Saturday, February 5, 2011

diets and the damage done


My high school years parked two really bad songs in my brain for the rest of my life--at least two, but these are the worst.

One was from German class. I desperately wanted to take French when I started high school, but French was full, and thus were the next eight years of my life and two exchange programs decided. In eleventh grade my German teacher had us learn "Das Lied der Deutschen" as part of our curriculum. At that point the third stanza was the national anthem of West Germany, but for some reason we learned all the stanzas, including the first. Not a good stanza. Not only did we sing the song, I accompanied us on the piano, which guaranteed that the tenaciously catchy tune lives on in my babbling singing brain and surfaces occasionally at bad times. Any time is horrible to start singing "Deutschland, Deutschland, ├╝ber alles," really. I try not to let that happen, but wish I could just unlearn it.

The other song came from a diet center I belonged to. I don't remember the name of the center now, or that much about it at all in some ways. The experience feels like a dream, comes back to me in whole flashes of feeling for brief, thick moments. The place was a relic of the 1970s, maybe, or the 1960s, named after a woman, I think. I know that I was a member there sometime before my two tours of duty in Weight Watchers, which would put this in the early 1980s, when I was around 16.

The center was in a mall. I remember a pink and purple interior with no windows and low ceilings. It was flowery, maybe, or paisley. I vaguely remember vibrating belt exercisers--those things hurt--and other old-fashioned equipment. I thought the place was sort of old-fashioned, and felt shame that my fatness would bring me into contact--as did clothes-buying, for instance, in that era of double-knits--with the world of middle-aged women; not only that, that's the world I was eligible for. It was disorienting and shaming.

One of the only things I recall at all vividly about the place is the song we had to sing while doing a little calisthenics routine that involved toe-touching and other movements on the floor:
Who hit Sally in the belly with the meatball?
Oh dear! I fear! I've over-developed my rear!
We did our large, jerky gestures on the downbeats, so that the whole thing had a very singsong, drums-on-a-boat quality:
WHO hit SAL-ly in the BEL-ly with the MEAT-ball?
Oh DEAR! I FEAR! I've OV-er-de-VEL-oped-my-REAR!
To this day that song appears unbidden in my brain whenever it feels like it, or perhaps when a piece of prose with the right meter triggers the rhythm. I wish I could excise the song and let something else take its place in my brainpan, but I think it's stuck.

I wish I could excise the whole experience. I wish I could save me and all the housewives from that windowless place; blast in, push all of us through the door like a member of the SWAT team before all that bullshit explodes and takes us with it.

It's hard to know what to wish for in healing from diet experiences, because they are so far-reaching in every direction, so tenacious, so complicated, so woven into every aspect of your life. The wound it would leave if you yanked it out whole would not heal. It would be easier to just start over at the beginning and hope to crowd it out with acceptance. But you can't.

One day when my mom dropped me off at the diet center--she and I had argued about how much weight I had to lose; I said, wildly, "Thirty pounds!", hoping against hope she would say, "No, you don't really need to lose any," and was heartsick when she countered with, "No, fifteen"--I discovered when I went inside there was a potluck. I could hardly believe they dared bring explosive material such as food--lots of it, not all diet fare--in this place, but I was very excited. Stirred-up. I remember somebody urging me to eat. That's all I did for my hour, although I pretending to be doing other things, as if it wasn't important. I scarfed food I didn't normally get, like Oreos, at one point pushing them in my face while hiding in the dressing room. How could anybody just let cookies sit there? Have just a few? Have none? I lied to the people at the diet center about what I was doing, sure everyone was watching me pretending not to care while all the time I watched the food like prey. I lied to my mother in the car afterward about my hour "exercising," and felt dirty and ashamed.

And stirred up. I don't know that anything could have saved me from impetus of disordered eating at that point of my life. Experiences such as the diet center were just one push in the forces that set the pendulum swinging so hard I didn't know where the point of equilibrium was for years. The forces that keeps us off-balance about food are huge, period. When the pendulum isn't swinging the earth itself under our feet is. It is worth finding the position of repose, though, to come back to, over and over. It's possible to find it, to heal. You may have to let the whole world tilt without you, though.

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