May 1, 2008

Health & Beauty

The Flat Tummy Gospel, Part 1

by Kristina Marie Darling

In the beginning was the word and the word was FAT. A girl from my seventh grade Health and Fitness class had turned sideways in her desk and said to me at the top of her piercing little voice: Hey, fat girl, I know for a fact you’ve never even tried a cigarette, let alone pot, sex, or vodka. She grinned her toothy grin and batted her eyelashes from beneath blonde bangs, practically squirming in her size one jeans.

My mouth hung open. I knew that, for the most part, what she said was true. I’d never been sloshed or doped up, nor had I taken part in a single make-out session or sat with the kids in baggy jeans at the smoking wall after school. Yet I had never cared about being a badass. I felt that the fact that I earned straight A’s every semester canceled out my mundane social life and conservative wardrobe. “Fat,” however, was another thing altogether. Being fat was a curse, a misfortune, and a blasphemy on the glossy pages of People Magazine, which I flipped through each night when I’d finished my homework.

The night before, I’d sprawled out on my bed with a stack of fashion magazines and a glass of Coca-Cola on my nightstand, flipping through the pages of People, Seventeen, Jane, Allure, and Elle. Being the good student that I was, I read every article that night and highlighted the parts I deemed particularly important. My retractable yellow highlighter squeaked across the page as I slurped soda through Twizzlers and popped mini Hershey bars into my mouth. I hoped that by worshiping at the feet of the fashion models, I’d finally be deemed normal by my classmates. Halfway through my study session, I closed the door to my room, trying to take in the nuances and complexities of the highly anticipated 2001 line of Chanel sunglasses.

After about an hour, my mom knocked on my door and asked, “Hey, do you want to go to the gym? Some exercise might be good for you.” She hiked up her pants, which were baggy from the weight she’d lost on some experimental diet she’d invented herself. I thought about my brother, Tim, who’s three years younger than me and was also overweight at the time. My mom never tried to drag him to the health club. Blissfully oblivious, I answered, “No, I still have some chocolates left. I think I’ll stay here tonight.” And with that I cleared the mounting pile of tin foil wrappers from my nightstand into the overflowing trash can in my room.

My mother's thinness didn’t bother me then. I had told myself from age five that brainy girls didn’t have to be thin or beautiful, and that someday I’d be a lawyer or an anthropologist. But I had never called myself “fat.” Being fat, in my mind, was a death sentence.

After the judgment that had sounded forth in the classroom that morning, I knew I couldn’t live with the self that I now imagined. I had grown up surrounded by thin, fashionable aunts and an exercise-obsessed mother, and now I wondered if they thought of me as the pudgy girl unable to put her cheesecake down. My dad’s ex-wife weighed over two hundred pounds, and they talked about her that way. I began to wonder if maybe they slotted me with Debbie, her alimony, and her pants with elastic waistbands.

As I walked to the school bus after class, thin girls with tight ponytails and short wool sweaters swarmed around me like locusts, clutching notebooks and the little sequined purses that had suddenly become fashionable. As I ascended the rubber-floored, cheaply upholstered bus, I made a pact with my refrigerator: In exchange for glamour, beauty, thinness and future dates, I would come to its doors only when absolutely necessary. I would eat fruit and vegetables. Saltine crackers. Food that I could feel rolling around in my mouth but couldn’t taste.

That night I counted out three Tic-Tacs, ate them, and climbed into bed, turning off my radio and the lamp on my nightstand. My stomach already felt as though it was gnawing at itself, but I had left the kingdom of food behind. This diet was just beginning.

*

I didn’t know it at the time, but I wasn’t alone in my pursuit of thinness. Whether it’s Atkins, South Beach or Jenny Craig, every day nearly half of American women and girls are on some kind of diet. Four out of five American women say they would like to lose weight, and many girls, even as young as ten, report that dieting is beneficial to their self esteem. This desire to be skinny among the very young no longer seems to raise eyebrows; even though I was a middle school student, my desire to shed pounds seemed normal to people. If you asked me, however, I would have said that I was the only girl in the world on a diet. My exodus was a lonely one, although I could already see the miniskirts at the end of my journey. Skinny people appeared to have descended on the world like some kind of biblical plague, and I knew that since I couldn’t beat them at getting dates or fitting into clothes, I had to give up my Snickers bars and join them.




Kristina Marie Darling is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of four chapbooks, which include Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006) and The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2006). A Pushcart Prize nominee in 2006, her poems, reviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, which include Janus Head, Rattle, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Rain Taxi, The Adirondack Review, CutBank, The Mid-American Review, Jacket, Redactions: Poetry and Poetics, and others. Recent awards include residencies from the Centrum Foundation and the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts.

*Editor's Note: Don't forget to check back next month for part 2 of Kristina's series. If you have trouble remembering, join our Della Donna Yahoo! group for email updates!