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Chapter 2: Shape Down

Everybody has a body, but my body was different. The pediatrician identified my weight as a health concern by showing me a growth chart. One side of the graph measured height, and the other side measured weight. A middle line defined the exact measurement of normal, and the farther I deviated, the more problematic my doctor found me to be. I was assigned a little dot. “This is where you are,” he said, pointing high above the desired range. I was stranded out there, a lone dot, lost in the abyss of light gray graphing paper.

I ate so I could grow up to be big and strong like Dad, but my body wasn’t exactly cooperating. I needed to change.

“You must eat healthier and exercise,” the doctor explained.

As if I weren’t already harboring suspicions about my inadequacy, now I was being objectively told by a medical professional that my body was not okay. That I was not okay.

Mom was there with me, and she looked down. “That’s not so bad, right, Chris? We can do that.”

But I didn’t want to change, and I didn’t think I could either.

I was in first grade, and we still lived in Nashville at the time. My parents were given instructions to enroll me in a program at the children’s hospital called Shapedown. The classes were an initiative to combat childhood obesity. A war was about to be waged between the doctors and me, but I’d already begun preparing for battle, refusing all of my parents’ prior efforts to teach me healthier eating habits.

My mom remembers me having a distorted body image, which might have been denial but could have just been my inability to comprehend weight concerns at such a young age. The hospital administrators gave all of the kids a piece of paper with different body shapes drawn side by side, and told us to circle the shape that best reflected our own body. I chose the skinny one. It was a test, so I picked the right answer.

I scanned the room to size up my competition. All the other kids looked like miniature versions of their parents, and most of them seemed to have a difficult time moving around. My dad was above average height with a burly build, exaggerated slightly by his full beard; my friends said he looked like a lumberjack. He told me that he had struggled with his weight his whole life and that he could be three hundred pounds if he let himself go, but he believed that “nothing tastes better than thin feels.” Mom was a petite, blond beauty; one day soon, my buddies would call her a MILF. She had a wicked sweet tooth, but she skipped meals to compensate. So I showed no obvious signs of having inherited a familial problem. Some of the other kids had their whole family there, but Allison and Tyler were skinny, so they didn’t have to go. I was the lone sufferer in my family, except for Poppy, who looked like Santa Claus and said he had been “fat and happy” his whole life.

“I’m just fat; these kids are obese,” I assured myself, refusing to acknowledge any concern about my body. Already armed with a few subtle defenses, I braved the black-and-white depictions of my gray-scaled void. Fruits and vegetables didn’t feel like easy solutions for this hungry soul.

Shapedown was like a special school for fat kids. They wanted us to experience the joy of exercise, so they had us jam out to eighties rock and follow along with an aerobics video featuring a bunch of ladies wearing huge white high-tops and scrunchy neon socks. The plastic stair-stepping platforms they made us use were the bane of my existence. “How much longer?” I wondered, anxiously awaiting permission to cease fire.

We had nutrition classes, where we learned that all our favorite foods were bad. We talked a lot about our families’ dietary habits, but all I could understand was that I was fat, lacked discipline, and liked food more than the rest of my family.

During classes, the hospital staff fed us apples while they peppered us with more food rules. There were bad foods: sweets, junk food, fried food, fat, and sugar; and there were good foods: grains, vegetables, and fruits. There was a big, colorful food triangle that looked to me like the eighth wonder of the world; it showed which foods we should eat the most of and which foods we should avoid. I was a good student, so I got it: I’d been a very bad boy.

A silent rebellion commenced with ardent devotion, the beginning of a coup they’d never discover. I distanced myself psychologically from so-called “healthy” behavior. I didn’t need it. I didn’t want it. I started sneaking food whenever I could. No matter how much I was given to eat, I felt deprived. Mom and Dad were on the same team as the doctors, and so they became my enemies. Their food was “healthy,” something that was “good,” and here I was, desperately desiring to be bad.

Despite my ill feelings about health, my parents and pediatrician held fast to the instructions issued by Shapedown. Low-fat and fat-free thinking dominated the dieting philosophy of the eighties and nineties, the idea being that if you didn’t eat fat, you wouldn’t get fat. I just might have honestly been hungry. My lunches were loaded with fruit, pretzels, carrot sticks, fat-free ranch dressing, low-fat yogurt, low-fat string cheese, and sandwiches with lean meats and mustard. Eating became a chore that was occasionally rewarded with a treat, provided I could compensate with adequate exercise.

During school lunch period, I would do my best to trade away items and basically beg for food from other kids. It always amazed me how much food would go uneaten, food that I was dying to have. I would nab entire candy bars, peanut butter crackers, fruit snacks, and leftover sandwiches with real mayonnaise. It shocked me that other kids wanted the healthy food I had. My buddy Henry would trade his chocolate bar for my pretzels. “What a sucker,” I’d gleefully snicker to myself.

Withholding the truth became a necessary part of existence. I became an expert liar. If I held eye contact and disclosed some intimate detail of my cognitive process, they’d have no choice but to believe me. My eating behavior away from my parents was a secret between my classmates and me. My friends would throw their leftovers in the middle of the table; first come, first serve. I’d never moved faster in my life. Mom would call my teachers and talk to other parents. My friends would tell me, “Sorry, my mom says I’m not allowed to trade with you anymore.”

My suffering was subconscious; the pain was too tough to touch, an elusive hurt just beyond my grasp. I couldn’t articulate or understand the source of my shame, and the more conscious I became of food and weight concerns, the less willing I was to discuss any discomfort with my parents. I remember going to the drive-thru with my family, where Tyler and Allison would each get a happy meal. Even though my mom cautiously encouraged me to get something else, it felt like she was damning me. I was the one who needed to eat healthfully. I got the unhappy meal, and then I would wish for the French fries I didn’t have long after the meal was over.

As the years went on, my family did the best they could to maneuver around my eating woes. We bought all sorts of altered foods that might spare me a few calories and lessen the feelings of deprivation. There was a brand called Healthy Choice, which sold modified versions of junk food. I would binge on entire sleeves of reduced-fat devil cookies, a sinless indulgence, or so I thought. I’d take a spoon to a half gallon of Healthy Choice ice cream, my guilt-free, high-sugar, low-fat treat. Words like nutrition and health became code words, food for fat kids. “I can have as many as I want; they’re healthy,” I’d convince myself, standing in the open pantry, privately partaking in my favorite pastime.

None of it made sense. I just loved to eat. I knew I was fat, that was made abundantly clear, but the trait didn’t define me at first. I was fat, my buddy Bryant was black, my other pal Tim was short—these were just observations people made; there weren’t character implications attached to them yet. Unfortunately, I had plenty of time to catch up, and before long, I was constantly aware of my size and obsessed with what I was eating or not eating. Despite my parents’ and medical professionals’ earnest efforts to help me live a healthier life, I was gaining more and more weight.    

Next Chapter: Chapter 3: Good Sport