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THE ZAFTIG BALLERINA
16 July, 2011
When I took my mother through San Francisco down to Menlo Park for Betty's funeral last week she said something that turned a knife in my stomach. It's amazing how long some hurtful things last.
We were driving down a street that I remembered from when Jeri was in ballet and was getting ready to go on point for the first time. Her ballet teacher recommended that we have her fitted for her first toe shoes at the home of this woman in San Francisco. It was a fun day for us, as I recall.
I didn't remember that my mother had gone with us that day, but she recognized the block when we were driving and she said "I think...didn't I take you...? It was something to do with some dance lessons you were having, wasn't it?"
Zing. Stomach tightens. Tears well up in my eyes, as I reminded her it had been Jeri who was dancing, not me.
I never knew I was fat until I was 7 years old. When I was 7 they were going to be offering ballet lessons at my school. The lessons would be held after school and would cost extra, but I was so excited. I loved ballet and I dreamed of being a ballerina.
I asked my mother if I could take ballet lessons and I will never forget hearing her say "Of course not. You're too fat. They won't let you take ballet."
I can still remember sitting on the steps of an apartment building at the end of the block with a friend, crying because I had just learned I was too fat to take ballet lessons.
It would be three years before a doctor said I needed to be on a diet and I slimmed down, but those words "Of course not--you're too fat" have rung in my ears for more than 60 years.
I look at news reports about fat kids and hear people clucking over how much the child must eat and it always surprises me that nobody ever says "what are they letting that child eat?" How does a 7 year old get to be too fat? What choices does she make that make her fat?
I grew up on pancakes and fried foods and a cookie jar that was always filled with home made chocolate chip cookies. My father would get angry if I said I didn't want dessert, because dessert was always part of the meal--and never fruit, but ice cream or cake or pie or pudding. We had hockie eating contests--who could eat the most fried bread dough slathered with butter? Yet, I always felt guilty for being too fat to dance, at age 7.
Whenever we got together with Betty and her sons, Pat never passed up the opportunity to remind me that I was fat and uncoordinated. He'd invite me outside to play ball and then laugh at the way I ran. I hated those visits.
The best day I can remember in grammar school...in fact it's only one of a small handful of days that I can remember clearly...was the day Jimmy Wohl saw a picture of several of us and pointed to me and asked who that was. When someone said "Bev," he said "That can't be Bev...she's not fat." I had just come off my very first diet and was normal size for the first time in my life.
I am 68 years old and have embraced the term "fat." My mother talked with obvious disgust about how "gross" Pat had been the last time she saw him, shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer. "My God," she said. "He must have weighed ### lbs." I don't weigh ### lbs any more, but I did for a very long time. Did she talk behind my back with disgust about how gross I looked?
In the days when she still remembered how to cook, I shook my head many times, realizing why it was that I was too fat to take ballet lessons. She would always cook special treats, things that she knew that I liked, and then say "I know you shouldn't have this, but I thought just a little..." or "Yes, I know you aren't eating [my favorite thing] but I thought the kids might like it." or ask me--nobody else--to finish the last potato, or dinner roll, because she didn't want it to go to waste (only to "waist," apparently!)
I'm not fat now because my mother is feeding me. I'm fat because I'm feeding me. I make bad conscious choices now, unlike when I was 7. But I can't begin to count the number of times over my life when I have remembered hearing those words for the first time -- "You're too fat. They won't let you take ballet lessons."
(Actually they probably WOULD have let me take
lessons and it might have been the very best thing for my weight at the time!!!)
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