Until my younger sister was born, I was the baby of our family. Then, when I was four, she was brought into the house and I began to eat. First, I’m told (it may be a family myth), it was her toe, which they say I tried to bite off the first night she came home. Then it was chunks of white bread, gauged from the middle of the loaf, compressed into chewy lumps and dunked in mustard. I had to do my binging when no one was home, though, as my father himself in those days was fat and I became his shame-surrogate—not only for over-eating but for failure to “stick to” anything: diets, learning to swim, finishing school assignments. “You’re just like your Aunt Etta,” he’d say scornfully, disgust twisting his mouth; she was even fatter than he was and branded as the “lazy one” among his siblings.
I got fatter and fatter, and more and more afraid and ashamed of my body. I couldn’t climb the ropes or jump over the horse in gym class, and the gym teacher shook his head scornfully and occasionally called me names. I dreaded going to school and many mornings, pretending sickness, I would hold the thermometer near the radiator. Once I went too far and it burst, causing shape-shifting droplets of mercury to spray all over the linoleum floor. They were fascinating to look at as they scurried this way and that, but I’d heard mercury was poisonous, so I had to call my mother in. She let me stay home anyway; suffering from depression herself, she couldn’t deal with my sobbing when forced to go to school.
When my half-brother got married, they took me to Lane Bryant to get a dress. It was a hideous thing, with an enormous floral bloom right in the middle of my chest, I suppose to distract from the body that wore it. Although I was approaching adolescence, they made me march in the “children’s parade”; I was easily the biggest marcher, my head down and cheeks burning, and when the wedding photos were shown around, I begged my parents to [End Page 171] throw away the ones in which I appeared. Of course, they didn’t—but when I finally got my own hands on copies, I cut myself out of all of them.
At some point I decided that if I was going to be at all happy in this life, I needed to remake myself. So the summer before high school, I began the endless cycle of dieting—losing weight—gaining weight—dieting—gaining weight that has been a constant in my life. After a summer of cottage cheese and hamburger patties without the bun, I started high school on the hottest day of the year in a form-fitting rust-colored wool dress that I had chosen for the reveal and wasn’t going to give up no matter how sweaty and scratchy it felt.
Since then, there have been long periods—until menopause—in which I was relatively slender, and I never again let myself approach a weight that would allow me to be classified, as I had been in childhood, as fat. Men found me attractive, and—as for many women with body-shame—their sexual attention became a drug. It offered proof that fat little Susie Klein was no longer in the room, and it dulled the fact that no matter how slim I was, I still hated my thick calves and ankles. When a lover held my legs up and kissed them all the way from chunky foot to hefty thighs, gratitude flooded me and I felt reborn.
Once you have been fat, however, the shame never really leaves you. When after menopause I began to slowly gain 10–20–30–40–50–60 pounds, it became a horror, once again, to look full-body in the mirror. The disgust that I had felt as a child was back with me again, only this time accompanied by the uncanny body-changes that aging brings. Seeing an overweight body was familiar...