Last month, my father called to tell me something -- to prepare me, he said, for my next visit to the home in which I grew up. “They’re knocking down your McDonald’s,” he explained.
In the sixth and seventh grades, I caught the bus to school a couple blocks away from my house, beside a shopping center in which there was a standalone McDonald’s. If I saw one of these McDonald’s today, the ones with that crown-like roof, all clad in dark 1970s browns, I would marvel and call it an old building. All the new McDonaldses I’ve seen are gleaming white like an Apple Store, with abstract yellow swooshes standing in for the golden arches of a bygone age.
It was “my” McDonald’s because I spent a huge amount of time there with my friends -- in the morning, prior to the arrival of the bus, we’d go in and each buy a plain biscuit (they were cheap, and although single biscuits weren’t on the menu, you could usually convince the counter worker to sell you one for fifty cents) and maybe an orange juice, if one of us was particularly flush with cash, otherwise we’d get a 5-cent paper cup to fill at the water fountain. The true rebels would get a coke -- in the MORNING! -- and very occasionally when I had the dollar and change to spare and I was feeling dangerous, so would I.
In the afternoon we would go in to the McDonald’s after the bus had dropped us off, and buy cheap soft serve ice cream or a small fry to share, sometimes six of us cramming ourselves into a booth together like we were back on the bus, three across on the benches, but usually we would take our food out into the blistering Florida sunshine -- which didn’t bother me much then, as it was all I knew -- and walk slowly home.
When I turned fourteen, I applied for and got a job at that McDonald’s. Technically, it was my first job. It didn’t last long; indeed, it lasted less than a week when I discovered the disgusting conditions in the kitchen, like a floor so caked with grease that every step felt like you were in danger of losing a shoe to the thickened adhesive cooking oil that coated every surface. I didn’t eat there much after that.
But even before that experience, I was not a predictable McDonald’s regular, as many of my friends were. I had long stretches in which I stayed away, my pride filling my belly instead of a hot flaky biscuit. These were the diets. My Jenny Craig phase happened in middle school, as did two Weight Watchers phases and, near the end, one hospital-directed weight loss program for kids called SHAPEDOWN! Like that, with the caps and the exclamation point. Like they were trying really hard to make this something the fat kids who participated could get excited about, instead of our usual demeanor, which was almost uniformly sullen and sad -- and, in my case, resentful that I felt pressured by cultural expectations to be there at all.
SHAPEDOWN!, incidentally, was my last all-in full-scale I-mean-it-this-time diet. Possibly because it was the first diet experience I’d had that didn’t rely overmuch on making its participants feel like shit about ourselves.
In those days, I lived with a tiny current of dread underscoring my whole life, some unseen monster always lurking just out of my vision. Food. What was I going to do about food? Food was the central problem. This was before I’d even coalesced the idea that I had a body, because so far as I was concerned I didn’t; I had an albatross, an extra burden, something I was forced to wear because I had made some egregious mistake somewhere down the line. I had a lot of fat, and there might be a body inside it somewhere, but I was losing hope that I would ever manage to dig it out.
So food was an issue. I never suffered any legitimate food insecurity in the sense that I always technically had access to things to eat, but I had developed such a powerful mechanism of self-loathing and guilt over everything -- literally everything, including plain lettuce -- I put into my mouth that I was chronically thinking about when I would eat next, what I would allow myself to eat, how much, how long, where, with whom. It was all I thought about, whether my next meal was coming from Jenny Craig’s blue and silver boxes or was being meted out on a Weight Watchers scale.
Mostly I remember being hungry; I don’t think I have known hunger like that since. It was overpowering. Concentration was impossible. I was irritable, frustrated -- I wrote long terrifying letters to an imaginary friend in Europe detailing how I would like to murder all of my friends, but that is another story.
Middle school was hard for me -- as it is for everyone -- but I had the added challenge of becoming one of the girls the popular girls loved to loathe, who faced daily humiliation in the lunchroom and whose assigned role was to be the punching bag for all the other kids’ natural preteen insecurities.
In response, I willfully made myself an outcast, on purpose, refusing to socialize with anyone at all. At least I could control that, and there were still many books in the school library I had not yet read, and the last bathroom stall on the left was not such a terrible place to spend my lunch hour every day. Besides, I was fat, and so this would eventually be my life as a solitary unlovable slob anyway. I may as well accustom myself to it now.
And the hunger ran through it all like lightning endlessly striking, making me irrational, angry, unbalanced, and depressed. Oh, I might have seemed mostly normal on the outside -- mostly normal -- but I was still writing those imaginary letters, still hiding in the bathroom at lunch, and still doing daily battle with the biological need to consume food, even against my will.
The hunger had a cycle, one that began with my morning pledge to not eat anything all day. First, it would be obvious. I would want food. Thus denied, within a couple of hours, the hunger would shift into a sort of floaty adrenaline high, a surge of uncontrolled electricity, my heart thudding wildly inside my chest like a trapped dragonfly, buzzing in my ears. This was the nice part, the part I looked forward to, because this lightheaded sense of panic deep in my ape-brain told me that the not eating was working, and that any minute now the hated fat cells would be siphoned off my belly and into the furnace of my metabolism, never to be seen again.
(Sometimes I miss this feeling. Sometimes when I forget to eat, which happens a lot, I'll get it again, and I remember that rush, the knowing that I can go around feeling wobbly and hunger-high for as long as I'd like, but that I can also always stop it anytime.)
Eventually, though, I would eat something. I would have to. It might happen because I had lived the day without food and could now allow myself dinner when I got home. It might happen because the neighborhood friends who pretended not to know me at school but who were cheery and friendly in our safe little childhood world would suggest we go to the frozen yogurt shop -- this was in the same shopping center as the McDonald’s -- after school. From the day the frozen yogurt shop opened, we bailed on McDonald’s soft serve in favor of huge waffle cones filled with fat-free chocolate and vanilla swirl served by a broadly smiling Cuban gentleman and eaten with long-handled plastic spoons at tables with speckled-laminate tops, sitting sideways in cafe chairs with our backs pressed to the big plate glass windows facing the street.
In time, with every diet, no matter how good I was at keeping myself hungry, I would eventually get frustrated with the whole deal. Then I would get angry. Then I would rebel. Those neighborhood friends and I would leave early in the mornings to collect our lunch selections from the various offerings in that McDonald’s-linked shopping center. Some days I decided that a thick garlic bagel sandwiched around a square slab of cream cheese from the bagel shop would be acceptable for me to eat so long as I ate nothing else until tomorrow.
But some days I wanted to fight with myself. Some days I wanted to hate myself, to remind myself of what a disgusting inhuman monster I really was. And those days, those mornings I would go to the supermarket that anchored that strip mall, the one with the McDonald’s and the frozen yogurt place and the bagel shop, and spend my lunch money on the worst food I could possibly imagine, not because I wanted it, but because I didn’t deserve to eat things I actually liked, rather I had to eat the things that were the most gross to me, the most hateful -- the most stereotypical.
Fat kids eat Twinkies. So very often, that’s what I got.
I didn’t like them. I thought people ate them as punishment. I thought I was punishing myself. To the Twinkies’ credit, they made me feel full, like truly full, during a time when I wasn’t feeling full very often. I would open the two-Twinkie package on the bus, promising to eat one now and save the other for my bathroom-stall lunch hour, but I don’t think I ever succeeded, fearing the repercussions should anyone discover my snack cake secret. The jokes. The jokes would have gone on forever.
So I would eat the second cake quickly, surreptitiously, and leave the crumpled wrapper on the bus, stuffing it into the seam between the bench seat and the outer wall. I’d stare determinedly out the window at the steaming Florida morning and feel like crying, but I wouldn’t let myself do it. Instead, I will be hungry today, because being hungry will distract me from my feelings, because being hungry distracts you from everything.
I don’t think I’ve eaten a Twinkie in two decades. I don’t have to. I know how they tasted to me, like despair and defeat laced with chemicals and corn syrup. Today, when my husband occasionally grabs a box of snack cakes at the store, I feel a tugging at that old internal world -- a world which I began to shutter in high school and which I have ensured through constant vigilance over the past twenty years would never again present an opening big enough for me to crawl back into. Today I look at a box of laughably named Ding Dongs in our shared shopping cart and feel shame, nausea, guilt, waves of it enfolding me -- and fear, fear that someone will see. It’s not the Twinkies fault that I have these associations, really; it’s the fault of a culture that teaches kids to fear and hate fatness before they even learn to read, a fear I still have to face, all these years later.
Hostess, makers of Twinkies and other iconic snack cakes, is going out of business today, and although I’m sad for the folks who are losing their jobs and for the collapse of an American institution, I can’t say I’m sorry, but not for the reasons you might think. I don’t think Twinkies are bad. I don’t believe that any individual foods are moral or immoral, “good” or “bad,” not anymore. I think that individual people are entitled -- yes, entitled -- to eat whatever they want in whatever portions they wish, without being shamed or stigmatized for it.
It saddens me that kids today don't have it much better than I did; they may even have it worse, all in the name of health, which was the last thing I ever got as a result of firm authoritative messages to diet or else. If I could change anything, that is what I would like to change, to make sure kids today, no matter their size, don't ever have to deal with food guilt, and to make room for them to grow up without self-loathing; to let them be kids, to build their confidence instead of reinforcing their self-doubt. Because it's a long road out again, and not everyone gets to take it. Many will be too damaged to try.
I am very good at picking our fractured food culture apart, at criticizing the ways in which we are all to varying degrees screwed by expectation and by assumption. But I am not myself whole, not quite; I may have healed from many of the experiences that make me good at breaking these ideas down, but the scar tissue is thick and tough and I don’t believe that it will ever entirely disappear. All I can do is learn to live with it, to occasionally feel it, and maybe sometimes, if I’m fortunate, to help other people live with theirs as well.
Today, I eat things that I enjoy, and I do so mindfully, without attaching guilt or pride to them. It’s the only way I can do more than merely survive, but flourish and thrive. But I wouldn’t have had to learn that - how to eat, how to enjoy, how to be kind to myself -- as an adult if I hadn’t first fallen down a deep deep rabbit hole of food guilt and body shame from which I then had to climb out, inch by inch, fighting for every foothold, still fighting every day. Even now.