In the first grade, my teacher asked our class to write a journal entry about what we would do if we found a magical flying bicycle. My entry went like this: If I found a magical flying bicycle I would…sit by a tree and hate myself like always. Beneath this uplifting bit of prose was a self-portrait done in crayon. In it, I sit beneath a tree, crying pear-sized tears, my magical bicycle cast aside like an old fixed gear with a loose chain. Above me, a wobbly sun poses the question: “Doesn’t she know that everybody hates her?” A nearby bird is there to concur. “She should just kill herself,” the bird says, flying off to spread more unsolicited cheer.
Every Friday afternoon from that day on, a guidance counselor named Mrs. White would appear in my classroom and quietly summon me into the hall. As the rest of the class turned to watch me go, I liked to imagine that they thought I’d been chosen for something important—a secret astronaut training program or an underground jelly bean tasting society. This was before Harry Potter, but had it not been, I would have imagined Mrs. White as a kind of silver-haired Hagrid come to whisk me away to Hogwarts. In reality, we went to an empty classroom down the hall, where we sat on either side of a large wooden table. This was in Sugar Land, Texas, and a poster of the Rice University men’s basketball team hung on the wall beside us. Sometimes, if I felt like crying, I would stare at this poster until Mrs. White said, “It’s okay, Becky. Look at me.”
Like me, Mrs. White’s body was imperfect. She had a severe limp and sometimes wore metal arm braces. I yearned to know what had happened to her, imagining train collisions and bear attacks, submarine explosions and cliff-side sword fights. How unfair, that I was expected to hand over my feelings, each one delicate as a Faberge egg, while Mrs. White sat there quietly accepting them, herself a loaded cannon of secrets. But I liked her more because of her injury, because she looked different. I trusted that her hurt would understand my own. Whenever Mrs. White and I passed in the hallways, she would wink at me, and I would wink back.
I don’t remember exactly what Mrs. White and I talked about, but we probably talked about my family, about how, at the age of six, I had already lived in three states and was about to move to Minnesota, where my dad was to start a new job. We probably talked about my older brothers, how one of them had recently cut my face open with a piece of wire from a model rocket. The one thing I don’t think we discussed was my weight.
At six years old, I was already twice the size of my classmates. I wore big purple glasses, had frizzy brown hair, and held a firm belief that books and animals were better company than humans. As a result of my appearance, I was painfully quiet, rarely raising my voice above a whisper. Knowing that people could hurt me—could laugh at my big clothes or murmur fat face under their breath at the lunch table—I sought the company of things I knew could not: books, my mother, animals. Around animals, I felt safe, loved, and important. Unlike in the rest of my life, where I required the protection of others, around animals, I could do the protecting. I once spent hours holding my dying gerbil, Cookie, stroking her fur and reciting the unintelligible Hebrew prayers I’d learned in Sunday school—the ones we said over our bread and grape juice—hoping the words held enough spiritual potency to usher Cookie into a peaceful afterlife. I was desperate for a dog, but my dad was allergic. In a few years, my father would move away and my mother would replace him with a miniature pinscher named Romeo. But for now, I had only myself, my gerbils, and Mrs. White.
My memories of Mrs. White stand out because this was the age my classmates and I began to recognize beauty and sort one another by the hierarchy it created. Just the year before, I was the only white girl at a primarily Indian kindergarten called Kent Academy. I was already going to stick out, and so when my mom tried to fit me into the school’s uniform (pleated blue skirt, white button-up shirt), she began to cry, realizing the largest size available did not fit me. “What’s the matter, Mommy?” I asked her, breaking her heart. “It’s no big deal.” And it wasn’t. I was happy and popular at Kent Academy, despite my tight-fitting clothes, my big glasses, my tornado hair that once broke a hairdresser’s comb clean in two. I had a best friend named Sheena and together we would play Mary-Kate and Ashley at recess. Only in the mind of a kindergartener could we have passed as twins: one thin, big-smiled Indian girl and one chunky, bespectacled, pug-nosed Jewish girl bursting at the seams of her clothes.
Do you see how mean I was to myself? How mean I still am?
Strange things happen in the mind of a fat girl. One moment, I would feel pretty or smart or funny. The next, standing before a mirror, I would remember my ugliness. Once, in the third grade, after my family made its final move to Wichita, Kansas, a group of popular girls invited me to join their talent show routine. (What I didn’t know, at the time, was that my teacher had asked one of the girls to befriend me.) The night of the show, just before we were set to dance to “Oops!…I Did it Again,” one of the girls convinced me that I would look just like Britney Spears if I removed my bifocal glasses. Believing her, I performed the entire dance without my glasses, completely blind to the audience or the other girls in the routine. I do not remember the laughter, only the intoxicating new knowledge that all this time, just like in so many teen dramas, the problem had been my glasses. Later, when I watched a video recording of the dance, I was horrified by what I saw: an awkward, uncoordinated fat girl flailing around the stage, out of sync with the music and the other dancers, squinting so hard her face resembled the pinched butt of a balloon. Nearly twenty years later, I still hate having my picture taken. If I’m in a public restroom, I will not look at myself in the mirror. Instead, I will watch my hands move between soap and water, water and drier.
The third grade was also when the Harry Potter books came out. I read them in a frenzy, eager to fall into a world of magic. I wanted to be Hermione Granger so badly that I would sometimes cry at night, frustrated that I couldn’t escape my own body, my own life. I wanted the power of magic, not so I could cruise above the world on a charmed bicycle or broomstick, but so I could eliminate certain body parts with the tap of a wand—no more belly, no more thighs, no more double chin. My life was a constant game of concealing, of hiding the not-so-secret secret of my body. Nothing threatened this secret like a pool party—and good god, the pool parties. It seemed every third-grade girl born between the months of May and September had some kind of contractual arrangement with the Wichita Swim Club.
Pool parties were a test of speed and endurance. How long could I hold out in the boiling Kansas heat before stripping down to my suit? Once in the suit, how quickly could I make it to the water? How long could I stay submerged until it was time to put on clothes and go inside for cake?
Of all the parties, one stands out. A girl in my class had invited all the girls in the third grade to celebrate her birthday at her house. Although not a pool party per se, we were required to wear our swimsuits, so that we could romp around her backyard, where there were sprinklers, a banana yellow slip-and-slide, and water balloons. I recall feeling okay about myself—I was even running, something I rarely did, especially in a swimsuit, because to do so felt like traveling on stilts made of Jell-O. I remember liking my swimsuit, a blue, Hawaiian-print one-piece from Target that did a decent job of concealing my tummy.
We were in the middle of a game of freeze tag when a girl who we’ll call Kathy turned to me and snickered, “Nice swimsuit.” She laughed and looked at a few of the other girls for approval before running away, blonde ponytail swishing.
Without missing a beat, I ran inside and took refuge in the hall bathroom where, within minutes, there came a knock. “Is someone in there?” asked a small voice on the other side of the door.
I was still crying, my eyes bloodshot. “Just a second,” I called back, and then prepared as best I could to face the party. I wished for a towel, to cover myself.
Outside the bathroom stood a girl named Anna. I recognized her from another third-grade class. She had too many freckles and was leaning awkwardly on a pair of crutches. “Is everything okay?” she asked.
“I’m just upset about my new stepmom,” I told her. “She’s mean to me.”
In truth, I actually rather liked my dad’s new Brazilian wife, Monique, who made powdered sugar pudding balls and pronounced beach like bitch. But this excuse seemed reasonable to Anna, who put her arm around me. “I know how you feel,” she told me. “My dad just got married. She doesn’t let me eat in front of the TV.”
“That sucks,” I said, and then asked what happened to her leg.
“Oh, I broke it,” she said. “It’s no big deal.”
Anna and I spent the rest of the party inside, talking. Years later, she confessed that her leg was not broken—her brother had found the crutches in a dumpster; she’d made the cast out of paper towels. I confessed that it was not my stepmom but Kathy who made me cry.
To this day, Anna remains one of my closest friends. She is still the kind of person who will drive the underdog out of a bathroom so that she may wrap her in love.
If swimsuits were the sartorial super villains, then ordinary clothes were the everyday criminals. Throughout elementary school, I would beg my mom to take me shopping so that I might, in her company, conduct a crying tour of Wichita. I was always on the hunt for the perfect outfit, the outfit that would, at last, make me look and feel skinny or pretty or just okay in my body. Perhaps my mother also believed in this holy grail of outfits—the shirt that would finally give me confidence, that would make me speak up at school or join the other kids at recess. When she was a young girl, her mother had constantly censored her eating habits. My mother was therefore determined to raise me the opposite, to never make me feel bad about my weight, never tell me to eat less or look different than I did. If I wanted to go shopping, she would take me.
Together, my mother and I developed a routine. We would go to Kohl’s, or Target, or JCPenny’s, so that I could, among a cohort of sales associates, cry in the dressing room, and then afterward in the car, and then again at home, where, despite everything, the refrigerator would still beckon to me, promising comfort. I would also cry later, at school, where the skinny girls could be found parading around in whatever clothes they liked best.
The clothes I wore were never the clothes I liked best, the girly tops and short-shorts that Anna and the other girls wore as if it were no big deal. I remember nearly fainting with envy when Anna showed up to the first day of the fourth grade wearing a quarter-sleeved purple and blue striped polo. Off limits to me were shirts like this, ones with horizontal stripes that would cling to my belly, as well as the Limited Too T-shirts screen-printed with kittens and rabbits and cartoon frogs—the ones I wanted more than anything but which came exclusively in white and only up to size XL. Instead, I wore whatever came in a size XXL or had dark colors or vertical lines or was made of a loose material that would not cling to my belly. This usually meant overalls.
In one memory, I am shopping with my mom at the Burlington Coat Factory when I find a long, cotton nightgown. It is a women’s nightgown, which means it will fit. It is light pink and written across the chest in magenta rhinestones is the word BABE. I’ve never before wanted anything so ridiculous, but for some reason I have to have it. The nightgown is so outside the realm of my style, my taste, that the sheer fact of my wanting it seems a sign of change. Up until now, my pajamas have been a combination of flannel pants and men’s T-shirts. They have always been big and ugly and meant to conceal a body equally big and ugly. But this nightgown is something new, something feminine. Something pretty.
When I ask my mother if I can have it, she looks at the nightgown and frowns. “Are you sure you want this?”
“Yes,” I tell her, and show her that it isn’t that expensive. It’s on the sale rack.
“You can get it if you really want it,” she says, and then continues to stare at the nightgown, as if conjuring a premonition. “You know what your brothers are going to say, right?”
I look at the nightgown, at the shimmering pink gemstones. “Fine,” I say, and go to put the nightgown back where I found it, tears building in my eyes. Because I do know. Babe: Pig in the City has just come out on VHS.
As time passed—3rd grade, 4th grade, 5th grade—my ego transformed into a china doll, apt to shatter under the slightest, most innocuous touch. As my body grew outward, the rest of me grew inward. I learned the intricate art of hating myself, of breaking myself down so that when other people called me names or stared at me while I ate, the pain would not come as a surprise. So that when kids at recess refused to push me on the swings because I was too heavy, I would not cry in front of them.
Hating yourself demands a careful attention to detail. How many hours did I spend before a mirror, assessing whether my body was growing larger or smaller? How many calories did I count? How many times did I think about ending my life? To hate yourself is to construct a malevolent statue at the center of your being so that you might spend every other moment worshipping it, bringing it live goats and sweetbreads and first-born sons. Every day you build the statue higher in the secret hope that it might one day grow so heavy it will topple and shatter. It never does. The only way to escape it is to turn away, leave it behind. Even then, you may find yourself wandering back, setting flowers at its feet.
I lost my weight in the 6th grade, thanks to a combination of willpower, depression, and Slim Fast. I’d started off the year at a new school, the same middle school where my mom taught and still teaches. Less than a semester into the year, I begged and cried my way back to my former school, a secular private school that, even after scholarships, we could not afford without help from my father, so that I could “be with my old friends.” Anna was there, but so were the popular girls, the ones who had made me feel bad about myself since the third grade.
The truth was that my mother’s school required P.E., which entailed daily locker room changes followed by three excruciating laps around the soccer field, in which, to the delight of the only other chubby girl, I always finished last. I dreaded going to school and would think about nothing but the impending gym class until it finally came and passed. The worst part was knowing it would happen all over again the next day. And the next. And the next.
Something clicked after I transferred schools. What this something was, I cannot say. Nor can I say why it happened then and not a year before, or a year later, or never. Maybe it was the subconscious knowledge that soon I would want boys to look at me and like what they saw. Or maybe part of me knew that if elementary school had felt like a battle, then middle school was certain to be a full-on war. Perhaps my hormones convinced me that it was not only advisable but imperative that I do something drastic in order to save myself—that in order to be happy I needed to change. By change, I mean starve.
At school, I skipped lunch, sometimes eating only a small apple or half a Nature Valley granola bar, sometimes eating nothing at all. How the lunch monitors let me get away with this, I’m still not sure. Maybe they figured we were too young, at eleven, to have eating disorders. Perhaps they also figured I could stand to skip a meal or two.
My hunger became something I carried with me throughout the day, like an empty suitcase. While I don’t remember what books we read in English that year, I do remember sitting as still as possible in my chair, so that the teacher wouldn’t hear my stomach growl. She can’t make me eat, I told myself. Nobody can make me. Every time it growled I imagined a chisel carving away at my body. Like this, piece by piece, I would eventually disappear.
At home, I told my mom I wanted to try the Slim Fast diet. I’d seen the commercials on TV, and Whoopi Goldberg made it look easy. Not just easy, but fun! Because what’s more fun than acquiring all of your daily nutrients from a chalky, protein-enhanced meal substitute that comes in a can that tastes of old nickels?
My mother must have been as desperate as I was for my suffering to end, because eventually a pack of chocolate shakes appeared in the fridge, and I took to drinking one can very slowly each night, at exactly 5 o’clock, while watching The Simpsons. Afterward, I would take Romeo on a walk around the neighborhood. Over time, the walk turned into a jog, but only when we were on a trail behind a row of houses, out of eyeshot from the road.
My memories of this time are particularly vivid. They glow, encased in an aura of quiet triumph. I remember refusing to eat a piece of candy offered to me by my friend Rachel, who was also overweight. “It’s just one little bite,” she said, but still I declined, basking in the high of my sacrifice. I remember Anna telling me again and again that I needed to eat lunch; I remember her eventually giving up. As it turns out, it’s as hard to make a girl eat as it is to make her stop eating. More than anything, I remember liking the feeling, the airy, lightheaded control of it. I was trapped in a haze of my own victory, my own power.
One day, my brother noticed I was eating a lot of apples.
“Fatty trying to be healthy?” he asked.
“Don’t make fun of her,” my mother told him. “She’s losing weight. She’s already lost six pounds.” I remember this number, six, so round and full of promise. A whole baby’s worth of weight, miraculously removed from my body. Where did it go? I would later learn that the majority of weight is lost through breath, every exhale taking with it a small quantity of carbon dioxide. I can imagine my weight, my ghost self, drifting somewhere far away—above the polar ice caps, across the Serengeti, through outdoor markets in Rome where it ogles the pastries and sweets. Farewell, fat Becky. Bon voyage!
“Fatty’s going on a diet?” my brother asked, laughing. Aside from myself, he had always been my biggest bully. There was a game we played, in which he would poke me forcefully in the stomach until I went, “Hmmm hmmm!” like the Pillsbury Doughboy.
I remember putting down the apple and sitting very still, waiting patiently for my stomach to growl. Six pounds, I repeated in my head. Six pounds. Six pounds. Six pounds.
Only a few months later, that number would increase to forty.
Perhaps my weight loss was partially inspired by my impending Bat Mitzvah, in which I knew I would have to speak and sing in Hebrew in front of more than a hundred people, among them my entire extended family and a sizable number of kids from school. For three straight hours, their eyes would be on my body. Unlike my gerbils, they could all laugh if they wanted to.
And so, when the weekend of my Bat Mitzvah arrived, I was both excited and nervous to show off my transformation. The last time most of my extended family had seen me, I had been more than forty pounds heavier, with bifocal glasses and a wardrobe consisting of overalls and oversized sweaters. To them, I had always been “chubby Becky,” the quiet cousin who clung to her mom and always ended up in tears because of hurt feelings.
Nobody’s reaction was more important than my dad’s. I hadn’t seen him since I lost my weight, and so I wanted to show him what I’d done, how I’d turned myself into an entirely new person, an entirely new daughter—a daughter he might love. In the days leading up to my Bat Mitzvah, I spent hours imagining his reaction, his look of happy surprise when he saw me in my party dress, a royal blue, medium-sized sundress that my mom bought for me at Kohl’s.
At the family dinner the night before my Bat Mitzvah, my family swarmed around me, my aunts lavishing compliments and my uncles smiling in approval. “Good for you,” they said. For the first time in my life, someone said beautiful and meant it about me. Everyone was happy for me, and I felt, for one of the first times in my life, happy about the way I looked.
When my dad showed up, he lingered in the background, chatting with members of my family. When he finally made his way toward me, he offered a timid hug and a quick hello. When he failed to mention how I looked, my mom intercepted. “Does she look different to you?” she asked. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember it wasn’t enough. I remember his eyes scanning from my head to my feet, how I could tell, from how he moved his eyes, that he did not love me any more or less than he ever had.
To this day, I’m not sure how to think of my weight loss. Am I glad it happened? Yes. Am I proud of my eleven-year-old self for doing it? Yes. Do I think I did it in a stupid, unhealthy, somewhat frightening manner? Yes. Yes. Yes.
And yet, despite no longer being fat, I am still a fat girl. Inside, I am 200, 300, 400 pounds. I have rolls and a double chin and love handles so thick you could clutch them like evening bags. My clothes are tight and everyone is always staring at me, laughing at me, wondering how I let myself become this way. Wondering how anyone could ever love something so ugly. Despite looking at other big girls or women and thinking, I hope they know they’re perfect, I cannot look at myself and think the same thing.
The fat girl inside me still screams for protection, begs that I keep her hidden from the world. In many ways, she has held me back. In high school, I immediately quit the tennis team when I learned I would have to wear a tight white dress during matches. This, when I weighed maybe 125 pounds. My earliest encounters with boys involved an awkward back-and-forth—them touching my stomach, me pulling away. I recall one of them whispering, “Where can I touch you?” When I look back at pictures from this time, I can’t help but think I was perfect. How could I have thought anything else?
Now, in my late twenties, I hover around 135 pounds, give or take five pounds depending on the season. I still love food, and so have learned to also love exercise. I hike and run and bike and do yoga, partially to appease my present self, partially to oppose my former self—to keep the fat girl at bay. I do not buy bread, or crackers, or chips, or any of the foods I know I will plow through cookie-monster-style if they’re in close proximity. I keep track of my weight and fret if my clothes become tight. I constantly worry about my future self. I have an image of myself as a middle-aged woman, and it is not a kind one. For years, the same line has appeared in my head, its wording as strange as its persistence: You have the potential to be bigger than them all.
Other, more innocuous quirks refuse to die, one being that I still do not like people looking at me. Because of this, I tend to stare at the ground while I walk, especially if I’m walking alone. If I don’t, if I dare to face the world head-on, I am overcome by a feeling of paranoia, that everyone is making fun of me. Every glance or smile becomes a smirk, a look of derision.
There are strange benefits to looking down, to fearing the world’s gaze. You find things other people miss. A couple years ago, I began logging my most interesting discoveries: an Edgar Allen Poe bookmark, a Toy Story frisbee, a giant pink bouncy ball, a Horse-Opoly board game, a neon orange tarp, a collection of small plastic toys (dinosaurs, kangaroo, brown bear, polar bear, race car, whale), two $20 bills (transformed, almost immediately, into Burmese food for my friends and me). Once, I found a silver wedding band with the warning, “Don’t fuck this up!” inscribed inside the band. When I found the owner on Craigslist and mailed it to her (she lived in Ithaca, had been visiting the University of Kansas for work), she thanked me with a $100 bill. There are also the coins, pens, and animals (dead and alive) that I come across regularly. I find the best bugs—the fattest, fuzziest, most extravagantly decorated caterpillars, the most opalescent beetles, the juiciest spiders. The prettiest rocks and flowers.
These may seem like trivial prizes, not worth the price of constant self-consciousness, but for me they are precious. They remind me that I’m still the girl I once was, the girl who still lives somewhere inside me, calling out for love and attention. The girl who said prayers for her dying gerbils, who wanted only to be loved in a world that does not easily love that which is not outgoing or beautiful. The girl who, knowing looks and charisma were not in her social toolbox, learned to rely on softer implements, like kindness, loyalty, and humor.
Looking back, there was so much to love about the girl I used to be. She was a good friend, a hard-working student, a loving daughter. She was curious and nerdy and goofy, strange before it was cool to be strange. She taught me to love animals, books, and solitude. Most importantly—first grade journal aside—she taught me to love writing, the magical way it can, like a charmed flying bicycle, lift you into another world. What my younger self quickly discovered was that when we write, we leave our bodies behind, that the page is one of the safest places for a fat girl—for any girl—to truly be herself. That, on the page, people might love her for who she is, or what she thinks, rather than what she looks like.
When I think about it, everything I admire about the person I am today comes from the girl I was back then—the shy, awkward, deeply-feeling girl who wanted only to be loved for who she was. The girl who, afraid of the world of people, learned to escape into her imagination, to seek shelter in stories, to love deeply those people (and animals) who truly loved her back.
So how, all these years later, can I tell her that I’m sorry? That, in the process of trying to help her, I orchestrated her death? And how can I admit to her that despite my remorse, if I had to choose, I’d do it all again—kill her in favor of a skinnier version? It is a deep betrayal, and yet it is the truth—my truth, my history, a story I carry around like a suitcase full of bones. It goes like this: Once upon a time the girl I used to be needed my love more than anyone else’s, and instead of loving her, I starved her away.
Becky Mandelbaum is the author of Bad Kansas (University of Georgia Press, 2017), which received the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award and the 2018 High Plains Book Award for First Book. Her work has appeared in The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review, Electric Lit, The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Originally from Kansas, she currently lives in Washington. Her first novel is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.