From Aspic to Oysters
I found the 1961 photograph in my desk drawer behind the clutter of loose index cards and paper clips. How did it get there? I had recently flipped through a family photo album, a trove of yellowed snapshots chronicling our childhood celebrations and special events. I remembered lifting this particular photo out from behind the page’s tattered plastic covering to study it more closely.
In the black and white photo, I am about 10.The scene is my Aunt Mimi’s kitchen, the occasion—our extended family’s Christmas dinner. At the kitchen’s entrance, my stocky body fills most of the doorframe; my cousins and siblings stand in line behind me, poking their heads around, anxious for the buffet action to begin. In front of me sits a table heaped with scalloped potatoes, petite peas, tomato aspic, and something in the middle that must be turkey or maybe stuffing.Aunt Mimi was renowned for both.
My plaid shirtdress has wide white yoking and puffed sleeves that pinch my fleshy upper arms.Tight black curls frame my round face. My left hand grasps a dinner plate, my right hand is balled tight in a fist.Tentatively, an uncertain half-smile on my face, I look vacantly to the far left, not exactly at Aunt Mimi, who faces the camera, standing proudly next to the Christmas feast, nor at my mother, who waits in the foreground partly obscured from the camera. Model gorgeous and a perfect size 8, she holds her plate on which small portions of each dinner item are carefully arranged in a circle.
Behind me, my 12-year-old brother, trim and dapper in suit and tie, pushes forward—enthusiastically, aggressively even—extending his arm around me to grab a dinner plate.The world is his oyster; all he’s looking at is the food.
As a young girl, I was a “chubbette,” the term used during the 1950s in ads targeting overweight girls in search of outfits that fit.The tagline “Your Chubby Lass Can Be Belle of Her Class” promised a salve for parents worried that their daughters would forever be body- shamed by the cool kids. Store catalogues headlined chubbette clothing with a “Free for Chubbies Fall and Winter Fashion Book.” The idea of “fashion” for girls like me was a stretch. Dress colors were limited to black, dark blue, and brown, designed to make the chubbette look slimmer, at least according to the ads.
My mother and I would travel to Lane Bryant in downtown Philadelphia, a department store that catered to overweight girls and women. I dreaded trying on clothes. Did my small dressing room even have a mirror? What sticks most in my memory was stepping out of my curtained privacy where other girls like me and their mothers could see that the dress was too tight, the sleeves looked like they were cutting off my circulation, the color was all wrong. My mother and the salesperson tried hard to point out an outfit’s positive aspects. Such a pretty shade of blue! Dresses with full skirts really work for you! But I could see the disappointment on my mother’s face. She didn’t like the clothes any more than I did.
In the early ’60s, stores started to include clothing in lighter shades and pastels after some psychologist suggested that wearing dark colors may cause depression. I was to learn, after the fact, that Lane Bryant also hosted the “Chub Club.” I guess they thought connecting with other fat girls would be therapeutic.
Even without the internet and cable television, representations of the ideal female body shape were everywhere in the 1950s. Like other girls my age, I swooned over Walt Disney’s female stars like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, always presented as slender, creamy-complexioned, charitable, and often in need of rescue.While rags to riches stories at the time almost always featured young men rising to success through smarts, good deeds, and hard work, a girl in the 1950s got the message that she had to rely on a pretty face, a skinny body, and a handsome prince to make her way in the world.
Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, ubiquitous popular magazines in middle-class households like mine, transformed Disney’s slender heroines into everyday women, reminding girls that slim was preferred in the real world, too.Advertisements featured trim, fashionable housewives who promoted effective and convenient cleaning strategies or beauty products. At the time, I was especially enraptured by the Breck Shampoo Girls. Glistening eyes, radiant smiles, loose curls, and not a chubby cheek to be found. I didn’t just admire them. I wanted to be them.With frizzy hair and a chubby face, I was pretty sure Breck Girl glamour wasn’t in my future. But that never kept me from gazing at them in awe, wishing myself into their good looks.
I wasn’t always overweight as a child. From photos I’ve seen, I began gaining weight around the time I started first grade at the Catholic school associated with our parish.Although I loved learning, I was a nervous student, worried about an imperfect homework assignment or a forgotten spelling workbook.The nuns were demanding, and such misdemeanors could mean being sent to the back of the room to stand during the entire lesson.Their approach only exacerbated the insecurity and uneasiness I often felt at home, where my Irish-Catholic father’s strict approach to child-rearing already kept me on edge. By third grade, piping-hot Bisquick biscuits, slathered with butter, became my go-to comfort snack.
My brothers and sisters, to their credit, didn’t make fun of me, although I can’t imagine that there wasn’t the occasional wisecrack, quickly squelched, no doubt, by one or both parents. School was a different story. In third grade, our teacher, Sister Joseph of Nazareth, asked us to clean out our large wooden desks, which in 1959 meant kneeling on the floor and organizing the book compartment under the seat.When I took a little longer than my classmates to get my books in order, I heard her voice calling from the front of the classroom:“Who’s that little tugboat down there?” I turned red and hot. My classmates stared, maybe one or two snickered, which later devolved into the occasional “Hey Tugboat” or “Fatty Patty” in the school yard.
With the introduction of Barbie in 1959, a doll with a shapely figure entered the playroom with great fanfare, and the message was clear: a buxom female with a small waist was the new standard for good looks. I don’t recall whether my parents forbade Barbies in our Catholic household; my sister and I played constantly with two baby dolls, Ginger and Fluffy, which we had gotten with cereal box tops. Baby dolls emphasized mothering skills. Popular baby dolls at the time like Betsy Wetsy or Tiny Tears needed diaper changes or comforting cooing. Barbie took the doll’s image in a whole new direction with her enviable figure, exotic outfits for every occasion, and a lavish lifestyle complete with dream house, fancy car, and boyfriend Ken. In the first year of production, more than 300,000 Barbies were sold.
Although I never owned a Barbie, I was very aware that I looked nothing like this new national icon. In a culture where body image was so front and center, it’s no wonder Weight Watchers found a captive audience with its debut in 1963, expanding during the decade to include a summer camp for overweight children.
While my mother’s efforts to help me lose weight did not includeWeightWatchers summer camp (primarily attended by girls, no doubt), she explored plenty of other options in her crusade to “save me” from going through life at such a disadvantage. Our family doctor recommended a variety of diets as well as increased exercise. As a bookworm, my idea of a perfect day was going to the library in the morning and spending the afternoon following Anne of Green Gables’ travails in her new Canadian home. I avoided team sports because I knew I’d let everyone down.
But diets became a big part of my world. One in particular stood out for its somewhat draconian approach to dropping weight. I was advised by our family doctor to count calories during the week, but if by Friday, I had not lost two pounds, I could not eat or drink anything but fruit and water for the entire weekend. I tried, I really did, but stomach growls wore down my resolve. Inevitably, I would sneak a handful of Utz potato chips or Oreos in between apples and oranges. My hunger was assuaged, but not the gnawing feeling that I had once again let my mother down. No self-control. A failure.
Next my mother turned to diet pills. I could not have been more than ten or eleven when the doctor prescribed pills to cut my appetite. I have learned since that I was probably taking some form of amphetamines, a common drug for obesity in the ’60s. For a child who already suffered from anxiety and insecurity, this was a dose of disaster. I had trouble sleeping, occasional nosebleeds, and more often than not I felt like a speeding roller coaster as it crested the top of a precipice.
Eventually, I found my own antidote to the anxiety and embarrassment in a cloudy liquid that made me feel calm and comforted after just a few sips: paregoric. My mother had used it to sooth our sore gums as babies and now kept it stored on the top shelf of the medicine cabinet. Somehow I knew that my clandestine visits to the bathroom were wrong on every level, but I couldn’t keep away. Paregoric’s numbing effects swept over me, and with that my crippling insecurities melted away. No wonder. It contained high amounts of both alcohol and a form of opium. As a teenager, sloe gin, pilfered from my parents’ liquor cabinet, provided that same rush of comfort, the same pseudo-confidence. In adulthood, chilled white wine or scotch on the rocks did the trick.
While my extra pounds discouraged me from participating in anything remotely related to sports, I embraced dancing wholeheartedly. Often I would play showtunes on our hi-fi and dance around our living room.Two of my favorites? “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” Unconsciously, I imagine I was finding in music what I knew would be impossible to achieve in real life: marriage and desirability.
When my Girl Scout leaders decided that we would perform a Spanish dance for a regional scout talent show, complete with costumes and castanets, I was elated.We girls delighted in our long black skirts with red ruffles, sashes, and bright tops, the flamenco-like twists and turns we executed.At the end of one of the many practices, the dance teacher, with whom I had never had an extended conversation, asked me to wait for a few minutes after class. Secretly, I hoped she was going to compliment me on my dancing ability.
“Patty,” she started. “You’re so popular!” Flattered and probably a bit confused, I mumbled, “Thanks” and began heading for the exit.
“But wait,”she said.“If I can give you one piece of advice.” Her words of wisdom went something like this:“You should lose weight.You have such a pretty face. Being overweight will keep you from all sorts of things. Sports, dances, all of it.”
Did my weight keep me from doing “all sorts of things”? Certainly, some. But more than that, it was the reaction to my weight from people I loved and admired that utterly deflated me. My mother’s determination to solve my “weight problem”; the nun’s tugboat comment; the snide remarks from classmates; the dance instructor’s unsolicited advice.And countless other large and small displays of displeasure, sometimes pity.The disappointed looks, the eyeing up and down. Even in adulthood, after I discussed extra weight with my primary care physician, she called out as I was leaving:“Hope I see less of you next time!” I knew she meant lighter, but in my psyche, it registered as erasure.
I wonder. Of all the photos I looked at in that album weeks before, why did this one prompt me to look more closely?
In truth, I identified with that little girl. After years of growth in self-awareness, countless hours of therapy, and jobs that demanded high levels of responsibility and expertise, I knew somehow that her hesitancy, her tentative demeanor, her checking in for approval from someone, anyone in that kitchen, is still part of me. What a contrast to my “normal-sized” brother, the oldest boy in our Irish Catholic family, who needed no validation from anyone.
I’m not surprised that my younger self ended up in the hodgepodge of my desk drawer. I imagine I tossed her among the junk from some desire to keep her close, but not so close that I’d see her every day.While my heart ached for her, she also painfully reminded me of the self-doubt that has plagued me for years. If she is my past, I am her future.
Months have passed since I retrieved that photo. My 10-year- old self now sits on a table in our dining room, properly framed and prominently displayed. Each time I pass her, I pause to recognize her, really see her, both in the photo and in myself, no longer shamed about that part of myself but embracing it, embracing her and telling her she’s perfectly OK just the way she is.
If I can do that for her, I might be able to do it for myself.