I’ve always been “the skinny one,” the athletic one, the health-conscious one and, thus, the dedicated one. In my family, few people are skinny.
Growing up, I was scared of becoming overweight. For me, “getting fat” was never just a joking caveat against eating a second slice of cake. Being overweight was a very real, tangible threat.
I was constantly aware of how my family ate, and how, in turn, I should avoid eating. On a trip to visit extended family in California, I was hyperaware of any food that might enter my mouth. When I returned home, I weighed myself. I had lost weight. I was so terrified of becoming overweight, that I’d actually managed to lose weight. Maybe my fear was exaggerated, but obsessions aren’t easily forgotten. For my cousins, drive-thru was normal. For me, drive-thru was never.
From the unhealthy habits of my family came unhealthy habits of my own. Constant attention for being slim soon transformed into a fear of not being the skinny one. The precautionary measures I took to avoid being overweight turned into active, unnecessary measures to lose weight. This, coupled with constant consumption of pre-teen media, had me in an unhealthy relationship with my body. This is something that only in recent years have I realized was a form of anorexia. I’m glad to be at relative peace with my body now, but, again, obsessions aren’t easily forgotten.
Although I haven’t seen my cousins in years, I’ve virtually watched them gain weight as they’ve grown older. I see photos of them now and then. My little cousins aren’t little anymore; they’re big. And it makes me sad. Limited mobility is not endearing. It’s unpleasant, socially stigmatized, and saddening to watch.
Part of me wants to scream and curse the system. This country is making my family sick. People who want money are making my family sick. My nana buys granola and Greek yogurt she thinks are healthy. When I visit, she offers me her food. All of it is processed and filled with sugars, and I wish I could tell her, without disrespecting her authority, that she is eating poison.
Part of me knows that some of it can’t be helped. Lifestyles change; people struggle to maintain lifestyles held by people in years past. It’s hard to change.
Going home has been the hardest. I live my life in Amherst. I eat pretty healthily. I play frisbee, run a lot, do ab workouts when I feel especially motivated. I enjoy exercise. I need it.
Part of me feels that I have a chance to make a change every time I go home. Another part of me resists making an effort. I won’t be home forever; who knows what might happen when I leave? Who knows if my efforts will have been for naught?
Throughout my life, my mother has struggled to buy adequate groceries. When I was little, she rid the cupboards of anything sweet in an attempt to curb my sister’s childhood obesity. Having taken this step, she then expected us to pack apples, carrot sticks, and PB & J on whole wheat for school lunch. She hid ice cream in a brown paper bag in the freezer from time to time and would tell me to help myself. This, she thought, would solve it all.
Instead, her efforts backfired. My sister would secretly buy unhealthy food at the school cafeteria. Junk was ubiquitous.
Although I love my family, going home is still extremely difficult. A stressful undercurrent runs through what should be relaxing breaks. I’m happy to see my sister, my mom, my beach, my home. But just when things start to feel the most normal, I get ugly glimpses of what I left behind and of what’s happened in my absence.
With a summer job, I hoped my sister would feel the same surge of hope for the future that I did. With a job comes money and with money, a future—not high school, not the small town we’ve felt more and more distant from over the years. I hoped that a summer job would give her agency and a desire to change her habits. I hoped a job would magically make her healthy.
In spite of two summers’ worth of earnings, my sister’s realized that the car she’s wanted for so long is not a reality. Even with enough money to buy a car, the little money left over, coupled with a nonexistent off-season income, is no match for gas and insurance. Instead of fulfilling teenage dreams of driving up and down the Parkway in a car of her own, my sister puts her money towards other things—clothes, gadgets, concerts, and food.
Many of her food purchases go to Wawa. Wawa is beloved in New Jersey. Wawa is what South Jerseyans brag about to North Jerseyans. It is a mystical resource they lack. But I hate Wawa. Wawa is making my family sick. Portions are making my family sick. Sodium is making my family sick. Convenience is making my family sick. The sheer accessibility of Wawa, coupled with the New Jersey nostalgia for “Wawa runs” is making my family sick.
Restaurants at home are worse. My sister orders excessively, and when I try to object, I’m met with anger. How dare I try to mother her. I’ve always tried to mother her. Why can’t I let her eat what she wants to eat.
And what about self love? Yes, we should love ourselves, no matter our weight. That should not be a question. But health has to factor in somewhere. I’m glad that my sister loves herself, but I pray every day (this is a lie, but I like how it sounds) that she is not diagnosed with one of the many obesity-related medical conditions that my family cannot afford to pay for.
I’m in a bind: I want to respect my sister and her choices, but it’s hard to watch as she eats herself into illness. It breaks my heart. But again, being at college, I feel powerless. I feel powerless anyway. I struggle enough daily. It feels selfish, but in the midst of my own daily battles, it feels so hard sometimes to worry about others.
Being at Amherst has made it no easier. I feel far from the problems of home. Most of my friends are like me—gym rats, outdoorsmen, and supporters of local, sustainable food systems. Surrounded by likeminded individuals, it’s easy to think that all is well in the world of health. But this is absurd. College isn’t as real a world as it feels. There is no abundance of brightly marketed fast food on campus. Most students don’t grocery shop on a regular basis, where monetary constraints might force them to make the decision between a bag of apples and a bag of chips.
It’s hard to remember in my personal bubble that the state of American health is not what I observe every day on campus. At college, I’ve felt so distant from the problems of the world that I’ve forgotten about obesity. The words are strange—a shameful sentence that bears repeating:
I’ve forgotten about obesity.
I fixate on the contoured stomach that I inconsistently work towards, and I forget about obesity. I forget about home.