Throwback Thursday: Surprisingly Sentimental (A Christmas Story)

My dad’s a surprisingly sentimental guy. He enjoys traditions like biscuits for breakfast on his birthday, and he proudly displays photos around his new apartment of him shaking hands with Clinton and grinning with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. (Please, don’t ask me who they are-I’m way too young and you probably are too). He’s even got a tiny wooden rocking chair in the corner that he’s had since he was a boy-it was important enough to him to make the trip from New England to central Florida. As sentimental as he is, though, my dad is still the former detective I grew up with, and it takes a lot to get him worked up. I’ve only ever seen him cry twice-once when our family dog died when I was ten, and once when his younger brother died of an unexpected heart attack.

 

He’s been living in an apartment now for about six months now, in a cute little Stepford complex where each building looks the same and there’s absolutely no parking anywhere. I’ve been really worried about him just picking up and moving like he did; he’s never had a problem making friends, but he’s also not really the type to go out and join a Bingo game.

 

Except that’s exactly what my dad did-he plays Bingo, weekly, with the people in the surrounding apartments. And he does more than just play Bingo with them, too. On Friday nights, he goes with them to a local bowling league (though his knees won’t let him play anymore); when they get out of work at the Disney parks, he’ll meet them there and goof off until it’s time for the fireworks. He’s gotten particularly close with one family, transplanted here from Southern Massachusetts, and regularly plays with their six-month-old baby, Evvie, when Momma needs a break.

 

I really wasn’t expecting much of a holiday here. I was raised Jewish, and although my dad was raised in a Christian home, we haven’t celebrated Christmas since I was twelve. Holidays tended to be strained towards the end of my time at home anyway-but that’s another story, for another day. I figured maybe my dad would buy me a sweatshirt or two in the Disney parks, and potentially pay for a butterbeer in Harry Potter World, and we’d call it a day. I was genuinely surprised when he told me that we’d be spending part of Christmas Day with his new friends and their family, and that they had presents for us, to boot.

 

When we finally got to their apartment, we apologized over and over for being late-we had gotten tied up at my dad’s best friend’s home (another pleasant surprise to find out they had invited us over as well). We carefully stepped over baby toys and a sleeping greyhound or two and grabbed some space on their already-crowded couch. The apartment belonged to Dan and Do, a semi-retired couple around my dad’s age, and their son Danny, along with his girlfriend Laurie (who is definitely my age), and of course, baby Evvie. Joining us that night was Dan and Do’s daughter, Crystal; her boyfriend, Bo; his toddler son, Bebo; Bo’s brother; and their cousin, Mr. Bill. Strewn among people were cans of root beer and plates piled high with Puerto Rican dishes Laurie had spent all day making, and she handed us each our own once we sat down. “Eat. Eat!”

 

Danny was poised by the Christmas tree, a present in each hand. One-by-one, he handed them out to each person, calling out their name and patiently taking photos as they tore through the wrapping paper and exclaimed in delight. Bebo, at four years old, was finding it hard to sit still, so when possible I’d distract him by asking him to tell me about his dinosaurs. He’d light up as he explained the difference between a brontosaurus and an allosaurus, and it reminded me of a good childhood friend who would get that same gleam in his eye nearly fifteen years before.

 

I wasn’t expecting much when Danny called out my name. I knew that part of the gift was a set of tickets to Sea World, thanks to Crystal’s connections. What I wasn’t expecting was for Danny, grinning, to call my name several times over the course of the night. Between the basket of lotions, a stuffed pirate toy, and a beautiful Disney poster, I couldn’t believe my luck. But the thing is-this story really isn’t about me. It’s about my dad, and his new friends next door.

 

Several days before, my dad and I had wandered through Downtown Disney in the hopes of making some purchases before the holiday deals were over. We ended up stopping in one of the more classy Disney art shops, where they sell frames from various movies, and art inspired by the classics themselves. My dad paused in front of one of the cases, and pointed out a ceramic Mickey figurine, shaking hands and looking in awe of the firefighter in front of him. “Isn’t that cool?” My dad asked. “They have one for police officers too, but they sell it at the other art store, in the parks, and I’m going to use some of my birthday money from Nanny to buy it. I’m just waiting until I go with Dan and the crew, so I can use their ‘Disney Discount.’” He winked at me, and we continued on our way, weaving through toddlers dragging giant Mickey toys behind them that would never fit in their carry-ons.

 

Back at Christmas dinner, Danny had been hinting that the gift they had for my dad was going to make him cry, and if it didn’t, “everyone needed to go home.” Finally, as the pile dwindled down, he handed my dad a giant red box and motioned for him to go on. My dad tore off the wrapping to find a box, and opened it to find-another box. “Keep going!” the label encouraged, and so he did. Four boxes later, he finally reached a Styrofoam layer, and carefully lifted the lid. A single tear rolled down his face as he laughed, speechless. There lay Mickey and the policeman in his lap, as the family laughed and clapped with joy. “This is why we haven’t been to the parks with you yet,” Danny shouted. “We couldn’t let you buy it!”

 

The season is all about goodwill towards men, as the voices echoing over the Disney parks have reminded me all week. I wasn’t really sure what that meant, until I watched the joy on this family’s face as they surprised someone that they just met with a gift they’ve wanted for years. Dan, Danny, and Laurie work at the parks in the kitchens, and from personal research (ahem), I can tell you that they don’t make much. For them to take their hard-earned money and buy gifts not only for my dad, but for me, someone they had met days beforehand-it was what I needed to understand exactly what this time of year is about. It’s not about getting a photo with Santa Goofy, or putting ornaments on a three-foot fiber optic Christmas tree. It’s about peace on Earth, and goodwill towards men. And I’ll remember that every time I look over and see a ceramic Mickey shaking hands with a police officer, nestled between a photo of aging rockers and a surprisingly sentimental guy.

Throwback Thursday: Surprisingly Sentimental (A Christmas Story)

So, I am fat.

Does that make anyone feel better? It’s the first time in nearly twelve years that I’ve actually said that. I’m tired of tiptoeing around my “weight problem,” or timidly stumbling over the word “heavy” whenever the conversation curved that way. I’m want to talk to you about what it’s like to be twenty-two, and fat. I’m going to share with you what it’s like to go through life knowing that people are staring, are judging, are sizing you up for disaster.

 

I’ve been fat since I was ten years old. Most girls were picking out training bras-nothing more than another layer of cloth to make them feel grown-up and important. I was already fitted for a B-cup, the straps cutting very real marks into my shoulders and causing sweat lines through my GapKids tees. I didn’t need to feel grown-up. I had already been tossed headfirst into it.

 

In middle school most girls stop wearing kid’s sizes, and spend hours in the junior’s section, fawning over the peek of a midriff or the dip in the waist of a pair of jeans. I skipped right from Oshkosh to Ann Taylor, sharing fitting stalls with women old enough to be my grandmother. And that’s where I first started noticing the looks-the disapproving clicks of a tongue, the sympathetic stares behind bifocaled eyes. My Bat Mitzvah dress was bought at a bridal shop, not because it needed to be beautiful. It was because nothing in my size, in the prom section of Macy’s, is meant to fit a twelve-year old without making her look like a child prostitute.

 

High school was where the teasing started and ended. Girls I had gone to sleepovers with would ask me why I sat so my boobs looked bigger. I had to explain tearfully, in front of teenage boys, no less, that I didn’t sit that way on purpose-that’s just how big they were. No one asked me to junior prom, so I didn’t bother going. It was where the teasing ended-but it ended because it got replaced by pity.

 

I can distinctly remember my freshman year of college, while looking for my shirt on the dirty floor of someone else’s dorm room, hearing him tell me “this should be our little secret. It’s not like anyone would believe it, anyway.” He was a division one athlete, and I was fat. He wouldn’t look at me when he said it. I don’t think he could. I remember going back to my room and calling my best friend at the time in tears, recanting the boy’s words. He didn’t believe my story either. He proved the athlete’s  point.

 

I became close with a group of fraternity boys in college-they were the 35 brothers I never knew I needed. They were always there for a kind word, a gentle hug, a person to sit and watch movies with on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I got to know their secrets, their hopes, their fears. I think it’s safe to say that they trusted me. But I would hear these boys talk about the guest rules at a party, “recruits and hot girls only.” Then a guilty glance my way, and the over-asserted, over-used, “and don’t worry, you don’t count anyway.” I watched photos pop up all over the internet of their formals, the boys picking dates they knew their friends back home would approve of. I wasn’t even in the backgrounds of those photos, hiding my disapproval at these girls who didn’t even know these boys. I was never invited. Oversight? Maybe. Embarrassment? Much more likely.

 

I have friends who won’t ask me to go to bars with them because I bring down the possibility of them finding a friend to go home with. I have people who pointedly stare when, out of breath, I ask them to please slow down, my short legs are carrying me as fast as they can. I have people who don’t bother to hide their shock and disbelief when I say that I try to go to the gym three times a week. And I have people who just stare. People on the Metro, people on the bus, people in the restaurant, people on the street. People who act like they’ve never seen a muffin top before, who will often stop and whisper to their friend like I can’t see what they’re doing. And yes, they stare.

 

My closest friend subconsciously scoots away from me if our arms or thighs end up brushing on the Metro. At first he started talking about hot girls constantly, but once that pity started climbing up his spine he hardly mentions them at all. He is one of a handful of people I actually feel comfortable eating in front of, instead of watching them watch me eat and wondering if they’re hiding disgust behind their dessert. He and I can sit and talk for hours on end. We can often sense when the other is upset or distracted through incomprehensible mediums, like text messages and Facebook. And yet on the nights that I have worked up the courage to tell him I love him, that I’d be the girl of his dreams if he’d let me, he tells me in no uncertain terms, no. He can’t be with someone who doesn’t take care of themselves, he says. What he means is that he can’t be with someone his friends can make fun of. He can’t be with someone he can’t show off.

 

For the record, I am not an unattractive woman. I have eyes the color of ice that can melt with compassion or freeze you with honesty. I have the softest hair known to man, and often times people will play with it absentmindedly when I’m standing next to them. I clock in at just under five feet, so I often get described as “adorable” or “cute,” and the fact that my personality stopped maturing at twelve probably helps with those descriptions. If you think intelligence is sexy, my favorite hobby is reading and I can argue my way out of a paper bag. But what really makes me feel attractive is that I’ve gained confidence through my struggles with my weight. I’m not one of those girls who screams “I’M FAT AND I’M PROUD,” from the tallest rooftops-I’m the first to admit that I’m still not comfortable in my own body. But I can say I’ve come a long way from being that girl who won’t make eye contact so she doesn’t have to see the pity in your eyes.

 

I’m sick and tired of people who are supposed to care about me, who are supposed to love me-hell, even people who don’t know me, treating me like I’m some sort of leper because of my shape and my size. I’m tired of the uneasy glances as I wiggle my way out of a cab. I’m sick of the avoided eyes whenever someone needs to sit on someone’s lap in a tiny car. I’m done with the glances exchanged across the table when I order a ginger ale that’s not diet. I don’t judge you because your stomach pokes out a little over the top of your jeans. I don’t scoff at your chocolate sundae when you spend over a hundred dollars on acne creams. I’m happy to stay out of your decisions-as long as you stay the hell out of mine.

 

I know there are some of you sitting out there, reading this and thinking that this is a pity party at its finest, that my weight is my own fault and I’m just looking for a quick vote of sympathy. I’ve waited until the end to address this, because people forget the faces that stand behind the words. I was diagnosed this year with a disease, the evil cousin of diabetes that makes it nearly impossible to maintain weight, let alone lose it. I’ve had this poisonous problem in my body for over half of my life, and couldn’t have done a thing about it.

 

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a couple of months now. I kept punching the keys, forming thoughts and feelings, but it didn’t sound right to me. It wasn’t until I was charged nearly a hundred dollars more for a medication that helps regulate my weight loss did I feel the need to stand up and say this. I was taking a medication in which the dosage could have been for several different ailments, and paying less than ten dollars a month. Now that the dosage has increased to a point where it’s clear the drug is for weight maintenance, the price soared through the roof. If that’s not blatant discrimination, I don’t really know what is.

 

Did I eat well as a kid? Absolutely. There was no candy allowed in my home, no sweets hidden in the floorboards or stashed in the rafters. Did my parents provide me with healthy meals instead of McDonalds? Of course. Did I live a healthy lifestyle? Up until a point, sure. I danced as a kid, until I started having panic attacks and refused to go back to the studio. Why was I panicking? The anticipation of having yet another stick-thin ballerina in my class tell me I was too fat to tumble, or too heavy to lift.

 

And kids are cruel, sure-but adults are crueler. My family was seemingly supportive, especially since many of them struggled with their weight themselves. But support stopped short when someone would order an appetizer for the table, and then sling shame at the teenager staring longingly as the adults stuffed their faces with cheesy fried goodness. I can’t tell you how many times I was told how pretty I would be “if I just lost some weight,” or, when I came home from college, “how hard it would be to get a job if you look like that.” Luckily enough for me, I work in dining services now. No one questions a fat girl applying for a job related to food.

 

A study by the Employment Work Alliance from a few years back shows that nearly half the nation believes that fat workers are discriminated against in the workplace. Maybe they’re not sitting in on the high-level meetings with the execs from corporate-it might ruin the image. Maybe it’s something as simple as not being invited to play tennis after work with the others because why would someone who’s fat wanna play sports, anyway? For the record, I played tennis in middle school, and I could kick your ass up and down the court. If someone would give me a chance and ask me to play, that is.

 

After a while the whispers seem to linger in your ears as you’re seemingly waddling down the street. The stares stay with you as you sweat up the stairs to your apartment. And you find yourself skipping meals and ignoring the gnawing in your stomach in the hopes that eliminating one, even two meals a day will keep those pounds from sticking to your skin any longer. This is the first time in my life I will openly admit that I’ve struggled with this. It’s also the first time I’ll publicly admit how far down the spiral I’ve gone. I’ve called my insurance company first to ask about gastric bypass-then to ask about psychologists and shrinks. I’ve locked myself in bathrooms, knowing that if I can’t even muster enough willpower to say no to dessert then how could I possibly muster the willpower to throw it back up? I’m long past my darkest days, thankfully, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find myself on the cool bathroom tile floor once in a while, wondering just how far I’d go compared to how far I’ve gone.

 

So here I am, pouring my heart out to you, and why? Because I am tired of being the only teenager at Weight Watchers, listening to women drone on about their baby weight and their menopausal moments. I want my friends to introduce me to boys at bars as “my friend with the gorgeous eyes,” instead of letting me sit at home watching the West Wing until my heart explodes from the weight of FOMO. I want my best friend not to flinch when I reach out to brush the dirt off of his shirt for the hundredth time. I want people to know what it’s like to be constantly on edge about how many people saw you sneak that piece of candy corn from your bosses’ jar. Maybe you’ll think twice about calling out your car window at the sweaty girl trying to run down the street. Maybe you’ll take a look at your fat kids, your fat friends, and stop trying to shape them into the role model you aren’t. Or maybe you’ll just stop staring as I’m trying to get to work on time.

 

 

Yes, I am fat. But if I can do something about it, I’m going to make sure that you can’t bring on my disasters any longer. 

So, I am fat.