/ Nonfiction /
In The Mother of Junk shop in Williamsburg, I stand very still. Yellow insulation hangs from a gash in the ceiling, the bright yellow fibers ride the recirculating. Someone has tried to repair this wound in the ceiling with caulking, but it has only left an ugly scar. Towers of stacked furniture kiss the ceiling. They creak and sway as shoppers brush past them, pulling trinkets from boxes like loose teeth. I wonder if we’re in danger of being crushed.
My boyfriend drums his fingers on a magazine cover in a way that I know is to get my attention. Looking at the magazine I ask, “Why did we come here again?” He recites the list I wrote back to me. “Accent chair, plates, silverware” but I can’t take my attention away from the magazine’s yellow border and the woman on the cover. She’s naked, seated with her leg pulled close to her chest. Her arm pulls the side of her breast away from the camera, allowing her body to fold over itself. Her freshly manicured fingers drape across her thigh, polish glimmering like wet blood. The cover takes my breath away for a moment. I am sure I am looking at art. My eyes drift down to the headline on the cover: “The Heavy Cost of Fat.” I find my breath again, caught in my throat, then push it out of my body in a growl.
Peeling open the seventeen year old edition, I remember the climate of 2004: I’m nine years old watching Animal Planet, watching Fox News, watching commercials for glow-in-the-dark chalk, cubic zirconia rings, gold bars, and unbreakable plastic cookware that can be run over with a truck. I remember this magazine, National Geographic, sitting on the kitchen table. Sometimes it acted as a placemat for the fruit bowl that held only green bananas. Mostly it lived in a stack with the San Diego Tribune and the coupons my mother clipped on the wooden bench my family shared at meal times when we did eat together. Maybe it was here, looking down at my feet, when I first saw this issue out of the corner of my eye.
As my mother prepared our dinner, I watched her lift fistfulls of shredded cheese and stacks of ritz crackers into her unhinged mouth as she moved around our boxy kitchen. Her neck craned inward toward her big, soft body that I endlessly loved. Her body was my pillow, my protector, my hiding place for tears, and my origin that sometimes ached for a different life. She’d sigh and wipe her brow before delivering my plate, then we’d sit together on the couch, turning our attention away from our dinner, away from each other, and towards the television.
* * *
In Mother of Junk, I read the cover-story’s opening paragraph:
[Linda] Hay, 39, is five feet five and weighs 314 pounds; she is morbidly obese, which makes her a candidate for the [gastric bypass] surgery. Her managerial level job in the human resources department of a financial company demants tact, efficiency, and organization – qualities she exudes. She has a close circle of friends who would do anything for her, a clear sense of who she is, and few illusions of who she is not. She dresses stylishly, has long blond hair swept back by a headband, a classical oval face, and fair complexion. But she is – let’s face it – huge.
The chubby nine-year-old inside of me burns hot with shame as she re-reads this, but the twenty-seven-year-old standing in this ode to garbage is aflame with anger. Between memory and imagination, I see a green gloved hand pull the tender skin on the inside of Linda Hay’s elbow tight as a needle dives into her arm. She’s told that this is for the best. She’s told she won’t feel a thing. She’s told it will be over before she knows it. She is told to count backwards from ten and she does.
While submerged and held somewhere between life and death, a knife slides across her belly, a sheet of her is peeled back like a blanket and clamped down with what looks like two silver spoons. Another pair of green gloved hands cradles her stomach, then requests a knife. They cut. They reduce. They stitch. They unclamp. They fold. They stitch. And just like that, it is over before Hay knows it.
I hold my place in the magazine with my index finger and remember the back of my nine year-old hand wiping my mouth as I stared into the fat bodies on TV being rescued from themselves. Something bad had happened to these anesthetized bodies– they had stopped caring and stopped trying, before they tried everything and nothing worked. I can feel my childhood body leaning against my mother’s arm. Without lifting my head, I look up to her face. My mother’s long blonde hair is swept back behind her ear. Her eyebrows clamp together and her blue eyes glisten. Her hands absentmindedly stoke her stomach, as she longs for the same mutilation that promises to make her fit in this world. Until she can fit, she hides. She hides eating the foods she enjoys by eating them alone, at night, in our dark kitchen. She hides herself from people, from parties, from pictures, and from making new friends.
As a child, I learn to do the same. I hide behind her legs when meeting new people. I shake their hands from the safety of her body, then pull her by the finger through the parking lot to the safety of the bus stop. As an adult, I hide from my mother. She waits in the car while I buy her the large, skinny, extrawhip, frappuccino she asked me to. As I wait in line she cradles her stomach and her eyebrows knit together. When I slide the key into her car I look past my reflection in the window to see her beautiful body pouring over the seat belt buckle, eyes wet.
I add the National Geographic to the top of the stack of plates in the red basket, and join my boyfriend in counting out sets of silverware from cardboard boxes. Bringing home the magazine feels like bringing home a cursed object, like opening a scabbed box, like calling home.
* * *
For a few weeks the magazine lives in the top drawer of my desk. Then, it debuts to my close friends on Instagram. Eventually, it crawls out of the drawer and lives next to my laptop, refusing to be unread. As I leaf through the sixteen page spread, I’m amazed at what once passed as science, at what our culture couldn’t see through. The article positions fatness as a disease and an epidemic. In a panic, it blames processed food, food advertising, overindulgence, sedentary lifestyles, and genetics for a disease that is correlated to, but never proven to be the cause of, heart-attack, stroke, and diabetes.
From my mother, I inherited a love of the water. We both had the gene. She spent her teenage years with her head under water, counting laps, and drowning out the voices of bullies. I spent my teenage years with my head under water, counting laps, and watching the clock as I held my breath. Seeing me taking part in her old sport, while the panic of the obesity epidemic raged through both of us, must have compelled my mother to get back in the water. At first, she joined me in open-water swimming. She left the beach before my team departed, and lingered in the shallow water until we all climbed the stairs back to our bags and towels, her body hidden by black-blue water.
As my love for swimming grew, so did my mother’s. I started attending double workouts that began at 4:00am with a mile run. While I circled the block with my team, my mother cycled in the gym above the pool. When I returned to the pool after school, I’d find my mother already in the water, swimming laps at her own pace in the community lane. I watched my peers pull their swimsuits into makeshift thong one-piece swimsuits, while I had to tie back my swimsuit with a hair tie in order to keep it secured to my chest. After practice, my mother and I would walk together to the car and I’d watch our long shadows move in harmony. Strangers would tell us how much we looked alike – I refused with a deep blush. I never saw our physical resemblance, until I started paying attention to our shadows on the asphalt, shaped and moved by all the same forces.
In the summer of 2007, three years after “The Heavy Cost of Fat” was published, my mother is back in the competitive aspect of competitive swimming. She rejoined weight-watchers, joined an adult swim club, and has trained to do The Gatorman, a three-mile open water race in La Jolla. She is still “morbidly obese,” and frustrated about not losing weight despite doing everything right. She says her goal is to finish, “I’ll be happy if I make it out alive” she jokes. I am competing in the open-water mile, mostly for fun, and mostly to cheer on my mother who will be competing in the last event of the day. She joins a sea of broad shouldered white men on the small launch beach. Even the pelicans and the seals on the cliffs seem excited by the flood of people on their beach. The gun fires, the racers and my mother set out to open water.
An hour later, I watch swimmers emerge from the ocean. Their backs break through the sunnie water and dig their fingers into the sand as they transform from fish back to humans. Small competitions break out between swimmers who think they are fighting for first and second, when they are really fighting for 43rd and 44th. Competitors are dazed and breathing hard, dumping the seawater from their caps, pulling ribbons of brown-green seaweed from their swimsuits. Families reunite and take photos, lounge on the grass above the beach, and watch the skinny bodies of the palm trees sway. Three hours and an entire event passed. My mother has not re-emerged.
As the finish line flag is folded up, I see her arms pulling her through the water. Slowly, she finds her footing on the beach. A wave knocks her down. I can hear my father calling, “Go, Mary!” But my own voice stays locked in my chest. She finds her footing again, and walks across the finish line, her face is twisted and pale. She begins to cry as she climbs the stairs to the grass, but no one comes to her aid. She finishes climbing the steps and collapses against a tree, blue-lipped and chest heaving.
I am ashamed to admit that I was too ashamed to come to my mother’s aid as she was having a heart attack. I watch my father and a friend come to her side. I watch an ambulance come and take her to the hospital. I brushed the sand off my feet and found a ride home. Doctors could find nothing wrong with her heart, or her health, that would have caused her heart attack. Her cholesterol: normal. Her blood pressure: normal. Heart rate, heart size, heart function: normal. She was diagnosed with an exercise-induced heart attack, but few people believed that it was something as healthy as exercise that could have caused her health-scare. She was, after all, a very fat woman.
* * *
The panic of the obesity epidemic continues its campaign through the entirety of my teenage years. My mother piously attends weight watchers, swims, hires a personal trainer, and takes boxing classes. In high school, I become increasingly concerned with the “simple math” of the obesity crisis. Scientists and nutritionists quoted in “The Heavy Cost of Fat” argue that obesity is a product of the “calories in, calories out calculation that converts anything you eat beyond your immediate need for energy to fat.” As a teenager I followed this rule piously. I wanted to live fear-free of diabetes and cardiac arrest. With machine-like precision, I removed saturated fat from my diet. I stopped eating beef, then pork, then I refused to eat meat all together. I stopped eating anything fried, then anything with added sugar. Carbohydrates became the next culprit of my future death, so I stopped eating those too. Soon, I was a half-dead spreadsheet, subsisting on ice water, egg whites, and tomatoes. Soon, I was unable to keep up with the double workouts that being an athlete demanded of me. I hardly had any body left – but I could still see the similarity between my mother and I as we walked away from the gym together and stared into the frozen food section at Safeway.
* * *
The magazines that guarded the checkout line neatly cleaved my mother from me. As we waited to unload our groceries onto the conveyor belt, the groceries I had curated according to my newly acquired food rules, my mother and I skimmed the magazines facing us in their black racks. I’d gingerly lift Seventeen and Teen Vogue into my palms, savoring the silky pages between my thumb and forefinger. A long legged supermodel struts across a high school football field. She leaps into the air, and the scoreboard lights up with her name. Meanwhile, my mother opened magazines like National Geographic and Cooking Light which penalize her body and urge her to change. When she could afford it, my mother added our magazines to the cart. We loaded the groceries and the magazines into the car, dutifully carrying home the magazines as our instruction manuals, and the food as our tools to transform ourselves into better women.
* * *
Like my mother, my sprint toward health ended in near heart failure. When my heart rate dwindled to sixteen beats per minute, I was hospitalized, force-fed, and funneled into an adolescent eating disorder program. I refused to weigh more than a certain too-low number, and I would not let a team of doctors, a brigade of nurses, my parents, or my own body stop me. I endured the pain of being refed, of eatin foods that terrified me, of watching the numbers creep back up on the scale. My heart pounded as I moved from a double-digit weight, to a triple-digit weight. It felt unsafe to inhabit a bigger body, the possibility of dying a fat death felt imminent. But relief came when I gulped bottles of tap water in the bathroom before weigh-ins and hid ankle weights in my bra. I felt safe knowing that my body was back under my control, and that I would piss away the number on the scale come lunch time.
Eventually, my family’s insurance refused to pay the thousand dollar a day treatment and I was released. While my mother continued to be exploited by the obesity epidemic, an opportunity for me to profit off the thin white ideal it valued presented itself to me just a few days after my eighteenth birthday. A modeling agency contacted me through Facebook, saying they “loved my look” and wanted me to come to the agency in Los Angeles. “Bring your Mom,” they said. “We’d love to meet her.” After three hours in traffic and a few photographs I transformed from an inpatient anorexic to a model. With one meeting, one contract, and one signature my obsession with food and exercise were justified by my job. As we drove home that evening, my mother and I passed the enormous glowing signs of fast food restaurants that loomed over the highway. Before signing this contract, the context of my body would have steered my mother into a drive-through on “Dr. Kay’s orders.” We chewed our lips as we passed each restaurant, nervous for different reasons. It was dinner time, but my mother didn’t pull the car over. We both went to bed with empty stomachs. A monster growled as I slept.
* * *
Two days after I graduated high school, I took the plane ticket that a near stranger emailed me and became a model in New York. There, my hunger became my survival strategy. I tied controlling my appearance to maintaining my physical safety. If I was not thin, I could not pay rent, buy a metrocard, or eat. I felt very at home in my double-bind.
On set, I am made into a new person. Hairstylists glue extensions into my hair to make it appear thicker, and conceal the fact that it was falling out. Make-up artists plaster over the dark circles under my eyes, and apply an ample amount of blush to the flat plain of my cheeks. I’m shooting a holiday campaign in the summer. A junior stylist helps me into a pair of heels, and the senior stylist passes me a pair of tan silicone pads to slip into my bra. She seems guilty for asking, but her job is to help construct the illusion that someone could be so thin in some places and so curvy in others. The photo assistant takes my hand, and walks me into the intersection of two mirrors. There’s not a lot of room to move. I look into the barrel of the camera. I stand very still.
A few months later, I am home for Christmas. My mother is leafing through a magazine she’s brought home from the grocery store and calls me over, “Honey, is this you?” She points to a girl in a white dress in a daisy field holding a giant bottle of perfume up to the sun in ecstasy as tendrils of blonde hair fall across her face. My mother smiles at me, hopeful and excited that her baby girl is well on her way to womanhood. “No, Mom, that’s not me.” On the opposite page, my face and two reflections stare at us through the barrel of the camera. I feel the cold breath of the freezer section, the pressure of the long legged supermodel’s step on my chest, the tension between my mother’s eyebrows. “Oh” is all she says. She licks her finger, turns the page, and my face disappears from view.