Friday, July 25, 2008

"She's as big as a house!"

I spent last weekend at a reunion of my extended family. I've spent very little time with my family over the last 20 years. Many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins still live in the same little square of suburban south Jersey where I grew up. I moved away at 16 and never lived in the vicinity again.

And since my grandparents died--my grandmother 18 years ago, my grandfather 5 years ago--I haven't seen the extended family very often. We get together at funerals and weddings, and that's about it. Last weekend my aunt and a cousin planned a reunion of the very large extended family, so it was the first time in a while I saw many of the relatives I grew up with.

For the most part the weekend was wonderful--except for the fat talk. I knew there would be fat talk; there always is, with my family, most of whom are not fat, all of whom are very conscious about fat.

Among other things we created an epidemiological chart showing diseases in the family. Everyone was encouraged to list those that affected them. I wrote "eating disorders" and "anxiety" on the chart. My cousin L. happened to be standing nearby when I'd finished. L. has been fat for much of her life--anywhere from 20 to 120 pounds overweight. She's extremely judgmental about weight (most of all of her own, of course) and brings up the subject often.

L. has two daughters, both grown now. One of her daughters had bulimia as a teenager, or so I thought. I've always liked my cousin A. a lot, and was sorry she wasn't at the reunion. I turned to cousin L and asked, "A. had bulimia, right? How's she doing now?" (Cousin L. knows about my daughter Kitty's anorexia.)

Cousin L. (angrily): She said she had bulimia, but I never saw any evidence of it, and I'm a clean freak. I think I would have seen it.

Me: Why would she say she had it if she didn't? And didn't she end up in the hospital with a burned esophagus at one point?

Cousin L.: Well, all I can tell you is that she's big as a house right now. Big as a house.

Me: (just looking at her, saying nothing)

Cousin L.: It's a shanda the way she's let herself go. I've lost a lot of weight recently, and so has J. (her other daughter). Doesn't she look great?

Me: I wish A. had come to the reunion. I'd like to see her.

Cousin L.: (walking away) Big as a house. It's terrible.

This conversation pretty much embodies my family's attitudes toward eating disorders and weight--and, I daresay, the attitudes of many. Eating disorder, shmeating disorder, right? We don't take that stuff seriously. It's all a put-on, a game, a manipulation. But fat--now that we take seriously. Being fat is a crime. You shouldn't leave your house if you're too fat. You wouldn't want anyone else to see you.

And that's why I live a thousand miles away from my extended family. And always will.


Anonymous said...

Wow, sounds like fat phobia was running rampant at that party. I wonder if your cousin actually tells her daughter that she is " big as a house"? I can't imagine saying that to anyone,let alone my own daughter. I am a size 18 gal myself (happily so) and my daughter (9) looks like she may turn out to be the same. I don't encounter alot of fat phobia,but I do wonder sometimes when people look at my girl a certain way,like they are sizing her up,are they seeing what I see-a beautiful little girl with a soft belly and a warm heart-or are they thinking -ugh-fat kid.I like to think that it is answer number 1.


Anonymous said...

Is there any way for you to contact A outside of family reunion type stuff? It sounds like she might could use a sympathetic relative.

littlem said...

I'm with TR.

Oh, and this clinches it -- I've long suspected you and I are related, and now I'm absolutely convinced.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful suggestion by The Rotund.

The attitude you encountered just makes me feel like despairing.

I wonder if your cousin or others who think like her ever make the connection between the two -- EDs and fat. "Big as a house" (ugh, horrible hyperbole) is a lot healthier than burned esophagus, no?


Anonymous said...

I agree with the Rotund. Contact A and see if you can at least start corresponding. A quick I missed you at the reunion email could open up a lot of doors for her. I hate to think that her mother shamed her into no going to the reunion because she was embarrassed by her. So sad... And, how dare she speak about her own daughter in such a way. I find that behaivour very disrespectful

Eema-le said...

My grandmother is the same way about my mom's bulemia. My mom was actively bulimic from the age of 16-36. She even had to go to the ER because her esophagus was bleeding, all while she was pregnant with my brother. To this day my grandmother just blows the whole thing off. According to her my mom threw up a couple of times, but it wasn't regularly, and it was certainly NOT a problem. She used to comment about my weight, but for the last few years she's been very good at keeping her mouth shut about that topic. It can be incredibly hard to deal with family. You love them, but sometimes they can drive you up a wall.

Embem said...

this pissed me off like no other, but i'll admit the use of 'shanda' made me grin a little through the aggravation. i love melodramatic Jewish women (not necessarily what they're saying).

Harriet said...

Yes, that's my plan, to try and find someone who has A's email address and get in touch with her.

We're used to eating disorders being denied by those who have them--they can't help it. But that denial seems to also affect families sometimes. Hearing that your child has an e.d. is never good news, but denial just doesn't help. I don't get it.

Rachel said...

I think its such a shame the way people deny the existence of eating disorders, especially in their own families. But I wonder if her now high weight also makes it less credulous to people that she could have had an eating disorder. Fat people with an eating disorder are not taken as seriously as thin people with a disorder or worse yet, the disorder is seen as justified -- the "any weight loss is good weight loss" kind of mentality. I know my fatness kept a lot of doctors from correctly and promptly diagnosing me with an eating disorder. Some even had the audacity to congratulate me for the weight loss even after I told them it was brought on by starvation and very dangerous measures.

I feel badly for your relative and I hope you do get in contact with her soon. Best of luck.

Anonymous said...

I would have been annoying, and asked what kind of house ; )

They come in all sizes, ya know!

I'm really sorry that happened, and I hope you can get in contact with A.

elizabeth said...

this makes me SO sad but mostly because I know so many people that respond to ed's in this fashion. It's always hurt me so much. Depression is often viewed in the same light. I have such a hard time even attempting to explain anything different when aquantances bring it up. It's awful. Good for you surviving the reunion.

Fiona Marcella said...

Nancy Zucker advises parents to "Imagine the stupidest thing a family member can say. Bet money they will say it. You will not be disappointed" - it's true people do say the stupidest, most hurtful things, but even your aunt wasn't trying to be stupid, it just came naturally! Seriously, her nasty comments probably came more from fear that you are right and that her child is suffering and she has been unable to do anything about it. Just because your cousin is apparently now large does NOT mean that she doesn't still have an eating disorder - she may, she may not. One of the most disheartening things about the coverage her in the UK about John Prescott's bulimia was the comments from doctors that he couldn't be bulimic because he was fat - urrrggg! And if doctors can get it so wrong, we've got a long way to go before silly old ladies can get it right. Mind you, I LOVE Sarah's response - what kind of house was she talking about.

Anonymous said...

Marcella - you reminded me of a game I saw somewhere "Dysfunctional Family Bingo". It's a (somewhat tongue-in- cheek) coping strategy for family gatherings. You can play by yourself or with other "sane" family members/guests. You make "bingo sheets" - either real or imaginary - made up of crappy things that your family can say and do. You put the thing you KNOW is going to happen in the middle (eg from us, our "Uncle Doom" will have a downer comment about the Host or Hostess of the gathering). As each occurs,(Aunt X comments on weight, Dad gets drunk and insults me....). you check them off. First one to complete a row, WINS (so to speak).

And DEFINITELY, being "overweight" makes people minimize all kinds of diseases. Our d was restricting so much that she lost 40lbs in about 15 wks, and when I confided in my (former) bf, she said "Well, she WAS really fat ..." and her h told d "Keep up the willpower".

I think Rachel is on the right track. Between the stigma still attached to mental diseases, peoples own issues, and feeling helpless/hopeless in the face of such diseases, denial often seems easier and safer than confronting the issues out in the open.

Harriet, have you ever read "Pride and Prejudice"? If so, remember the Netherfield Ball? When Elizabeth thinks "... had her family made an agreement to expose themselves as much as they could ... it would have been impossible for them to play their parts with more spirit or finer success..." Love that scene... I first read P&P at 15, and that has helped me through LOTS of family gatherings.

Harriet said...

sarah, i love your comment! i'll try that next time i hear something like that.

irishup, too true. a friend told me about a patient of hers (she's a shrink) who was concerned because she'd lost 60 pounds. her doc kept praising her. turned out she had CANCER but no one would take her concerns seriously because she was fat.

I haven't read P&P in a long time but that's a fabulous quote. Thanks for it!

mary said...

Let's give her "stupid" as it's all we can give someone who speaks so offensively of someone she ought to love with all her heart, any size, shape or form.

Jensy said...

That poor girl. Bulimia is no joke - it'd be nice if she had the support of her mother to recover.

Anonymous said...

Harriet, that sounds like it could have been my own aunt saying that. She has sons, who are not overweight, but if she'd had daughters, I would have thought they would have had a rough time regarding weight.
I have sisters, and all of us are varying degrees of big, all bigger than my mom, and she no doubt comments about us all in those exact terms when she sees us. Any weight loss is praised.
The way she has talked about other human frailties has been pretty much the same -- sometimes I think in Jewish families that poor mental health is the biggest "shonda."
We have some family members who have committed suicide, so you would think that attending to mental health would be a top priority, but I have also encountered the idea that mental illness or difficulties are "attention-getting" rather than "real."
Families can be toxic.

Niika said...

Because obviously someone who weighs more can't be bulimic!

Ugh!!! People like that disgust me.