I stand at the counter of my humid kitchen, hair tied back and hands pressed against the hundred-year-old wood, peering into my glass cabinet for a measuring jug. I double check my sister’s rice pudding recipe, which is also my mother’s, which was also my granny’s. I run my finger down the blue patterned card until I get to the amount of milk needed. The rice pudding calls for two and a half cups of full fat milk.
Fat. I think my mother tried desperately to shield us from that word, which is why, amazingly, I didn’t hear it until the first grade lunchroom. “Who’s the fat girl in your class?” The freckled-faced redhead who would, ten years later, become my prom date, asked me in the lunch line, piling his yellow tray high with reheated tater tots. “What’s her name?”
Unsure of what he meant, I stuck my tongue out at him and didn’t answer, but when I found my seat, I pushed my own tater tots— a favorite food— around the tray, no longer hungry. Looking back now, I realize that was the first time I heard someone defined or identified by something other than her name. And though I didn’t know then the full implications of fat in our society, I had a foul taste in my mouth, like I had just been exposed to a word that was dirty or bad. Fat, I learned in that lunchroom, was distasteful and undesirable. I determined that day to never let the word fat be associated with me.
In a small bowl, whisk together milk and sugar.
We had rice pudding every Sunday in my childhood home. I loved to have mine with vanilla ice cream, the cool dessert melting with the steaming hot pudding until a cream colored pool formed in my bowl, grains of rice lounging in the middle of it. My mother doled out portions generously, and unfinished bowls were met with raised eyebrows and incessant prodding— rice pudding was wasted by only the troubled or insane. I had reached high school before I noticed my mother only ever gave herself a few spoonfuls of the beloved dish.
Place rice in a buttered baking dish. Add the milk-sugar mixture.
My great aunt became pregnant in the post World War II era, during the last days of the Nazi Occupation of Jersey, a Channel Island off the coast of France. By 1945, most of the Islanders had gone four years without a proper meal. My great aunt had become a skeleton, her hip bones jutting through her skin, her ribs creating waves in the contours of her body. When food shipments finally came in again, she hoarded supplies, stacking high on every shelf tins of meat, fruit and fish. Her cupboards, from then until the day she died, reflected her attitude toward having enough, as though, at any minute, she expected the deafening planes of the Germans to land again on her island.
She was so thin, at this time, that the doctor told her to drink pints upon pints of milk— that if she wanted her baby not to starve the way she did, she’d better drink enough to feed her. Within three months, my great aunt was overweight.
She began gorging on Energen Rolls- the forerunner of diet foods. Because they contained so few calories, she always felt hungry. For the second time in her life, my great aunt starved, but now for a different reason, and yet she continued to gain weight. By the time I knew her, she was embarrassed to even leave her house.
In food-conscious people there’s a small delay, perhaps only a half second, between placing one’s hand on the fork and then lifting the fork to the mouth. I watched it in my great aunt and in my mother, and I watched it in “the fat girl” at school. I didn’t understand until years later, when I noticed it in myself, that this happens when the fork carries something much heavier than food: shame. The shame of eating in front of others, the feeling of being big, the idea that every person around the table is counting how many times you lift that fork to your mouth.
In my experience, nearly every woman goes through some kind of battle with food. In an age where food abounds, our stomachs, of all sizes, still crave: acceptance, power, the constant assurance that we are beautiful. Instead of delighting in our food, taking joy in the company of the flavors and each other, we become slaves to it. In these cases, we no longer have the freedom to enjoy rice pudding. We can either stare at it, pretending we can’t hear our own stomachs grumble, or we can eat it with a side of guilt.
Bake, uncovered, for two to three hours, at 300 degrees.
As smells of baking rice and milk fill the room, I dig out a silver photo album given to me by my cousin Jean at my wedding. It is full of old family photos. I turn to the page that contains the only picture I have of my great aunt. She wears a floral dress that falls to her knees— the photo is black and white so I don’t know what color, but I imagine purple— she wears her thick, dark hair in a practical bun. I notice her size, yes, but first, her smile. She was so kind, I remember, ever willing to have me on her knee, to listen to my stories and to tell me her own. She smelled of polo mints and soft perfume, and as a small child I adored it when she’d rock me back and forth, folding me into her gentle creases.
Who’s the fat girl in your class? What’s her name?
I learned at an early age to never ask for second helpings around my granny. She would tut her perfectly painted, pursed lips, and say, knowingly, “Ohhhh, Rach, be careful! You’ll end up fat.”
And there is my mother, who denies herself a proper helping.
And there is my great aunt, who stopped going out because of her size.
And there is me, getting my wedding dress resized twice because I am losing too much weight, because I can no longer eat a full meal without feeling panicky.
And there is my sister, who I hear crying late at night because she thinks she’s too big.
Fat, fat, fat.
I throw the photo album across the room. I want to throw away with it every association I’ve ever had with fat. When did we ever begin to associate our worth with our size? When did we ever get the idea that life is better lived thin and flavorless, that if we aren’t in perfect proportion, we should be ashamed to leave the house?
It took me a year to begin eating normally again. Even today, I still get anxious at a restaurant, when the waiter places a large plate in front of me. Carefully, with the side of my fork, I portion off what I will eat tonight and what I will save. I blame this on society: on whoever made my great aunt embarrassed to leave the house, whoever gave my granny a complex about seconds, whoever thought naming a girl the fat kid would be humorous.
The correlation between shame and food has lodged itself in the women of my family for long enough. I pull the rice pudding out of the oven. A thin, brown, skin has formed over the top, making it look just like my granny’s version, just like the version I watched my mother pull out of the oven on Sundays for years. Methodically, I dish myself out a cup of it, and pull the sticky half gallon of vanilla ice cream out of the freezer. I march out to my porch, I sweat in the July sun, and I enjoy every last bite. I refuse to feel any kind of guilt or shame. I am doing this for more than me.
I am doing this because there is so much more to life than fat.
Serve with ice cream and enjoy.
Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.