When I was ten, my family owned an old white Chevy station wagon, complete with wood paneling, brown leather throughout and seats that flipped up in the back to face each other. My siblings and I loved that station wagon, and always called dibs on getting to sit in the “way back.” That meant both being out of hearing distance from my mother and face-to-face with one another: friends and accomplices. We loaded up, my three sisters and I - plus the extra five or so kids that my mom babysat on a regular basis - during a time before car seats or booster seats, when it was acceptable to sardine kiddos all in a row, strapped two per seatbelt.
My mother has always been frugal and holds tightly, to this day, to a smorgasbord of rules and old wives’ tales on how to conserve money. She was a master at stretching our grocery budget in order to feed our family of seven and the extra kids she watched on half of what most people needed. Of course, this meant a lot of bologna sandwiches and Kool-Aid, but it was a feat I still respect today.
One of her more infamous rules was to never, unless absolutely necessary, use air conditioning. And for my mother, what constituted absolutely necessary was a matter of pure torture to most. This rule felt especially cruel in the middle of Georgia summers, mashed side-by-side with a half dozen other wriggly kids on leather seats, in ninety-plus degree heat, heading to swim team practice. My mother insisted on rolling windows down rather than wasting extra gas by using the air conditioning. We all writhed and whined at every stoplight when the breeze died down, sticky legs and sweaty backs beckoning the wind to blow again. I was always skeptical about how much gas was actually being saved and horrified when we inevitably arrived at our destination with rosy cheeks and wet rear-ends.
It was in that old white station wagon, sardined alongside my sisters, that I first became truly aware of my body. I remember sitting down on those sticky, hot leather seats one day and watching with horror as my thighs spread into what seemed like a never-ending mass of flesh. I vividly recall lifting and lowering my legs over and over, verifying the atrocity of thighs that were so full they now spread.
Now, at the time, I was a very lean, active ten-year-old. If you look at pictures of me, you’d see nothing but a slender, sun-kissed, beautiful little girl. I did well in swim team, was admired by the boys and was generally a self-confident child. But becoming aware of my thighs - those sweaty, spreading thighs - would be the first step toward years of a deteriorating body image.
Not too long after the thigh-spread incident, I discovered that my mom had a bottle of pills intended to help you get skinnier. It seemed like a simple, obvious answer to the growing doom I felt about my body, and so I soon started stealing those pills and taking them on a regular basis. They didn’t seem to have any effect on my body, at least nothing that was startlingly obvious. But they had a profound impact on me emotionally. They taught me that it was normal to hate my body, and that there was a whole world out there ready and willing to help me fix all the unpleasant parts of me.
My addiction to dieting thus began in fifth grade.
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