Thin Is The New Happy: A Memoir, by Valerie Frankel
I approached the scale. Small, slow steps. I pretended I was walking through water.
“Just get on there,” said my mother impatiently.
Exhaling, as if pressing air out of my lungs would make me lighter, I climbed aboard. The numbered wheel spun.
“Oh. My. God,” said Mom when the spinning stopped. Tears formed in her eyes, her chin quivered. Her disappointment couldn’t have been deeper had I committed mass murder.
I had, instead, committed a serious non-violent crime. I was chubby. Not fat, mind you. Not large enough to qualify for my own zip code. But I was decidedly big-boned. By 1976 Short Hills, New Jersey, standards, even medium-boned was offensive. My Mom, a slim woman (by nature and neuroticism), said, “You’re officially on a diet. And I’m going to make you stick to it—for your own sake. You’ll thank me one day.”
I wasn’t feeling the gratitude that afternoon. While Mom busied herself logging my current weight on her clipboard chart, I looked down at the number on the scale. I was in sixth grade, five feet tall with emerging boobs. I weighed 100 pounds. I’d hit three digits before puberty. Unthinkable! My small-boned sister Alison, two grades older, hadn’t yet crossed the line.
The onset of Project Daughter Diet was brought on by our upcoming family vacation to the Club Med in Guadeloupe. My Mom was not going to let me embarrass myself (or her), running around at a tropical resort, a chubby cherub in a bikini. She would spare me the humiliation, regardless of whether I knew I was feeling it. As of that first official weigh-in, my pudge became her heavy burden, one more responsibility she had to shoulder.
And she bore it mightily. Immediately, Mom’s crackdown began. Daily weigh-ins. Food rationing. Mom colluded with other adults, besides my Dad, to monitor my intake. The mothers of my friends would served me the celery sticks after-school while giving their own daughters cookies and milk. Teachers discouraged other kids sharing the contents of their lunch boxes with me. At home, neither Ring Ding nor Twinkie passed between my lips. Crust was cut from Skippy and Wonder Bread sandwiches. Apples replaced chips. I cried, threw tantrums. I hated feeling picked on, scrutinized, deprived. But I couldn’t deny that the diet was working. My Sunday weigh-ins proved that I was shedding pounds.
After six weeks, I approached the scale for the final pre-trip weigh-in. Tunnel-visioned, I watched the dial spin until it rested, the needle pointing to the number eighty-eight. I jumped into my mother’s arms with elation. We hugged and cried big fat sloppy tears of joy.
I’d done it. Gone below the goal of ninety pounds. As much as I’d loathed the process, I reveled in the result. I was sleeker, faster, lighter. My clothes hung on me instead of puckering around bulges. My face was bony; my eyes gigantic, like the bug-eyed waifs on black-light posters. I both resented and soaked up the flattery from the adults who’d conspired against me. I smiled prettily in response to their praise while secretly wishing them dead. My sixth grade teacher, a fat-assed fan of polyester pants suits, pulled Mom aside at pick-up and said, “Valerie looks fantastic! What a figure! How on earth did you DO it?”
What a figure. I was eleven freaking years old.
Enforced dieting at that age can certainly skew one’s perspective. I developed a premature and acute sense of cynicism. At the Club Med, I ran around in my bikini with the carefree detachment of a girl who didn’t care about a number on the scale, fully aware of the cold irony that I’d been that girl two months earlier. Size-wise, I was on par with my skinny sister and wiry younger brother Jon. Mom watched me proudly from her beach chaise, pointing me out to the French and German vacationers in neighboring chairs, smiling smugly at what must have been their polite acknowledgement of my attractiveness. By dropping twelve pounds, I’d won the approval of my parents, their friends, teachers, complete strangers, everyone and no one whose opinion carried weight.
I was hooked. The approval was river wide, ocean deep. I became convinced of my own unparalleled beauty. The pounds that once hid my profound loveliness were gone, and now I shone like the sun. My fat-free body was bulletproof, super strong, a secret weapon I hadn’t realize I possessed. Being thin made me happy. It made my mother happy.
But, sadly, the joy was fleeting. After the trip (where I’d gorged on the omnipresent buffets), I stepped back on the scale and was stunned that I’d re-gained four pounds. But, but, but . . . I was thin now, I thought, as it were a permanent condition. The blunt and sudden understanding—that if I wanted to continue to shine like the sun, to bask in praise and glory, I would have to eat celery sticks forever—gave me a physical pain in the gut. I looked heavenward, shook my fist at the ceiling, and screamed, “NOooooo!!!”
The two sources of happiness in my childhood were at odds. I could have food. Or I could have approval. I couldn’t have both.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that food won the day, the year, the decades. The quest for approval, however, endured. At age eleven, I became a chronic dieter. A brass ring grasper. A pie-in-the-sky eater. By the numbers, I’d tried approximately 150 distinct diets, every trendy one to come down the pike, as well as scores of my own invention. In my adult life, I’d been as small as a size six and as big as a fourteen. I’d lost and regained hundreds of pounds. Dropping weight always equaled victory, validation, the (re)claiming of my rightful status as pretty-on-the-outside. Gaining weight equaled failure, weakness, faulty character, a demotion to really-good-personality. I’d been up and down the diet road so many times in the last thirty years that my footprints were potholes. Monuments dot the roadside, marking my thinnest periods, my fattest, the ghastly pig-outs, the incredible displays of self-control that appeared blurry as you sped by.
By the way, you like dieting metaphors? Pull up a chair. I could go all night.
As a drug addiction. My initial success was like a first hit of crack. Instantly addicting. A high I’d chase forever. I had a chubby monkey on my back. I was hooked on dieting, always looking for the next fix, be it South Beach or French Woman. No matter how high I got (meaning low), I craved more, never certain where my next hit was coming from.
As a gambling addiction. I kept trying to replicate that first big win, but couldn’t. I lost my shirt (but not my flab) in the process. The odds were stacked against me. To play, I stared goggle-eyed at a spinning numbered wheel. Unless I hit 21 (pounds lost), the diet was a bust.
As a sex addiction. One diet wasn’t enough to satisfy me. I needed to try another, and another, and none of them keep me satisfied for long. The harder I tried to deny my lusts, the more inflamed they become until giving into desire was all I thought about. My insatiable appetite compelled me to cheat, and cheat again.
Or, how about chronic dieting as psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief? Denial (“This diet is going to be the one that works!”). Bargaining (“I cheated today, so I’ll work out double tomorrow”). Anger (“Everyone else has cake”). Depression (“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”). Acceptance (“It’s useless. I’ll never be thin.”)
When I finally leave this mortal coil, my tombstone should read: “Here lies Valerie Frankel. She dieted.” I might go to my deathbed wishing I’d left a skinnier corpse.
* * *
I was gearing up to take my kids to Florida, to Disney World, where I expected to see a lot of people far fatter than me. It was a bathing suit vacation. With the predictability of the setting moon, I put myself on a pre-vacation diet. It wasn’t as easy to drop weight at forty-one as it was at eleven, but I had to try. I dreaded the appraisal of strangers, people who couldn’t possibly care less how much flab spilled over the top of my bathing suit. I dieted for them anyway, like a conditioned lab rat. As I chopped my pre-trip lettuce lunch, I imagined I was starring in an absurdist drama that I wrote for myself. Absurd, and ridiculously long. How would my weight obsession end? Would it ever end? Would I really take my weight obsession to the grave? Scarier still, would it live on after I was gonein future generations?
My mother’s fatphobia was instilled in her by my appearance-obsessed grandmother. A vane alcoholic anorexic narcissist and spoiled housewife with an evil streak, Fay was a true sadist. Nothing amused her more than making her daughter (my mother) Judy cry and grovel in genuine fear for her safety. As a mother herself, Judy at her worst was a creampuff in comparison to Fay. My grandmother passed down her looks obsession to Judy. Judy passed down body-anxiety to me. It was in my genes, wormed under my skin so deeply, it was as much a part of me as the skin itself.
My daughter Maggie was a sixth grader, eleven years old, the age when it all began for me. Lithe and limber, Maggie was spared what my sister Alison and I called “the struggle.” But then again, Maggie could thicken up. One never knew what adolescence might bring. She came home from school with stories about the fat girls in her class, kids whose lifelong battles were just beginning. Boys teased them, oinked and mooed behind their backs, asked them out only to laugh in their face when they said “yes.” When I saw these girls at school, my heart breaks for them. I was teased in middle school. I felt their pain. If any boys ever teased Maggie, I’d do to them what I would have loved to do to my adolescent tormentors: corner them, unleash the power of my superior weight, kick the living crap out of them, give them the punishment they deserved.
My younger daughter, Lucy, eight and in second grade, stretched three inches this summer. Formerly soft and round, she became lean and ropey seemingly overnight. The first day back to school, a few mothers at drop-off noticed the change. They cooed over her scrawny legs and sharp collarbone and gave her the “What a figure” treatment. Lucy soaked up compliments with the same greedy lust I had. Never vain before, Lucy started spending hours in front of the mirror. She rambled on and on about “how great it is to be skinny.” I disgusted myself by admiring her visible ribs, hoping this wasn’t a temporary taste of slimness that she’d hunger for forever.
I didn’t tell Lucy my thoughts, or compliment her new shape. Before I had daughters—before I’d menstruated; before I’d heard of menstruation—I vowed that I’d never harass my future children about their weight. I wouldn’t do to them what my mother did to me (what her mother did to her, and so on, and so on). Much as I tried to impart the healthy attitude, the “love yourself for who you are” message, my daughters weren’t fooled. They had eyes and ears. They saw and heard what I put myself through. The dieting cycles, anxiety about food, dread of bathing suit vacations, my rising and falling and rising weight. I was a bad example.
Weight anxiety had had me in its grip for thirty years. When I looked at Maggie and her friends, at how young they were, I was amazed and saddened that I’d been introduced to self-loathing at their age. I mourned for the wasting of my wonder years, the abandon I missed, how lonely I must have been. All the years and hours wasted since then. I wasn’t blaming anyone. My problem with body image was my responsibility. As Oprah would say, I owned it. I’d owned it for years. But now, at the age of 41, I’d like to disown it.
My journey out of the waistland would require confrontations, unlearning, mind sweeping and closet cleaning of skeletons—and clothing—that didn’t fit the woman I wished to be. Coming to terms with my diet demons seemed more doable than losing twenty pounds, actually. And more worthwhile, too, given what was at stake.
Even more than love, I wished for my daughters a life of comfort in their skin. I had to break our family tradition, ensure that Maggie and Lucy felt super strong and bullet proof, no matter what shape they took. I had to show they how, but first, I would have to figure it out. For me, the struggle started with my mother. For my daughters, the struggle would end with me.