A volleyball has struck the sand two feet to my left. Three other girls on my side of the net turn to glare at me, virtually in unison. It’s a look I know well, an exasperated disgust, tinged around the edges with hopelessness, threaded here and there with cold disdain.
“I thought Christina --” I was supposed to have hit the ball, I realize. Christina, athletic, petite, always quick to win, stands to my left. I had expected her to get it. It’s why I try to stand next to her. I hate volleyball.
“Lesley, why do you suck at this?” Heather wants to know. She doesn’t laugh when she says it; it’s not friendly teasing. It’s serious. It's a serious question. Why do I? I have no answer. I stare at her blankly, fully aware this makes me look even more stupid and useless than I already feel, but I can’t figure out how to defend myself.
The opposing team laughs. Heather turns to them and demands they give us one of their players. It’s not fair that her side is saddled with me. Not only do I not count as a regular player, I am actually a liability. Everyone agrees that this seems reasonable.
The volleyball court is next to a campsite where Heather’s parents are hosting her birthday party, a sleepover for eight girls in the woods in a South Florida park. The volleyball court is a tattered net strung across a sand court strewn with thousands of long pine needles from the trees above -- some dark green and freshly dropped, most old and brown. There are other things in the sand too, sharp bits, sticks and twigs, pinecones, the occasional rock. They hurt my bare feet and I am trying not to move around too much, which is obviously a drawback in a volleyball game.
Nobody else seems to notice the sharp things, or at least they don’t mind.
We have recently completed a volleyball unit in PE at school. We’re all in the seventh grade. Volleyball was very popular in PE. Even after having received a thorough education in the sport, I still can’t play it. The ball scares me. Hitting it hurts my arms. My serves are laughable bobbles that rarely clear the net. I am afraid to fling myself to the sand for a heroic save, as my friends eagerly do.
“It’s like you’re not even trying,” accuses Heather. “You’re so pathetic.”
“Pathetic” is a favorite word with Heather, the worst slam she knows. Christina snickers loudly. I feel sick. I don’t know how to succeed at this; I don’t know how to hit the ball correctly, I don’t know how to score points and win the game. Most of all, I don’t know how to stand up for myself. I would rather be sitting on the sidelines, watching, pretending it wasn’t because I sucked, or because no one wanted to play with me, but just because I felt like it.
Confronted with the accusation that the problem is a lack of effort on my part, the game continues and I throw myself into it. Literally. I fling myself at the ball every time it comes near me, ignoring the sticks and occasional pinecone under my feet. I hit the ball as hard as I can, until my wrists and forearms are blazing pink, stinging and throbbing, even though the ball always goes out when I do.
Most of all, I heave myself into the ground, again, and again, and again, I always miss the ball when I do it, but I keep doing it, on every return, I throw myself down, even if I have no chance of connecting, and at some point I start to realize I am doing it on purpose, I am propelling myself into the ground on purpose, I am hurting myself on purpose, it’s not about the game or the ball or my terrible friends anymore, it’s about punishing myself, it’s about destroying myself, because I deserve to be hurt, because I am stupid and useless and even my friends find me unbearable.
They notice. Some seem mildly shocked, maybe a little embarrassed. Finally after I have thrown myself into the sand as hard as I could for the ninth, tenth, eleventh time, Samantha, on my right, barks at me, “LESLEY, STOP!” They think I am making fun of them. They think I am being melodramatic. They think I am just looking for attention. They think they think they think.
They don’t understand that what I am doing is TRYING. I am trying as hard as I possibly can.
It’s not the last time I would self-harm.
The week before, I had another disappointing result at my current weight loss program. This one takes place in the gym of the new hospital nearby; not only do we do the usual diet group things -- the talking, and the sharing -- but we also go into the bright and vast exercise space to work out afterward.
One of the counselors measures me with a long white measuring tape. When I’d begun, I’d lost an inch relatively quickly, which surprised and pleased me considering that I hadn’t even felt starved, as had been the case with every other diet plan, of which there had already been several. This program is only for kids age 14 and under.
But in spite of my auspicious beginning, now my waist stays the same, week after week, nothing more comes off. They don’t put us on an actual scale very often at this particular program, maybe once a month. Ostensibly they do this to mitigate the risk of any of us becoming obsessed with the scale numbers. Maybe they also do it because being weighed weekly could turn getting on the scale into a traumatic event.
It’s too late for me on this account -- I already tremble at any scale, my heart fluttering with palpitations, my hands becoming ice, I can feel myself folding inward against it, in terrified self defense -- but I appreciate the thought.
Confirming my lack of loss, the kind counselor murmurs a few words of warm encouragement as he pulls the tape from my waist, and the loose end snakes around my impenetrable, hated midsection, reminding me that part of my body still exists, that I can’t push it away, no matter what I have done to myself, so far.
There is a big white table in the conference room where the initial meeting takes place. A handful of other children sit around it, waiting their turns. One boy is bigger than me -- markedly bigger. He is the oldest of the group, with dark hair that he prefers to keep covering his eyes. We have spoken a few times. I think I like him. There is one other boy, a younger kid whose over-the-top energy annoys everyone.
The rest of the participants are girls, all around my age, all a bit smaller than me, all of whom go to a different school than I do. They are quiet. So am I.
There is a palpable humiliation to our being there, hanging over every interaction, because we know it means our bodies are wrong. We don’t share it, even though that would probably help. Instead, we reject each other, none of us wanting to be associated with the fat kid, even though we are all the fat kid. We know that being bigger than our peers -- even a very small bit bigger -- is deeply shameful, even if we don’t understand why. We try to keep our failure to be normal to ourselves.
I am twelve years old, and my waist measures 29 inches.
We go into the gym when the meeting is over, and there is a profound sense of relief now that we no longer have to sit around a table talking about our week and studiously avoiding making eye contact with anyone but the counselors. This is the weight loss program I have hated the least, as the counselors seem to care as much about our overall well-being as they do about us becoming smaller bodies. I also like being in a group with kids my age, and not a bunch of women older than my mother.
I go and sit on the same exercise bike I always use. I like routines. I pedal for half an hour. I prefer my bike at home in my father’s garage, silver and pink, with wide handlebars and a broad, comfortable seat. I don’t ride that bike for exercise, though. I ride that bike for fun. Exercise is the opposite of fun. I exercise here, in this gym, in private, where only my silent and taciturn companions in childhood diet embarrassment can see me, and it’s safe, no one else needs to know, and they will never tell.
Exercising for the sake of exercising is not something kids do -- we run and play and ride bikes and climb trees and play kickball and hide and seek until our parents scream at us to get inside because it’s much too late. I do all of these things, even as a twelve year old, with the kids in my neighborhood, but they are not enough to keep me from being fat. I don’t seem to do anything different than my friends at school either; we eat the same foods, take the same PE classes, do the same activities. Naturally, I assume this means there is something intrinsically wrong with me, because what else could explain it?
Some of the girls in the weight loss program have parents more invested in their weight loss than the girls themselves are. When the workouts are over, these parents come inside to retrieve them, and demand progress reports from the counselors.
My father never does this; he waits for me outside and asks me directly how I’m doing, and I am grateful for that. I am here because I asked to be.
After the volleyball game at Heather’s party, no one talks to me. It is a well-practiced silent treatment in which they will discuss me as though I am not there, and if I try to interject, I am pointedly ignored. It’s happened before, and I know that the less of a fight I put up, the faster it will be over.
Still, as I sit and listen to my friends laughingly dissect everything from my overall appearance to the way I drink from a cup, complete with mimicking demonstrations, I have a few moments in which I envision myself grabbing them and screaming in their faces, punching them, hurting them as much as I can. I am so angry. The only thing that keeps me from exacting my imagined violence is the certainty that if I did, my life at school would be over.
I am surprised when they maintain their silent treatment through dinner, and even when it’s time to crawl into our sleeping bags. There is a vigorous debate over who has to share a tent with me.
After lying awake for an hour, I slip out of my tent and walk a short way off, away from the marked trails, picking out constellations in the sky between the trees. I sit on the ground under a broad old sand pine and breathe. The woods don’t frighten me, even in the dark. I always feel safest when I am alone.
The following Monday I am back in PE class at school. The teachers are giving us a choice in what unit we do next. This is unprecedented, but they’re doing it on the basis of the popularity of the volleyball unit. We can vote to do a second unit of volleyball for another several weeks, or move on to basketball.
I wonder what the sport will be that someday imparts to me all the positive stuff I was supposed to get out of athleticism -- what is the sport that will make me feel confidence instead of humiliation and self-loathing, stronger instead of weak and pathetic and inferior, the sport that will make me feel part of a team, where I will sometimes get to score a point and the other kids will high-five me and know I’m not a complete waste of fat-girdled meat who only ever gets in the way of everyone else’s game. Maybe it’ll be basketball?
The class votes. Volleyball wins.