You Are a Jigsaw Puzzle with Missing Food-Shaped Pieces

Fat, thin, over-eating, under-eating. Lindsay Hunter’s relationship with food, weight, and body image has been consistently complicated.

Lindsay Hunter | Longreads | August 2017 | 12 minutes (3,035 words)

 

I was a kid, somewhere between age seven and 10, when our neighbor rushed in telling my mom she only weighed 129 pounds. My mom was impressed. “Oh!” the woman said. “But I weighed myself before I pooped!” They both rushed off to my parents’ bathroom, where our beige scale was kept, the one with the numbers that would swing wildly to and fro before your number locked in, staring blandly up at you despite your joy, despite your disgust. I must have weighed myself on that thing a thousand times. There was rarely joy.

Even before that day with our neighbor, I was aware of my body as mostly a disappointment, my soul’s albatross. A sexless lump I had to apologize for. I remember seeing myself in the reflection of our sliding glass doors. My friends and I were running in circles inside a kiddie pool, convinced we could make a deadly whirlpool. In the reflection my friends’ legs were toned, healthy. They wore bikinis and their flat stomachs heaved slightly with laughter. Mostly their laughing just accentuated their abs even more. My friends did gymnastics, cheerleading, softball. My friends did. I saw how my belly stuck out, like a beer gut, something I’d read about in a library book. My thighs jiggled. Playing sports amplified my uselessness; I sweated too much and I couldn’t manage to do anything with grace. I worried a lot about grace, my lack of it. Chicken and the egg: was my form, my essence, preventing me from being active, or were my static days, the Florida heat bleating harshly from pre-dawn to post-dusk, the cause of my worthless body?

I was different from my friends in this way, and it didn’t feel like a harmless difference. I began sucking in my stomach whenever I was in a bathing suit. My friend’s mother complimented me. “You lost weight, I see!” She looked me up and down, approving. I felt like I was glowing. I was in third grade.

My mom put our family on the Susan Powter “Stop the Insanity!” diet when I was in sixth grade. Powter challenged her followers to seek out nonfat or, if desperate, low-fat options. Snack on dry cereal! Use applesauce instead of butter in that brownie recipe! She wasn’t demanding that we feel satisfied after a couple empty celery canoes. She was simply asking that we not put fat into our bodies, no matter what. And we could have sugar. We could have sugar. In my family, that was all we needed to hear. We’d all gotten chunky; one of my favorite snacks at the time was toast with cream cheese. Try it. It’s decadent. But the truth is I don’t really remember overeating, or too much junk food in the house. I remember my mom embarrassing me by telling my friends they needed fruits and veggies in their lunches. I remember we weren’t allowed Lunchables or soda. But somehow, we were all fat. We stopped the insanity and we all slimmed down. I can remember excitedly telling my older sister you could drizzle natural peanut butter over fat-free ice cream and then promptly die and go to heaven. We were trading diet tips in junior high like my mom and the neighbor did.

We all got chubby again, though. Freshman year of high school, a classmate poked his finger in between the strained buttons of my shirt, right into the pillowy rolls just below my sternum. “You have a fat stomach,” he said, the same way I imagine an archaeologist might say, “I’ve never seen a fossil like this!” What he said was filled with wonder, like he couldn’t believe his eyes. It explained something to him about me, without my consent. It felt like a secret he’d stolen from me. “Haha, yeah!” was my response. No big deal. I was disgusted with myself.

My parents separated when I was fifteen. You might be thinking ah, here’s where she’ll use food as a balm for her teenaged soul, healing her broken heart with extra butter and handfuls of chocolate chips, her body stretching to its absolute limits…but my siblings and I viewed the divorce as a relief. We nearly high-fived when our dad tearfully broke the news to us. This is a harsh, but true, confession. My parents didn’t like each other; it had started to ruin everyone’s lives. Their separation was the only solution.

And yet.

My sister went through a terrible time in her teen years. It’s her story to tell but it involves all the hits: drugs, lies, suicide attempts. My divorcing parents could barely keep up, and they had two other kids to keep up with on top of that. I had a brief druggie period, during which the munchies factored heavily into my days and my grades slipped and I gained more weight…

As a kid, I was aware of my body as mostly a disappointment, my soul’s albatross. A sexless lump I had to apologize for.

No. It’s also my story to tell, I realize as I read this back to myself. If you’ve ever had a suicidal loved one, you understand the crushing pressure you live under, until something breaks. What if I said the wrong thing, did the wrong thing, what if I didn’t do what she asked, what if I didn’t keep her secret…she’d kill herself and it would be all my fault. The something that broke was me.

***

I’m in a stranger’s basement with my best friend, both of us 14 and both of us so high that the walls seem to throb, so high that I finally understand why Beavis & Butthead, which is blaring from the enormous TV next to me, is funny. I study my face in the bathroom mirror, my eyes glassy and red, but I’m grinning and I can’t stop. My heart feels free from the weight of my body, free from the weight. I was the good child, the dependable child, the bookworm, the straight-A student, and it feels good to pretend to be something else.

***

We throw a party at our house. It’s Friday night and my mom is out of town and my dad is supposed to come stay with us for the weekend but he calls to say he can’t make it. He’s slurring, and so am I, both of us partying, both of us pretending not to notice the other is partying. I get so high that I can’t pick my chin up off my chest. My little brother and his friend show up. My little brother sees me nodding off. He laughs at me, the good sister in such a state, and I hate myself for that, now, looking back. Then, I just laughed along. Or tried to.

We go to church with our mom on Sunday. Our pastor, who lives behind us, announces to the congregation that the Hunter girls had “a sleepover” that kept him awake half the night. We laugh nervously — yeah, a sleepover. Our mom doesn’t ask and we don’t say.

***

I eat and eat. Kraft macaroni and cheese shimmering in a pool of butter and milk. Sleeves of crackers. Spray cheese, whipped cream. Heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter. Truckloads of Taco Bell. Frosting from the can, entire boxes of Rice-A-Roni, chocolate milk, bowls and bowls and bowls of cereal, drowning in milk that I gulp down at the end. Food has never tasted so good. The afternoons are long after school in Florida. The palm trees are motionless outside the window. The grass is so green that it feels pornographic, like something you have to look away from, a sick feeling in your stomach. Get high, eat, blammo, the day is over.

***

My sister is kicked out of the house. Once, twice, a million times. She shows up for her stuff and I let her in. I have to stop her from taking a bottle of aspirin, the pills flying everywhere when I wrestle her to the ground.

***

My sister has cut herself, wide shallow gashes where her hands meet her wrists. She shows me one night, but I’m not allowed to tell anyone.

***

My sister is kicked out again. My friend is a cashier at a local grocery store. That afternoon she tells me a girl tried to kill herself in the bathroom at the store. Took 64 Benadryl and cut her wrists with a screw she’d wrested from the stall door. I find out that girl is my sister, who is now at the hospital having her stomach pumped. My mom takes a picture of her, my sister staring out from her hospital bed, her eyes as black as the charcoal dribbling out of her mouth, like she’s newly blind but seeing isn’t a priority anyway. “So she knows what she looked like,” my mom says. Maybe it’ll help. My brother and I are shipped up to our grandparents’ home in Milaca, a tiny town in Minnesota, for three weeks. They live in a two-bedroom trailer in the middle of a field, and it feels like heaven. There are no drugs, no booze, no cigarettes, just summer days that feel even more endless than the ones back home, only here that is good news.

I don’t really remember overeating, or too much junk food in the house. I remember we weren’t allowed Lunchables or soda. But somehow, we were all fat.

We come home to find out our sister is living in a homeless shelter — tough love — and we are moving across town with our mom and starting at a new school. This feels like a death sentence.

***

I try to keep up with my old friends, girls I’ve been close to since elementary school, but we are juniors in high school now and life spins us off in different directions, our lives starting to look like the Spirographs my sister and I drew when we were kids. My old high school was off a dirt road in a small town called Ocoee, and the popular kids flew Confederate flags on their trucks and wore lacers and went muddin’ and called anyone different than them freaks. My new high school is brand new, located in a richer part of town, with tons of outdoor space and students who talk about what they’ll do in the future. Every morning I wake up with a small fire in my gut, a boiling anxiety that sometimes flares up and singes my heart, the effect of which is like speed. I dive into my classes and my new friends and I am never hungry, not anymore. I can survive on a glass of Carnation Instant Breakfast in the morning and then nothing the rest of the day. Food is incidental, unnecessary.

One day I notice that when I sit, my stomach doesn’t accordion into the four or five rolls of fat that it usually does. You’re so skinny! I hear when I run into my old friends, and I bloom with pride, and the fire in my gut rages. My hip bones appear, and then jut, and then I notice a belt is painful to wear because of how it rubs against them. My dad makes me get on the scale in front of him and his girlfriend and I am glad to comply. This time, there is joy.

You need to eat, my dad says, every time I see him. My sister is getting better every day, and she says the same thing, only with more anger at me. Now she’s the one who’s scared about her sister. But I’m not hungry, not anymore.

***

Even now, I can’t pinpoint why I stopped eating. It wasn’t a conscious decision. My lifelong shame didn’t build to a breaking point, I don’t think. I see pictures of myself from that time and I see my slouched shoulders, my want-to-please grin, and I think oh, I was simply trying to disappear. I remember thinking that if I flew under the radar, everyone would just leave me alone. I desperately wanted to avoid the path my sister took. And so maybe I was trying to disappear, to be invisible. But I also know I took pleasure in looking thin, that though people around me said I was too skinny, it never felt serious. I enjoyed being the good child again, the one no one had to worry about, the one who could control her grades, her emotions, her body.

The afternoons are long after school in Florida. The palm trees are motionless outside the window. Get high, eat, blammo, the day is over.

Food was a comfort, and comfort didn’t feel allowed. I had to keep moving.

It continued into college. I was fitting into child-size t-shirts I’d find at thrift stores. I am nearly 5’9” and I was fitting into shirts made for third graders.


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Eat, I was told. It was like telling a drowning person to drink.

One night I fell ill. I couldn’t move from my bed. I was living with my sister and my best friend at the time. I tried to call to my sister but my voice wouldn’t work. I did the math in my head. I’d been surviving on green tea and the occasional slice of American cheese for three weeks. I’m dying, I thought, and just as quickly, Don’t be so dramatic. But I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak. My head weighed as much as a piano. I whispered my sister’s name. I did it again. I worked all the strength I had into my throat and yelled her name. Somehow, despite our closed doors and the ever-blaring music, she heard me. I begged her to bring me something to eat. She was shocked, but she was pleased, and she reappeared with a bowl of cereal. A bowl of Life cereal, if you can believe it. I inhaled it and then another. I felt immediately better.

***

In our house growing up, food was the ultimate reward, best eaten in an adrenaline rush standing up in the kitchen or over the sink or wherever you could. Even better: eaten alone in those small pockets of time when no one was watching. Filched food, hidden food, stealthy indulgence. Caramel corn; chocolate chip cookies; a luxurious holiday drink my mom called Exceptionelle, which involved a frozen log of butter and brown sugar that could be sliced like a dainty meatloaf and crunched between your teeth until you saw God; lasagna and pizza and cake and pie and bags of peanut M&M’s and any old cracker slathered with butter or peanut butter or frosting or all three. Later, bagels and sushi and pasta. My dad had very specific instructions for how to construct the proper sundae. My mom made sheets and sheets of her cornflake bars, each wearing a thick toupee of melted chocolate; my godmother fed us trays of peach cobbler and homemade Reese’s peanut butter bars. Oooh, we’d say, our hearts pounding, the task clear: eat it, eat all of it, right now. Hurry.

If you’re sad, and the days are long, and you’re stuck where you are, and making any real change feels impossible, or cruel, or selfish or like too much work, the immediate joy of finding something tasty is an urge that won’t be denied. You are a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece that just happens to be pie-shaped. Or chip-shaped. Or cream-cheese-toast-shaped. It’s a simple, doable solution, and there is joy, there is so much joy.

***

I was 29 when I met Sarah, now my dear friend, who ate with abandon in front of me and dreams up menus for fun. Sarah, who never eats-as-performance-of-appetite. So many of my girlfriends perform hunger — I can’t wait to eat! I love pizza! I’m going to pig out! — only to take a few bites and then get distracted by their lemon water. Sarah isn’t like that. Food isn’t a punishment or a reward for her. Food is a way of being creative, of caring for herself and others, of simply feeding herself when she’s hungry.

My new high school is brand new. I dive into my classes and my new friends and I am never hungry. I can survive on a glass of Carnation Instant Breakfast in the morning and then nothing the rest of the day.

This may not be revolutionary to you. It was revolutionary to me.

Sarah and her friends are younger than I am. They never mention that they feel fat, or gross, or ashamed after eating. I never wonder if they notice that I’ve put on weight; I never worry that they pity me or smirk at my muffin top or doughy arms.

Revolutionary.

When you’ve criticized yourself for so long, when your inner voice sounds like a drill sergeant belittling every square inch of your body, you can also sense that sort of judgment in others. And isn’t it funny how people assume that you don’t know you’ve gained weight? I hear you, and I see you, and I feel bad enough already. I’ve been pinched, prodded, flat out told that I’m fat, by people who purport to care for me. I have near-panic attacks at the thought of being in the same room with these people.

I see you.

***

I’m a mom now, closer to 40 than I’d like, and my “food issues” are always with me. I am a gym rat these days. I lift weights and run on the treadmill and work on my abs and butt. Since the fall, I’ve lost 40 pounds and counting. I eat. I worry about spiraling in either direction: abundance or starvation. Every day, I look for inspiration, something to remind me that strength is what matters, not hip bones or cheekbones or the lie of control.

My sister-in-law is a personal trainer. Think of your goal with every step you take, she has said. It’s my mantra these days, my legs pumping and my heart like a jackhammer. My goals morph and grow and shift. The horizon is unattainable. Some days my goal is specific: feel good at this event or feel confident around this judgmental family member or just simply feel good.

***

I look at pictures of myself from two years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago, times when I felt ugliest, most out of control. I don’t see a fat person. I remember that I was also happy, sometimes. I squint; I hold the pictures closer. With the objectivity that comes with years passing, it’s like looking at someone else. She looks good, I think. Sometimes I even think, She looks beautiful.

 

She, not I.

This isn’t the story of how I finally learned to see myself as beautiful. It’s the story of how a blind hatred began. Most days, my goal is to take a step. And then another.

* * *

Lindsay Hunter is the author of two story collections and two novels, most recently the novel Eat Only When You’re Hungry.

Editor: Sari Botton