Category Archives: weight

The Care and Feeding of Self-Esteem

During the workshop I teach in prison on Fridays there is always one woman who says something so astute or so revealing that it momentarily catches my breath.  When it happens, I will approach their social worker after class and ask if I could possibly continue my involvement with them, one-on-one.  The feeling is generally always mutual although it appears that they are stunned that anyone would have enough interest in them to want to sit down and get to know them better.

In most cases, the women have a fleeting and unpredictable stay, either awaiting sentencing, about to be released or transferred to another facility so it is difficult to follow-up.  Now I know to ask how long a woman is guaranteed to be there so as not to gain their trust only to have the relationship end just at that moment in time.

I have recently based my workshop on the concept of labels and judgement.  I start by asking the women, after they’ve only seen me standing in front of them for about a minute or two, how they see me.  I instruct them to throw out adjectives based on first impressions.  I tell them that they can say anything, that it won’t hurt my feelings, as long as they don’t call me fat.  Usually I get a chorus of “You’re not fat, you’re gorgeous,” or something like that. Some of the answers have been incredibly funny and most of them are very flattering.  They tell me I’m pretty, have great style, they will call me hardworking and happy.

A few weeks ago, a woman who didn’t appear to be paying much attention said, “I think you have low self-esteem.”  I latched onto the comment and said, “Tell me what you mean.”

“It seems likes you need to fish for compliments.”

Wow.  She was totally onto me.  We held each other’s gaze for a few seconds and she knew that she had hit the nail right on (my) head.

I have written about the self-loathing I have for my body, how when I do my daily body scan I’m pretty disgusted.  When I see my underarm jiggle I want to cry.  I’ve recently noticed in pictures that my elbows are getting wrinkly and my knees are looking very aged.  When I recently weighed myself for the first time in about two years, I wanted to cry.  The truth is is that like most of us, I only have about 10-15 pounds to lose to be within my “healthy range,” but still the disappointment in myself overwhelmed me.  That number stuck in my head until I lost 7 pounds.  Now that number is stuck in my head.

The flipside is that I possess and project great self-confidence.  I don’t need my ego fed because I believe in myself and the face I put in front of the world.  If someone doesn’t like me or appreciate me I don’t waste my time on them.

After class, I approached the woman and told her how astute her comment was.  She just shrugged her shoulders.  Afterwards I went immediately to find out her name and her circumstances, and how long she would be there.  I’m not allowed to know why a woman has been incarcerated but often she will volunteer the information during class.   I was told that she would be there for a while and received permission to go onto her unit and talk to her.

When the officer told her that someone wanted to see her the other women got all excited and ran to her cell and told her to come out.  She seemed surprised and happy to see me.  We held what will be the first of many conversations, uncovering the many things we have in common including our love of books and writing.  She was very flattered that I asked if I could see some of her writing the next time we met.

This time will be about her, and not about me.  I’m thinking that my interest in her might feed her self-esteem a bit, help her feel less alone in a situation where she has completely isolated herself from the other women.  Anyone who “got” me so quickly is someone I want to know a bit better.  Will I stop the exercise I do, stop the fishing for compliments?  Probably not because we do indeed need a little confidence boost now and then no matter how superficial it might be.

The Man At the Top of the Stairs

I’d stand, leaning on the hot metal counter, filling in little bubbles with a blunt golf pencil ordering the greasiest most fattening food to my heart’s content from the poolside snack bar. The college student working the grill never judged me while passing me my cheeseburger, fries and Hoodsie cup. No money ever exchanged hands and the total charge would eventually end up on my parent’s account. I was living the life of a member of Shelter Rock Tennis Club on Long Island.

It struck me only a few years ago the irony that the Club shared a gravelly unpaved parking lot with our temple. We certainly weren’t regular temple goers but there were a handful of times, after Sunday school (which was really nothing more than a group of restless teens wasting time in the basement of the temple) that I would trudge up the pebbled hill to meet my mother after her first tennis game of the day.

The Club was little more than just a constant reminder of how unfit I was, a super-sized version of most of my same-aged peers who hung out by the pool. There was a pair of identical twins who would move so fast in their bikinis that I got tired just following them with my eyes. There was another girl, built like a giraffe, who walked around scowling at the world (In a bit of astonishing irony, her father and my mother would ultimately die together in a double-suicide.) There were pruney and tanned older women and women in Pucci cover-ups. There was smoking and card playing and impressive dives from the high diving board.

I do remember rather fondly one of my very first crushes, a boy named David Kelman, surprisingly very blonde for a Jewish kid. One day we went off to trudge around the woods and swung at a cocoon on the verge of bursting, whacking at it with a long tree branch. I really had no idea that we undoubtedly interrupted some really critical life cycle, BUT for some reason, this made David want to hold my hand. Now, every time I see a cocoon, I think of the happy transformed lives about to enter into their new world.

I remember the “pop” sound of tennis balls in a state-of-the-art tennis bubble, the sucking of the heavy metal door in the steam room, and occasionally watching men play squash through a window in a separate building. I also remember walking into the men’s locker room at about 5 or 6 and my father SCREAMING at me while standing in his white briefs. I never did that again.

Between tennis games, men and women would eat lunch in the dining room. Most of the women would order the “diet plate,” a hamburger patty, side of cottage cheese and one half of a cling peach. My mother didn’t have to worry about what she ate, and actually, most of these women didn’t either. Even though I rather enjoyed scraping out grapefruit sections with a serrated spoon, when my mother and her friends weren’t around I certainly wouldn’t be eating a grapefruit for lunch. Again, when I’d eat with my friends, I’d sign a receipt and never think twice about the cost.

At the edge of the dining room, separating it from the lobby was a very large wooden, polished spiral staircase. On the day that I learned that the head chef lived up there I was completely fascinated and even slightly jealous. Every time I was there, I would tip my head to see if he was up there, willing this phantom man to appear. Would he look like the chef from Sesame Street who fell down the stairs with a stack of pies? Would he be old and black like our “chef” from camp who made the best fried chicken that to this day, is the best I’ve ever tasted? One lucky day, he DID appear, in his chef whites, his name embroidered on his chest pocket. I think he waved and then ducked back behind his secret door. (I think the waving and ducking part might be a false part of the memory.)

I tried to find the current yearly dues for the Club online, but to no avail. I know this was a privilege of upper-middle class life but one that really sort of bored me. However, I certainly wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to fill in little circles on an old fashioned looking computer card, have someone hand me a burger and fries, never to see the check.

I Am Not My Body

I need to stop hating myself because I hate my thighs, my ass, my stomach, my flabby underarms, my hands. I need to stop telling myself that I’m “disgusting” when I see myself in a 3-way mirror. This is no longer okay.

Yesterday I was moved to tears by a snippet in a documentary film called “Life in A Day.” People from all over the world were asked to videotape themselves going about their lives on one particular day in 2010. In one section, the question “What do you fear?” was used as a prompt. Most kids feared ghosts and spiders, adults feared God and loneliness, but one extremely overweight woman in particular, completely in the nude, in stark sepia tones, standing, arms outstretched, said “This is me. This is what I fear.”

I became immobilized. It struck me as the saddest thing I had ever seen and heard. Maybe I misunderstood and she was worried that her body would turn on her at some point, kill her from the inside, but I’m pretty certain my interpretation was the right one.

My body issues are far-reaching and lifelong. When I try to put this in perspective as an adult, I truly realize that I’m not so bad, and according to all sorts of charts and statistics, I’m slightly below the size and weight of the average American woman, not by much, but enough to make me feel a little better (I’m also 5.5 inches TALLER than the average American woman.)

I’m not going to blather on about the media because God knows, that is a tired subject. I am so sick of seeing celebrities in their fucking bikinis with sunburst sidebars about how they lost the 30 lbs they gained during pregnancy in 6 weeks. Good for you. What an AWESOME human being you must be.

This isn’t to say that I don’t look at Beyonce’s legs and thighs and feel so envious, but I don’t bemoan HER for that or hate myself for it either. I think Christina Hendricks from “Mad Men” is exquisite and I have to say, that I have those curves and do feel lucky for them.

I guess I’m extraordinarily hypocritical when it comes to this subject because I haven’t worn a bathing suit bottom in years. My top ½, not so bad, but, the rest, not so good. I wear these swim shorts things and I’ve recently decided that I hate my knees. When I say things about my body to my husband, which is almost every day, I tell him that he doesn’t even need to respond, he doesn’t need to bother telling me how gorgeous and perfect I am. It won’t help until I believe it for myself.

I’ve loved how regular exercise made me look and feel. I dropped a nice amount of weight and I did in fact have more energy. I did love that for about a year I was wearing a size 10 when all I really wanted was to be a perfect size 12. Recently, I’ve cut down on carbs and it shows. I’m certainly not torturing myself and I do treat myself to whatever I want, whenever I want. I know I should start exercising again, but I can’t beat myself up for not doing so right now.

There are many things I’ve come to really like about my body: I adore my collarbone. I’ve figured out a way to pose in pictures that make my arms look defined. When I wear perfectly fitting things, my profile is pretty great. I look really good in a maxi dress. I love the color of my eyes, the size of my lips and my really soft skin. I have a freckle on the fleshy part of my hand below my left thumb that I find strangely sexy. I like that I’m tall, but wish I were one inch taller.

I have a 10-yr old daughter who I think is the most magnificent creature on Earth. I’ve spent a good part of her life just staring at her in awe. She is definitely on the tall trajectory and has grown a bit of a belly, but, when I ask her if she thinks she’s beautiful, she says yes. This isn’t vanity, it’s honesty and it’s remarkable. I’ve always told her that you don’t just come out and say “I’m pretty,” but that you wait until someone says it to you first. She gets this, but I love that she feels great about herself. When she has occasionally said to me “I’m fat” I totally lay into her and tell her that she’s perfect and I don’t want to hear her say that ever again. I wish someone would have said that to me at her age, instead of hiding food from me under the table linens in the hutch in our dining room.

Visiting Day for a Chubby Kid

On the morning of the most anticipated day of the summer, there is, quite literally, nothing that can hold us back. We’re like Beatle’s fans breaking through the barrier, and all attempts to keep us in order are futile.

From the top of the hill we can see cars pulling into the parking lot at the bottom, one after the other, a parade of tri-state area license plates. “There’s my mom” someone would yell and go bursting down the hill into the arms of their parents. “That’s my dog!” Another one.

Visting Day at camp was a day like no other. Smack, dab in the middle of the summer, it was like what visiting hours must feel like at a prison or hospital. Now, don’t get me wrong, camp was like Disney–“the happiest place on earth,” but it was rather odd to have the real world infiltrate for a day, glamorous, Jewish mothers, cigar-smoking fathers, luxury cars and jewelry, a stark contrast to our tube socks and sweat-shorts. And then, there were the brown paper grocery bags.

To be honest (and camp friends feel free to dispute this) Visiting Day was about FOOD. PACKAGED, store-bought FOOD. We judged the luckiest, most-loved kids by the number of bags their parents carried, (didn’t we?) For those of us who had been bunkmates for years, we knew who would get the best stuff and who would share and who wouldn’t, who would hide their shit and who would dump it on their beds and divvy it up among us.

There would be Pringles and Freihoffers and Yodels and fruit pies and tuna and cup a soup and squeeze cheese and Ritz crackers and candy and the ripest of peaches and plums. My friend Robin always got bakery cookies from a family-owned bakery in a box tied with red and white string. It was a magical and heady day.

But here’s the catch: I didn’t get that stuff. I was a bit of a formless and overweight kid and my parent never really let me forget that, even for a day. (My camp friends and I recently discussed this impression that I’ve had forever of myself as this lumpy behemouth of a pre-teen and teenager. What they said, and I loved this, is that I’ve grown curves. I’m no longer formless. I’m all curve. Or something like that.) At home, sweets were hidden from me (not very well, I might add) and I was forced to try things like Alba 77 for breakfast (who remembers that?)

Anyway, I would get some fruit and some books. Maybe some lifesavers. I MAY have gotten cheese doodles one year (but it could also be that I’m conjuring those up because I’ve been wanting some for weeks.)

But, I will NEVER forget the one year, that my dear, always-sweet-and-kind brother Mark, when his day off as a counselor fell within a day or two of Visiting Day, sat down with me on the steps of my bunk with a brown, paper bag. What I remember is that with great fanfare, Mark pulling out a big bag of Tootsie Pop Drops like it was serious contraband. I rememeber thinking that this was the kindest gesture that anyone had ever done for me (and his wife has outdone even that by doing an overnight feeding for me when Amelia was an infant). It’s been a lifetime of kind gestures from Mark, but, in his way, he was saying that I was worthy, just like everyone else, of a special treat on Visiting Day.