Photo by Keely Laughlin
By Libby Williams
It was a balmy summer afternoon. And just like all the other long, lingering days of summertime, we were floating our way through the season, swimming and splashing, eating melty ice cream and sucking down root beer floats like all normal 8-year-olds do. We were free, joyful and happy, floating together like a school of fish darting back and forth in the pool, the smell of grilled meats wafting through the air as we soaked up the last few moments of the day. It was almost suppertime and I could virtually taste the burgers and hot dogs as the smoke from the club grill permeated the air.
My mother ushered me out of the pool, wrapped me tightly with my beach towel and kissed my chlorine-soaked cheeks. “It’s time to get dressed. Run up to the locker room so we can get some supper.”
As I walked the long hall to the ladies’ locker room by myself, I could hear them – The Club Ladies – moms and aunts of my friends, acquaintances of my family. Chattering and chuckling, I heard their laughs piercing the air like little shards of glass, growing sharper as I got closer. First, they stared at me as I boldly stripped down. Then they whispered to one another – loudly enough for my clueless little ears to hear, as though they wanted me to hear the poison they were about to spew into my heart, staining the fabric of my person forever.
“That little one never misses a meal.” Snickering. “You’d think she’d be a little more modest.” “I would be a little worried if she was mine.”
Their laughs sounded like a flock of turkeys, one triggering the next in their ridiculous banter and tone. Confused, I turned to them. Those women were looking right at me, staring at me as if I was a circus side show. Mocking me – an 8-year-old girl with no worries in the world except the choice of chocolate or vanilla ice cream for dessert.
My face filled with the redness only shame can bring, my eyes, heavy with tears that wanted to melt over my face like ice cream on a hot day – thick, heavy, full. I quickly shimmied into my clothes, scurrying past past them like a scared rat, head down, heart heavy, unworthy of existing.
At dinner, I just stared at my food, confused at my new feelings. I stared at my plate sadly, heartbroken, ashamed of myself, my appetite, my mere existence. It was the first moment I understood what it was like to loathe something as equally as I longed for it. I knew – even at the all too innocent age of 8 – that I was in for a long-term, complicated, lifetime relationship with my body and with food. I knew then that this dance would last forever.
I had been a robust eater from a very young age. The smells coming from the kitchen always drew me in to see what was bubbling on the stove. Standing on tiptoes, eye level with the counter, I was as eager to smell it as I was to enjoy it as we sat around the table. All the homemade goodness my mother would lay out – bowls of steaming mashed potatoes and beef stew, piles of roasted chicken with a savory and succulent gravy, platters of spaghetti and meatballs, trays full of lasagna – were the highlight of my day. And it didn’t matter if it was a simple meal of burgers on the grill or something more complicated like a Thanksgiving dinner. To me, every meal was delectable.
But in that locker room that day, everything changed in an instant. Food became the enemy –my enemy.
“She never misses a meal.” Those words were seared into my heart forever.
It was the reason for every inadequacy I felt. It was the cause – not the symptom – of every problem I had. Facing food on a daily basis was the scariest thing I had to do. With each day, I yielded the power over to Food. And it was everywhere – every event, every party, every meal. I had to reckon with my relationship with the hardships of Food all the time, which is like seeing an ex-boyfriend who cheated on you day in and day out, over and over again.
As I grew up, the commentary on my looks started to sting a little more. Names like “thunder thighs” and “hungry hippo” swirled around in my head, playing like a skipping, scratched record over and over. Words like “fat,” “lazy” and “gross” engulfed me, swallowing me whole, suffocating my appetite. There was nothing I could do to escape it. They became me. And I became them.
So, we broke it off. Around the age of 14, I all but stopped eating. I limited my food intake to dangerous levels, just so I could be thinner – just so I could feel worthy. I spent more time figuring out what I could eat than I did on my homework, carefully calculating calories, intake vs. output, and making mental note of the number on the scale. But my growing body was craving calories and all I was feeding it was carrots and crackers that I found in our school vending machine. I started having bouts of anxiety, depression and fatigue so overpowering, I could sleep for days. They tested me for anxiety, took me to therapists and talked about the pressure of going to a private school. But, since I was curvy and still carried around those thunder thighs, nobody once questioned my calorie intake. Nobody knew the ugly truth.
This complex, confusing and dysfunctional relationship I had with Food continued for years. It was a well-choreographed dance – a tango of hunger and vanity lost in a pirouette of shame and self-loathing. And I didn’t know how to stop. So I ate. I exercised. I binged. I purged. I gained 30 pounds. I lost 55 pounds. I gained 80. I lost 10. And the comments came at every size. Boyfriends broke our sacred bond, commenting with cruelty on my body where it should be treasured. Therapists uttered unthinkable words forever changed how I saw myself. My parents panicked at my size – too chubby, too thin, worrisome. At some point they stopped – too ashamed to address it.
After 40 years of this, I got tired. I re-assessed and this is what I can tell you for sure: I love Food. After all those years of struggle, doubt, pain and shame, our relationship is now as beautiful, meaningful and balanced as a well-choreographed ballet.
I have carried around the baggage of body shaming and appetite suppression for long enough. I have been humiliated by friends, family, doctors, boyfriends and strangers alike. So I put that heavy, cumbersome bag down about a year ago and haven’t looked back. It was simply too much to carry.
This relationship is mine now. I own it. It doesn’t include comments from those vain women at the pool when I was too young to register that I was different. It doesn’t include my father’s confused commentary on the shape of my knees or my mother’s undying frustration at a difficult-to-manage size for a pudgy, imperfect little girl. It doesn’t include the shame I felt in countless doctors’ offices or the vulnerability I felt lying naked next to men who made me feel less than because of my soft belly or generous thighs. This comments aren’t mine anymore. They don’t define me.
As I move forward into this new, more balanced relationship with food, I see things so differently. All I feel now when I am with food is gratitude. I grow my own food. I cook delicious, amazing, fresh meals with passion and love. I enjoy it with all the benefits of a fresh healthy diet mixed with the occasional indulgence. Now, the thought of eating a slice of perfectly cheesy pizza or crunching into some chips and guacamole on a lazy weekend doesn’t make me immediately feel like a failure. I feel nourished, comforted, loved – and most of all, worthy of it all.
And now, I can’t wait to dig in to our delicious future together.