As a little girl, I was obsessed with the notion that people could transform their bodies. I’m pretty sure it all started when I watched the film The Incredible Shrinking Woman back in 1981. In it, Lily Tomlin plays your typical suburban mom who, after being exposed to a funky chemical in perfume, shrinks down to the point where her kid’s dollhouse becomes her new abode. This was fascinating stuff, particularly for a 7-year-old who was still convinced that all movies were based on true stories.
Now, 31 years later, I’m a mom. And though there’s no magic perfume in sight, I’m still obsessed with size, only this time in a different way. You see, every time I eat, I feel myself expanding to the point where I’m convinced that my body is going to explode. While others may not see it, I’m almost certain that I am the world’s first, if not only, Incredible Expanding Woman.
It begins the same way each day. I wake up, press my palms against my abdomen, and am relieved to find that it seems flatter than it was the night before, when I stared at my body from the side and was convinced that I looked four months pregnant. I wait as long as I can, until the grumbling and hunger become unbearable, and then it's time for breakfast. At the table, I make sure to fill the cereal bowl only halfway full and pour just enough milk so that the oatmeal squares do not become concrete and congeal in my throat. Without much liquid, the scratchy chunks of cereal burn as they make their way down to my stomach.
Before breakfast is even over, a feeling of dread sets in. I picture the fat from the cereal leaping from the food, sprinting out of my tummy, and gluing itself to my ass, thighs, and arms. “That’s crazy,” I tell myself. I haven't eaten that much, and though I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention during science class, I still know that humans need food and water to survive. But it doesn’t do an ounce of good; I'm convinced that the fat and calories from those 20 cereal squares will be visible on my butt cheeks before I’m out of the shower.
If you think breakfast is fun, wait until you hear about lunch and dinner. Those two meals begin with the same stern admonition: “Don’t eat too much, Wendy.” But despite my best efforts, I always consume more than I intend to and wind up berating myself after. Everything comes down to the number of bites I take. Fewer means better, thinner, smarter, more likable, and prettier. More bites means failure, despicable, lacking in control, unworthy, and ugly.
My obsession with food began when I was 13, during the first summer I ever spent alone. And I mean completely alone. My brother was off doing whatever 16-year-olds do, my mother was working, and my father was out of the picture, doing whatever fathers who abandon their children do. With no activities, no transportation, and hardly any friends around, I got my first taste real taste of isolation and loneliness. So I decided to eat. I’d get really fat, I decided, so my family would finally notice how much I was hurting.
Pasta was my poison of choice. I’d pour a whole box of ziti into a pot of boiling water. After 10 minutes or so, I'd dump the big pile into a plastic colander, running cold water over it to remove the heat and sliminess. Then I’d go into my mother’s room, sit on the end of her water bed, and shove cold, dry, limp noodles into my mouth. One after another, again and again, I’d repeat this until every last piece of pasta disappeared. Sometimes, about halfway through, my tummy would rebel and I’d feel sick. But I kept going, forcing each piece down my throat until it was all gone.
“That'll show them,” I thought. I fantasized about how worried my family would be, how they’d finally realize I was alone and in pain. I pictured them looking at my bloated body and finally acknowledging that I was more than the girl they could carelessly toss aside.
The reckoning never happened. Instead, I returned to school in September, and during the first week a boy in my homeroom informed me that my ass had quadrupled in size since we had finished the seventh grade. Not long after, another boy pulled down my pants in the lunch line, taking my underwear along for the ride. (This is also known as pantsing for those of you unfamiliar with the term.) A row of prepubescent kids giggled from behind their lunch trays as they caught a long glimpse of the stretch marks that now lined my belly, rear, and outer thighs. For the first time in my life, I was fat, and I was ashamed.
Although I’m no longer overweight, the torture I put myself through has not changed much over the past 25 years. Every day, I worry that I’m only one or two bites away from ballooning back into that sad and lonely girl. Almost as often, I find that I'm still yearning for people to notice me and to acknowledge that I bring value to their lives. And I still believe that my self-worth is wrapped up in a stupid number on the scale. Whether life is going smoothly or is throwing me a curveball, the body angst is omnipresent, reminding me that I will never be fully content with myself.
Surprisingly, though, I haven't given up on the Incredible Expanding Woman. One day, I believe she'll finally be at peace with her body. After decades of angst and pain, I think she deserves a break. Don't you?