Loving the Lady in the Mirror

It is Saturday morning, and I am standing in front of the open refrigerator, surveying the contents, while my mind hurtles into a familiar routine. I had fried fish for lunch yesterday, I reflect, and a sundae after dinner. The conclusion is swift and ruthless. Instead of French toast or a bagel with cream cheese, I grimly serve myself a scoop of yogurt.

I am obsessed with food, but I assure you that I am not fat. I wear a size 10, and the weight charts brand me as average. The trouble is that when I gaze into the mirror, a fat lady stares back.

I know that I am supposed to be God’s beloved child and I know I should love my neighbor as myself. Problem is, I have such difficulty loving myself because I am always criticizing my body.

The food thing started in childhood. Photos show a pudgy toddler gazing mournfully at the camera from between the bars of a playpen. While other kids frolicked in the park, I preferred staying near hearth and home, where snacks were plentiful.

I am surprised my first word wasn’t diet since this was the main topic of conversation among my aunts and teenage cousins, who were experienced soldiers on the battlefield of obesity. They talked about food the way other people described illicit love affairs. They mentioned sneaking a bite of the lasagna when no one else was around, cheating on the diet and eating sinfully rich hot fudge sundaes.

It wasn’t long before I concluded that a plump physique was shameful, while a trim waist was a virtue. Unfortunately, my own efforts to be virtuous were thwarted by my fascination with pizza, chocolate and ice cream.

I dreaded weigh-in day at school. All the children gathered to watch as each of us stepped forward to take a turn on the doctor’s scale. When it was my turn, my face burned and my stomach churned as the number edged higher and higher.

Then came the moment of reckoning.

As my classmates perked up their ears, my teacher’s voice rang out: Lorraine Viscardi. One hundred pounds. During recess, the kids awarded me the dubious honor of being the second fattest girl in the class, right behind (I’m serious) poor Patsy Hogg.

Like my mom, I was a disciple of all the trendy weight-loss plans. We tried the high-protein diet, the pasta diet and the grapefruit plan. We snacked on Melba toast and celery and pretended we liked it. We winced as we drank our liquid lunches, foul-tasting concoctions with luscious names like Chocolate Temptation and Heavenly Fudge.

No matter what diet I tried, I started out with great hope, but after a few days of carrot sticks and Melba toast, I sank into despair. I threw open the refrigerator door and feasted on all the forbidden fare. The only way to assuage my sense of guilt was to assure myself that tomorrow I would be better.

It wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that I finally got serious about slimming down. I began toting a little notebook with me in which I recorded the calories from every meal. It took about a year to shed the extra pounds, and I was jubilant over my success.

But there was still a big problem. Although I was delighted to wear smaller sized dresses and jeans, when I looked into the mirror I didn’t see the new me. Instead, I saw a fat lady staring back.

To this day, I have kept my habit of mentally recording every bite of food. I’m always running the numbers in my headfat grams, carbohydrates, calories, good and bad cholesterol. I sympathize with investors who check the stock reports each morning. In my case, it’s the scale. When the numbers are low enough, I’ll allow myself an ice-cream cone, but if the scale reveals that I overindulged myself the previous day, I impose a food penance on myself.

At work each morning, I stand before the snack machine and perform the usual mental gymnastics.

The chocolate bar is 250 calories, while the cookies are 200. The banana I packed from home is the sensible choice. But I don’t want the banana. I want chocolate!

Then comes the voice from somewhere deep in my mind. Freud labeled it the superego, and the nuns called it conscience. I refer to it as the Party Pooper.

Don’t you remember what you weighed this morning? asks the nagging voice. You can’t have chocolate.

On most days, I heed the voice of the Party Pooper, but every so often, I put my money in the snack machine with reckless abandon and scurry away with a chocolate bar.

The whole thing seems like a gigantic waste of energy. While other people are debating serious matters, like the pros and cons of stem-cell research, I’m wondering if I can have a donut with my coffee. I yearn to approach eating with the same casual air I extend to reading. Instead of anguishing over reading too many books or reading stuff that’s too heavy or too sweet, I select a book that looks tempting and go on my merry way.

My prayer is that someday I’ll stand before the open refrigerator with the same devil-may-care attitude that I exhibit in the library. I’ll grab the slice of pecan pie, clean the plate and go back for seconds. Then I’ll raise my fork in a friendly salute to the lady in the mirror and tell her that she’s beautiful. Tell her that I love her. And maybe then she’ll quit pestering me.

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