6 years old
Looking back, the teacher was probably doing drugs. Or maybe she was just tired. She was younger, 26 maybe, but I couldn’t tell someone’s age back then. She was clearly no longer passionate about teaching children to dance. I see now that sometimes she came in wearing last night's makeup: thick eyeliner and heavy gray eyeshadow, smudges on her face and hands. Sometimes she wore red lipstick, which was shocking. She’d rub her eyes all through class, and her grainy mascara would flake in little speckles across her face, standing out against her pale skin. She had long nails, and always came in holding her purple traveling coffee mug, carrying in a bag and a thousand stories on her face.
There was a consistent draft that persisted through the weeks I took lessons there. My sister and myself would shake, our fragile frames ready to snap. Our lips were chapped and our skin was cracked from the dry February weather. The studio was so cold that my mom went out and bought us special ballet sweaters to wear to class; we were small for our age and she was worried about us. The teacher called our sweaters unprofessional, and she yelled at us for wearing them when “everyone else was fine.” So I had to follow the rules, and I couldn’t wear a sweater. Goosebumps covered my arms every week, and I’d pull my shoulders up like a puppet on strings next to my ears in an attempt to stay warm.
Some days at the bar, my eyes would drift to my reflection. My sister and I started wearing long sleeved black leotards, because it was warmer. My eyes would watch all the other girls' profiles in the mirror––they were older and taller than me, all ranging in skill and size. I watched my stomach go up and down as I stood adjacent to the mirror, the little black silhouette that curved with each breath. I worked on breathing up and down so my stomach wouldn’t go out as much. I sucked in.
9 years old
On class field trips the girls and I would throw our backpacks into one seat, and pile into the last seat on the left in the back of the bus. We called it the “two seater,” but it could really fit four. Me, Amelia, and the other two girls. In our dresses, tights, and big rain boots, we’d pile into that one seat to make the trek to the marsh to learn about “our local painted turtles” (again).
I remember thinking the girls didn’t like me, that they were their own little group. Up against the cold metal walls of our school bus I’d look out the window while they laughed about jokes I didn’t understand. The teacher made an effort to get them to include me by always assigning me with one of them for group projects. They’d always cross the room to talk to their other friends though, leaving me knee deep in purple glue sticks and projects.
Some days Amelia would pull one of us onto her lap so there was more room on the seat. I don’t know who declared her the ring leader, but she had blonde hair and we were all brunettes, so everyone followed her around.
With another girl sitting happily on her lap, Amelia would ask how much she weighed. It wasn’t intended to be offensive, because it was followed with a declaration of how light she was.
On one field trip, in an attempt to fit in, I agreed to sit on Amelia’s lap. I wasn’t uncomfortable with people touching me, and I often let girls braid my long, brown hair if they so desired. I just wanted to be her friend and fit in.
She smiled and held me on her lap before someone asked the pressing question of how much I weighed. I lowballed it and gave them the same number the others had said. I didn’t know for sure, but the other girls were most definitely lighter than me. They were thinner, and taller, and prettier, so they had to be. We all went back to laughing and joking, my shoulders relaxed but my thighs were sore from trying to hold some of my own weight while sitting on her lap.
They probably don’t like me because I’m not actually 60 pounds.
10 years old
It was a daily occurrence. Dad would wake up, work out, and come to eat breakfast before heading to the train. He’d bounce around the kitchen like a ping pong ball, muttering to himself before making some eggs. He would put on his heavy red apron to cook in, so he wouldn’t get his work clothes dirty. One night he put it on me, and I smiled and took careful steps to avoid tripping on it. It was a staple to my morning routine as a child, before he stopped making eggs in the morning, and began leaving before I woke up.
For years I’d sat with my back to the living room during dinner, although the darkness behind me made me feel like someone was going to grab me. I wouldn’t go downstairs if I woke up in the night because I was scared of the villains from the movies. I slept restlessly with nightmares, scared of the shadows, and the doors, and the windows in my room. I couldn’t trust myself not to see the monsters in the dark. A few years later I moved to the other side of the table because it’s better to be safe than sorry.
That day with my back to the well-lit living room, I squinted through the morning light at my dad who was leaning against the cabinet, eating his food. “I’m so fat,” he mumbled to himself.
I didn’t understand what fat meant for a while, and I still don’t in a sense. It’s all perspective, I guess. My mom and dad exercised every morning, and when I was ten he was training for his next big triathlon in New York. I watched him come home from weekend runs, drenched in sweat and insisting that he wasn’t going to eat lunch that day.
But fat was the F word in my house growing up. “It’s only for animals,” my mom would say, so we’d wait to go to the zoo to exclaim how fat the bears were. It was a bad word, and a swear. We’d whisper it, even at the zoo, because it wasn't a joke to us. With people, we had to say “big.” No exceptions. I was raised learning that it was unkind to treat people differently because of how they looked, and it was wrong to call people names. No exceptions.
My dad looked up from his eggs and glanced down at my Cinnamon Toast Crunch before saying, “I wish I could eat that.” All I could do was smile.
Why can’t he just get a bowl?
11 years old
“Why don’t you wear this dress?” my mom asked on a Sunday morning, observing my closet to see if there was anything nice to wear for church that week. She produced a pink dress with frills; I made a face. It was a new dress, but I’d only worn it once before banishing it to the back of my closet. It made me look like a plank of wood: all boxy and wide. The white glow of my closet lights washed out my color in the big mirror affixed to my closet door.
“I don’t know… I just don’t like it anymore.” The truth is that it didn’t fit anymore. Well, it did, but not how I wanted it to. I didn’t look good in it standing next to Lindsay and Beth at church when we sang. The dress didn’t hang on a fragile frame, loose and flowy, like the other girls' dresses did. I didn’t like to see myself in that dress in the mirror in the foyer on my way to the chapel. I’d walk past it and be forced to look at myself. I’d draw in my stomach, move my hair around and die a little inside before continuing forward to go praise the Lord.
I could wear my hair down? I suggested to myself, attempting to find an alternative route that would please my mother. I could just slide on a headband and let my hair cover my shoulders and distract people from the dress. “I’ll just wear the blue one, with the flowers?” I offered.
“You wear that every week,” Mom said.
That’s because it fits.
12 years old
I didn’t like taking pictures with my sister. She’d smile and her face would light up and she would look pretty with her perfect straight hair and matching outfits. She always told me to wear different things, to smile more, to turn in a different direction. She told me when my outfits didn’t match, which I just couldn’t understand. Anything to look like her, I thought before changing into something that would be “more flattering.”
We’d take pictures and I’d yell for someone to show me immediately after I heard the click, just in case we should retake it. On a little screen I’d judge myself, her as the ideal result. I’d smile bigger, angle my body better, and try to hide myself behind her so there was less of me and more of what people actually wanted to see. I’d hold my breath and smile until my cheeks hurt. Everyone said I looked “so cute,” and when the picture was sent out on the back of the Christmas card, me next to her, I’d feel sick. My grandparents would tape them on the fridge in their decorated and cluttered kitchens, smiling fondly at their granddaughters. I couldn’t see what they saw in me.
Once, at the aquarium, someone asked if she was a child model. People said we looked like twins, but I knew they were lying. Her face was shaped like a heart, and she told me mine was an oval. What an ugly word. It made me want to die.
One day she casually told me how much she weighed. I’d long outgrown her by a few inches, which she insisted was the reason for my few extra pounds.
She’s simply better than me.
13 years old
When I was 13 my sister started running cross-country for the high school team. She’d go on runs with my parents in the summer, and I joined them once. They woke me up at 6:30 am, three hours before I normally would wake up, and I slid into shorts, a tank top, and my black running shoes.
Waves of heat swayed on the roads in the sun. And the air felt swollen with the water of last night's rain. The drawls of cold air were sent from God. It was like my lungs could open up fully and I could breathe again through the thick humidity.
Running wasn’t the worst part, it was the keeping up. They made me promise not to cry before we left the house. Once we got up the first hill, I was out of energy. I wheezed in every breath, like sucking through a straw trying to get the last bit of milkshake out of a Styrofoam cup. My blood thudded ominously in my ears and hit against my skull. “Anna, keep running,” my mom yelled when I slowed down to a walk in an act of self preservation. She tried to be my cheerleader, but eventually I told her she could stop waiting.
Once she left, on the side of the road I folded forward over my knees, blood rushing to my face and sweat dripping down my face and scalp. I opened my eyes only to see darkness, it was like something invisible was trying to push me onto the floor. I bent my knees to stay upright, and tried to keep walking. I was dry heaving and gagging. Tears rose. No crying on the run. I felt like I’d smoked a pack a day for 20 years before that run. No crying on the run. We were on a flat and I still couldn’t pick up my knees and just tried harder.
I remember thinking about how easy it would be to get kidnapped right then. My greatest fear seemed to come alive, and I knew that I couldn’t fight back if someone tried to grab me. I’d just buckle down and cry. I cried that morning in the sunlight while listening to the sprinklers and the crickets. Through the tears I forced myself to look at my Apple watch. Ouch.
In the last two miles I had burned the calorie equivalent of a reduced fat bag of Doritos. A reduced fat bag of Doritos. A reduced fat bag of Doritos. Just one fucking bag of reduced fat Doritos.
Just kill me right now.
14 years old
My parents started using an app called MyFitnessPal. They tracked their calories, their weight, their macros, and anything else the app wanted. It was shocking that they didn’t do regular blood-sacrifices to the MyFitnessPal gods. Their weight loss journey was a family endeavor, and I soon found out that one serving of my rice was 350 calories. I learned that a “good burger” wasn’t defined by its taste but by its bun, or lack thereof if you were having a lettuce wrap. “Healthy” was how many carbs something had. “Good food” was low in calories, and evened out their daily macro pie-chart.
I said goodbye to fluffy white bread, and hello to the grainy and destructive rule of the whole grain disaster they called food. It was rough and dry, and hard to swallow. It had to soak in saliva for a full minute before you could attempt to swallow. It contained seeds that should only be fed to birds. I imagined that only the incarcerated could enjoy this––gnawing away at it slowly because they had all the time in the world to work on it. But my parents choked it down and smiled because it was “only 100 calories per slice!”
They’d remind themselves to stay motivated on their weight loss journey through cute little sayings like, “that will take a week to burn off!” and “it’s all self control!” Life turned into them watching us eating ice cream for dessert, and they smiled as they lost weight. They bought new foods, labeled “low calorie” and “keto-friendly.” Complete bullshit. Often on Saturday they’d declare how much they’d lost that week. I’d gotten weighed a week before at my annual physical and gained the same amount they could lose in 7 days.
This is getting bad.
15 years old
Years ago we started to document funny things my dad says. A large chunk of his humor is self-depreciation and fart jokes, which will always get a laugh out of my younger brother. When I turned fifteen I started to hear everything he said - like, really hear it.
“I don’t need any more fatness, that’s it –– I’m done. No more eating for me tonight.” I should probably stop eating right now. “When I get home, I’m gonna see a doctor about removing the part of my brain that makes me want to eat,” he said while I was getting second helpings of dinner. “I don’t really need to eat, do I? I mean, eating just makes you fat.” Well technically, he’s not wrong.
Summer was coming to a close, and I was forced to do some fall cleaning. Half my clothes didn’t fit anymore, and I’d grown like 3 inches over the summer. All my “S” shorts didn’t fit, and we were coming into a hot September. I mentioned one morning to Mom that I needed new shorts for school. Face hot, I told her none of my clothes fit anymore.
The air conditioning blared and I stood with my back against the wall, holding a glass of ice water. Dad walked in a moment later holding a diet Dr Pepper, before informing us that “I’m not buying new shorts until I’m back from fat camp.”
This has nothing to do with you.
16 years old
I think I see myself differently now. I’ve since deleted all of the pictures I took on my iPhone 4. The selfies from middle school––blurry and mistimed. Of the few I have, I have one with my friend outside the movie theater. It’s just her and I, and it was her birthday. We stood in matching pajama pants, holding half finished blue slushies from the movie we’d seen. It was sad but I hadn’t cried. The condensation made our hands slippery. One arm wrapped around each other, the other holding the slushies. We plastered on tired smiles. I would’ve deleted that photo if not for her. It’s one of the few I have left that I didn’t delete when I was younger and more insecure. I don’t like how my hair looks. I’m wearing leggings. My hair is a mess--delete. I wish I had kept them all.
Today I looked at a picture of me from our last vacation to Costa Rica. It’s one of twenty identical copies that I refuse to delete from my camera roll. I couldn’t choose which to post, so I kept them all. I’m at the beach, and the wind is blowing. I’m wearing a black tank top, showing my arms. My eyes are half closed from the sun on my face, and the wind is moving my hair in every direction. I kept it because of my smile: I’m overjoyed. I am sunburnt on my shoulders and across my nose where I have fresh freckles from the previous day.
I look happy.
Adelaide Smith is a current sophomore living in Massachusetts. She comes from a large family and enjoys laying in the sun and reading. At school she started the High School poetry club which has been growing slowly, and looks forward to continuing to help future poets and writers grow. She just started her publishing journey this year and hopes to continue writing for the rest of her life.