I was born with enormous appetites, into a family where such things were not allowed. When I was two months old, my mother told me, she brought me to the pediatrician, concerned because I nursed and nursed and never stopped.
“You were sucking me dry,” my mother said. “There was no satisfying you.”
In her version the pediatrician, too, was horrified, very concerned that I was gaining too much weight. He advised my mother to stop nursing and switch me to skim milk, allowing me to drink only a measured number of ounces and no more.
“You had no brakes,” my mother told me the doctor had concluded then. It was an amazingly prescient diagnosis in a baby so young.
“No brakes” became a phrase often repeated to the many psychiatrists my mother brought me to see. There were so many things wrong with me: I was greedy and jealous, hostile and oppositional. I was a liar. I snuck food and fought with my slim younger sister. My mother had to have padlocks installed on the kitchen cupboards, and once I even broke through those. In a family where every single other member was thin, I was fat.
“Don’t you wish you could cross your legs like this?” my mother would ask, her long dancer’s legs crossed both at the knee and at the ankle. I could barely bring one ham-like thigh over the other. “Don’t you wish you could see the bones in your hand?” she would ask, gliding her fingers up down as the bones moved in the back of her hand like mallets in a piano. In contrast, I could see that my own my hand was puffy, dough-like, dimpled where the knuckles should have been, grotesque.
I am not the only one who hungers. There is a series on TLC called My 600-lb Life that follows enormously obese individuals as they undergo weight loss surgery and then try to reclaim their lives. At the center of every episode is a Persian vascular surgeon, Dr. Nowzaradan (known as “Dr. Now” by his patients), whose Houston Renaissance Hospital is the only facility willing to risk operating on individuals who weigh more than six hundred pounds: patients who are considered “super morbidly obese,” those with BMIs exceeding fifty. These are the most massive patients in the country—people who are very close to death and have no other hope.
I have watched other television shows on the morbidly obese and have seen the way the camera trains a gaping eye on the molten rolls of flesh and the purple, elephantine masses that hang between trunk-like legs. In these other shows, I have watched the mothers of bedridden teenagers cook a dozen fried eggs and a pound of bacon for their child’s breakfast. I have watched husbands bring their half-ton wives twenty pieces of fried chicken and a gallon of mashed potatoes for lunch. I have seen the patients sneak doughnuts and Twinkies into their hospital rooms when they are supposed to be on restricted, liquid diets. I expected a similar treatment from My 600-lb Life. After all, the show was airing on TLC, the same network that brought us My Strange Addiction, Sex Sent Me to the ER, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. What I never expected was that My 600-lb Life would treat its subjects with respect, tenderness, and something that feels like love.
* * *
In the Connecticut house where I grew up, food was not meant to be eaten, although it could be served. My father sat down to only one meal a day: dinner—and then often ignoring the steak and green beans on his plate in favor of the salad my mother prepared for him each night, with wedges of iceberg lettuce and an entire red onion, sliced thick. My mother smoked Virginia Slims through the meal, often eschewing food altogether and getting her calories instead from the gin and tonic sweating in a cocktail glass inscribed “You Can Never Be Too Rich or Too Thin.” Our family never had dessert, of course, except for once a year: on our birthdays, when my grandmother baked each of us a Betty Crocker spice cake with mocha frosting. Then each of us was allowed one small piece. We ate our cake standing up in the kitchen, each silky bite chewed briefly and then spit into the sink. Whatever remained of the cake was pushed into the disposal and ground up, my mother whispering, “Get thee behind me, Satan,” like a prayer, a benediction.
* * *
The patients in My 600-lb Life have dinners with their families too—except, on the show, each patient seems to be at the center of a ring of love and care. The food that is shared is prepared with love, however misguided. Plates are filled with beans and sausages, meatloaf slick with cheese, deep fried wontons, pulled pork whose juices are sopped up with six slices of white bread.
“I cooked how I knew to cook,” one mother tells the camera. Her son James is thirty-seven and weighs nearly seven hundred pounds. His father and his sister have both died of obesity-related causes. “I hope my son is not too bitter at me for that.”
James then looks into the camera. “Sometimes I want to tell my mom just shoot me, just end it now,” he says, his blue eyes filling with tears. “But I could never leave her. I could never let my mom go through another death. I don’t ever want her to be alone like that.”
Of course my family never ate this way. Of course no one in San Francisco, where I live now, eats this way—no one. Bagels are viewed as sinful sources of carbs, half the produce section is devoted to kale, baskets are filled with goji berries and maca and wild-caught salmon. At work in Mill Valley, clients tell me with self-righteous pride that they are “mostly Paleo,” or “eating raw,” or on a “lemon and cayenne cleanse.” All of this makes me feel almost unbearably alone, although in terms of body size I now “pass” for normal. But I am not. I am the furthest thing from normal. I am a lonely, obese monstrosity hiding in plain sight.
As I watch My 600-lb Life, alone late at night with all the lights off, watch the dinners served on red-checked oil cloths, watch gravy poured over biscuits, and pizza bubbling with cheese, I too feel something like love, like acceptance. I want to place my body between these rural families and the judgments of the Bay Area hipsters and foodies, the judgments of my WASPy Connecticut family. I want to protect Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients. I want to protect myself.
The documentary shows us a world in which the family table functions as an oasis, a source of peace and comfort and love in the midst of a world that views a “600-lb” person as an aberration, something grotesque. This is what keeps me watching these shows night after night after night—not the amount of food that is eaten, not the amount of grease or salt or calories, but the fact that food is prepared with love and eaten with pleasure. It is like a window into a world I can’t imagine for myself.
* * *
Up until puberty, I could almost pass for normal. My mother dressed me carefully, in slimming navy blue dresses sewn to order by my grandmother, A-line, with buttons running down the center. I was not allowed to wear pants or shorts to school. I was not allowed to swim at the public pool or accompany my family on vacation. When I was twelve, I was sent to fat camp in the Catskills. When I returned home at 110 pounds, my father had left our house and moved into an apartment near his office in Hartford. Maybe, I thought to myself, maybe if I just lost a little more weight, he would come back to us.
Instead, over the course of the next year, I became a grotesquerie myself, ballooning up to a bloated 250 lbs. before I turned thirteen. I ate anything and everything, sneaking down at night for slice after slice of rye toast with butter, spoonfuls of mint jelly, hot dogs eaten raw, and even dry spaghetti when there was nothing else left. I was so big I was not allowed to ride my sister’s pony or sit on our kitchen chairs. I let the boys in my class take me into the woods after school and do anything they wanted to my body; I thought it was the only chance I would ever have in my life to be touched. Once, at a junior high party, a boy asked if any of the girls wanted to outside “for some action.” When I volunteered, he reconsidered. “Uh, no thanks,” he said. And then, to the other boys at the party, “I didn’t mean that much action.”
I was too big to fit into the largest size of corduroys at the Levi’s store, too big for my riding boots, too big to buy clothes anywhere except the Army Navy surplus store along the highway. My thighs rubbed together when I walked, and there were jagged red stretch marks running down my breasts and across my hips. The whole house shook as I walked across the floor. Worse, as my body grew larger and larger, my voice got smaller and higher, sounding like a chipmunk, a squirrel, a squeaking rat. Eventually I could barely make any sound come out of my lips at all.
Then, one rainy night, our dog got hit by a car. When I found her under my bed, her entire side had been ripped open. Blood had soaked through my carpet. Everyone else was afraid to touch her, so I carried her to the car and held her in my arms as we drove to the vet, watching her pink lungs rise and fall through the gaping wound in her chest wall. The vet met us in the parking lot and took her into his arms from mine. He took her into surgery and tried to close the gaping hole in her chest wall, finally calling us near midnight. She had made it through the operation, he said, but had lost one of her lungs. It would be touch and go for a long time to come.
It was a hard recovery. She had to stay at the vet’s hospital for a month. She wouldn’t eat the vet’s food and was alarmingly thin, her hip bones so sharp they nearly broke through the fragile skin covering her back. Every day after school, I would boil a whole chicken in broth with carrots and celery and then bring the whole pot to her cage. I’d kneel on my dimpled knees next to her shivering body, pull the warm chicken meat from the bone, and feed it to her, handful by handful, letting her lick the broth from my cupped palm. It was the only thing she would eat.
When it was time for her to come home, she needed antibiotic injections twice a day in the muscles of her back legs. This was going to be my job. The doctor had me practice with a syringe and an orange in his back office. He stood behind me, guiding my fingers on the syringe, his hands massive and warm and crisscrossed with black hairs. He smelled clean, like soap, like a shirt fresh from the dryer.
“You have wonderful hands,” he said to me, “steady and kind. You could be a vet, if you wanted to.”
My dimpled, doughy, and repulsive hands were, in the eyes of this kind and skillful man, wonderful. Steady and kind, he had said, looking at the same plump fingers and skin shiny from the chicken fat. I am steady and kind, I thought to myself. I am. I thought of how my hands had pulled the warm chicken meat from the bone and fed it to my injured dog; I thought how she would only eat if the food came from my hands. I thought of how gently she lapped the broth from my palm and how I had helped her to get well. The vet was the first person who showed me a version of my body that was something other than repulsive. He saw another side to me, a capacity for care and healing that was largely obscured by the mountains of flesh under which I moved through the world.
Likewise, Dr. Nowzaradan, with his “morbidly” obese patients, places his surgeon’s hands on the flesh that no other doctor will touch, and sees through to the human being beneath. I was, in a way, born again in that veterinarian’s office, just as Dr. Now’s patients are in his Renaissance Hospital.
I work at an animal hospital now, as a nurse. I am at my best with the most fragile and fractious patients. My hands are still, I hope, steady and kind, and experienced now as well. I feel good with the animals: calm and accepted. My body is, to the uninitiated eye, unremarkable—neither fat nor thin, a size which enables me to move through the world invisibly, safe from judgments about what I eat or how much space I take up in the world. But I am still, at times, living a “600-lb” life, unsure whether I will fit through the door or if the office chair will break when I sit on it.
What a comfort it is to pull the blinds and listen to Dr. Now’s cadenced voice as he talks to his massive patients with quiet respect and love. During one episode, Chuck is not able to reconcile with his angry wife, who leaves him shortly after his surgery, taking their infant son. The scene is heartbreaking and difficult to watch: Chuck weeps and begs her to stay as she zips her suitcase closed and slams the door. We see Chuck left alone on the living room sofa, his massive shoulders heaving with sobs. Weeks later, the camera returns. We watch as Chuck peels off his shirt and wades through the bog behind his house to the clear water beyond, to a pond that is buoyant and cool. He dives under and comes up smiling, then floats on his back. “This feels nice,” he tells us. And as I watch these patients make their way back into the world, as I watch the capacity for love and generosity in the families that care for them, I feel some of the wonder that Chuck must feel as the water caressed his body for the first time.
My own family is around me now, my daughters snug in their beds and the cats purring on my lap. My husband comes up behind me and strokes my hair as the house settles all around us. “This feels nice,” I tell him, and close my computer for the night.
Dolly Reynolds’ work has been published in numerous journals, including Euphony (forthcoming), North American Review, Lullwater Review, Phoebe, Worcester Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Portland Review, decomP and Gemini Magazine. She has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and received the Wilner Award for Short Fiction from San Francisco State.