I’m sitting on the exam table scantily clad when my mother unabashedly tells the pediatrician, “I’m concerned she’s gained weight this year but hasn’t gotten any taller. What should I do?” The doc ponders not, and, clearly overlooking my non-obese state says, “Cut back on the junk food. And when she gets hungry in the afternoons, give her a diet Coke instead of a snack.” My mother nods as though she’s just received instructions from God and accepts the caffeine/chemicals-in-lieu-of-food prescription. Before leaving the room he makes one last suggestion. “Try sending her to school with smaller lunches.”
So went my first foray into the diet world. Before that moment I was like every other prepubescent girl as far as lunch was concerned: bologna or peanut butter sandwich, baggie of Cheetos or potato chips, apple (sometimes), three Oreos, carton o’ milk. New lunch for this medium boned, average-sized-girl-who-alarmingly-gained-poundage-without-height-previous-12-months: a half sandwich, dill pickle instead of chips (can you imagine?), one cookie echoing in a baggie, carton o’ milk. Though my lunch was now smaller than any third grader's in the western world, I acted cool about it. Sure I missed the other two cookies and second half of a sandwich, but I did love pickles, and I still had my milk. I wasn't too distressed. My mother provided me with less food so I wouldn’t be fat. It all made sense to me.
At the next weigh-in, Mom and the doc were so pleased with the number on the scale, permission was granted to resume eating potato chips and more than one cookie per sitting. With my mother’s encouragement (“better to throw food away than overeat!”) I managed to stay an acceptable size until I was a junior in high school. I had just returned from a week at my grandmother's house in Florida where there was little to do besides tanning, eating, and going to see a movie.
When the cab pulls up to my grandmother's building, you see her waving from the balcony, donned in the blue and red housecoat, leaning against the railing, smoking. You enter the lobby. She goes in to put out her cigarette. You take the elevator to the second floor where you are enveloped by wafts of cinnamon-sugar, chocolate, butter, toasted almond, and ash. Her short, soft, salt and pepper hair brushes your nose as you hug. She’s shrunk since the last time for sure, but no matter. Treasures await in her 4 x 4, linoleum-floored kitchen. The two feet of counter space are laden with yellow and black Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee cans and Tupperware containers stocked with spritz cookies, mandel bread, sweet rolls and cupcakes, and possibly (in the refrigerator) cream puffs, her Michael Jordan of desserts. If you don’t find what you desire (how could you not?) she’ll bake what you do, if you ask her nicely.
Grabbing no less than three of something, you sit at the dining room table and down the first of hundreds of sweets to be consumed that week. You ask yourself, do I want more now, or later? Later, you think, pace yourself. Remember, nothing to do but tanning and eating. Want to fit into jeans when return to Chicago. But “later” ends up being no more than an hour, usually less.
Bored at the pool? Throw on your cover up, slip on those flip-flops, time for a sugar fix. Standing in her freezing cold kitchen you inhale cookies, shiver in your wet swimsuit. You'd think being barely dressed would trigger your brain to administer the “stop eating!” message, but no. You are in a stupor. Vanished is the word “cellulite” from your vocabulary. The only escape is a plane heading north in a week to ten days.“Your tan looks very nice,” is how my mother greets me at the airport, “but it looks like you’ve put on some weight.” Ouch, I say to myself, nice to see you too. Guess you don’t want to hear about the riveting game of Jai-Alai I lost 20 bucks on. Let’s talk fat instead. “Really?” I say, knowing she’s right. Damn those cookies were good. Her eyes dart up and down my body, front to back, landing on my face. “Your cheeks look...puffy.”
This from a woman who later won’t notice me smoking in her backyard or in her car, or stumbling home from a party, falling asleep fully clothed, puking in the middle of the night, still smashed the next day. Nor will she notice my boyfriend in my room until 3 a.m. as she sleeps soundly, filled with glee I finally have a boyfriend. “See?" she says to my father the next day. "We stopped her from spiraling into morbid obesity and now she has a boyfriend! Thank goodness for that brilliant doctor! Thank God for the diet Coke!”
But I have long since grown out of the pediatrician’s office so my mother needs a new solution and finds it: Weight Watchers. Meetings held Wednesday nights at the Sheraton Hotel in Northbrook, Illinois, ten minutes from our house. I decide to go alone.
Down the winding staircase of the hotel I follow the rumbling voices to a small conference room and join the line of people waiting to be weighed. I make eye contact with no one. Wearing my heavy clothes, chocolate brown corduroys, a white blouse and a bulky salmon-colored cotton knit sweater I am trying to “get in” to the program. The minimum weight loss goal is ten pounds and I’ll just barely make it. The scale tips at 128 ½ pounds. I am accepted.
The next three months involve a mother-daughter effort of weighing and measuring portions, counting exchanges, eating McDonald’s chef salads. My mom promises me a new wardrobe from my favorite expensive-clothes store after I slim down. Dieting is in the air at school, on the streets; two of my girlfriends are on the same plan. A friend and I go to my house for lunch a few days a week, discuss what we ate yesterday, will eat that day and tomorrow, mentally calculating the other’s calorie intake, for motivational purposes, only. Fifteen pounds fly off my body. The one and only shopping day ever to be bicker-free occurs. Purchases include royal blue leggings and a short sleeved, yellow/red/blue floral print blouse, a sweater or two, and a new swimsuit.
My mother is driving me to the airport. My face is pale. My stomach is flat. I am off to Florida for spring break. There will be no gorging on cookies this time, I tell myself, only tanning and movies. But when the cab pulls up at my grandmother’s building, she’s waving from her balcony, wearing the blue and red housecoat, leaning against the railing, smoking.