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.