When I was four years old, my mother brought me to a dim office tucked away in the far corner of a sprawling hospital complex. I remember brown. Brown walls. Brown filing cabinet. Brown sofa. The office smelled like band-aids. I had to sit in a grown up chair. My feet swung inches above the floor. My heels smacked against the chair legs.
We were in a nutritionist’s office, and I was about to embark on my very first diet.
The nutritionist was neither beautiful nor threatening. When I think of the day now, I see in her in a white lab coat. She has long, blonde hair. It’s dyed. Her highlights are cheap and chunky. But I can’t really remember this. I must have cross-referenced her with some other figure from my murky, early past. Someone else I didn’t like. In any case, this is the image I have of her: blonde hair, manicured fingernails that clicked across the desk, falsely cheery.
Up until that point, I had never given any thought at all to what I ate or to whether or not it was “healthy.” I probably knew how much I weighed, because I liked to know facts about myself, but I didn’t know what it meant to be overweight. My body was just my body. It was just there. I had never thought of myself as beautiful or ugly, fat or thin.
Over the course of our meeting with the nutritionist, I gained a whole new perspective. I weighed too much. I ate too much. My body was not a natural, inert thing. It was something I had to control. It was a problem I needed to fix.
The nutritionist told my mother and me that if I got hungry between meals I should snack on carrots or celery dipped in fat-free ranch dressing. She added that her own daughter ate this every day when she got home from school.
• • •
The next time my mother went to the grocery store, she brought me baby carrots and fat-free Hidden Valley ranch. In the afternoons, I sat cross-legged in front of the coffee table in our living room and carefully rolled each carrot in the viscous, paper-white dressing. It tasted sweet in an unappealing, vaguely chemical way.
I ate my carrots slowly, deliberately. One at a time. When the last carrot was gone, I wanted absolutely nothing more than to eat another.
• • •
So how fat was I when I started dieting? How fat can a four-year-old possibly be? I’ve forgotten exactly how much I weighed. My pediatric growth charts are lost to history. The only evidence I have is photographic. It sits in an old Nike box underneath my desk. “Jane—photos” is written on the side in permanent marker. My mother’s handwriting.
Four years old. Marigold hair. Pouting at the breakfast table. Sitting at her father’s desk with a ballpoint pen in hand, wearing a serious expression. Earnestly shushing her fussing baby brother. Running into the ocean’s cold froth, fearless, no hesitation. All these memories I don’t remember. A face that’s familiar but not exactly my own.
So how fat was I? I wasn’t fat at all.
I was maybe a little bit chubby. But only in the way young children often are. I look well fed, well cared-for, loved. I was baby-fat, not fat-fat. One growth spurt away from being thin.
By the time I was seven or eight, I’d developed a routine. Every morning, I woke up and promised myself I would be good. I would eat only half my school lunch. I would have carrot sticks and ranch dressing when I got home from school. I would not snack before dinner. I would not finish my dinner. I would not snack after dinner. I would go to bed hungry. I would wake up again and repeat the process.
Every day, I failed. Most days I didn’t even make it ’til dinnertime. I ate a classmate’s birthday cupcake. My friend’s mother bought me ice cream. We were out of baby carrots so I had cheese and crackers instead. I wandered into the kitchen and got a cookie out of the snack drawer without even really thinking about it. Almost like I was sleepwalking.
Every day, somehow, I fucked up. I ate the wrong foods. I ate too much. I figured, Well I’ve blown it for today, so I might as well eat what I want. Tomorrow, I’ll be perfect and then I’ll be perfect every day for the rest of my life. I’ll never eat cookies or cheese or more than exactly one half-cup of vanilla frozen yogurt ever again for the rest of my life. For the rest of my life I’ll be good. For the rest of my life I’ll be hungry—so today, I might as well eat.
This is how I spent most nights when I was a child—slipping in and out of the kitchen like a tiny pickpocket. I’d stand in the refrigerator door and shovel leftovers into my mouth with my hands. I’d grab a handful of cookies and eat them quickly, with purpose, hunched over the open snack drawer. I only ate when I was alone, when my mother was out or distracted or in another part of the house. I listened for footsteps in the hallway and I always kept one eye on the door so I could make a quick escape.
I still got caught. Often. Sometimes my mother said nothing. She just let her eyebrows drop, a sharp, unmistakable look of disappointment. Sometimes she shook her head. Sometimes she got angry. Are you sure you want to eat that? I just bought this, how does it not fit? Why are you still eating? Why don’t you just stop eating!
I didn’t want to be fat, but as much as I tried I couldn’t change it. I started to feel like my mother didn’t just want me to be skinny; she wanted me to be a totally different person.
• • •
When I was twenty-seven years old, newly married, at a “normal” weight after a final, finally successful diet in my early twenties, I bought a bottle of fat free ranch on sale at No Frills. I hadn’t eaten it in years. I thought, Maybe it’s better than I remember?
It wasn’t. I tried it. My husband tried it. “This tastes so bad, it actually depresses me,” he said. I agreed. I threw the bottle in the trash, still full. I didn’t bother cleaning it out for recycling and I’m usually good about that.
At first, this was where I planned to end the story: girl gets married, girl rids herself of fat-free ranch, girl rides off into the sunset. But that’s not really how it ends. Not when I still spend money I don’t have on spin classes, still feel a wave of panic when my jeans start to feel a little tight, still scan nutrition facts and keep a scale at the foot of my bed. Not when there are still three bags of baby carrots sitting in my fridge.
• • •
I know it’s unfair to blame my mother. She thought she was helping me. She thought we’d go to the nutritionist, I’d learn about healthy eating, my weight would drop into the normal range on the growth charts, and then I’d grow up and forget. If only time worked differently. If only she could have looked into the future and seen me at fourteen, bent over a trashcan, my finger down my throat. If she could have seen me at seventeen, drunk, skirt hiked up in a stairwell, straddling a guy I barely knew, just for the sake of feeling wanted. If she could have seen me at twenty-two, when I weighed 240 pounds, when I dreaded leaving the house, and ate alone, in bed, late at night, when I could be sure no one was watching. If only. Maybe. What if. Might have been.
This is the great tragedy of raising a child: you don’t get to choose the memories that stick. All those nights your daughter curled into your chest, the long drives when you laughed until your teeth hurt, the picking of flowers in the fragrant heat of late summer, toes curled into the soil. These memories are dull for her. Half-remembered dreams. But she can still hear her feet smack into the chair at the nutritionist’s office. She can still see you standing in the kitchen, an empty cracker box in your hand. “Did really you eat this whole thing? Really? That’s disgusting.” Those are the words she remembers verbatim, while so much tenderness is lost.
• • •
It’s true, now, that I’m better than I was. I’m done trying to lose those last twenty pounds. I don’t throw up or starve myself. I will never fall for another fad diet. But I can’t deny that some part of me is still waiting to become the girl my mother wanted, the girl she probably wanted to become herself. The girl who eats carrots and fat-free ranch every day, who sits down for her precise, healthy snack, and then clears the table, puts the food away. I’m still waiting to become the girl who can say that’s enough, who doesn’t want seconds, who finally feels full.