18 April 2009

body talk: part 4

read previous body talk posts:
part 1

summer 1995
(i'm at the far right)

I came to the end of my junior year of high school in June of 1995 and went straight from school into working as a counselor-in-training (CIT) at the summer camp I grew up attending. An unpaid position, being a CIT was all about service: setting tables, prepping food, washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, cutting the occasional trail, and generally whatever manner of grunt work the leaders determined needed to be done. As a camper, I had always looked up to the summer staff and was really looking forward to the opportunity to see the working side of a place that was already so deeply entrenched in my personal history.

By this point in time, I had already earned a reputation amongst my friends for the strict dietary rules I had imposed upon myself. I limited my consumption to a total of 1,200 calories and would permit myself just 20 grams of fat on a daily basis. I never veered from this regimen. A typical school day lunch included an apple and a slice of bread with jam on it, sometimes occasionally splurging with a thin layer of peanut butter. I was expert at taking small portions at dinner, filling up on water just beforehand to ensure I felt full before I had consumed too much. These and other habits of exercise kept me at what I had determined to be an acceptable shape and size. I was staunchly vigilant about maintaining it. The nutritional and caloric content of every food that passed my lips was tattooed in my memory. Keeping a daily running tally was easy. My mind was constantly digesting these numbers.

This reputation is what earned me my camp name. What could be more antithetical to my regimen than pure fat? And so I was named for Saffola margarine.

One thing I hadn’t considered going into my CIT summer was camp food. This was going to pose a major problem for me. I hadn’t considered how the kitchen served loaves of bread at dinner with melted butter over the top. I hadn’t memorized the caloric content of tater tots and there was no way I was putting something as fattening as ranch dressing on my salad. That I didn’t know these things was a constant source of tension for me. It seemed that everything that came through the camp kitchen was swimming in oil or butter or cheese. As my rules strictly forbade these things, this was the source of some unparalleled anxiety for me.

So I ate salads without dressing. I ate raw fruits when they were available. If there were any protein sources or vegetables not swimming in butter or oil (rare from a kitchen accustomed to people eating these things only if butter or oil was an accompaniment), I’d have those. I’d have cereal with nonfat milk. And that was about it. I couldn’t eat anything else they provided. My frame had already thinned out given my year of continuously cutting back on calories. Given a caloric intake that was further diminished and spending the bulk of my days in strenuous physical activity, what pounds remained melted away quickly from my body. A pair of jeans that had fit well going into the summer soon slid up and down over my hips and thighs easily, even when fully zipped and buttoned.

While I did not object to my thinner shape, I also experienced the truth that I couldn’t sustain the physical activity the CIT position required of me without additional nutritional support and energy. So on my weekends off, I bought yogurt and bagels. I bought dried fruits in bulk. I bought things that didn’t give me anxiety and that I could eat safely. But damage had already been done. I wasn’t eliminating normally anymore. My periods had stopped completely. People started looking at me like I had escaped famine somewhere, especially when I donned a bathing suit. And they started to tell me: you are too thin. I thought they were lying, being nice. I would examine myself in the mirror from the side to see if they were telling the truth and decided that they weren’t. Five more pounds, I thought. Just five more pounds.

The summer was about one-third gone when one of the members of the leadership team came looking for me. Hey Saffola, he said. Bubba (the camp director) wants to see you. Though I knew that Bubba knew who I was, it wasn’t altogether common for a CIT to be called to the camp director’s office. All the same, I didn’t think much of it and went to see him.

I stood in the little trailer with my hands clasped in front of me and when he asked how things were going, told him I was having a good summer.

Are you okay, Saffola? he asked.

Yes, I’m fine, I said, smiling.

(Why wouldn’t I be?)

You’ve lost a lot of weight, he said.

Yeah, I agreed and I explained about the increased physical activity and the sensitive stomach that wouldn’t allow me to digest the customarily rich foods that our kitchen produced. I was used to answering these questions with ease.

he asked. Is that true?

He looked at me intently, his full attention toward me. I looked at my feet. Escaping this inquiry wasn’t going to be as easy as others had been.

Yeah, I’m just trying to be healthy. Still looking at my feet.

I’m just really concerned about you. A lot of people are, you know. You’re just too thin.

There it was again.

I told him about how I had started bringing my own food, about how I knew I needed to eat more. This seemed to placate him.

Okay, Saffola. Just please take care of yourself.

His gaze was intense. Disarming, even.

Okay. I replied. I will.

And I’ll see if I can talk to Pat in the kitchen about setting aside some food that you can eat.

I thanked him and walked away, determined to maintain and hide my supposed thinness from prying eyes. I was resolved again to be invisible, every bit as much as I did in the days I carried the soft, round body that I hated. It would be just seven months later that I would receive a physical shock unlike any other, one that would call me out of hiding and force me to face myself in a way I never had before. I would have to face the disappearing girl in the mirror.

To be continued ...


  1. I'm so glad you're sharing this story with us, with me, just sharing in general. I don't get the impression it's a story you've hidden much in the last few years, but it seems so important to tell these things as they are, straight up, without anything that clouds it.

    Reading it makes me all mushy inside for that Kirsten-that-was, though. Love you, friend, in this journey and all of them.

  2. Just want to hug that skin-and-bones beautiful girl and cook her up a fantastic meal, several meals. Can I hug her now, even though she's come far from where she was? Hug, hug, hug, Kirsten!

  3. You are so brave, my friend. Over the last couple years, you have done different series and installments on body image and your history in this area. Some of those posts have alluded to some of these experiences you're sharing now in this series. But this series is taking it deeper than you've ever gone before. You're taking time. You're being blunt. You're sharing the specifics in a way that makes us feel like we're inside the same experience with you.

    Going back into a difficult period of life can be very, very hard, especially when done in this deliberate, truthful, and painstaking way. This is why you are brave.

    I love you.

  4. just got home from haiti and this was waiting for me here. this is so intense and familiar kirsten. and to be sharing it now, just before your wedding, has got to be a really vulnerable thing. i'm glad you're doing it. i'm glad to be getting to know that young girl. and it seems to me that you're getting to know her better too, in a way. what would that conversation have been like if it was *you today* talking to *you then*? what words would you use to try to reach her?