The Truth About a Fat Little Boy

The Truth About a Fat Little Boy

By Trish Cantillon

No junk food words made by post it

He’s just round. He’ll grow out of it. We need to leave him alone.


I was twelve when I had an electrode strapped to my arm to administer shock. It was all part of the Schick weight loss program my parents had signed me up for in 1977.

Jeff, my counselor, was a handsome, cheerful man who made me want to do whatever he said to please him. He was tan, dark hair, and a smile like someone you would see on a toothpaste commercial.   

Jeff sat me down at a small metal table, making sure my chair faced the mirror that ran the length of the wall. He was to my left, a big machine with dials in front of him on the table. There were several wires extending from the back of the machine to the electrodes encased in a white plastic sleeve. Jeff was chirping about how great it was that I was doing this now, at my age, because it’s so much harder the older you get. He winked as he slipped the plastic sleeve on my left arm, just above my elbow, pulled it as tight as he could.

“Did you bring the items?” he asked. I nodded and reached into the paper bag I carried in with me. “A good food and a bad food?” I nodded again. I set a Nestle Crunch Bar and nectarine on the table between us. “Super! Now, I want you to take the wrapper off the candy bar.” I tore a piece of the wrapper off the end and slid the Crunch bar out carefully. I held it in my hand and looked at him, confused. “Okay. I want you to take your time. Look at it. Smell it. Feel it in your hand.” The smell of the chocolate reminded me of Easter baskets and Trick or Treat bags. Jeff turned a switch on the machine. “Make sure you are facing the mirror,” he pointed to my chair. I scooted a bit to face completely forward. “All right,” he said, “take a small bite.” Zap! A brief stinging sensation on my arm as I chewed. I didn’t flinch. I took another bite while he read the ingredients from the back of the Crunch Bar wrapper. Hydrogenated vegetable oil. Zap! Sugar. Zap! Milk chocolate. Zap! He turned the dial up on the machine. I wondered if I said ouch, if he would stop, but I didn’t want him to be mad at me or think I was a baby. Cocoa butter. Zap!  Milk fat. Zap! He asked me to take another bite. Jeff turned the dial up and as I chewed, he told me why this Crunch bar was “bad.”  No nutritional value. Rots your teeth. Makes you fat. Zap!  Zap! Zap! He checked the dials and then made some notes on the pad of paper next to him. The machine made a faint whirring sound as he turned it off.

Jeff reached across the table to remove the electrodes from my arm. The plastic sleeve scratched my skin as he tugged at it. He carefully folded the wires into two neat piles. He then took what was left of the Crunch Bar, which was still in my hand, and pushed his chair back to stand up.  He wrote on the mirror with the candy.  He settled back into his chair and put the nectarine in front of me. “Just like with the candy bar. I want you to hold it, smell it, and then take a bite.” I rolled it around in my hands once, put it to my nose and looked at Jeff before I took my first bite. I chewed slowly and listened to him tell me how “good” this nectarine was. All natural. Juicy. Tasty. Satisfying. Sweet.     

I went back every Thursday for eight weeks and repeated this scene. Presenting Jeff my “good” and “bad” foods, along with my checkbook-register-styled food diary for his review. He would initial each day’s entry with a smiley face or a frowny face, depending on what I ate. I lost sixteen pounds in those eight weeks, with some help from the stomach flu (a ‘blessing in disguise’ my Mom had said). I was a superstar. An emblem of perfect will power and control.  The pride of my family.     

It’s a typical weeknight at my house. I am clearing the dinner dishes with my husband. He says he worried about our son’s weight.  

“He’s fine,” I say, a little too quickly, hoping he’ll drop the subject.  

“I don’t know. Maybe we need to do something, talk to the doctor?”  

I cut him off.

“He’s just round. He’ll grow out of it. We need to leave him alone.”

My husband considers this for a moment.

“I’m not sure that’s right.” His tone is now serious. He’s not buying my explanation.

Just then, our son walks in, fresh from his shower, wearing Batman pajamas. He plops down on the chair across from me, gives an exaggerated smile so I know he’s brushed his teeth. In that moment I am back in the little room with Jeff. Staring at myself in the mirror, sporting my new short haircut that made me look like a fat little boy, the letters “B A D” written in candy bar above my head, eating a nectarine.
Trish Cantillon lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two kids. Her work has been published in the Berkeley Fiction Review and in the upcoming issue of Gold Man Review.

Dear Teenaged Girl in the Crop Top

Dear Teenaged Girl in the Crop Top


Dear Teenaged Girl in the Crop Top,

I saw you walking down the street this morning with your friend — carefree kids out of school for the summer, with the sun blazing and the whole day ahead of you.

Maybe you were headed to the park or the swimming pool or the bookstore. When you passed me you were laughing — peals of laughter. A giggle so genuine that just the sound of it made me smile.

Then I saw something you didn’t: the man leering at you from the corner. He was more than twice your age and the expression on his face as he stared at your bare midriff sucked the air out of my lungs.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about young girls and their clothing choices. People — maybe even people who know you and love you — say things like, “See what happens when girls dress like that?” “Respect yourself.” “Cover up.”

Here is what I’d like to say: It’s not the crop top.

On another beautiful morning, many years ago, I went for a run in the city I’d just moved to, feeling happy and alive and suddenly so grown up. Then a guy in a truck made a U-turn and slowed down beside me, screaming something awful. I instantly felt sick, even though I knew he was the problem, not me. I was wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Not that it should matter.

There will always be people who see you as an object, a thing, instead of the complicated, trusting, brilliant human being I have no doubt you are. They’re going to see you that way no matter what you do or wear. You’re not responsible for someone else’s stunted view of the world. I hope people who say they mean well as they tell young girls to cover up don’t make you believe you are.

Today, at least, you missed the look from the creepy guy. I hope you and your friend went on to have the kind of day you deserve — filled with more of that amazing laugh. I hope you wake up tomorrow and throw on whatever clothes make you feel happy and strong in your body, and that you’ll help your friends feel that way too, whatever their shape or size.

These are the same wishes I have for my own daughter, who will be your age in a few short years. And here’s one last thing I hope you will both eventually understand: There are plenty of people in the world who want to truly see you, to know you, for the beautiful person you are. It could take some effort to find them. But you are worth it.


Photo: Megan Dempsey

Beauty Calls

Beauty Calls

By Jessica Bram

We had a new baby sitter living with us last year, a 19-year-old college student who could only be called beautiful. She had classic Scandinavian looks: wavy blond hair, gray-green eyes beneath an ivory brow and flawless white teeth. Tall and slender, her body was the Sports Illustrated swimsuit ideal: long legs, slim thighs, tanned young skin that wouldn’t know the meaning of cellulite for years to come.

When we first spied her as she rounded the luggage carousel after her flight from Wisconsin, I couldn’t help thinking: “Oh, no, now look what I’ve done. Did I have to hire someone this gorgeous?” But the thought dissipated when Julie got down on her knees, introduced herself to my two rapt young sons and, while we waited for her luggage, described to them the animals at her farm back home.

I was, however, frequently reminded of my initial reaction as my friends caught sight of Julie and registered their opinions. “Who needs such a beautiful girl in your house?” they asked, half in jest, watching her crouch on her long, tan legs alongside my children, sunlight gleaming off her gold curls. “You’re not going to leave your husband alone with that, are you?” A neighbor, eyeing Julie’s lithe young body in her swimsuit at the pool, took me aside: “I think you should pay her her whole salary in advance, and tell her you hope she has a very nice summer . . . back where she came from.”Beauty Calls Art 2

Slowly I began to sense a cutting, almost sinister undertone to my friends’ comments. I found myself questioning to what degree their remarks were serious, and what unnamed feelings they masked. What were my friends really saying? Did they truly fear for my marriage — or their own — if our husbands caught sight of this dazzling 19-year-old? Would we learn some terrible truths about ourselves if forced to compare at poolside our post-pregnancy, time-softened bodies with Julie’s? Or was this some kind of covert misogyny, secretly shared even by women, cloaked more acceptably as simple envy? And why should a kind, good-natured girl deserve such calumny?

All this fuss over Julie got me wondering about beauty. About why beauty is so intimidating and, in the case of a young summer visitor, so feared and resented.

I am what I would call reasonably attractive. I have even, at times, been called beautiful, although I can honestly say that I never experienced myself as a beautiful woman. It is usually enough to have my husband assure me I’m his physical type, although he has occasionally been known to use the word “knockout.” More often, I am content with a kind of not-bad-lookingness that has never caused a prospective employer to believe that I wouldn’t be serious about the job. It’s been many, many years since those preadolescent days when I would search my face in a mirror asking the critical question: Am I beautiful? Am I ugly? It was impossible to know, although I knew enough not to trust my mother’s pronouncement that yes, I would one day most assuredly be beautiful.

And why was it so important to be beautiful? This was something I never questioned, and neither did my mother, It was a simple fact of life–a prior notion that beauty was, for a girl, a basic requirement. Fairy-tale maidens were rescued from drudgery simply by virtue of their innocent beauty, so potent it was feared by stepmothers and evil queens. Not only an end in itself, beauty possessed a magical, inexplicable power: for achievement, for success, for salvation.

The promise of beauty was that with it came the prince and the shimmering castle and all the other rewards that one could imagine in “happily ever after.” It was the essential key without which doors to happiness would remain locked. (Perhaps the beast, being the male, could get around this requirement, but no such luck for a homely princess.)

Years later, I found this same hope of redemption in the glossy, headily ink-scented pages of Seventeen magazine, whose fresh-faced models – Cheryl and Lucy and Colleen – could, like me, be transformed by the magic of make-overs.

Although my mother’s promise to me has always dangled somewhat tantalizingly beyond the horizon, I have, over the years, made peace with my looks. That I do not receive the kind of stares and double takes that Julie did, I assure myself, has only made it easier to focus on other things, like grades and friends and life’s decisions, large and small. And I remind myself that my marriage has survived threats far worse than Christie Brinkley. But to see it as an issue of appearance or even sexual rivalry is, for me, to miss a larger point.

For when I looked at Julie, I remembered that old promise of beauty. Her crown of gold curls, bestowed by God Himself, seemed to me the very embodiment of limitless potential–a sign that Julie, unlike the rest of us, had some kind of guarantee of happiness. This told me that my old fantasies about beauty’s magic are still very much alive. Yet I realized that it is these very imaginings, fabricated out of fairy tales and magazines and thin air, that are the key to beauty’s true power. By believing our own storybook assumptions, we somehow make them, for the beautiful, come true.

I began to understand the accusatory stares leveled at Julie, as though she had committed some grace offense or insult. Perhaps the insult was this: that she had painfully reminded us of the promise of beauty once made, as it was to me by fairy tale and fantasy and a well-meaning mother. A promise that, like so many other promises, would never materialize. Perhaps she reminded us that the kingdom is a nice community in the suburbs with good schools and a pool club. That the prince, for better of worse, does not exactly relish an endless waltz at the ball – if he’ll go near a dance floor at all. That even achievement ends not with a heraldic trumpet blare but with a satisfied stretch of the muscles at the end of a day of hard work. That so many of childhood’s sparkling dreams for the future, while we were busy elsewhere, became dreams laid to rest.

In the weeks that Julie was with us, I somehow came to stop noticing her beauty. What I mostly saw was how kind she was to my children, how helpful and cheerful to have a round the house. And I discovered that there was, after all, really nothing terribly powerful about this girl who liked to draw Magic Marker pictures with my sons and eat big bowls of chocolate ice cream every evening with her long legs sprawled in front of the TV. In other words, as my neighbor said to me about Julie, “You know, she’s really so nice, you can’t even hate her for her looks.”

About the Author: Jessica Bram is a writer, radio commentator and author of Happily Ever After Divorce: Notes of a Joyful Journey (Health Communications, Inc. 2009). She is the director of the Westport Writers’ Workshop, which she founded in 2003, where she teaches workshops in creative nonfiction, personal essay, and memoir.

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