My nickname as a kid was “Din din” because as a toddler, I was always asking when “din din” (dinner) was. My love of food didn’t catch up with me until the fourth grade. In my class photo, I’m sitting in the front row wearing a Kelly green turtleneck and the gauchos that were popular in the ’70s. My hands are clasped in my lap, and I’m hunched over so my stomach folds in several places. I remember my despair when I saw that photo — I hadn’t realized I was chubby.
That summer was the last time I wore a bikini. It was a beautiful salmon color, but my belly folds created white lines across my tan stomach. I was also starting to develop. Mom insisted on getting me a training bra. I remember people looking at me in a different way, which made me feel weird. This was the beginning of self-consciousness.
My grandmothers seemed to get a kick out of how much I ate. My maternal grandmother, Meme, always had goodies of every kind. She introduced me to Devil Dogs, Ding Dongs, Funny Bones, Entemann’s raspberry danishes, Hershey Kisses, Kit Kats, Fudgsicles, ice cream sandwiches, Nutter Butters, and powdered jelly doughnuts from the bakery. You name it, she had it. At 5'2", Meme was soft and shapeless, although I never thought of her as fat. Everything about her was about comfort, from her polyester pull-on slacks to her slip-on moccasins. When my siblings and I slept over, Meme would ask who wanted popcorn — always heavily buttered and salted — and who wanted ice cream. I would say, “Both,” and she would always comply.
My paternal grandmother, my Polish Babci, (who used to be fat but then had stomach surgery and got very thin) was much more restrained. At her house, there were spearmint gum drops, peppermint candies, and homemade fudge on holidays. We lived next door, so I’d visit often. Babci would get out the Saltines and the butter, which was always at room temperature, perfect for spreading. She’d watch me eat a few crackers, and then tell me to eat more. “Eat, eat!” she would say, smoking as she watched.
When the rhubarb grew in spring, Babci would tell me to cut a stalk. She’d get out her sugar bowl and I’d dip the sour stalk in the bowl, take a bite, then stick the stalk back in. This habit continued until one day my mother happened to be there too. There was nothing I liked better than being at the table with the adults. As they talked, I mindlessly ground my stringy chewed rhubarb end into the sugar bowl. Mom yelled at me to stop, that I was being disgusting. Babci said, no, she always let me do it, and nodded at me to go ahead. Cautiously, I looked from Mom with her pursed lips to Babci’s amused face, and continued to do it.
Those were the unbridled years. In retrospect, a kind of heaven.
The summer I was 10, I was swimming in a pool owned by one of Meme and Pepe’s neighbors. The neighbor talked with Mom and Pepe while I swam with my siblings and the neighbor’s kids. We were having fun with the inner tube, taking turns diving into its center. I noticed the adults staring at me, and I got that weird feeling again. Afterward, Mom took me aside and told me I needed to start shaving my underarm hair. I still felt like a kid, spending my time in the woods and at playgrounds, my bruises and scabs attesting to my tomboy status, and yet, at the same time, all this other “stuff” was happening to my body. Mom used her electric razor and shaved the inside of my forearm to show me it wouldn’t hurt. When I asked her when I should shave next, she told me to never let it get that bad again.
I got my period at 11. I had rifled through Mom’s supplies, but wasn’t sure how to use them. When Mom confronted me with my ruined underwear, I begged her not to tell my father. She agreed, but then at dinner that night, she looked at my father and said, “Guess who got her period?” She said it in a mocking tone like she was angry at him for some reason. There was a minute of shocked silence as my father and three siblings all looked at each other. I ran into the bathroom off the kitchen and ran the water to hide my crying. Mom yelled at me to stop being so goddamn sensitive, and Dad told her to shut up. I was relieved he was sticking up for me, but after a few minutes he told me to come out and finish my dinner.
Trying out for the junior high basketball team required a physical. We all stood in line and the nurse wrote down our height and weight on a slip of paper. At 5'2", I was 116 pounds. Mom told me I’d better not gain any more weight. I asked her if I was fat, and she said no, but I’d better watch it. All through high school, I fluctuated between 118 and 124 pounds. When I was 123 or 124, I told myself I was “bad” and getting out of control. If I was 122 or less, I was “good.” I hardly ever packed a lunch, relying instead upon the kindness of my best friend, who always gave me half her peanut butter sandwich, a Pop Tart, and split her Diet Coke with me.
When I was in tenth grade, Babci’s husband died, and she sank into a depression. Two months later, Meme died, and Pepe locked himself in his bedroom the day of the funeral, threatening to kill himself with his pistol. I was 15.
I started waiting until my family was asleep, and then I’d slip into the kitchen. I’d start out “good,” eating carrots and maybe an apple with some peanut butter on it. I’d take a slice of soft white bread and mash it into a doughy ball and nibble at it like a mouse. Then, I’d open the Doritos, pour bowls of Life cereal, scoop out some Friendly’s Heavenly Hash ice cream, and wash it all down with Coke poured from a 2-liter bottle. I’d eat until my stomach was bursting, and I could not eat another bite. It wasn’t long after that that I discovered purging, and another chapter of my relationship with food began.