Growing up in New Orleans, everything we ate was saturated in grease, salt or sugar. Most times, the best tasting things included all three. (Hello, beignets and french fries!) Vegetables? Cooked down in some sort of fatty pork (picklemeat, in our house) until unrecognizeable. Good for you? Debatable. But boy was it delicious! Yet at the same time, a familiar refrain echoed through my ears between meals (never during, curiously):
“Don’t get fat.” ~Mom
“Don’t get fat like me behbeh” ~Grandma
“Don’t be gettin fat now, yahear” ~Dad
And the list goes on. Of course, during meals, it was always:
“Clean your plate.”
“I want you to eat this ENTIRE plate of food. Eat it!”
Or a more cloying, “What’s the matter baby? Are you not feeling well? Why aren’t you finishing your food?”
Or the standard, “Lord, these ungrateful children… there’s children starving… DYING! In Africa today, and these kids don’t wanna eat this food…”
To which a “Why don’t you ship it to them, then?!” response would end in a swift smack to the cheek. Or a longer, more protracted battle would ensue (depending on the grossness of the vegetable in question), ending in angry stomping on my part toward some corner or another for a time out.
At any rate, I was enrolled in dance classes at the age of three. By the age of 10, I could already down 5 chocolate glazed McKenzie’s donuts in a single sitting and polish off a man-sized plate of my grandma’s red beans and rice. Every Thursday after dance class, I had a McLean combo meal (because I preferred – and still do – my burgers with lettuce and large onion slices) from McDonald’s. I cried when they discontinued it, and switched to Quarter Pounders.
By the time I got to middle school, I was eating McDonald’s every day after school. I hated school lunch and used to tide myself over until Mickey D’s by eating plain Lays potato chips, hot pickles, and Cokes for lunch, sometimes substituting the hot pickles for plain M&M’s. I was enrolled in an after school dance program at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA, a wonderful institution) and would eat my #3 combo on the way to ballet 3+ times a week. I continued with private training as well as training at NOCCA, eventually abandoning them both to focus on my academic studies at more traditionally rigorous magnet high school. “You can be a dancing doctor,” they all said, “you need a stable career. Dancing is a hobby.” Meanwhile, when I transitioned schools, I rejoiced because my daily fast food fix became Wendy’s, where burgers and chicken sandwiches dallied among salad pitas and baked potatoes, always topped with fries and shakes of course. But because I was dancing four or more days a week for three or more hours, I burned through the calories like it was nothing. Not to mention I was growing like a weed.
All this fast food activity was, of course, in addition to the huge breakfast my mother fed me every morning and the huge dinner my grandma would serve every night. A typical weekday would start with fruit bowls, homemade biscuits, grits/eggs/bacon, and sandwich the fast food binge with stewed chicken, yellow rice, and stringbeans cooked in picklemeat. I tried to “go vegetarian” when I was about 15 (which consisted of me eating meatless Wendy’s pitas and french fries daily), but my grandmother *never* took the meat out of her veggies, and would ask me if I was ill every single time I would pick around the meat in any dish. It lasted about 8 months, and ended when my resolve crumbled in the face of a Port of Call hamburger.
Regardless, I never dreamed that I would ever gain actual weight, because I assumed that I’d be dancing for the rest of my life. So I never denied or learned to deny myself anything. I could eat half a chocolate cake or half a pan of brownies without blinking. Other girls my age had started dieting or developing eating disorders. The only diet I knew was the see-food diet. Not to mention the attention that I was already getting from men was anxiety inducing.
To be continued…