The girl pictured in the magazine caught my attention. She was about my age, ten, and fat — fatter than me. Her stomach protruded out from the gap between the top of her stretchy, turquoise pants and the bottom of her matching paisley top. Dimples pocked her arms and legs. Her pimpled face was swollen, she had extra chins. Her hair was disheveled and she looked down, away from the camera. Above her picture it said, “Before.”
On the opposite side of the two-page spread, the same girl looked like she had emerged from a time machine. She was thin with bobbed hair and no blemishes. She wore a purple shift with a white peter-pan collar and cuffs. She stared directly into the camera with a full-faced smile. This caption read, “After.”
I wanted to be an “After.”
I showed the advertisement to my parents. It was for a children’s weight loss camp. It proclaimed, “You Too Can Lose Up to 50 Pounds this Summer.”
“Can I go?”
They jumped at the opportunity.
It was the “Father Knows Best” era. Men were breadwinners, women homemakers. Like E=mc2, the equation was uncontroverted: beautiful (thin) women married successful (rich) men, and vice versa. At 4’6 and 120 pounds — I was a budding spinster.
Although my parents had bribed, conned, controlled and punished me, I couldn’t stay on a diet. I swapped a quarter and the orange that my mother had packed in my lunchbox, for a classmate’s Twinkie. I snuck out late at night to the freezer in the garage and filled my bathrobe pockets with frozen, sugary pastries. I pled with my grandparents for extra helpings of macaroni and cheese. I spent my allowance on Three Musketeer Bars and Snickers, rather than records or Barbies.
As my mother helped pack my duffle for camp, she said, “These clothes will be too big for you when you come home. We’ll go out and buy you a whole new wardrobe.”
On the drive to the airport my father’s parting words were, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I hope you realize how lucky you are. Take advantage of it. You’ll have a great time. You’ll be with girl’s like you.”
I wondered, “What was a girl like me?”
At camp we jogged to hardboiled eggs and melba toast breakfasts. We swam, played dodgeball, and did calisthenics — anything to burn off calories. I would have preferred art or drama. They served us veggie and protein laden lunches and dinners. At one particularly dried fish and soggy string bean dinner, we broke into a chorus of “We Shall Overcome.”
In Biggest Loser style, once a week we gathered around the quad for the weekly weigh-in. The bunk that lost the most weight earned a field trip. The second week of camp, my bunk won a trip to the movies.
I don’t remember what was playing — but I’ll never forget the counselors locking hand and forming a human chain in front of the glass counter candy display. It felt like they were saying, “Don’t look. You are fat and not worthy of peanut M&M’s, buttered popcorn, red spirally licorice, or Reese’s peanut butter cups.”
They gave each of us an apple.
During free time, my bunkmates gathered into cliques — no one included me. Lacking the confidence to reach out to them, I spent my free time alone. The wide-girthed girls were as clannish as the mean girls at my school.
I filled my down time by leafing through magazines and cutting out pictures of my favorite foods: fudge cakes covered in fluffy white frosting, pancakes slathered in thick maple syrup, salty Lay’s potato chips, butter pecan ice cream, and pizza, gooey with cheese.
I taped those pictures around the walls of my cot and said, “good morning” to Betty Crocker and “good night” to Sara Lee. They were my friends — no judgment nor disparagement. Until our forced separation, they filled my emptiness. Without them, I was hollow.
Homesick, friendless, hungry, and miserable, I faked a sever stomachache and wound up in the hospital. The doctors could not find anything wrong. After many tests and consults, the camp directors and physicians thought it best to send me home.
After only three weeks, I had flunked fat girl’s camp.
When I returned home, my mother silently unpacked my duffle. One-by-one she pulled out stretch pants and smock tops, they would still fit. There would be no shopping sprees for fashionable frocks.
My father said nothing.
That night I cried myself to sleep. I dreamt that I had superpowers. I clenched my fists, scrunched my eyes, wiggled my nose and said, “abracadabra.” And until the rising sun disrupted the delusion, I was an “after.”
©Copyright, Laura Black, 9/22/20
Laura Black is a freelance writer, lawyer, and businesswoman. You can find her work at www.laurablack.net.