This story is by Amy Lynn Hardy and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Weight of Armor
It’s just a 14-Day-Kickstart, I kept telling myself. A plan to get back on track.
I’d gotten way off-track in the past 8 weeks, squandering all those months of salmon and broccoli and pricey personal training sessions in exchange for wine and chocolate. And cheese. God, how I’d missed cheese. Essentially, all I needed was a quick reminder of how good I felt when following “the rules.”
My love of rules always incited the memory of a former professor. Her name: Sandra North. Her class: The Visual Imagination, a sort of abstract, negative space, artsy-fartsy seminar for uptight honors students like myself.
“Leah, go with what feels right,” she said when I approached her, a junior in college, frustrated about my failure of project. After 5 weeks, I had no idea what I was doing in that class. I just didn’t get it. And it was too late to drop it.
“But what are the rules?” I shook my head in irritation.
“There aren’t any.”
I clicked through clean eating plans on Pinterest, finding one that seemed strict enough to get results, yet, interesting enough for me to not lose my incentive. A 16-ounce green smoothie for breakfast, or 1 cup of oatmeal. A mid-morning snack of fruit and 1 ounce of nuts. A wrap for lunch, filled with 1 cup of mixed greens. An afternoon snack of 12 carrot sticks and 2 tablespoons of hummus. And dinner of steamed vegetables and 4 ounces of protein: fish, steak, chicken. Rigid, yet, doable.
“You think you’re going to get answers when you figure out the rules,” Sandra said that same day. “That’s just a fallacy you tell yourself.”
Perhaps in art there weren’t any rules. But this was nutrition and exercise. There were rules. Just ask Jillian Michaels or The Rock. Or the hot girls at the gym in crop-tops. There were definitely rules.
Numbers. Calories in. Calories out. Rules provided the delicious, safe answers to life. No rules equaled chaos. A free-for-all. A tizzy. Mayhem. I needed rules.
“The first bite is the easiest to resist,” my Weight Watchers meeting leader used to say. Her name was Angela; she’d lost 112 pounds in 18 months. That was fall 2004. I was a freshman in college and lusting after the 140’s. That summer, the scale had read 180.8 pounds. My eyes bugged out of my head. 180.8!?! I shrank in shame. How could anyone be so disgusting? I was disgusting and taking up too much space in the world.
The first weeks of WW, I followed the points system religiously, succinctly, recording every tiny morsel of food that passed my lips. I followed the rules and the pounds fell off.
And, hence, the armor came on.
At Thanksgiving Angela gave us each a paper plate to fold it into 8 equal triangles. “One of these little triangles is the proper portion size of pie, ladies.” And they sighed and gasped and laughed uneasily.
Posters of success stories of women who also desperately needed to shrink, shrink, shrink lined the walls of that meeting room, saluting us.
“Remember: nothing tastes as good as thin feels,” was Angela’s farewell that day.
I printed the Pinterest list of groceries for my 14-Day-Kickstart and set off to the store, forgoing the cheddar cheese I desired. The chocolate. The wine. They watched me as I walked by, hurt by my refusal to acknowledge them. I opted for sugar-free gum—I could chew it to reduce cravings. And it was filled with sweet poison to trick my mind.
My cat sauntered into the kitchen as I unloaded my grocery bags and filled the fridge and cupboards with chicken breast and quinoa and brussel sprouts. He rolled around on the kitchen tiles, exposing his fluffy belly. If only I could be chunky like him and still be cute and lovable. He was never ashamed to be in his body, not even with extra winter fat. He just was.
I could never just be. Not like him.
I filled up my water bottle and drank. Another rule. 4 liters of water a day. 2 hours of exercise. 1,200 calories. 145 pounds. I could do it alone.
In Spring 2006, while studying abroad in France, I chatted up a handsome student at a bar. He was charming and funny and we were laughing, until his friend came to retrieve him, demanding: “On y va, Marcel. Elle est trop fat pour toi.” He repeated it twice for emphasis.
“I get it!” I wanted to yelp like a wounded animal. Instead I abandoned my glass of sauvignon blanc and scampered out alone into the dark streets of Lyon, thick tears running down my round face. That was it: no more baguette, cheese, dessert, wine. I was DONE with French indulgence.
As I sobbed in solitude, I wondered why his friend had to divulge my secret about being too fat for him. It was my secret.
More armor. It comes in many forms. In liquor-replaced-meals. Or hours spent on the treadmill. In the grief of “yes” spoken too often. Or a smaller jeans size. Size six! It was my smallest. Uncomfortable high heels and blonde highlights. Curled eyelashes. Make-up. Nail polish. A fake laugh. Attractive, phony friends. The next best diet pill. Screams into my pillow.
In the coronavirus quarantine I’d succumbed to my fallibility and indolence. Constant sweatpants. Waking at 11 a.m. Listlessness. Pacing. Snacking. After the first three weeks it got hard to do a home workout. It got hard to want healthy food. It got hard to be alone in my mind palace, thinking about how I could lose everything without the gym or a routine.
Everything. Lose it… by gaining.
Pizza comforted me. Samosas. Salt and vinegar chips. Ice cream. I was alone and no one cared. I could be a loose canon and no one would even know.
So I feasted.
Some nights in my isolation I would remember this one dinner I had when I was ten, my father spooning ranch dressing and glaring at me.
“This is just liquid fat. Pure fat.” I watched it drip, thick like plasma. “You know where this goes, Leah?” He eyed my belly.
I, in turn, eyed my salad with its tablespoons of pure fat drizzled on it. I escaped to my bedroom, trying so hard not to cry that I bit my cheeks bloody. Later that week, I asked my mom if she thought I was obese. I’d learned the word on TV.
“Well, maybe. What percentage of body fat do you need to be obese?” she asked.
At fourteen I became a vegetarian. And an avid food-weigher. A calorie-counter. I made sure to drink gallons of unsweetened iced tea—I’d heard it was a diuretic and could help me lose water weight. I guzzled it as Gillian Anderson’s slim shape played on the X-Files, wanting so badly to have those feminine curves. Coveting them. I had a wide back and manly shoulders. A blubbery waist and thin legs. I was the exact shape a woman shouldn’t be. Wrong. So many things about me were just wrong.
Dieting could, perhaps, make me right. How much does armor weigh, anyway?
At age 22, I slept with my first boyfriend way too fast. And many men after him as well. I wanted all of them to see my nearly-145-pound-figure and desire me. If I couldn’t enjoy my body, why not let a man enjoy it?
Nakedness could be a form of armor, too.
Day 1 of the 14-Day-Kickstart was abysmal. Sugar lust encompassed all of my thoughts. Day 2 was hell. On day 3, I couldn’t even sleep, hunger ravaging my guts. I almost gave in. But on day 4, I woke up feeling the liberating hollowness of starvation. Was it a cruel joke on my eyes, or was my waist less bloated? Did my pants fit better?
By day 8 I was noticeably slimmer. In control. Ah, sweet, sweet control, my old comrade. There you are! Dig those gnarly little claws back in the ground. It’s just you and me now.
Days 12 and 13 slid by.
If I could just get back down to 145, maybe no one would label me as unworthy. No man on a dating site would ever build up a connection to me and then say: “sorry, but it just wasn’t going to work out with a fat girl” again. I would never have to look in two mirrors to see the vile angles of back fat. No boyfriend would say: “not this again,” when I brought up my weight-induced-insecurities.
145, my golden ticket.
145, my prison.
14 days could turn into 40 days. Or 400. Or 4 years.
I remember Sandra looking at me with strange compassion that day. “Rules provide structure. Maybe even safety. But at what cost, Leah? At what cost?”
Tell me again: how much does armor weigh?