I’m reading a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Berg, the title of the collection being what lured me: “The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted (And Other Small Acts of Liberation).” Body weight and self-esteem are themes in several of the stories, but it’s the story “Full Count” that I (unfortunately) can relate to the most.
It’s the story of a pre-teen girl visiting her relatives in North Dakota for the first time in two years. She’s so happy to be there among them, free and innocent. She goes to the lake with her grandfather (whom everyone calls Bampo) and cousins, and after swimming, they all play tag. Janey, the main character, is “it.”
“[Janey] walks over to the bushes, laughing. There they all are, every one of them, including Bampo, crouched in the greenery and peering up at her. ‘I see you,’ she said. ‘Y’all come out of those bushes.’
“A kind of guffaw, and then there is the sound of Michael imitating her, saying in a high voice, ‘Y’all come out of those bushes!’ All the cousins laugh. For a moment, she holds the smile on her face, the bright happiness she was enjoying still inside her. But then Michael comes crashing out of the bushes and walks past her with a look of disgust on his face. ‘Lard ass,’ he mutters.
“She jerks back a breath. Lard ass. What does it mean?…
“She is not a stallion, wild and free. She is a girl whose bangs were cut crookedly last time and whose mother told her to stop complaining. Her teeth are too big and her eyes are too small…She does not have any friends, really. And here, the last, she understands she has gotten fat. She understands the reason for the looks that pass between her mother and her father when she asks for pie, for French fries, for more.”
The story ends with Bampo taking his grandchildren to Dairy Queen. Everyone orders something except Janey. She’s hungry, so hungry that she’s lightheaded, but she orders nothing.
When I was a kid, being called fat was the worst thing I could imagine.
And when it happened, it was.
“Try out for cheerleading with me,” said my friend Robin a few months into 8th grade. “We’ll have fun.”
Robin was one of the lucky ones. She was growing into her body proportionately, and she had long blond hair and perfect skin, too. In Robin’s world, trying out for cheerleading was as natural as breathing. For me, I could think of nothing more humiliating. But I was stuck. I knew if I told Robin no, she might not speak to me for weeks, and that was a fate worse than falling on my big-boned ass during a spread eagle jump.
So I stayed after school every day for two weeks, learning routines with the other 20 girls trying out for the four-person squad. It was the first time I’d competed for anything individually, and despite my emotional passivity, I am inherently competitive. My long legs came in handy, allowing me to jump high, do the splits, and nail a perfect cartwheel. By the time of the actual tryout, I didn’t care if I made the squad or not. In my mind, I was a cheerleader.
The results were announced over the loud speaker during daily announcements the following day. I was in third-period study hall with 30 other students from various grades. The room was quiet as Robin’s sister, a senior-high cheerleader, announced the new members of the junior-high squad. Debbie Megard. Debbie Skorr. Robin Martinson. Lynn Haraldson.
The older students at my table turned and looked at me and my face burned red. They smiled and gave me thumbs up and mouthed “Congrats!” I sat there, guts churning, not sure if what I was feeling was pride or dread. I pictured myself on game days, walking down the halls in my saddle shoes, short skirt, and orange sweater with the letter J on the front. People would know I was agile and spirited and not simply some number on the scale. I dared to think that maybe I wasn’t so awkward. Maybe I wasn’t so big-boned. Maybe I really was normal.
Then in the silence someone said, “Great. We have a fat cheerleader.”
It was Ricky, my sixth-grade boyfriend. His friends snickered. The study hall teacher told them to shut up, but the words were out there. I sat in disgrace, no longer the perky girl with the perfect cartwheel.
I was now a fat cheerleader.