My doctor’s assistant motioned me toward the scale, clipboard in hand. This was my third visit in less than a month — first for the swine flu, then for a mole that appeared suddenly beside my belly button and changed shape just as suddenly, and now for an earache that had kept me up all night. Each time, she had weighed me. But standing there now, I wondered what my weight had to do with my sore ear. Or my mole. Or the flu, for that matter. Standing there now, the last thing I wanted was to take off my winter boots and big puffy coat and watch as she slid that bar up and up, past the 129-pound mark, where for years it had settled, perfectly balanced.
“I don’t want you to weigh me,” I said.
The truth was, I didn’t want to be weighed ever again if that bar was going to keep creeping upward, past 130, past 140, into territory I never imagined my weight would reach. Goddamn it! I was a thin person! The woman who people asked how I could eat so much and still be so skinny. The woman who fit into her size 4 jeans, even after two babies.
The doctor’s assistant frowned at me.
“I mean, I have an earache,” I explained.
She began to write on my chart. In red.
“And I was just here last week,” I reminded her. “Remember? The mole?”
She blinked at me. “The doctor will be in shortly,” she said, and left.
I immediately picked up my chart to see what she’d written. “Refuses weigh-in.” At first, I felt embarrassed. I hadn’t exactly “refused,” had I? It just seemed silly to get weighed again so soon. So frequently. But as I climbed up on the examining table, the strangest thing happened: After years — a lifetime, really — of worrying about and taking pride in my thinness, I suddenly didn’t care that I was no longer a skinny size 4. And the reason I didn’t care was that I was happy. Happier than I’d been since I was a teenager. I don’t mean happy in that my life was perfectly in place; in fact, in many ways it was the opposite — messy and sad, confusing and frantic. Rather, I mean happy with me, with who I was and how I felt about my place in the world.
I’d been that way years ago, a girl who knew her mind and her heart. And now here I was, squarely in middle age, finally certain again of those very same things. Finally happy with myself, despite all the mistakes I’d made, all the bad decisions and wrong turns and enormous losses that marked my life. Despite, I realized with something— I swear — akin to wonder, the added twenty-plus pounds I carried.
Some girls are raised to be the first female president or an astronaut. Some girls are raised to find a cure for cancer or to battle social injustice. Or to be a perfect wife or mother or hostess or chef. I was raised to be beautiful.
To my mother, beautiful meant tall and blond and — perhaps most important — thin. She spent most of her life embarrassed by her Italian looks. Unmanageable dark hair, brown eyes behind thick glasses, a large nose with a bump at the bridge like all the Masciarotte clan had. She dreamed of being a cheerleader, a girl who could easily be lifted onto the shoulders of football players. She dreamed of being homecoming queen, lovely in a pale dress with a sweetheart neckline that cinched a tiny waist. But she’d inherited the peasant-farmer genes of her ancestors: broad hips, large breasts, short stature. And so she was doomed to playing the sidekick to pretty girls, like Eve Arden in the old movies, all sass and sarcasm as she planned school dances but didn’t get a date. Or, at least, not one with the boys she wished for. Her dates were neighborhood kids, also Italian immigrants, also short and squat and tough.
For me, her only daughter, she dreamed of a different life, a charmed life that she believed beautiful girls led. As a baby, I had the big blue eyes and a winning toothless grin that made strangers stop and compliment my mother, who dressed me in elaborate matching outfits and used egg on my few strands of pale blond hair to make them stand up enough to hold a bow. One afternoon, a man with a camera passing by our front yard doubled back, pointing to me in my stroller. “Your baby could win the Beautiful Baby of the State of Maryland contest,” he said. “She could?” my mother asked hopefully. The man nodded and offered to take my picture for free if my mother split the cash prize with him, should I win. She agreed. I won. And my mother got her wish: She had a beautiful daughter, and a certificate from the state of Maryland to prove it.
The problem was, I didn’t care about being beautiful. I cared about the March family in Little Women and poetry and why the leaves changed color every autumn. As I sat squirming in pain while my mother wrapped my now-long blond hair into rags to make perfect banana curls, I yammered on and on about the things that mattered to me, that kept me up at night. “How do you pronounce the name of the country spelled I-r-a-q? Why isn’t there a u after the q? Why is y sometimes a vowel? Can I carry a baked potato to school to keep my hands warm like Laura does in Little House on the Prairie?” My mother twisted another thick hank of hair into a scrap of cotton and sighed. “No, you cannot carry a baked potato. You’ll wear your new mittens that match your hat and scarf. Why do you have to be so weird? You’re beautiful. That’s all that matters.” This last was always said with a sigh — resigned or grateful or both, I’m not sure.
Although I’d inherited the traits my mother valued from my midwestern father, I often felt that my mother believed I looked this way because of some kind of divine intervention. She had prayed for a beautiful daughter, a blond daughter, a thin daughter — and now she had one. Her prayers had been answered. I would fulfill all the dreams she’d had dashed because she was overweight. The fact that I didn’t like being onstage or primping or shopping didn’t matter. “If I’d looked like you when I was young ...,” she’d say, as she exhaled a lungful of cigarette smoke. There was no ending to that sentence; it was implied. If she’d looked like me, she would have been happy.
I wasn’t happy, however. I was a frightened, anxious kid who overthought everything. As soon as I learned the Earth was rotating, I worried that it would spin off its axis. After seeing a child die from a botched tonsillectomy on Ben Casey, I worried that I would die if and when I ever had my tonsils removed. When my brother showed me a flake of my skin under his microscope, I convinced myself that we were all actually microscopic and that a larger species was looking at us under its microscope. I wouldn’t stop reading a book on a page that ended with a 3 because I’d heard that bad things come in threes. I was blond. I was tall. I was skinny. And I was miserable.
As I smiled my way through beauty pageants, collecting trophies and getting to ride in convertibles in parades and having my picture splashed across the local newspaper, inside I was all nerves and queasy stomach. For my talent in pageants, I recited a poem: "I have ten little fingers and ten little toes, long blond hair and a turned-up nose, big blue eyes and a cute little figure. Stay away, boys, until I get bigger!" This was recited wearing a leopard-print bikini that my auntie Julia had sewn for me, with matching leopard-print sandals. By the time I was ten, I asked if I could recite a real poem: Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” “That poem is so depressing!” my mother told me. “Why are you so weird? If I’d looked like you when I was young ...”
Like all things associated with beauty, thin is relative, a subjective idea, a subjective ideal. In countries like Tonga and Tahiti, fat women are considered beautiful and desirable. Here in the United States, however, thin is usually equated with beauty. And, just as my mother believed, beauty is often equated with happiness. How interesting to me, that a 1993 study conducted in rural Jamaica associated thinness with sadness and heaviness with happiness. Of course, it took me decades to believe that such a notion could even be possible.
As a teenager, I stayed on the track that pretty girls move along. Although too uncoordinated to make the cheerleading squad (the one thing I failed at, in my mother’s eyes), at the age of fourteen, I became a model for Jordan Marsh, the local chain of department stores here in New England. Throughout high school, I did fashion shows from Boston to Maine, as well as special spreads in Mademoiselle and Brides. I modeled at the mall, standing perfectly still for hours in the store window, dressed in the hottest teen trends. My modeling got me noticed by Bonne Bell Cosmetics, and I modeled for them as well, my face washed in their Ten O Six lotion, my lips and cheeks glossy with their makeup. Then, for two years, I won a coveted spot as a special teen “correspondent” for Seventeen magazine, which primarily meant appearing in both print and photo spreads.
But this was the early 1970s, long before Kate Moss’s heroin chic. Our icons were women like Cheryl Tiegs and Jean Shrimpton, who, though certainly still thin, had curvy bodies and good-sized breasts. To model back then, I didn’t have to be super skinny, and I wasn’t. Neither were the girls I worked with. Don’t get me wrong, we were far from overweight. But we had breasts and hips and round cheeks. We looked, I daresay, like healthy American teenagers, which is exactly what we were.
When I wasn’t working, I was starring in school plays or writing for the school newspaper. I was dancing to Van Morrison songs at sandy bars on the beach, kissing boys in Mustang convertibles and tiny Fiats, riding waves and eating fried clam cakes. Although I had my share of teenage angst, much of what I’d felt so anxious about as a child disappeared. I worried about more concrete things: the war in Vietnam, losing my virginity, the environment. But mostly I was happy. I had friends to share my dreams with. I had creative outlets. I had boyfriends, lots of them. I used my brain all the time. And I was doing something considered valuable in my family: putting on clothes and makeup and walking down a runway. I didn’t love it, but I was used to it by then, and it conferred a certain status that I now understood ... not to mention providing me with extra money.
Somehow, everybody was happy with me. But even more important, I was happy with me. I knew how I felt about politics and love and art. I was confident as I moved through the world — as small as my world was then, its borders reaching only from Rhode Island to Maine and most of it contained in Jordan Marsh, the mall and West Warwick High School.
My freshman year of college, I went from happy to, frankly, miserable. I roomed with a girl from high school who I didn’t know well. I’d never shared a room with anyone, and the ins and outs of now accommodating someone baffled me. School baffled me too. Did I fit in with the pot-smoking dorm kids or the large Greek community with its keg parties and formal dances? Neither, I feared. When I went on dates, boys suddenly wanted sex, not just making out, and I was confused about these new expectations. Previously an effortless straight-A student, I floundered under the burden of syllabi and no roll calling. I skipped classes frequently. When grades for that first semester arrived, I was shocked to find myself on academic probation.
Although many first-year college girls succumb to the Freshman Fifteen and gain weight, the opposite happened with me. Pounds fell off — not because I was dieting or starving, but because I was anxious. That first winter break, I had to take all my Christmas money and buy new, smaller jeans that fit. The more unhappy I felt, the skinnier I seemed to get, until people were commenting on how thin I was. Through college, the weight stayed off — and I stayed, in many ways, unhappy. Even though I had friends and boyfriends and served in student government, I never believed I truly fit in anywhere.
As graduation approached, fellow classmates bought suits and took résumé-writing classes. Even though I felt confused about who I was and where I belonged, I understood that I didn’t want what they wanted. My childhood dream of becoming a writer had not faded, even though I never shared it with anyone. Alone in my room, I scribbled stories and poems in notebooks that no one ever saw, read every book I could get my hands on. I needed to run with the bulls, I decided. To jump naked in fountains and live in a garret in Paris! A girl raised differently might have bought a Eurail Pass and headed for Europe after college, or applied to graduate writing programs. But I was a girl raised to be beautiful. I decided to become a flight attendant.
In 1978, weight restrictions still existed for flight attendants. Along with the application came a weight chart. If you were above the maximum weight, you were told not to bother to apply. For my height — almost five-foot-eight — the maximum I could weigh was 135 pounds; I was around 123. But, so desperate was I for this job that would take me away from Rhode Island and allow me to have the experiences I yearned for, that I went on a binge diet before my interviews and managed to shed four more pounds, leaving me a skeletal — and weak, famished — 119.
At training in Kansas City for TWA, we were told that if we went above our hiring weight, we would be fired. Routinely, when we got off a flight, a supervisor was there waiting to weigh us. One of my roommates was fired for weighing six pounds over her hiring weight, though still five pounds below the maximum weight on the airline’s chart. So for the first time, I began to starve myself. Dinner — my one meal a day — might be steak on a stick from the appetizer menu at TGI Fridays or a shared salad at Crickets or Lily’s in Boston’s Faneuil Hall. For years, I survived mostly on coffee and wine. My size 0 uniform was loose enough that I could slide my skirt entirely around my waist, easily.
Then, in 1982, my brother Skip, my only sibling, died in an accident. The grief that followed took over my life for the next decade. At the same time, I fell in love with an actor and moved to New York City to be with him. Of all the things he gave me during our time together — and there were many — that he fed me, that he satiated my actual, physical hunger, was one of the most important. He brought home Chinese food late at night, after work, and took me for Indian food on East Sixth Street, cooked me soft-shell crabs, elaborate breakfasts, spicy noodles. I was happy with him, truly happy, but also grief-stricken — so much so that I didn’t even worry about gaining weight and losing my job. And I needn’t have anyway, because, once again, and despite my loving boyfriend, I was horribly anxious; afraid to be alone on layovers, certain that someone I loved had died in my absence. So even though he fed me, constantly and well, I stayed skinny. Too skinny.
Out of the grief of that period, I wrote my first novel. By the time it was published, the actor and I had broken up — partially, I see now, from my own inability to deal with my sadness. A man who had been a good buddy confessed he’d been in love with me all the time I’d been in love with someone else, and without pausing, I stepped immediately into a new love affair, even though it had none of the passion I’d felt before. If such a big love failed, I reasoned, perhaps I should not wait for that again but opt instead for companionship. That, we had in abundance, staying up until all hours playing Scrabble or watching old movies. Reading together and sharing each other’s writing. Best friends. So we married — even though in my heart I knew that I didn’t love this man the way he should be loved, the way I wanted to love someone.
As I grappled with this over the course of years, my weight once again dropped, this time lower than ever. Here I was, a successful writer, living the literary life I’d dreamed of ... and unhappier than I’d ever been. In pictures from that time, I see gobs of long blond hair hanging down a too-skinny body. I see an unhappy woman. The relationship ended, and again I jumped right into a new one. This time, I felt all the corny things someone in love says they feel, but the man — who would become my second husband — lived in Rhode Island. So I found myself packing up my New York City apartment and moving back to the place I thought I’d never live again. We wasted no time in starting our family, and before I even knew his morning routine or favorite color, we had our son, Sam, and then our daughter, Grace. Getting to know my husband, figuring out how to raise children and trying to keep my writing career afloat took all my time. No longer a flight attendant, I no longer had to focus on my weight — and I ate again, now with abandon, and wrote and took care of my kids. And one day I looked up and realized that I was truly and fully happy.
When, in 2002, Grace died suddenly from a virulent form of strep, this new world of mine fell apart in ways I never could have imagined. Not only was my grief all-encompassing, but I also couldn’t read or write, the two things that had never failed to comfort me. Eating for pleasure was a distant memory; my body, at that time, was not something I thought of or cared about.
I wrapped myself around Sam, worrying over his every move, unable to be calm when I couldn’t literally see him. I learned to knit, and I knitted constantly. Crowds made me nervous. I was unable to speak on the telephone. During the day, I took small bites of food, but I had no appetite for more. After I’d had my babies, my weight was a healthy but still thin 129 pounds. Now it once again plummeted.
It seems to me that I crawled out of that abyss of grief slowly, slowly. I remember tasting food again, and then actually enjoying it. I remember marveling at a tree whose leaves had changed color. I remember breathing in my favorite smell of salty air and really smelling it, as if for the first time. I read "The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency" and remembered the joy a good book can bring. We adopted a baby girl from China, and Annabelle reminded me how a child’s arms lifted to you for a hug can make your heart soar. One night, I had Sam asleep on one side of me and Annabelle on the other, and I understood how sadness and happiness can live side by side in our hearts.
When, during this time, did those twenty pounds begin to accrue? I don’t know, because I was too busy reminding myself of what mattered, of what made me happy ... of how to be happy. I wasn’t noticing numbers on a scale. I was just trying to find my way back.
I am still a person who goes to the doctor a lot, partially because I have a touch of hypochondria and partially because I frequently get mild illnesses and strange pains. But the doctor’s assistant no longer tells me to get on the scale. She knows I won’t; I know I don’t need to. Because whatever that scale says, it can’t tell me what I already know. Skinny isn’t beautiful. And thin or not-so-thin really doesn’t matter. What matters is how you feel in your body, regardless of what you weigh. And what’s beautiful is being in this sad, messy, lovely world and liking who you are in it — and knowing that the people you love are right here in it with you.
This essay is excerpted from "The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier," edited by Cathi Hanauer, to be published next month by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.