The second in a series on body image and kids and life and stuff.
Amazingly, I somehow managed to avoid actual diets as a child. Mom was so busy pushing whole grains and homemade granola and raw honey that dieting for weight loss took a back seat. The house’s media environment was pretty clean, too. We didn’t have cable until a much later date, so other than the spokesmodel candidates on Star Search, it was a pretty non-thin-worshiping zone. Finally, the closest thing to a women’s magazine that we had in the house were back issues of “Good Housekeeping.” They didn’t tend to feature diet plans that I recall, just a lot of Hints from Heloise. We were more of a “Readers Digest on the bathroom floor” kind of a house. While other girls learned about the intricacies of dieting from an early age, I studied up on lighthearted stories and built my vocabulary with word quizzes. There was also the Catholic Digest, so I was up on liturgical humor early on as well. I had a lot of guilt around food, but I never really developed a dieting way of dealing with it. Yet. I continued to bury my general anxiety and body-specific shame with surreptitious sneaking of forbidden foods.
At the same time, we Bier kids were encouraged to do something with our bodies other than look at them in the mirror. We all had to participate in at least one form of physical activity and one musical activity at any given time through eight grade. (the latter requirement was waived for Pete, much to the piano teacher’s relief.) I chose dance and softball, with a brief foray into basketball. I was kind of a disaster at basketball, but it was Catholic school and dad coached, so I “played” through eight grade. I was OK at softball, but never mentally tough enough to handle the pressure. And I still tap dance so, yeah, that worked out OK.
I learned the lesson early on that, no matter how I looked, I could get my body to do stuff if I worked hard at it. In fifth grade I came home from school one fall day, devastated. It was the Presidential Fitness Challenge day, the worst day of the year: the shuttle run done with erasers, and the flexed arm hang, and the sit-up challenge. Interestingly, this particular form of public mortification still exists, under the moniker The Pacer Test. I’m always torn between being glad that kids have another way to publicly succeed in school, even if they aren’t necessarily good at the “school” part, and the memory of the abject terror and associated diarrhea that accompanied those days for me. In the fall of fourth grade, I performed miserably on the sit-ups. My soft tummy didn’t have any abs hidden underneath, apparently. For whatever reason, I took this misery to my dad, instead of the usual mom route. She would have reassured me that I was fine just the way I was and probably employed the awkward phrase, “pleasantly plump.” (Hang in there mom! You did a great job! As we’ll discover later, there aren’t any non-negative words for anything above average weight! It’s not your fault! Just think of the carob!)
Dad suggested that if I really wanted to be good at sit ups, I could. But I needed to practice. What a novel idea. Your body could be trained to do something, no matter how it looked at that current moment. For the rest of the school year we did sit ups every night, alternating between holding each other’s feet. By the spring? I could knock out 50 in the standard 60 second time period. I got the highest number in the class. A boy accused me of cheating and lying. I honestly don’t remember what happened after that, and I wish that I could say that this started me on a lifelong habit of physical training, but the novelty wore off pretty quickly, and there were TV shows to watch. My life didn’t change dramatically when I did those 50 sit ups. I didn’t suddenly become a new person. Getting my body to do something didn’t suddenly relieve me of all anxiety and change me life. This was a big clue, but of course I didn’t pick up on it.
I also had a lot of reading to get done. I was busy idolizing my literary heroines: Anne Shirley, who is routinely described as “lithe,” and Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose Ma Ingalls is celebrated for having a waist so small that Pa’s hands could wrap around it. Did I consider the presence of corsets in these people’s lives? No. Nor did I consider the malnutrition and mind numbing manual labor. I just continued to feel non-lithe and non-worthy. I did it even without a house saturated with women’s magazines or cable TV!
And then, it happened. I grew boobs magically between sixth and seventh grade, rapidly outstripping the offerings of the juniors lingerie section and never looking back. I dressed in loose clothes. My weight would fluctuate and no one really noticed, except for me, lying in bed at night, assessing whether I had three gaps between my legs as some article suggested I should (ankles, knees, upper thighs—ha, yeah right). I’d go to school the next day and hungrily devour the appearance of girls in their tight cords, silently walking as their legs never even approached each other when they walked down the hall, and I pulled my sweaters down lower.