Scarlet Letter E

I wonder how many adults realize the damage they do to kids in just fleeting moments of life that cannot be retrieved. There are things that I have held onto for decades, these events that define me, that control my everyday lady actions, even at 42, even at the lady successful level of charmed existence that I lead. No matter how many dreams I have dreamed and realized, these nightmares still haunt me. I’ve never grown up really. They are small things. Barely a blip in the consciousness of another, but a deep unrelenting scar that aches for eternity in me.

Sitting down at a friend’s family home, just teenagers satisfying that after school hunger that is insatiable. There is something about eating after school – there’s no way to fill up the bottomless well there. School was such a battle, for me all the years I managed it. I never went to school one day where it was okay. From daycare on – it was always always terrible. To this day, I still wake up at 6:50am and my first thought is, “I don’t have school today!” and I am sure I will think this every morning and will worry the day I don’t think this first thing. Miraculously, I did manage to have a friend here and there. She and I ate often at her home after school, where the blessed refrigerator was not filled with embarrassing Korean things fermenting, which is what my home was; giant jars of cabbage and fish that shamed me painfully then, but what I would give anything for now, as a sophisticated and worldly gourmand. Then it was just the pain of my immigrant existence. But her kitchen was filled with buttery chafing dishes of noodle kugle, thick with raisins and cream – there was not a fish eye or egg in sight – welcome relief further intoxicating me with the exoticism of white people. I loved her family’s Russian Jewish cooking. All the latkes in the world will never be enough for me. My kingdom for a stuffed cabbage.

That day there were latkes there, cold stacks, tiny air bubbles dotting the surface like steam widened facial pores, ready to be filled up with sour cream and applesauce. Rolls of stuffed cabbage, tomato sauce crispy with celery and onion – and of course the beloved noodle kugle. What I love about the eastern European dishes are the sweetness – probably invented to cut the bitterness of life there. Whatever the origin, whatever the reasons – it’s fucking good. We dished out heaping servings onto thick rustic 70’s plates and microwaved them without covering, so the food was heated unevenly, bites containing scalding hot morsels and disconcerting cold lumps. It didn’t matter because it was about getting the food down. Her mother came in suddenly and sat down, taking a moment from the ‘Me era’ to sit with her daughter, but probably only to satisfy her own guilt, so it was still in keeping with the times. She looked at the food on our plates and she looked at me and said, “You have an eating disorder. You have to stop eating like that. What is wrong with you? What makes you eat like that? You have to stop! You have to STOP RIGHT NOW!!!” My friend threw her fork down and said, “GOD! MOM! SO EMBARRASSING!!! This is why I have like NO FRIENDS!!!!!GOD!!!”

I felt sick immediately, the fat in the food coagulating in my blood and stopping it. It felt like a heart attack, or a tranquilizer dart right in the chest, felling me in my tracks. Like when you take your battery out of your phone – just blank screen. Blank. Mother and daughter were full on fighting now but I had checked out and gone somewhere else. We were all still sitting there but I don’t really know what happened after that. Perhaps we went to my friend’s room and drowned out her neurotic mother’s musings with Duran Duran, but whatever happened I know that I was permanently changed. I had been marked with a big scarlet letter “E” on my chest for “eating disorder.” That was when I was tagged in the wild and categorized forever, and even though I was put back into the general population, I carry the mark to this day.

22 thoughts on “Scarlet Letter E

  1. Wow, what an awful mom. I’m so glad your friend gave her hell!

    Did you hear about that awful “Tiger Mother” woman who calls her own children “garbage”?

  2. I think about this sort of thing when I hear grown-ups tell my niece & newphews things such as: “It’s just (fill in the blank: a bully, High School, a phase, a misunderstanging) you’ll forget all about it in a week.” ….we/you don’t forget these things, ever. As you said, we are often (sadly, and for reasons beyond our control) “defined” by the things we deal with and are dealt in childhood… Grown-ups should remember that EVERY time they speak to a child.

  3. I think about this sort of thing when I hear grown-ups tell my niece & newphews things such as: “It’s just (fill in the blank: a bully, High School, a phase, a misunderstanding) you’ll forget all about it in a week.” ….we/you don’t forget these things, ever. As you said, we are often (sadly, and for reasons beyond our control) “defined” by the things we deal with and are dealt in childhood… Grown-ups should remember that EVERY time they speak to a child.

  4. I had a similar experience when someone in my class pointed out to me that I had a double chin. It was devestating and I have never really gotten over it. I had always been called fat but never had a particular body part pointed out which is probably why it resonated so deeply with me. Shortly after this I decided to become a vegetarian which was a deluded way for me to be anorexic. I just would eat anything except a Sprite for lunch. I was 10. I can’t imagine what kind of an effect it would have had on me should an adult mentioned this to me. Simply astounding…

  5. Ms M~

    What you have on you is a dayglo, glittered, bright as the sun giant B for beautiful inside and out. I can empathize with your feelings, and know that there are no real words to erase those images. I also know that the typed word of a girl you’ve never meant will barely smother the burning desire for people to see past the bullspit you throw out there at times to cover the urge to break down and just beg to somone good “Love me, see me, want me for who I am” but know that everywhere there are ladies out there part of your pack, soul sister. I wish you nothing but tangible happy dreams.

    You’re a true inspiration to me.

    Thank you for you…


  6. It’s got to be more than blame the parents. The shit gets passed down, I did to my kids what was done to me, with hopefully a little more awareness, I apologized, at least, and knew it was wrong. Now I’m seeing my middle aged kids handing down their version to my grandchildren. It isn’t easy to make it stop. And I can tell you for sure, that one reason it happens is that parents are scared shitless about the safety of their children. Ironic? Sure, but true. Even the wanting them not to be different is based on fear of the painted bird phenomenon.

  7. Thank you so much for your honesty. It felt like I could feel your pain sitting there humiliated. The greatest of your story is that you survived, thrived and now are free from that verbal bondage. Good for you & thanks again for being such an Icon.

  8. Traumatic indeed! It is amazing what shit we keep forever inside. We all have stories that we can tell. How theraputic it is to write down and let it out. I want to thank you for sharing because irregardless of our age, we so need to be able to relate to others because we all have that inner child that is still searching for a “yea, you’re O.K. feeling.

  9. Oh, for a TARDIS so I could travel back in time and SLAP THAT WOMAN SILLY.

    I’m glad your friend had some perspective, but that didn’t stop her mother from stabbing you like that. I’m so sorry.

  10. Love, love love this post. It should be reprinted everywhere. 🙂

    Lesson learned-don’t pass your personal food phobias onto children-yours, or your childrens friends, or children in your care. I was skinny all of my childhood, and when I developed, a teacher actually said it was too bad I wasn’t skinny anymore. But I was still skinny, I just had boobs! I still remember it 30 or so years later, and it creeps into my head every once in awhile.

  11. Miss Margaret,

    I have been a fan of many years and this is a subject I know all too well. The little things that parents (or other adults) say to kids that twist their personal perceptions.

    I was a fat kid, and now I am a fat adult. I can remember being around 6 years old and my mother taking me with her to our church pastor’s home to deliver something and they were just sitting down to a fried chicken dinner. The food smelled so good, and our own dinner had been something I had not cared for but was forced to eat. When the pastor’s wife asked if I would like something, I told you that I would, but my mother said “No.” and as soon as we were out the door I was railed at as having embarrassed her. It was one of many instances that taught me to equate the desire for food with “shame”.

    Yet, I was also rewarded with food. For special days (start of school, birthdays, etc.) we would awaken to the smell of a HUGE breakfast being prepared with ham (or sausage) and bacon, homemade biscuits, grits, eggs, potatoes, and my grandmother’s special homemade chocolate sauce for the biscuits. Each week we received our “allowance” as my mother did the weekly shopping by being told to that we had “$X to spend”. Of course, we were limited by what was at the grocery store.

    And later, in junior high, when I began to experience more bullying and teasing about my weight, I was found one night in my bed crying over the dread of facing another day of the name-calling. My mother came in and questioned my crying and when I told her what was wrong, she simply said that I had to pretend that it didn’t bother me. Even if I was hurt or saddened by what someone said to me, I should smile and be jolly, because people only like being around fat people who are jolly.

    It took me years to break free of these “lessons”. I’m not happy with my weight, but I own it. I will change it as I am able and ready, and I own that. All I need from those around me is to look at me, and see a WHOLE person. Luckily, I have a number of people who do just that.

  12. As a soon-to-be mom reading something like this has me a bit worried about how I will raise my kids to deal with food. I’ve also had a bad relationship with food stemming from childhood. Mine was like the European family that you visited. I was always encouraged to eat eat eat! That is, until I hit puberty. Then I was too fat to enjoy food anymore.
    I’ve come a long way, but I worry that by trying to be more conscientious about being healthy I will instill the paranoia into my own kids. It’s hard to decide how to handle it if you do see your kids following your obese footsteps. Obviously the mother you mentioned handled her concern poorly.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  13. This sentiment resonates deeply with me. I grew up with a cold, narcissistic mother but of course did not recognize it at the time. All I knew was that, from as young as I can remember, I did not see her at all as a person to look to for warmth, comfort, encouragement, love, or even basic kindness.

    She relied on sarcasm as a daily tool to cut me with… otherwise I was simply off her radar.

    It was only when I grew up and had children of my own, that I began to fully understood the legacy of my upbringing. When dealing with my own children, flashbacks to my own childhood would remind me of how I was spoken to and how I was treated. I was appalled every day by the memories, and the idea that a mother could treat her own children that way.

    Luckily, it made me very focused on how NOT to treat my own children… just avoid doing what my mother did, and I would usually get it right.

    It requires a daily struggle on my part not to let the years of mistreatment growing up to affect my life now, decades later.

  14. As it turns out, I’m in the process of writing a chapter about Margaret Cho in a book about women comics, and I’m working on the ways “I’m the One that I Want” reads as a recovery story as well as a manifesto. So I was touched and stunned to find this entry, posted the very day I was writing about this topic. It’s a startling and much-needed reminder about how our bodies get “marked.” That final metaphor is a killer!

  15. Margaret: Please help those in the SF community who are trying to help take care of those bodies (queer/trans/poor/women) that need to be taken care of the most:

    We need women like yourself to help those who don’t usually even believe their bodies are worthy, political, and valuable in and of themselves. Please, please help.

  16. Hiya : )
    Why do men and women (society generally) still pre-judge people with body art. girls especially?
    I am a twenty six year old F, have 11 tattoos, lots of which cannot be spotted on my day to day travels. 5 – 6 during the warm months are pretty much constantly on display. I do not strive for attention and I have a loving boyfriend Without TATTOOS .I get the impression that many people think that tattooed persons are blind, once we get stared at, even when we return a glance people continue staring. When will society improve?

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