again?”
There’s a scene in Mary Karr’s LIT where she’s in high school, asking a friend of her mother’s for a recommendation letter: He walked to my side and — with a kind of slow ceremony I did nothing to stop — lifted my t-shirt till I was staring down at my own braless chest. With his trembling and sweaty hand, he cupped first one breast, then the other, saying, “By God, they’re real!” Such was the interview that landed me in a school far beyond my meager qualifications.
I am 27 and 30 and 32 and 35 and 38 and 40. When my father visits he swats me hard on the ass in greeting and says, “What’s that back there!” or “You’re lookin’ healthy!” or “What happened here!” I’m 43 when I finally say, “Do you realize you hit me on the ass every time you see me?” He looks hurt. I apologize, more than once. He never does it again, but still, when I get the call that my grandfather has died, my first thought is: When I go home for the funeral, my dad will see how fat I am and he will be so disappointed in me.
My daughter is 16. She brings her friend Mary home after school. The first thing Mary does is to raid our cupboards for cookies and chips. She checks the fridge for French onion dip and Velveeta slices. Mary stays for dinner and tells me she hopes for mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese or buttered garlic bread. “Her mom makes her eat salad every night,” my daughter whispers in disgust, “while the rest of them eat normal food. Her mom is such a bitch.” I peel more potatoes. I sprinkle cheese on the garlic bread. But I do not tell my daughter how all of us moms envy Mary’s mom: how young she looks, how fit, how put together, how skinny. How desperately we covet her.
A Februrary 2012 article in Women’s Health Magazine reports the sharp rise in eating disorders for women over 30. “At the Renfrew Center’s 11 treatment locations, the number of patients over age 35 has skyrocketed 42 percent in the past decade. Likewise, a couple of years ago at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, an estimated 10 percent of patients were over age 25; today, a whopping 46 percent are over 30. And when it opened in 2003, the University of North Carolina’s Eating Disorders Program was designed for adolescents—now half of its patients are over 30 years old.”
I’m 48. Some days I go for a long walk. Some days I eat pasta, or a salad, or pizza, or nibble on trail mix. Some days I go to exercise class where the instructor yells, “Stop tucking your arms! Open up your chest!” Some days I leave that class and have mashed potatoes for dinner. Some days I jog, but I can’t bear the bounce so I wear an Enell bra one size too small with two-inch wide shoulder straps and 11 hooks. For the first mile I think about quitting. For the next miles I mostly obsess about what I’m craving, about what I deserve for dinner because I’m jogging. Some days I run so full out, all I can do is breathe. And some days I just drive the five blocks to Walgreens for a bag of Lay’s potato chips and I come home and close the curtains and take off my bra and lie under a soft blanket with my chips and watch old episodes of ER, where I note the early seasons, the ones before everyone started making fun of Sherry Stringfield for getting fat. I wish I could turn this thinking off, but there it is. I hear the lost voices of the women in my family – those tall, skinny-legged, elegant ladies; all lifelong smokers; my own mother dead of emphysema at 56 – and my heart aches when I recall their constant refrain: I can’t quit smoking. I’ll get fat.
In exercise class, Mary wears a man’s t-shirt over her Triple D sports bra with its extra-wide “comfort straps” and triple hooks in back. She often finds herself staring, too long, too longingly, at the spaghetti-strap spandex on the other women. The gentle curve of their shoulders, the definition. Women who don’t even need a bra. Women who can, she’s sure of it, throw on a little tank top in the high-heat of summer to work in their yards or run to the grocery or meet their girlfriends for lunch. Mary feels the weight of her straps. She wonders what it would feel like to feel that free.
Teri Carter’s essays can be found in Columbia, Post Road, West Branch, The Manifest-Station and other journals and anthologies. She has a B.A. from the University of Minnesota, where she was awarded the Marcella de Bourg Fellowship in creative writing, and she holds an MFA from San Jose State. Teri lives in Northern California.