Leslie Bull: poet, performance artist, filmmaker

Always Fat

by Leslie Bull

I recently decided to stop eating after eight o'clock at night. I heard about it on Oprah. I was in the lobby of Asian Express waiting for my chicken curry and there she was, lookin' all pudgy and fine on the TV screen behind the counter talking about how we should all set our own time to stop eating at night, depending on our schedules, and then stick to it. Oprah picked 7:30 and it has been "the single most successful step" in her weight loss plan. Never mind that this famous woman has not been able to stay thin with personal trainers, special cooks, the best doctors, and millions of dollars at her disposal. Always easy prey for diet information, I'll listen to any middle-class targeted drivel when it involves the possibility of thinness. "164 New Year's weight loss tips," or "Eight sensible steps to losing 30 pounds in two days."

I used to be more extreme. I mean, in seventh grade I ate only one small can of green beans a day for months. I became wan and thin and was greatly rewarded by society. Entering puberty as a thin, waifish, blue-eyed, blonde gave me an enormous power. A certain kind of power. A sexual power. Gaining weight upset that power. And while it's true that later when I gained weight I blossomed with another kind of power, by then I was completely addicted to the other kind. The sex kind. The kind I was taught to crave.

Practically my whole family is obsessed with weight loss. To this day both my mother and father spend time dieting. It's a way of life. I knew the caloric, fat, and protein contents of most foods by the time I was ten years old, at eight my brother and I would go to the "diet doctor" with my mom while she got shot up with speed. No shit, legal speed. Hour long drive into downtown Seattle five days a week, god knows what it cost. We weren't rich, but with my dad no amount of money was too much to spend for thinness, especially for my mom. When I was little my dad wasn't fat and he was horrible to my mother about her weight. His weight didn't catch up to him until later, after they divorced. By then he was married to a former classmate of mine who is obsessed with never eating fat and keeps her weight down.

"Your mother is too fat to go camping. We can't go anywhere or do anything because your mother is too fat. Watch out you don't get fat like your mother." I am ten years old, normal, average weight, very active. "How much of that ice cream have you had? Better watch out you don't blow up like your mother." My mother is 5'2" and probably weighed 160 pounds at that time.

Once (when I was eight and she was on the speed) my mother managed to diet herself down to nothing, a size 5/6. She dieted herself way down and my dad started to treat her like a queen. Bought her a whole new wardrobe and they started going out. I think at this point they still had something for each other, but now instead of abusing her about her weight, my father became insanely jealous of my mother whose chestnut colored hair fell down her shapely back. She was twenty-seven years old, and looked nineteen.

People paid more attention to my mom when she was skinny.

"C'mon sis," she started saying to me at the grocery check out line.

When they found out she was our mom, people would always act surprised.

"I thought you were the babysitter," they would exclaim, "you don't look old enough to have two big, half-grown kids like these." And me and Jeff (that's my brother's name) would puff all up, still young enough to feel proud when someone called us "big" and "half-grown".

My mother was a schoolteacher at the same elementary school Jeff and I attended. Each day after school we were hurried into the car so we could "fight the traffic" and make it to the "diet doctor." Once there Jeff and I were required to sit in a small waiting room ringed with chairs while our mommy went inside the examining room with the doctor to shoot speed. In the middle of the waiting room there was a coffee table. On it there were piles of women's magazines and a few children's books, all of which we had read ten times over. All in all, the visits to the diet doctor might have been a complete bust as far as me and Jeff were concerned, just another adult administered endurance test of boredom, monotony, keeping still, and being quiet, but instead the diet doctor's office was transformed by a glass fish bowl that sat on a small table near the door. A beautiful, multicolored bowl, glistening with the cellophane wrappings of three or four dozen lollipops. Yes! It was a bowl of unguarded candy for the taking!

The unchecked consumption of sugar was something my father and his side of the family frowned on. We were not allowed to chew gum because my father was convinced it would rot our teeth. And of course, everybody knew eating too much sugar causes obesity.

My mom's side of the family was the complete opposite. They loved sugar and eating it was not only a family tradition, but a birthright.

"I'm a funny little old fat lady now, and that's that." Grandma T, my mom's mom would always say matter-of-factly. She used to diet and even got on diet pills (doctor prescribed speed) when she was younger, before I was born.

"I stopped taking those things the night I was laying with my eyes wide open on the floor of the hallway at five a.m. I couldn't think, couldn't do anything but lie there wide awake, my head in a buzz." she would tell us kids (me, Jeff, and our three younger cousins). It was a family story and my grandpa would always join in.

"That's right, I told her, 'Joann flush those things down the toilet.'"

"And I did" Grandma T would affirm.

The whole thing was treated as something that happens when you are old, after you have failed in the valiant effort of youth to be thin.

"I told your grandma that I love her fat. I said just be fat." Grandpa T would say.

"And I did." Grandma T would say, covering her face with the corner of her afghan.

Yet, even my Grandma and Grandpa T supported my efforts to lose weight. It was taken for granted that a young person like me would want to be thin. No one in my family ever made any effort to convince me I wasn't fat.

And when I look back now I am amazed at what I considered fat. The first time I joined weight watchers I was sixteen and weighed 126 pounds. After a tearful plea my mom paid the sign up fee for me. I remember weighing in and even the staff at the clinic saying I didn't seem overweight, but they were sympathetic when I told them I wanted to get back down to 110 or 115.

I should explain that I am not a small person. I am dense and compact with heavy bones and the metabolism of a rock. Today I am 5'4" weigh 170 pounds and wear a size fourteen. At sixteen and a 126 pounds I wore a size five, I was tiny, and completely malnourished from two abortions, a cocaine addiction, and an eating disorder that compelled me to starve myself continuously.

The only reason I even weighed 126 was because I had quit cocaine for a few weeks when my nose hemorrhaged from a year of snorting every day. The hospital emergency room doctor said I had a deviated septum and had to stop. Crack wasn't invented then, at least not in my town, and I was too scared of needles to shoot up back then. I smoked pot and went on a ravenous eating binge that ended with my trip to weight watchers. Unsuccessful at following the diet wheels and meal plans I went back on cocaine, learned how to "free base" using a complicated ether process, and then eventually, at age twenty to shoot up.

Cocaine was magical because it kept me effortlessly thin. I liked being high on pot better (and it was certainly a lot better for me) but pot made me eat. Made me fat. Cocaine melted off the pounds and kept them off like none of the diets I'd ever tried. And I'd tried them all, the grapefruit diet, the watermelon diet, and the eat cake for breakfast and stay thin diet. I'd tampered with low calorie, low fat, no fat, and all meat and fat.

At thirteen I went on the Atkins high protein diet with my dad. We fasted on that high protein liquid stuff that ended up killing a bunch of people. My dad supplied me with the red syrupy drink. It was after he and my mom had divorced and he was finally fat for the first time. We both lost a bunch of weight on Atkins, never mind that I was never overweight in the first place.

To this day I am obsessed with food and dieting. One of the things I most remember about being strung out on cocaine and living on the street, was how free I felt from the worry of fatness. How, even in the midst of spending twenty-four hours a day obsessing over the procuring and ingesting of cocaine, after losing my kids, being attacked by serial killers, and harrassed by the police, I felt enormously relieved by the amount of spare time I had when most of my thoughts weren't diverted into the effort to stave off obesity.

My own vision of myself is so skewed I have to go by how my clothes fit on me, as opposed to ascertaining how I look in a mirror. When I see pictures of myself from the past I am amazed by how small I usually look. Intellectually I know that at the time those photos were taken I felt as fat as I do now. It is hard to believe in that today. I cannot believe in it today. Today I am fat. Always.

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