CHAPTER 2 “My God, Girl, Have You Gotten FAT!”
It was a beautiful summer day as I walked out of the unassuming 7-11 store in tiny, little Whitewater, Wisconsin where I’d spent the first 19 years of my life growing up. Whitewater boasts a population of 12,000 people, a small state university, and lots and lots of farming and milk cows. It was also so small that everyone knew everyone’s business.
Why I even remember walking home from school one day as a high schooler (normally I’d take the bus but, it was a beautiful day and I had a hankering to stop and buy a brownie at the local bakery on my way home,) and by the time I walked in my house 20 minutes after my bakery stop, my mom greeted me with, “So, I hear you stopped at the bakery on the way home!” The joy of small towns. Everyone has an opinion about everyone. And my mom’s favorite expression was always, “What will the neighbors say?” As if the neighbors’ and everyone else’s opinions mattered more than my own.
The day I walked in to 7-11 proved to be a day that would forever change me and my relationship with food, although I didn’t know it at the time.
I had headed into the 7-11 on a mission. In reality, being the junk food junkie I already was, I was on a mission to get my next fix – which at that moment consisted of two Hostess Cupcakes and a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Yea – all for me. And double yes – all for me right now.
I paid the red-headed, bored-looking teenage girl behind the counter for my treasures and headed towards the door, salivating the entire way. Paying heed to no one. I may as well have been on a mission from God, I was so focused that I didn’t even see anyone else in the store once the clerk took my money. I was 100% zeroed in on reaching that well-loved euphoria from the hi-fructose corn syrup, artificially sweetened, Red Dye#2, loaded with preservatives yummies that I knew would leave me feeling quite happily buzzed for the rest of the next few hours, anyway.
My taste buds were on high alert counting the seconds it would take until I could frantically tear off the cellophane wrapper and dive in head-first so that I might get that incredible rush not only from the cupcakes but also from amazing smell of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as well. Decisions, decisions. Which one should I eat first? As always, I chose the one that opened the easiest, so that my rush would come fastest. There’s nothing more frustrating that needing your sugar fix and the damned package won’t open. You want to talk about panic attack?
I’d never done drugs – not even pot – but I am convinced that my addiction to sweets was probably just as emotionally messed up as if I were a cocaine addict. I just didn’t want to wait one more second to feel my teeth sink into that dark, yummy confection full of enough preservatives to keep it edible for the next 50 years. I didn’t care a lick what was in it. I just ached to feel it on my tongue, on my teeth, in my blood stream – and as soon as possible. My heart rate was already beginning to increase as my mind sent it messages of anticipation of what was to come. My conscious mind barely heard the words that rang out next – it was too busy anticipating the first burst of flavor of the delectable goodie on my tongue, but my subconscious mind must have been paying some attention, as I found myself stopped dead in my tracks holding the door open, freezing in the spot when I heard someone say, in a good strong voice, “My God, Girl, have you gotten fat!”
My breath caught in my throat once the message finally worked its way past my useless conscious mind and on to the listening subconscious one. Who, I wondered was the poor sucker who was being judged and belittled in such a horrid way? And who was the bully that was speaking so inappropriately as well? My eyes quickly scanned the 7-11 for possible candidates, as I’d not really paid attention to much of anyone else during the acquisition of my fix. The cupcake had 110% of my attention ’til then.
Glancing around, I ruled out the red-headed teenager who had waited on me. She couldn’t have been more than 5 foot tall and skinny as a lot of young girls are while still in their teens. I ruled her out right away.
Looking further, there was an older Latino couple studying the menu at the fast food corner where hot dogs that looked like they’d been there all day, were slowly grilling on the rotating wiener roaster, but they looked harmless and were busy in their own little world. Neither of them were what I would consider fat, anyway. They had those tiny, little Latino body types.
A tall, brunette mom in her 20’s with a new baby in her arms looked to be pretty fit, so no – it was likely not her – although she had every right to be so, having given birth only recently, by the looks of things.
Having studied all the options, I felt stumped. Who was the alleged fat girl and who was the playground bully not only making such an allegation, but doing so in such a manner as to obviously intend pain and suffering? And then I realized that as I was opening the door to head out, someone else had been opening the other side of the door and was entering the store at the same time. And that someone looked familiar. Really familiar. But I just couldn’t place who she might be. If I could only get my mind off the damned cupcake for long enough to put 2 and 2 together I might figure out just who had thrown the jab out at ME!
“Geeze, MJ, I almost didn’t recognize you, you’ve gotten so fat!” she repeated. I realized that she had an expression that was demanding an explanation of some sort. And gave me the impression that she would likely not move until I gave her one.
My mind kept racing – she obviously knew me, since she called me by name. I kept searching my memory banks for ID recognition but the damned sugar high I was anticipating just kept clouding everything. Then, suddenly there was a stabbing pain in my chest and abdomen. I realized that I had started hyper-ventilating – or at least it felt like that must be what was happening based on all the medical shows I’d watched on TV. I couldn’t breathe. Unbeknownst to me, the emotional pain left me panicked and my body was tuning in to the old “fight or flight” response, which obviously wasn’t doing too well up to that point. If I couldn’t breathe soon, the odds are I’d pass out and likely hit the floor. That sounded bad.
My mind reached for those scathing words again… What did she say? Me? Fat? I had NEVER been fat. There must be some mistake. Why on Earth would anyone say that. It must have been some stupid joke or other. The sharp pain in my abdomen continued but a new symptom joined the foray – my face began to turn bright red, along with one ear. What the hell was happening to me? It seemed like I was having one of my mother’s hot flashes that left her acting like a crazy person, racing back and forth to the freezer every few minutes to get ice for her ice pack or just to cool herself off by standing next to the open freezer door. But I was way too young for that. In theory, I was too young to have a heart attack either. And yet my symptoms were classic – for a 40 year old!
The internal volcano of heat caused by what I later realized was overwhelming embarrassment, is what had lit my face up like a second degree sunburn. I think they call it a panic attack today. But at that moment, I didn’t know what the hell it was. I just knew that it left me terrified. And frozen in space and time. On top of that, try as I might, I couldn’t utter a single word or breath out of my mouth. Which wasn’t just because I’d felt like my life as I knew it might just fall apart at any moment, but the other reason I couldn’t reply had I wanted to, was that only seconds earlier I had stuffed a giant bite of one of the Hostess chocolate cupcakes in my face and now it seemed to be stuck there.
You’d think I could have at least waited to eat the damned thing in private or taken it home to devour it, without worrying about what anyone else had to say about the matter. But no – as soon as I’d swapped coins for the cupcake with the kid behind the counter, I couldn’t wait to rip open the cellophane wrapper and feel those sweet artificial flavors and preservatives that my body thought was real, pure dark chocolate on the outside with white frosting inside. My mind had been picturing me devouring that delectable delight for about 30 minutes before I had actually arrived at the store. And as usual, I had half of the tasty tidbit I had purchased halfway devoured before I even left the store. That’s one of those crazy addictive behaviors I have to admit to being embarrassed about.
Next, I started coughing as I had tried to say something, but the damned cupcake was so dry and there was nothing handy to wash it down with. That only made things worse. In the end, I pantomimed to the unrecognized gal with my free hand that I really couldn’t stay and chat. Had to go. Catch you later. Then raced to my car, threw in my stash, leapt in and sped out of the parking lot, praying that no one else would see me that day – or possibly ever.
I remember that I could barely see the road through my tears. I was still in shock. I never considered myself fat. In fact I remember when I was about 12 or so telling everyone that I was so skinny that my jeans kept falling off. And that was kinda my self-image for years. Skinny MJ who never had to worry about what I ate. Of course as a 12 year old I hadn’t considered that most of my jeans I usually inherited from a cousin who was a couple of years older than me and between the time she’d outgrown them and the time they actually fit me as they should, they indeed were often falling off if I didn’t have a belt. Honestly, I didn’t make this up. I was skinny most of my life. At least I thought I was up until that point.
I was lucky to make the drive home without running in to anything or anyone – at the same time still stuffing my goodies in my mouth, trying to fill the hole, the wound, the anguish that they had caused me. I immediately went to the mirror and tried to see myself through my tear-filled eyes. Funny – I still felt like the same person – the one who was OK with herself prior to the event. But I felt I needed a reassessment of the image that the world saw when they looked at me …
To start with, my very short, blonde hair, always made me stand out from the crowd. I remember seeing that style on the cover of a Seventeen Magazine right before my high school graduation. I thought it was soooo cool! So much so that the day after I graduated from high school, and without warning anyone I was going to do this, I went in to the beauty shop and had them cut my shoulder-length locks into this totally rebellious Audrey Hepburn, Mia Farrow look. My mother about flipped when I walked in the front door, new look unannounced. I actually thought she might pass out for a moment. I’m pretty sure she never forgave me, as she brought the story up many times over the years. Far from what most of the other college girls wore, and not with any lesbian presumptions at a time where that hadn’t even come on the scene yet, I felt it gave me a unique flavor. I think that maybe I was trying to assert my independence in some way.
However, most things like that run their course and when the next Seventeen magazine displayed something else new and different on their next covers, leading the fashion in whatever direction was in favor at the time, I, for one, never grew my hair long again. While there were mild deviations of it over the years, it’s rather become my brand. And all because I wanted to be a bit defiant in 1976!
Anyway, back to my critical mirror assessment … there was always my 5’8” height I brought to the table. No hiding that. I rather liked it, especially since I towered over all the women in my family. Although the opposite side of that is that I oftentimes felt gangly at the same time. Can you say, “Jolly Green Giant?” I was a usually taller than most of the boys, and that wasn’t necessarily so great.
My piercing hazel eyes (many would insist they were blue over the years but I still saw the green and grayish hues in them that would show up from time to time), captivated many. In fact, a lot of people commented on them and still do to this day. An optometrist once told me I should be an eye model. Which was cool since I still thought they just looked like plain, ordinary eyes to me.
Then there was my fashion statement. My style. My college freshman look. Back in 1976 the hippy, college student, rebellious version of fashion found me wearing my old standby: a pair of slightly faded farmer’s overalls – the kind with the adjustable hooks over each collar bone and a couple of buttons down near the hips, which could also be treated as optional, in case growing room was needed. Throw a baggy t-shirt or sweatshirt under that and a pair of tennies (they still called them that back then) and my outfit was complete. What was wrong with that?
Little did I realize that while they were all the rage for the day and oh-so comfy to wear, those nasty bugger overalls did me no favors. I could have probably packed on an extra 50 pounds still and my overalls would have done a great job of making more room. There is no button at your middle to button up when you’re wearing these designer items, as with regular blue jeans. But with overalls; Need more room? Just unbutton those optional buttons at the waist and they’ll be glad to make more room. The truth of the matter is – I simply hadn’t noticed the daily gain because those baggy overalls just kept finding room for me!
On top of that, I don’t remember having a bathroom scale in my apartment, so I only checked my actual weight on occasion when I stopped by my parents’s home or was at the gym for some PE class or other. I guess I must not have had any kind of weight chart that I remember either, so just kept eating myself silly without even recognizing it. Until that day at 7-11.
I never forgot those few poignant words from late 1975. I did finally remember the gal who had felt the need turn my world upside down with her scalding remarks. Her name was Kathy, and I had gone to High School with her, although she was 2 years older than me and had gone to college out of state, so I hadn’t seen her in a long time. Obviously long enough that I’d had time to pack on the pounds during my freshman year at college and she felt the need to tell me about it.
Looking back at it now, I realize that she was talking about my obvious Freshman 15 – although at that point it was more like the Freshman 30, if I’m being honest with myself. But there-in lied the rub – I WASN’T being honest with myself. In fact I was in complete denial. I’d always been thin but had never lived the life of a college freshman and the hazards that often go along with the role. I truly had no realization that in one year’s time I had really packed on the pounds.
A couple of ironies however, about Kathy and I – She was really tall – taller than me actually. Nearly 6 feet as I recall. She had long, straight, dirty blonde hair and wore tortoise shell glasses that made her look like a college professor. She had always been about 25-30 pounds overweight herself and not particularly talented physically. i.e. she was the last one picked for any game in PE class… always. Where as I had always been busy with athletics – I ran the mile in track back when no girls wanted to run that far! I was on the volleyball team when girl’s volleyball was just getting organized at the high school level. I even played slow-pitched softball on a city league. I biked, swam, and even rode horses whenever I could talk my neighbor or uncle into letting me ride theirs.
For the first 18 years of my life I never had to think about what I ate … I just ate it! Ah, yes – those were the days! So much happened between those days and the day that Kathy knocked me off my pedestal at the 7-11. (By the way, I don’t think she was really intending to be mean, I think she was just in such total shock about how much my body had changed.)
And yet, who was she to talk? I wondered. Her body was nothing to write home about. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d put on another 20 pounds on top of what she already carried, since I’d seen her last. I hated her for a long time for sending me home in tears that day … and for the hurtful memories that have lasted all these years.
However, on the other hand, I thank her now for being the only person willing to tell me the truth about my body, when no one else would. I shudder to think if no one would have called me on my weight gain, and I had gained even more. Sadly enough, I still don’t know if it’s smart to tell your family member or friend that they have a weight problem. (Hopefully in a much nicer way than Kathy did.) But still, it’s a tricky spot to be in. One usually assumes that a heavy person knows that they are heavy. But I truly believe in my situation, I was in major denial until her words came crushing down upon me. In my mind, I just didn’t feel “that bad.”
For more chapters go to MaryJoFay.com and click on the Blog link. Books should be available by fall 2016.