Thursday, June 19, 2008

Chapter XVII: Erosion

By early February, only a month after settling into new routines in Salt Lake Mitch was on his second job and I was supporting us with my mind-numbing data entry job with an insurance adjusters firm. I was tired of people reacting to our sudden move (and my dropping out of college mid-year) by telling me finishing school just isn't much of a priority once one gets married. Sometimes I tried defending myself by explaining that I was in the process of transferring, not dropping out. But sometimes it was easier to just let it rather than making up an excuse for leaving a scholarship and three quarters left of college behind.

I worked from 8 am to 5 pm while Mitch supposedly looked for a job and supposedly trained our new puppy. In my second attempt to find unconditional love we impulsively agreed to take in a fuzzy fluff ball of a puppy we named Stuart. He was half chow, half charpei - a chow-pei. And despite being adorably ugly and trying really hard to comprehend, all the wrinkles must have continued into his brain because he was the dumbest dog ever.

We moved into a four-plex in a decidedly poor neighborhood just off State Street and 3900 South. On the plus side it was a split level with two bedrooms and one and a half bathrooms which seemed the height of spacious luxury at the time (still does today from my New York City living perspective). In addition, our neighbors who shared several walls with us were long-time friends of mine. Of course, the major down side was the proximity to State Street and the sketchiness of everything past our driveway.

As with our prior move I was optimistic and convinced this was a step in the right direction for our marriage. I was happy to live closer to my family and friends and oblivious to the subtle changes my marriage was inflicting on me.

One of Mitch's older brothers and his family lived not too far away in Layton and occasionally we visited for Sunday dinner. One such Sunday, after using the bathroom, I impulsively stepped onto their bathroom scale. I had not weighed myself since the summer of my engagement when I wanted to prove my weight training was adding muscle by breaking the 130 pounds barrier. I didn't make that goal before the wedding and weighed somewhere in the range of 126 pounds. To my horror, when I stepped onto that scale less than six months later the needle pointed to a shocking new number: 140.


I was a lucky teenager. I never worried about weight. I was naturally thin and was able to eat anything I wanted without thinking about what that would mean to a scale. Partly I can thank my parents for never owning a scale, but I can also thank them for giving me an excellent metabolism. At least, at the time. I won't comment on my metabolism now.

I was also lucky with the friends I had as a teenager. I was fortunate enough to have friends with interests that did not revolve around how much they weighed. We shunned fashion magazines (and fashion in general) and embraced free food whenever and wherever it was offered. We didn't diet. In fact, I was generally confused by teen movies and sit-coms that portrayed thin girls obsessing over their weight. It just didn't register with me. Not just because I was thin but because I could not comprehend not eating.

Like I said, I was lucky. Lucky to have friends and family who gave positive reinforcement and lucky to hit those critical teen years during the grunge era when everything was oversized anyway.

In college I paid a bit more attention to my weight primarily in terms of monitoring the effects of weight lifting and rock climbing. Like any teenager I had hang-ups and insecurities about my looks and my general attractiveness and self-image, but my size was never part of that apprehension.

My main hang up over my looks was just questioning whether I was pretty and I just thought my clothes were all wrong and felt powerless to fix them due to money and/or a complete lack of fashion comprehension. As a freshman I vividly recall getting ready to go dancing with 2 or 3 of my roommates. My preparation involved a shower, grabbing a t-shirt and pairing it with my favorite oversized jeans that only stayed in place with the aid of my vintage wide leather belt with floral tooling I stole from my mom. No make-up. No special treatment for my hair other than possibly using a hair dryer and not tying it up in a bun with my homemade scrunchi. I just let it fall down my back to graze the hippie 70s belt at my waist (because we wore pants pulled up to our waist back then). I wore my usual random assortment of mismatched silver stud earrings - a dinosaur, a flower and maybe a star or a couple of hoops. I may or may not have worn one of the beaded necklaces I made myself. Then I would sit on my bed and wait as my other roommates debated what to wear.

For whatever reason they would traipse into my room with two or three tops posing with different combinations seeking my advice. They would ask me such questions as "do these earrings go with this belt?" and baffled I would either nod in the hope of making it easier or scrunch my face and shrug my shoulders in defeated honesty. Each of my roommates was thin and attractive. None in the overtly drop-dead beautiful category but each could be described as pretty or cute in her own distinct way. Each time I sat through the fashion show of roommates critizing their thick ankles, their fat knees, their zits, their crooked nose or their overall shape, I learned to turn a critical eye on myself. And the longer I sat there waiting for them to get ready, the worse I felt about myself as I sized myself up in the mirror wondering about the shape of my nose, size of my ankles and how well my earrings went with my belt. As the year progressed I let them talk me into trying new things - like makeup.

But only to a point. By mid-way through my sophomore year of college I was dating Mitch and my new roommate Gretchen was much closer to my natural inclinations. Enjoy food, exercise because it is fun and confidence followed. I was probably a rare bride since I was hoping to gain a bit more muscle mass during my engagement rather than starve myself to fit into a dress.

By the time I got married I had absolute confidence in myself. I was in excellent physical shape. I was dressing better (although it was still the 90s) and I was wearing make-up on a semi-regular basis. I remember looking at photos of myself from
bridal showers and being surprised at how pretty I was. I entered my marriage confident in my appearance.

But at some point over those first five months of marriage, that confidence started to erode.

Erosion is a funny thing, it is generally difficult to watch it in action. The hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah are rock formations which rise in tall, thin spires from the arid canyon floor. They were originally shaped and formed by water and wind erosion working against the hard and soft layers of rock. I'm not much of a geologist but I believe it takes hundreds of thousands of years for these structures to take shape but pinpointing that first strong wind that chipped away the weaker rock is insoluble.

Likewise, ruminating on the genesis of my weakening self-image is futile. By February of 1995, when I stepped onto that scale Mitch had already chipped away at that weaker layer of rock around my surface that was my self-image. He saw a vulnerability and slowly and steadily he pushed a little wind on by and little by little I became entirely reliant on him for how I felt about myself.

When the number 140 stared up at me from the bathroom floor I was shocked. Suddenly all of the little nits revolving around my weight rushed at me: "Why don't you work out anymore?" "Why is everything you cook so rich? Are you trying to make us both fat?" "Are you letting yourself go just because we are married now?" and on and on. These queries were easily dismissed one at a time but with the evidence right in front of me I knew I couldn't deny it any longer. Mitch was right. I had gained over 10 pounds since we got married and none of it was muscle. Immediately I viewed this as a reason why he no longer seemed to want to have much to do with me in the bedroom.


I walked back into the dining room and for the first time in my life I turned down dessert out of a fear of calories. At that moment I bought into everything Mitch had been telling me about how I was letting myself go. Nevermind the stress. Nevermind the move. Nevermind that I was the only one bringing in a steady paycheck. I was getting fat and to Mitch, nothing could be worse.

Within the week we joined a gym. Initially I had hopes of working out together. But I was soon shoved aside and told I was not a suitable workout partner since I am a girl. So I tackled it on my own and began weight training again and soon I was into step aerobics. I didn't have a scale to measure my progress so I just pushed myself to work out as much as possible whenever possible.

At the same time I slowly stopped eating. Not immediately and not consciously. But our money problems, combined with my delusional image of myself as overweight and the stress of a failing marriage was a perfect storm of an excuse to just stop. I had a breakfast drink in the morning, rarely ate much for lunch and very little for dinner under Mitch's watchful eye.

In five short months Mitch shattered the contended image I had always carried of myself with respect to weight. Irrespective of how my pants fit, he managed to contort the image I saw in our bathroom mirror into one wider than desired. Even as the weight quickly fell away and I was easily twenty pounds lighter, something in the back of my mind whispered it wasn't good enough.


lizzie said...

oh how painful. and i remember. i couldn't understand it all back then. but i remember.

so good to have you back!

michele said...

welcome back! i remember the good ol' days of eating whatever we wanted. sorry you had to go through this.

Emily said...

This is so painful, but you write it so beautifully. (Glad to have you back!)

Tiffany said...

So glad to have you back! And as usual, you have captured a difficult subject with such grace and perspective. I love how you made the comparison of those amazing rock formations. Incredible!

Thad said...

Another excellent post. This was definitely worth the wait. (or is that weight?)

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