Lane Bryant And a White Nightgown: My High School Graduation.

 

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I was a chubby child from the time I was seven years old, always hovering at about twenty-thirty pounds overweight. It was in high school that my weight started to increase exponentially rather than arithmetically; when I received my driver’s license at the age of sixteen, I was able to get to grocery stores and bakeries that were once too far away to walk or bike to. I had a greater variety of “goodies,” and with a car, I had to exercise a great deal less in order to obtain them. When I started high school, I weighed 133 pounds (I was 5’7”) but by my senior year, I weighed about 190 lbs.

Food was my steadiest, most loyal friend, but it was a friend who called far too many of the shots in our relationship. I didn’t want to binge, but I did. I didn’t want to hate how I looked, but I did. I didn’t want my thighs to chafe whenever I wore shorts, but they did. I was consistently miserable in my own flesh.

At Divine Savior-Holy Angels High School, we wore uniforms; for freshmen and sophomores, it was a green plaid skirt with an ugly long green vest and for juniors and seniors, a blue plaid skirt with a more palatable navy sweater. My first uniform was no problem, because I was a size 10 when high school began. When the time came to change uniforms for junior year, however, I was rigid with dread. Size 18 was now a tight squeeze, and I was positive that there would be no uniform skirts that fit me. Of course, I should have known that was a ridiculous fear, since there were plenty of DSHA upperclassmen fatter than I, and none of them came to class naked. Nonetheless, I fretted, and I was hugely relieved when I discovered that the uniform store did indeed stock skirts in my size.

By the time I reached the end of my senior year, even my plus sized uniform skirt no longer fit, and I had to resort to closing it up with a chain of safety pins. Luckily, my blue sweater covered my waistline, so no one was the wiser. I knew it, though, and I hated it. I had to pull my sweater down many times a day in order to cover the open zipper, and I lived in fear that my secret would be exposed. For some reason, closing my skirt with safety pins resulted in one side being shorter than the other, so I was also constantly yanking at the one side to keep it from hiking up any further.

Having a uniform at all was a blessing, because I didn’t have many other clothing options once school ended for the day.  In the 1970’s, regular department stores did not carry any clothes larger than size 18, and I had no idea that there were stores with nice clothes for fat people. This degree of ignorance seems impossible today, or at the very least monumentally stupid, but there was no social media in 1976, and no Google Shopping. We shopped at Marshall Field’s and occasionally at Gimbels, and I had no idea what would happen if I should gain even more weight and no longer fit into size 18. I shuddered at the thought and hoped I would never had to find out.

DSHA was an all-girls’ Catholic high school, and the tradition there was for graduates to wear long white dresses and carry long stemmed red roses. A lovely ritual, but for me just another cause of Great Fat Dread. By the spring of my senior year, I weighed 184 pounds. Other than my safety-pinned uniform and a blue sweater from the Men’s Department at Marshall Field’s, my entire wardrobe consisted of the few size 18 outfits I was able to find.  My shopping trips were never about what I liked or what might look good on me; the only criterion I really had was: did it fit? If yes, I bought it.

Starting in March that year, I started casing the stores in search of a long white dress that would fit me. There were none. I never told anyone that I was going on these reconnaissance trips; I was humiliated enough. As far as I could see, no one made long white dresses in anything approaching my size. What was I going to do? I had no idea. Apparently, I was too fat to graduate from high school, and as May loomed ever closer, I resigned myself to the brutal reality that I was not going to lose enough weight to solve my problem.

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These were going to fool no one.

Finally one day, I hit upon my only solution: I would have to find a white nightgown and pass it off somehow as a dress. This would not be an easy task; I didn’t have to look around Lingerie Departments for long in order to realize that they had no size 18 white nightgowns that even remotely resemble dresses. I was terrified that I would have to choose one of these nightgowns to graduate in, and the other girls would howl with laughter when they saw me. Seeing no other alternative, I pressed on, visiting mall after mall in search of a “graduation dress.”

 

About three weeks before the big day, my mother announced that we were going to Lane Bryant to find a graduation dress and then out to lunch at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. I had heard of Lane Bryant, and seen their ads in the Milwaukee Journal, but I was pretty sure they would have nothing suitable for me. Their newspaper ads convinced me that Lane Bryant was a store for grotesquely lb-uglyobese old women who had a fondness for rayon, polyester and lots of wild prints. (It is much easier now to find cute clothes in plus sizes; in those days, I think the mindset in the fashion world was that fat women either didn’t care how they looked—I mean, there they were, fat—or that fat women did care how they looked but needed to be punished for being fat in the first place.) My nightgown strategy was not working out, so I agreed that yes, lunch and a trip to Lane Bryant was in order.

On the appointed day, my mother and I drove downtown, parked the car and walked over to Lane Bryant. I was rigid with shame as we walked into the store. It was awful enough that I had to walk through those doors; much worse was knowing that my chic and stylish mother had to cross that threshold because of me. As we entered the store, a sales clerk said something to my mother and her whole face lit up. She turned to me and said, “Did you hear that? She just asked if I was looking for the Tall Section! She thinks we are here because of me, not you!” My mother was so happy that she was the assumed shopper, that the clerks didn’t find me fat enough to warrant being in the store for fat people. I loved my mother in that moment with a purity I can still feel. As much as she hated the idea of being fat, of being around fat, of having a fat daughter, she was happy to be mistaken for a Lane Bryant Shopper if it meant I would not be marked as one.

The sales clerk directed us up to the Junior Department on the second floor. As we exited the escalator, I was stunned at what I saw. There were racks and racks of clothes, some of them very cute, all of them in sizes I knew would fit me. I had had no idea. They had an entire rack of white dresses, including several that I had seen in Seventeen Magazine, my book of dreams—just in larger sizes. I was actually in the smallest sizes in this store, and what a feeling that was! I tried on several dresses, and bought one of the dresses I had seen in Seventeen—a long white eyelet dress with a simple bodice and a ruffle at the hem.

I was happier that day than I had been in a very long time. I felt beautiful, and—even more wonderful—I felt normal. My mother was happy, too, and she triumphantly handed her credit card to the sales clerk, who put my new dress in a shopping bag and handed it to me.  We sailed out of Lane Bryant, and I felt positively buoyant, a rare sensation for someone who weighed 184 pounds. The Milwaukee Athletic Club was just a few blocks away, so we walked over there to have lunch together and celebrate.

We took the elevator to the dining room and I sighed happily as I placed my shopping bag on one chair and sat down in another. My mother ordered a martini and I ordered a TAB, and we talked about the upcoming graduation party and who would come. The waiter came over to take our order and I eagerly ordered my favorite thing on the MAC menu: a cheeseburger and french fries.

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Truly wonderful cheeseburger and fries.

Without realizing it, I had broken the spell of our happy day. My mother’s forehead furrowed, and she sighed, “I don’t understand why you would eat that after what we’ve just been through.” I was hungry, and now I felt defensive; for a moment, I considered changing my order to the MAC salad, but I wanted that cheeseburger. I wanted those fries. When our food came, I ate every bite, but the buoyant feeling was gone for both of us.

Even though the mood of the day had changed, I was grateful to have my beautiful white dress and relieved that I could stop shopping for nightgowns. My mother had really come through for me by taking me to Lane Bryant. Thinking about that amazing Junior Department, I asked her why she had never told me they had cute things at Lane Bryant. My mom thought for a moment and said, “I was afraid if you knew that, you would be less likely to lose the weight.” Ah.

I felt beautiful on the night I graduated. I kept my dress for years; I even had it remade to be a smaller size when I lost a lot of weight later on. After taking in the dress, the seamstress gave us the yards of extra fabric she had removed, and my mother used it to have Christmas ornaments made for her grandchildren—little babies with white eyelet Christening gowns.

I no longer have even one picture of myself from my graduation night, although I know that there were a few taken. Years later, when I had lost the weight, my siblings and I were looking through some family pictures. We came across one of our family’s infamous “couch pictures”—we all jam ourselves onto the living room couch for a family portrait—and there was a picture of me in my graduation dress, surrounded by my brothers and sisters.  “Oh God,” my brother Jamie laughed, “Who is that in the big white dress?” We all laughed, but I couldn’t help but sneak a look at that girl in the big white dress and amgelremember how very pretty she felt that night. I don’t know what became of the picture, but after that night I never saw it again. To this day, the only place I can find a memento of my high school graduation is on my family’s Christmas trees, in the form of tiny eyelet-clad baby ornaments.

 

Jobs I Have Loathed V: Going a Little Crazy Costs Money

crazy1When I began my graduate studies in Philosophy at Marquette University, I had a full tuition scholarship and a Research Assistantship. I was assigned to two professors in the department, and ordered to carry out ten hours of research a week, five for each professor. For this work I was paid 66o.00 per month, which was nothing to sneeze at back in 1980. Since I was living at home, I was able to devote my entire salary to cases of TAB, new clothes, novels and movie passes. It was pretty close to an ideal situation for me, except for one thing.

In my last two years of college, I had dedicated myself to losing weight, successfully taking off 100 pounds with a rigorous regimen of diet and exercise. Once I had lost all that weight and returned to “normal” eating, the weight started to come back, and quickly. I had become accustomed to overwhelming positive feedback from people about my new body, and the experience of being a fat person who became a thin person was terrifyingly instructive. When I weighed 228 pounds, I heard myself described by others as “loud,” “belligerent,” and “aggressive.” At 124 pounds, suddenly I was “vivacious,” “lively,” and “charismatic.”  A neighbor (ironically, the very same woman who started my mother’s fixation on my weight with a comment about my stomach when I was 7 years old—see here) saw me at my new weight and said, “I always thought you were a nice person deep down.” To which I replied in my head, “Deep down beneath what? Fat? Fat made my niceness questionable?” Out loud, I smiled and said, “Thank you.”

It came as no surprise, then, that I was grimly determined not to gain the weight back, which is what had happened on every other diet I had been on. I was a thin person, yes, but I was also a spy from the Country of The Fat, and now I knew what people were actually thinking when I was fat and they said I had “such beautiful skin.” When I started to regain weight, I not only went back on my original diet; I cut back even on that rigid regimen, taking myself from two meals a day to one. Because I was eating so little, I guarded that meal with religious zeal: the food had to be exactly right, weighed and measured, and I had to eat it by myself so that I could savor every single bite. This routine threw a serious

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My Daily Intake

wrench into my social life, but I didn’t care. Whereas Scarlett O’Hara clutched a carrot in Gone With the Wind and vowed that she would “never be hungry again,” I clutched my 1 ounce of low-moisture/part skim mozzarella cheese, my hard boiled egg, my Akmak cracker, my 1/2 cup of strawberries and my 1/2 cup of broccoli and swore that I would “never be fat again.”

skinny2I was, of course, hungry all the time, sometimes so hungry that it was hard to sleep at night. I stopped dreaming about potential boyfriends and dreamed only of food. I planned “someday” meals in my head, food I would eat “someday” when I was so thin that I could risk gaining a few pounds by eating normally. I fantasized about baked potatoes with butter and salt, a kosher hot dog on a bun, a Morning Bun from La Boulangerie, chocolate covered peanuts. I stopped reading novels and started reading calorie counters, figuring out how much I could eat and still consume less than 900 calories a day. I was slowly going nuts, but of course I didn’t realize that. In my mind, I had never been healthier.

In my first year of graduate school, my weight dropped to 104 pounds. I was 5’7”, yet when I looked in the mirror I still saw fat. I concentrated ferociously on my coursework and my research, using every ounce of energy I had to continue my track record of earning straight A’s. Socializing with my fellow graduate students was torturous; not only would I not eat while all around me my normal new friends ate pizza and grazed at all-you-can-eat fish fries, I would order tea while they drank beer: tea has zero calories whereas a Miller Lite had 90 calories.

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Me Not Having Any Fun

I forgot how to have fun. I forgot how to relax. I forgot what “normal” felt like. I knew I wasn’t happy, but my starving brain managed to convince me that the problem was that I wasn’t yet thin enough. Whatever weight was five pounds less than my current weight was the magical Golden Snitch, always just out of my reach no matter how doggedly I pursued it.

Every now and then, my body would stage a full out rebellion against my crazy mind and stage a coup d’etat, and I would eat all the foods I had been craving. Near-instant remorse would kick in almost immediately, and I would be terrified at the thought of the weight I would surely gain as a result of my weak will. I developed a strategy of swallowing a handful of laxatives after such binges, which forced everything through my intestines at breakneck speed and carried a lot of water weight out with it.

One particular night during that year, I was in my bedroom, feeling sick from all the food I had consumed and the laxative chaser. I couldn’t tell anyone I was sick, because I didn’t want anyone to know that I had eaten all that forbidden food, and I certainly didn’t want anyone to know I had swallowed a handful of Correctol. On this night, however, something new was happening and I could tell that it was Very Bad. My heart was flipping around inside my chest and I thought it might even be skipping some beats. I really, really didn’t want to die, and so I pulled myself out of the bed and lurched into the family room, where my mother was watching television.

“Mom,” I croaked. “I feel really, really sick.” I stumbled over to the couch and fell onto it, clutching my stomach. My mother got up and started asking me questions. What had I eaten? Did I have a fever? Was I nauseous? I answered her last question by turning my head and throwing up a pile of bright green bile on my mother’s couch.

That spurred her into instant action. My poor mother had not a clue about how to deal with a daughter who was starving herself to death before her eyes. She had no idea how to talk to a daughter who cried if she dared to eat one Pepperidge Farm Cookie. She had no idea how to broach the topic of laxatives when she cleaned the toilet and found empty boxes of Correctol in the trash. But one thing my mother knew, and knew well: how to respond when someone makes a mess of her couch. When she saw the vomit spew out of me and onto the couch cover, she screamed, “MY COUCH!” With the strength of ten men, she picked me up and dragged me down the hall to the bathroom, heaved me into the bathtub, pajamas and all, and turned on the shower to COLD. Then she went and got the couch cover and scurried down to the basement to get it into the washing machine before the stain set.

Other mothers may have reacted differently to the situation, and when I have told this story in the years since, people have often said that my mom’s response was….odd. Whatever her motivation, whatever her limitations, my mother did what she knew how to do, and somehow it turned out to be the right thing. The cold water roused me, the nausea passed, and I got out of the bathtub under my own power. As I toweled myself off and put on some dry pajamas, I admitted to my mother, who was by now up from the basement, that I was in trouble and had no idea how to fix it.

The next morning at 9 a.m. I was in the office of Dr. Hayes Hatfield, our family doctor. He told me—and my mother—that I was anorexic and needed to go to a psychiatrist. Despite her overwhelming distrust of all “head doctors,” my mother trusted Dr. Hatfield and really wanted me to be better. I walked out of there with an appointment for the following day at a place called “Dewey Center.” I would be seeing someone named Dr. Bedi.

I drove to the Dewey Center the next day and checked in at the reception desk. My mother’s daughter, I was very skeptical about this whole endeavor. We simply were not one of “those” families who went to therapists. The only person I knew who had ever gone to a therapist was Woody Allen, and (1)I didn’t actually know Woody, since we had never actually met, and (2)Even in my hunger-addled stated, I could see that Woody Allen was no poster child for mental health despite his thirty years of psychiatric care.

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The Dewey Center

Nonetheless, there I was. I had exhausted all my other “go-to” strategies: will power, denial, prayer, self-help books. Dr. Bedi was the only thing left. As I sat in the waiting room, staring at the carpet in order to make sure I didn’t make eye contact with any other lunatics in the room, I saw a pair of legs moving toward me. The legs were connected to feet, and on the feet were an aggressively ugly pair of Hush Puppies. “Please,” I prayed. “Let those Hush Puppies not belong to the man who is going to be in charge of my mental health for the forseeable future.”

The Hush Puppies stopped in front of my chair and I heard a lilting Indian-accented voice say, “Are you Anne Maloney?” Reluctantly, I tore my eyes away from the carpet and looked up to find a slight, formally dressed Indian man with an inverted bowl haircut and round

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Dr. Bedi in 1980

rimless eyeglasses. Dr. Bedi. I stood up and followed him back to his office, where I sat on the couch and he sat in his chair and he asked me, “Why have you come here?”

My response was a twenty minute diatribe about how we didn’t believe in psychiatrists in my family because they were expensive, useless and probably pretty nutty themselves. In fact, I continued, we didn’t have much use for doctors in general, and for good reason. My grandmother broke her arm once and they set the wrong arm. My great aunt died when she was 34 years old because the doctor let a bubble into her arm when she was getting a transfusion. As a young woman, my mother visited the doctor and was told she would never have children. I am the fifth of five children. Another time, my mother went to the doctor with a chest cold and he put her in “the neck-stretching machine” because they got her file mixed up with someone else’s. In my own life, I suffered through serious pain for years because of an ovarian cyst that was diagnosed by my pediatrician as a “spastic colon.” (For that story, see here)

“So, believe me,” I said to Dr. Bedi, “I’m not here for some frivolous reason. I’m not here because I think you can help me. In fact, I’m pretty sure you will be useless. But I’m afraid I’m dying, and I don’t want to die. You’re my only option.”

After I finished this Charm Offensive, Dr. Bedi said, “So you need to be very sick in your family in order to get medical care? Medical care is the last resort in your family? This is correct?” “Well, yes,” I said. He leaned forward a bit. “And you became very sick the other night, yes?” Yes. “So you are now sick enough to justify finding some help for yourself without forfeiting your family identity?”

Whoa. This guy just met me, I thought, and he already seems to have met my family. Growing up, the family motto when any one of us spoke of seeing a doctor for whatever ailed us was “You had better be really sick.” We said it to each other so often that it could have been etched into our Coat of Arms. And this doctor had talked to me as if he knew that already. I was officially prepared to take Dr. Bedi seriously.

dewwy2My visits with Dr. Bedi every week for two years did, in fact, help me a great deal. He was worth every penny he charged, but he charged a lot. I had health insurance through Marquette, and my policy covered some mental health treatment, but not 100%. I had to satisfy my deductible, and then pay 20% of every charge thereafter. Suddenly my 660.00 research stipend didn’t seem like very much money. As the summer of my first year in graduate school approached, I realized that I was yet again going to have to get a summer job.

My sister Susan had joined a law firm several years earlier, and they needed someone at their office to summarize depositions for the lawyers. Since summarizing depositions was a close cousin of all the Reading Comprehension Exams I had always excelled at in grade school, she suggested me. I took the #31 bus downtown and met with the three attorneys in charge of hiring someone. They liked me, but even more importantly, they liked Susan and trusted her recommendation. I was hired.