I was six the day my mother called me into the bedroom she shared with my stepfather. "Take off your shirt and pedal pushers," she said. I set them on the bed.
My stepfather stood near the full-length mirror on the closet door. "Come stand here."
I stepped to the mirror and gazed at myself: the dark roots of my sun-bleached blonde bob, the summer tan accentuated by my white cotton panties.
My stepfather moved to my left side, then gently pinched the flesh near my waist between his thumb and forefinger. Catching my eye in the mirror, he said, "See this?" I shouldn't be able to pinch so much here."
He did the same at the back of my neck. "You're too fat for someone your age."
I stared at his fingers, pinching my flesh. No one had ever said anything about my being fat before.
"To be thinner," my stepfather said. "You need to eat less. Do you understand?"
I nodded, regarding my fat, imperfect body.
My mother told me I could put on my pants and shirt. I dressed, and left the room. I didn't let myself cry until I'd climbed to the top of the cherry tree at the back of the yard. I'd just learned that fat equals bad and -- though I hadn't known it before -- I was fat. That was the day I began to hate my body, view it as unruly -- out of my control -- not part of me.
It didn't occur to me to question what my stepfather said. He was a doctor. And his boy and three girls, who lived with us, were all very slim -- unlike my four-year-old sister Elisa and me.
Elisa and I were put on diets. I could read, so I was expected to count calories. I memorized the chart of caloric values in the front of my mother's Joy of Cooking and kept a list of everything I ate. Elisa says her earliest memory is of climbing on her chair at the breakfast table and announcing "Calowies!"
When our stepsiblings were served doughnuts with their eggs on Sunday morning, we got dry toast. At Girl Scout cookie or Campfire mint time, my middle stepsister -- so thin that her chest curved in instead of out -- was allowed to buy her own box and keep it in our room. I wasn't permitted to buy cookies or mints because I was a "Calorie Girl." And she couldn't share with me.
In retrospect, looking at photos, Elisa and I weren't obese; we were sturdy. We rode bikes, swam, played in the woods, walked to school and our friends' houses. We just looked heavy next to our stepfather's children. And normal compared to kids these days.
Many people believe that a good mother controls her children's eating. Mine certainly tried. But the more she tried to restrain Elisa and me, the craftier we became at thwarting her efforts. We grew into talented snitchers, snagging whole packets of graham crackers, cookies, fresh fruit -- anything we could conceal under our clothes, in an armpit, under a book -- and smuggle out of the kitchen. I stole coins from the jar in the cupboard to buy penny candy at 7-Eleven. By this time, I'd developed a seriously skewed relationship with food.
After my mother complained because I gained weight at my dad's house every summer, my stepmother began to weigh me as soon as I walked through the door and just before I left. I dreaded those weight checks.
In sixth grade, my mother promised me a Girl Scout uniform if I lost five pounds. I was developing -- growing fast -- and lost only three. No uniform.
The most humiliating moment came in eighth grade when I was invited to my first boy-girl party. My mother gave me permission to go -- then called the host's mother and asked her to make sure I didn't eat too much.
As an adult -- my weight well in hand -- I regularly scrutinized myself in the mirror to see how fat I was. I didn't notice I was doing it until the day my toddler son turned, inspected his behind in the mirror, then said, "I'm so fat" -- imitating me. That's when I realized how entrenched my self-image was -- and that I had to be careful not to distort his.
Recently, I asked my mother about the intervention that left me with such a lasting mistrust of my body. I'd always assumed that my stepfather put her up to it. But it was her idea.
"One day when I was sixteen," she said, "I looked in the mirror and realized I was as big as a cow. I wondered why my parents hadn't done anything to help me."
I have a photo of my mother at sixteen. She was trim, shapely, and pretty. She's always been uncomfortable with her ample bosom, though, and I suspect that's where the "cow" entered in.
When Elisa and I came along, she decided to "help" us the way her parents hadn't helped her. She meant well, but didn't count on our inability, as young children, to understand. What she saw as teaching us good eating habits, we experienced as favoritism, withheld food, and evidence that we were intrinsically flawed.
As an adult, I've learned to appreciate my body for its strength and resilience, for enabling me to grow and feed my children. But -- even now -- I scrutinize it in the mirror to see where it falls short. And I never let anyone else weigh me.