Skinny Bones Jones, Twig, Stick and Monkey Arms were some of the nicer names the kids at school called me when I was a kid. Thin didn’t begin to describe my appearance. I was an extremely picky eater with the metabolism of a hummingbird. I was so slight in stature, I looked like a good stiff wind could blow me over. A boy at school once took a look at me and asked, “Are those strings or legs?” Even adults who didn’t know me were alarmed. One woman, a stranger, had the gall to ask my mother if she was feeding me.
The worst part was not the name calling, or worrying about walking to school on a gusty day, but that the clothes I so desperately wanted, never fit. Zody’s and JC Penney’s just didn’t carry jeans cut for children who were so skinny that when they turned sideways they looked like an Olsen Twin. When mom did find something in my approximate size, I often looked like a coat hanger wearing a circus tent -- or like David Byrne when he was going through that “Stopping Making Sense” phase.
Being scrawny and skeletal was made even worse by the fact that my mother was plumply overweight. Mom had me late in life, so she was firmly in middle age and menopause by the time I was old enough to walk and eat nothing but soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and popsicles. She battled her bulge by occasionally following Weight Watchers and exercising alongside Jack LaLanne. Her health and fitness phases never lasted long though. Doing 500 jumping jacks, a hundred legs lifts and 25 push ups were soon followed by lunches of cottage cheese with canned beets, last night’s leftover mashed potatoes, then enjoying a large bowl of rocky road ice cream while watching “Days of Our Lives.” By the time I was eight, Mom gave up on ever getting her pre-four-children-body back, so she threw out the Weight Watchers books and our bathroom scale in one last act of suburban, house-wifely defiance, forcing me to monitor my growth and weight gain at other people’s houses.
When classmates asked me to come to their house to play, my first question wasn’t, Do you own a Barbie Dreamhouse? but Do you have a scale? The answer was always yes, and then they’d take me to it. The problem was, the scale was typically tucked away in a parents, most private, inner sanctum: their master bathroom. The journey to my beloved object was always full of hope and danger, much like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom. First you had wind your way past an unmade bed, a pile of dirty clothes and a hairless Chihauhua. Then there was jumping over a foul-smelling kitty litter box, squeezing past a curtain of sand beige pantyhose and then averting your eyes as you glimpsed a cache of Playboys next to the toilet. All I wanted was to get on the scale, which to me, was a wondrous time machine that could simultaneously mark my slow and steady progress, and give me a glimpse into my future. If I gained weight, it meant I was growing, and if I was growing, it meant I’d be a famous lady writer who’d marry a prince on a beautiful white horse one day. Or in my case, a kind and thoughtful acccountant driving an old Prius.
But the scale! It was my Gypsy, my magic carpet ride, my hope, my curse. Its numbers could dash my dreams, leave me flat, or give me hopeful news. I’d jump on it with abandon, fully clothed, wearing sneakers, marveling at the spinning dial that swung back and forth like a pendulum until it settled on my true weight. If I gained a pound or two, I was elated and I’d go home later, triumphant.
“Mom, I weighed myself at Kerry’s house. I’m 60 pounds!” The number was always a revelation. A joy. A cause for celebration. My mother would hug me and declare that whatever my weight was, it was marvelous.
Somehow, I grew from a scrawny beanstalk of a child into an awkward, arms and elbows adolescent and then into a lithe and extremely lean teen. By the age of 20, I finally reached five-feet, six-and-a-half inches tall and weighed a perfect, California actress slash model, 120 pounds. I assumed I’d stay that perfect weight forever. Sadly, I was mistaken.
When I was 23, I started dating a boy I was crazy about and also began working full-time as a secretary at a small publishing company after graduating college. I was still living at home, still living without a scale. Between commuting an hour to work each way, sitting behind a desk 8 hours, then seeing my beloved every night over dinners of all-you-can-eat ribs or chowing down on pizza, pasta and garlic knots, I began filling out and didn’t realize it. I assumed pants I’d always worn, had simply shrunk. When I went to the gynecologist’s office to refill my birth control prescription, I got on the scale and argued with the nurse when she said I weighed 129 pounds. “That’s impossible,” I shouted. I’ve always been 120 pounds.” She rolled her eyes at me and assured me there was nothing wrong with the scale. Was it possible I’d gained nearly 10 pounds in a little over six months? No, I told myself! I clung fiercely to the notion that the scale was broken the same way Kate Winslet hung on to that piece of wood after the Titanic sank.
A few weeks later, a co-worker pulled me aside and said, “You were so cute and tiny when you started here, but you’ve put on weight. You better watch it.” That’s when I realized the doctor’s scale wasn’t broken and something had to be done.
I’d never dieted a day in my life and didn’t know how. I figured the problem couldn’t possibly be my food choices, or that I was eating junk at work out of boredom, but that I wasn’t getting enough exercise. I managed to tear myself away from the boyfriend, the pasta, and the all-you-can-eat rib joints just a few nights a week and starting working out a gym. I soon had a new appreciation for my mother’s aversion to Weight Watchers and Jack LaLanne’s leg lifts and jumping jacks. I took torturous aerobics classes, trying valiantly to follow the instructors’ impossible orders to lift, squeeze, and hold, hold, hold over and over again. I stood in the back of the room, helpless and lost, trying like hell to mimic the movements of all the other graceful exercise fanatics wearing Jane Fonda leg warmers and electric pink Spandex body suits.
After a few weeks, there was no way to sugar coat it. I hated the gym. I hated the smell of dirty socks; the loud monotonous music; the complicated nautilus machines dripping with other people’s sweat. Most of all, I hated myself. I detested seeing my wide hips and pencil thin calves in every mirror. And I hated that I was just a plain girl who was easily ignored. I was ignored by the bright, shiny, fit instructors; ignored by the women who took off their clothes in the locker room and walked naked into the sauna; ignored by the beefcake body builders who pumped iron and admired only themselves in every mirror. This place just wasn’t for me. I think I lost a pound or two, but aside from the year my mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer, and I lost 8 pounds from being sick with worry, I never saw my weight drop to 120 pounds again.
I feel self-conscious writing about these first-world problems, because at my height, weighing 130 or 135 pounds isn’t that eggregious an error, except that I live in Los Angeles, home of Muscle Beach, the entertainment industry and the place where beautiful, skinny, girls stand on every corner waiting for their reality show to start.
I think what I miss most of all from that tiny sliver of time, when I owned that perfect, actress slash model, 120-pound body, is that I was young once and certain I was going to write the next Great American novel. I was young once, and ate anything I wanted without fear or regret. I was young once and used to come home to a mother who’d look at me like I was the most beautiful, magnificent girl in the world, then she’d hand me a bowl of rocky road ice cream and fill me in on what happened on “Days of Our Lives.” Like that body, those days are sadly, long gone.