Noisy Water Review

Living the New American Nightmare:
What it's Really Like to be BIG when You're Little

Susan Youngman

Laughlin, Nevada, home of the Colorado Belle Casino. Dad loves to gamble. Mom likes to get out of the house. Being 10 years old I’m crazy for casinos too. Bells and whistles constantly harangue the ears like sirens while spinning lights dazzle the senses. The fat metal clang of silver dollar sized tokens dropping out of slot machines fills the air all around. It’s a little dark, a little dangerous, and terribly exciting. At 10 years of age, my favorite part of the hotel/casino is the arcade. It’s 1985 and I am loose on the scene.

Late in the evening while my parents play the slots, craps, and 21, I am left to my own devices. I have chosen to haunt the arcade. Here, a small group of kids have gathered and we have formed a loose band, laughing and enjoying our time. I am happy to be with these other kids, I get lonely when I’m all by myself. As time wears away, I notice an old man with keys hanging from his belt standing silent by the doors of the arcade. He’s lean and mean with a wrinkled wily glint in his pale eyes. He’s wearing blue maintenance coveralls with his name sewn into a white oval with red letters; it’s probably something like Earl, Otis, or Ot. Realizing that he is there to close the arcade for the night, I hurriedly attempt to play one last coin.

He puts his key into a lock by the large entrance of the arcade and turns it. A metal gate closure begins to lower down over the entrance. All the kids are still playing and don’t know the door is closing. He stares right at me as he continues to lower the gate. Finally he stops and announces that the arcade is about to close. Everyone looks around and sees that the door is already 90% shut. They all rush to the exit hitting their bellies to scoot under. They’re calling to me and saying, “Lets go! Lets go!” But I already see that I cannot fit under the gate. Not knowing what else to do, I get down on the ground and try to wiggle under. I can feel the cold metal against my back, I press into the floor as deeply as I can, and the carpet burns my cheek. I can hear the other children laughing along with the old man. I’m stuck. I can’t move either way. Finally, when the old man has had his fill, he backs up the gate just enough for me to get through. I squeeze out utterly mortified and run to my hotel room filled with shame, never to return to the arcade again.

The singularly most significant defining aspect of my childhood was obesity. I was the fat kid. The really, really fat kid. I remember my mom taking me to a Weight Watchers meeting when I was in fourth grade; during the weigh in session I tipped the scales at 182 pounds. I was 9 years old. The average 9-year-old girl weighs between 64 to 70 pounds. Unfortunately my three or four visits to weight watchers had no measurable affect, other than to deepen within me a sense of failure, helplessness, and confusion. By the age of twelve I weighed in at 209 pounds. Looking back now, I can see that the consequences of childhood obesity were devastating to my self-image, ego, and psyche, and have had lifelong ramifications.

This year, one Saturday night in May, it all came rushing back to me: the humiliation of clothes shopping in middle school. Standing behind my 13-year-old daughter in a Macy’s dressing room I am struggling helplessly at the zipper on the back of her dress. Luckily though, Katelyn does not suffer from the afflictions of my past, just the inexperience of dress buying. Katelyn has chosen to go shopping for her 8th grade graduation dress with her two best friends. Along with Natalie and Megan, she has been bolting about the expansive Alderwood mall for hours. Katelyn is the only one left 15 minutes before closing without having found a dress. She has placed two dresses on hold for me to preview. Unfortunately, they’re the wrong size. I can see in the mirror angry mascara tears streaming hot and fierce down her inflamed cheeks. I can feel the heat coming off of her in waves and understand her frustration. She is frantically attempting to squeeze into a dress that is too small for her. I try to calm her, but she is not really hearing me. I laugh nervously and she thinks I’m laughing at her. I say to her, “Katelyn, you’re absolutely gorgeous; this stupid thing is just the wrong size. Let me go out there and find you the right one.” I scramble through the ransacked junior’s section searching for anything in a size 9, unfortunately prom season has left the selection here rather picked through. I go back to the fitting room, as the store is about to close to find Katelyn already dressed and ready to leave. She looks devastated. Her shoulders slump and her lips tremble as she forcibly tries to compose herself before having to face her friends.

Natalie and Megan have the prototypical stick figure bodies of most middle school girls, a little lanky and rail thin, easy to shop for. But Katelyn is no Twiggy; she’s full-blown Marilyn Monroe, with hips and curves light years beyond that of Meg and Nat. So while her friends were trying on size 1’s, Kate was nervously working with 5’s, embarrassed for her friends to think she might be larger. But she’s really a 9. I tell you now, I would have killed to be a 9 when I was her age, a beautiful vivacious 9. And I can tell you with equal qualification that my beautiful, skinny daughter would kill to be a 1.

At age 13, instead of junior’s sizes, I had to shop in the plus size women’s section for a size 18 or 20. Now at age 35, I still cringe to see the vastly different fashions offered in these sharply contrasting sections of the department store. Any preteen would prefer to skimp about in a tiny mini skirt, or to pour themselves into skintight jeans, rather than have to settle for sensible, comfortable, full coverage.

In my family photo albums I have omitted photos from my elementary school years. It is difficult for me to look at these images. The years between third and eighth grades have been completely removed. And I haven’t shared them with my children yet. The memory is too painful.

Cruelty by way of affliction could be blamed upon my parents I suppose. But I certainly didn’t give that any thought as a kid. The cruelty that bothered me most as a child was that which was most apparent to me. The teasing from my schoolmates, the dirty disdainful looks from adults, even the physical jeering, kids trying to “pinch and inch”, or make me squeeze through tight spaces. These were all things I came to expect from my peers as much as from the world at large. Let’s face it; we live in a pretty sadistic society, where prejudice and instant judgment is the rule of the land. Pile on top of that the cruelty of children, and the classist pressures of middle and high school, and you have a veritable fat hell.

So the question is what did childhood obesity teach me? Here are the positives: humility, kindness, and understanding. It taught me the qualities necessary to overcome adversity, regardless of the difficulty of a situation. It also has made me a shrewd judge of character. I have learned a lot about nutrition, and with the experience of the societal and personal severities of obesity, I have worked hard to raise my children in a healthy and happy food environment. I also encourage them to be very active outdoors. Neither of them have weight issues; my daughter just happens to have the feminine endowments of both her grandmothers.

Of course there have been negative consequences as well. Around the ages of 8, 9, and 10, a child is learning how to interact with and fit into the world they live in. According to Erikson's stages of psychosocial development, "Children at this age are becoming more aware of themselves as individuals." It is a time of relational learning, a time when a person defines how they relate to not only the world, but also to their friends, their family, and most importantly how they relate to themselves. In self-identity I learned that I was unacceptable because of my appearance. Essentially, I formed an inferiority complex. I found the world to be a judgmental and unforgiving place. This has been a lasting scar, which has colored my interactions with most everyone for most of my life. This taught me to raise the defenses high, to wall people out and to wall myself in. I have a very vivid sense of insecurity. I don’t function well in public, especially where I do not know anyone. The urban landscape often feels like a hostile and foreign environment.

When I see children today who are overweight like I was, my heart goes out to them. I know what it’s like to be in their shoes. And yet, I am as disgusted as the next person (if not more) by the predicament that the child is in. As children we don’t know what correct eating habits look like, we learn from our parents, and take what is available to us. We are greedy if you let us be. We will take as much Coke and candy as you’ll let us, and we’ll eat a whole bag of chips if you don’t stop us. Give us the cravings for salt and sugar and we’ll never love a fruit or vegetable. Offer us McDonald’s three times a week, and we’ll turn our noses up at a well-balanced home cooked meal. We will become difficult and hungry children.

However, some would object that rather than parents being solely to blame, that there are outside influences responsible as well. The economy that we live in today has moved many stay at home moms into the work force. With precious little time at home, fewer parents are cooking traditional meals. Advertising campaigns are aimed at seducing children into begging parents for Cocoa-Puffs, Lucky Charms, and Hamburger Helper. And many television programs vie for children’s attentions over outdoor activities. Still others would interject that there are internal mechanisms at play here as well, such as metabolism and emotional trauma. To all these I give credit; this is all well and true. I believe in my own situation early childhood trauma was to blame; I turned to food for comfort and my parents allowed it. But it is my belief that parents need to step forward and do their part to assume some authority over these external and internal factors. It is their job as parents to protect and nurture their children, anything less is irresponsible. 

My mother was neither a regular grocery shopper nor a cook. She loved Bon-Bon’s and Oprah. Maybe she wasn’t the most emotionally stable gal either, she was never truly happy. She was ill a lot of the time. She had MS. The MS gave her blinding headaches that often made her stay in bed, and occasionally sent her to the hospital. Dad was always at work; he would leave at dawn and return after dusk.

I remember drinking two Cokes a day in elementary school. I didn’t kick the carbonated habit until I was 18 and had to live on my own. Now I won’t touch the stuff. I literally went through withdrawals from the sugar and caffeine. As a kid, there was never any quality food in the house, but treats were always available so I would binge on cookies and salty snacks. There were no regularly scheduled meals. I went to school without eating breakfast most days. In high school I always skipped lunch. And dinner was whatever I could scrounge up, or whatever fast food or delivery was convenient. In my household there was never any significance placed on exercise. Television was king. If I wasn’t reading a book, I was watching TV. When I moved out of the house, I left my TV behind. Between kicking the Coca-cola habit, not owning a car, and living without television, I lost 30 pounds. Of course now I own both a television and a car.

Though I have never attained the ideal charted weight for my height, over the years I have spent a lot of time and money trying to loose weight, all with varying success. The sad fact is that obese children have an 80 percent chance of becoming obese adults. Aside from Weight Watchers, I’ve also been to Nutri-System and the Diet Center. I’ve read Dr. Atkin’s controversial weight loss book, and the tamer, though similarly veined, South Beach Diet book as well. In my mid-twenties I began a more spiritual path in my life, and turned towards vegetarianism, and have continued to read multiple books in this direction, including many books that focus on a raw vegan lifestyle. I have purchased two treadmills and three exercise bikes over the years, at one point I even hired a personal trainer. Then there were the fitness dvd’s for aerobics, yoga, and pilates. And yes, I’ve done drugs.

Implementing as well as sticking to a new regime (except for the drugs) is always a monumental undertaking. The preparation that goes into any lifestyle change is intense. There are new rules to follow at home and in the supermarket, and of course, new recipes to learn. I have come to understand that I do not do well with complex systems. It has to be simple or it won’t work for very long. My favorite tool now, is my Vita-Mix. This commercial grade blender basically allows me to throw any number of whole foods together, blend, and run out the door in short order. I don’t know how I ever lived without it!

Weight is on an ongoing struggle for me and for many Americans today. I know that I am not alone. With some effort I hope to one day reach an agreeable weight, and come to accept myself as a well functioning, well-adjusted adult. The experiences I went through as a child have left their indelible mark, but I go on, all the stronger and the wiser for having had them.

Work Cited

Erik Erikson. Stages of Psychosocial Development. Wikipedia. Last modified on 8 June 2011 at 14:15. Web

Serdula MK, Ivery D, Coates RJ, Freedman DS. Williamson DF. Byers T. “Do obese children become obese adults? A review of the literature.” Prev Med 1993;22:167—177.

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