I was the fat kid. Not baby chub or pleasantly plump. This wasn’t the kind of extra weight I would “grow into”.
This was wrist roll, thighs rubbing, eye smashing, mortifying weight.
When my mom felt guilty about working so much, she’d bring home a pizza. The days when she’d had too much to drink and smacked me around, she would bake cookies. If she had a date she’d leave a cupboard full of snack cakes and chips, and lots of soda in the fridge. And I’d eat everything until it was gone.
For me, food came after pain to give me a feeling like floating. Food never let me down. It helped me to pretend that I was loved.
Somehow I survived high school. But every year got worse and worse. And every year I gained more and more. My mom was mad that we had to pay extra for a special made graduation gown.
That whole summer was full of dread for the coming move to college. And so I gained more.
“Honey, take care of yourself, okay?” my mom said after putting the last box of stuff in my dorm.
Without a hug, she was gone.
I instantly broke open the box of crackers I’d brought and shoved them into my mouth. The faster the better.
My roommate was on the cheerleading squad. She was blonde and beautiful. She was as skinny as I was fat.
I hated her. Completely.
She was such a nice girl. Never looked at me when I was getting dressed, understood my need for more space in the walkways, asked me to hang out with her and the rest of the cheerleaders.
And yet I still hated her.
Because she was everything I’d ever wanted to be.
The week after freshman orientation, she walked in on me during a binge. Food wrappers were spread out all over my bed. An empty bag of chips was on the floor.
“Oh, Amber,” I said. “I didn’t know you’d be back.”
“What are you doing, Penny?” she asked.
“I didn’t just eat all this.”
“It’s okay. We all do it.”
“Eat like that.”
“Really? I thought I was the only one.”
“Nah. You got anymore food?”
She ate everything that I had left. It was more than I could have packed away.
“But how do you stay so skinny?” I asked, amazed.
That’s when I learned about purging.
I got skinny quick. Amber taught me all the tricks. Binge. Purge. Laxatives. Working out 4-5 hours a day. If not more.
“Penny, you look great!” my mom said when I went home for Christmas.
I ran into a guy from high school. He didn’t know who I was. He asked for my number.
Everything changed for me. The skinny me was no longer invisible or in the way or disgusting. I was suddenly eye catching, desired, lusted after.
And I still had my food.
“Penny,” my manager says. “You ready?”
I snap out of my thoughts of the old days.
“Yup. Let me just get some powder.”
The make up artist dabs my face with a brush. I’m on the set of my fourth workout video. Somehow I worked my way up to being a health guru.
“Look at those abs! Look at those buns! Arms, legs, chest…all perfect! Somebody make a statue out of this woman!” That’s what’s on the cover of my first video.
“Even you can get a firm bikini body.” My voice in the video plays over pictures of me in a skimpy bathing suit, flirting with guys on the beach. Then it moves to a picture of me from high school. “If I can turn things around, so can you!”
My manager says I’m building an empire. My name’s on books that I didn’t write, protein bars I didn’t cook up, special workouts I didn’t invent.
“Penny, on set,” the director calls through his mega phone.
I go through a routine, the camera filming every muscle flex and bead of sweat running down my face. My voice is steady through the whole exercise. Crunches, knee lifts, bicep curls, squats.
And the whole time, all I can think of is what I’m going to purge on when I get home. And how I’d throw it all up right away.
If the tabloids ever found out, they’d finish me. I’d get sued. My life would be over.
My dressing-room is chilly after such a workout. The sweat dries quickly on my skin.
“Hey, Pen.” My manager sticks his head in. “Got your fan mail.”
“Like, as in real mail?”
“Yeah. Crazy. Some people still use the old post office.”
“You gotta read them out loud.”
“Great. So you can laugh at my creepy fans?”
There were two envelopes. I tore open the first.
“Dear Penny; I love you, blah, blah, blah. Marry me, have my children. We’d be perfect.” I threw it in the trash. “Seriously, weird.”
The second was in the handwriting of a younger person. A picture fell out of the envelope. The girl in the picture was overweight. Very overweight. She looked like I did when I was her age.
“What’s that picture?” my manager asked.
“It’s a girl.”
“Come on, let me see.”
“No.” I turned my back to him. “You need to let me read this one alone.”
By myself, I unfold the paper.
“Dear Mrs. Penny;
I’m 12 years old. I sent you a picture so you could see what I look like. I’m sick of being fat like that.
I get made fun of every day. And they say it’s my fault ’cause I won’t stop eating. But when I try to stop, I feel like I’m going to die. Can you help me, please?
My mom says that you were big like me one time. How did you get so skinny? Can you teach me? I just want to look like you, but I can’t figure it out. I’ll do anything.
Please write me back. Maybe, if you’re ever in Toledo, you could visit me.
Your very good friend,
“Oh, Elenore,” I whisper. “You don’t even know how hard it is to keep all this up. It’s not worth it.”
The mirror in this room has lights all around it.
My reflection is the body of a fit, tanned, surgically altered woman.
I still can’t think of myself as anything but a fat kid.