Once I was pretty and my daddy called me Princess. At age five, my long blond hair flowed all the way down to my seat. The snapshots show a pretty little thing, but somehow oh so uncomfortable in her own skin. Looking at the black and white picture from Kindergarten, I see a girl with sad eyes and a wan smile. To adult me, she looks depressed and I wish I could give her a hug. But we didn’t have vocabulary for that back in Midwestern America circa 1962.
Mom said the teachers at Hilltop Elementary loved to see how she styled or braided my long hair and made a fuss over me. But laying me on the kitchen counter, draping my heavy hair into the sink to wash it, and then getting it dry became too much to manage. My dad, who worked for Proctor & Gamble, said the company needed virgin hair to test shampoo and would pay twenty dollars for mine. I’ve heard my mom’s rendition: they asked me if I wanted to get it cut, and I agreed. What’s a five-year-old supposed to say? When I was sitting on the booster seat in the stylist’s chair, right before they chopped off the length, Mom said a big tear rolled down my cheek. I got a pixie haircut, all the rage back then. My parents opened a savings account for me and the bonus was years of tears for feeling I looked like a boy.
Always a performer, I took ballet and tap lessons, and even went on a couple of auditions for commercials in Cincinnati. One vivid memory is a dance recital when I was seven. Our tap routine had a nautical theme and my teacher Miss Barbara chose a sailor shirt and red underpants for our costume. I didn’t want to be on stage in front of people with so much bare skin showing. This is the first memory of my feelings being discounted by Mom. “Why are you making such a big deal about it? It’s just a dance recital. All the other girls are going to be wearing the same thing.” How did I become so anxious about my body at such a young age?
Something changed around that time. All I know is that I made a deal with myself, with little Pammie, “I’ll never say no to you for food.” There, I’ve said it. Food and my size was the issue in my family for me, not my brother. Did I become a “big” girl? Class pictures provide the evidence. I was always in the middle of the back row, taller and sometimes rounder than the other girls. Not cute like the petite girls, sitting with white lace-trimmed socks and crossed ankles in the front row of the group. It’s normal to gain some weight right before a growth spurt, isn’t it? But Dad’s friend Bob always called me his “meat-n-taters girl.” Was that cute affection or pointing out that I needed to eat more salad? Kids called me Hippo in elementary school. These days we call that bullying.
My parents were children of the Depression, very frugal, from small towns in upstate New York. Mom stayed at home and Dad pushed himself to achieve a middle-class lifestyle. “Work hard,” were his words of advice as he left every morning for the office or business trips. And I did. Getting good grades, hoping for acceptance by performing well. I wore clothes sewn by Mom or hand-me-downs from the older girl across the street. Hard to fit, I have a picture of me in a yellow dress, bought at the special “Chubette” section of the local department store. Yes, there was such a thing back then. Such an un-PC name. Poor store buyers didn’t know what to do with these special-sized girls who were never going to partake of the Junior department. No sizes 1 or 3, or even 5 or 7 for them. The big girls breezed right past Junior and were escorted to Missy, size 14’s.
Mom was a good cook, but when my parents went out to play duplicate bridge or attend the Gamboliers dance club they bought fast food at Henry’s Hamburgers for me and my brother. Doughnuts on Saturday mornings were a treat. My favorite was the apple-filled one dusted with powdered sugar from Daily Doughnuts. Sometimes Dad made pancakes on the griddle. Looking back, the way they absorbed the margarine and Log Cabin syrup was the way I absorbed his issues about food. Was it wrong to ask for seconds or even thirds if I wasn’t full yet? Here, take this food I prepared for you with love but let me add a dollop of put-down, criticism, or a biting remark. Love and not-love got so mixed up. Even the remarks biting and cutting were related to food preparation. It was how the food, which I liked and sometimes filled me up, blended with the guilt of don’t eat too much or don’t ask for seconds on dessert that confused me.
Sunday nights we usually sat together as a family to watch the Wonderful World of Disney on TV. Dad made buttery popcorn my brother Bruce and I gobbled down while we enjoyed the show. Family times revolved around food, but I couldn’t figure out when it was okay to eat and when I shouldn’t. The feelings of deprivation started in elementary school because parents and pediatrician were already watching my weight. Little Pammie, meaning my soul not my size, took a portion-controlled brown bag lunch. Mom packed a half sandwich of peanut butter and jelly or Buddig brand cold cuts, some celery or carrot sticks and a small apple. It left me feeling empty inside but I couldn’t say so. I was trying to be someone, or some size, pleasing to everyone.
In the elementary school pictures, my shirts are always buttoned all the way to the top. I can’t decide if I was trying to cover up my unacceptable body or button up my emotions. Don’t bother sharing your strong feelings and complaining doesn’t change anything were messages I’d already internalized. But don’t worry little Pammie, you’ll always have food. More vivid than these other scenes is “the Piggy incident.” Sitting on the brown pleather La-Z-Boy recliner eating a bowl of ice cream, my dad walked by and commented, “Did you get enough there, Piggy?” It’s a tattoo on my heart I can never have removed. I might be giving you the impression that my dad and his judgments were my main issue. But through the years I’ve wondered where my mom was. She was there and not there at the same time; a ghostly figure, off to the side.
When summer came, the yard was lovely but I couldn’t sit on the grass because of chigger bites. They itched uncontrollably and made me want to scratch. I’d been told not to, but I was a little girl and couldn’t control it. Once in my bedroom I picked the scabs off one by one until blood started to make flowy ribbons down my legs. I ran out to the kitchen and blurted, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” to Mom through my tears. The next thing I remember, my dad swooped me up into the brown La-Z-Boy chair. Grabbing a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a cotton ball, he’d had enough. Maybe he was frustrated or wanted to teach me a lesson. Was it about don’t pick your scabs, or not-love? He didn’t gently dab round the oozing bites, he roughly scoured them, slapping the liquid on. I screamingly cried at the burning bubbling, pinned in the chair with no escape. Why was my daddy torturing me? Why didn’t Mom throw herself bodily in between us to rescue me? Later, she told me they could hear me scream all over the neighborhood. Better take care of yourself, little Pammie, because no one’s going to be there to protect you.
In the 5th grade, after years of short hair, I told my parents I wanted to grow it out. Not unusual for a young girl, but it was a big deal at my house. Dad insisted his daughter wasn’t going to school with bangs hanging in her eyes. Child development experts advised parents to choose their battles, so I guess Dad chose his. Already feeling negative about myself, with a pixie hairstyle, now my bangs were pushed back with a plastic headband or pulled up with rubber bands. Not very attractive. I have a picture of me, my dad, and my brother sitting on a bench. Little Pammie’s facial expression is so sad. Is it weird to think that my depression started that young? No, because my feelings were never validated and I walked on eggshells, never knowing what reaction to expect. Would I get a big piece of apple pie, celery and carrot sticks or a verbal put-down?
Fifth grade, a pivotal year for another reason. When getting ready for middle school kids think about the academics or finding a sport they like to play. I think of the pills. That’s right, after a conference between my worried parents and the pediatrician, they determined I was too big and we needed to take action before adolescence struck with those nasty puberty hormones. Something different because their attempts to control my food intake hadn’t worked thus far. Who brought it up first in 1968, my parents? Or the doctor who might have promised, “If we put her on these appetite suppressants, we can get her weight down before puberty sets in.” First of all, what kind of speed were pediatricians handing out to kids then– Dexatrim for fifth graders? And how was that okay with my parents? I was the project and they needed to fix me. Not as big as the obesity level of people today, I was just tall and hippy. Mom kept sewing those A-line dresses to cover my body flaws. With the help of the pills, I ate a few bites of a roll at dinner and felt full. This was cause for celebration! I don’t know how much weight I lost, but the Pammie project was a temporary success.
My journey through Weight Loss Land continued through high school and college. I participated in popular programs and fad diets like T.O.P.S. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), the hot dog diet, the saltine cracker diet, Weight Watchers, Prism Weight Loss, and Slim4Life. It seemed I kept losing and gaining the same forty pounds. Following three pregnancies with a lot of weight gain and in a verbally abusive marriage, my body ballooned to 289 pounds, size 24. Going through years of therapy led me to a place of emotional healing. Finally, in 2008 after leaving my ex and after decades of fad diets, I was ready. At the age of 51 I had gastric lap band surgery, choosing peace over chaos in my lifelong battle with food. I loved little Pammie enough to make her physical and emotional health a priority. Losing 100 pounds and keeping it off enabled me to teach English in China and be around to meet my four grandchildren. For that I am grateful.
Pamela Hertzog is a creative writer and storyteller living in Franklin, TN. She taught English in China for five years and had the opportunity to travel in Asia. All that ended with Covid and since then she works as an administrative assistant, writes her memoir and enjoys public speaking, and sewing.
© 2022, Pamela Hertzog