The first alarm escalates at 4:50 a.m. The phone begins soft, almost charming and then crescendos into an obnoxious serious of chords until a button, any button, is pushed. Alarm number two is the annoying, beeping kind. It rings at 5:00 a.m. sharp, though the clock itself says 5:15. For more than ten years the clock has fluctuated between 10 and 20 minutes ahead, as if the trick will work on the mind unconditionally. “Oh my goodness, the clock says 5:15,” she panics. After she’s dressed and headed out the door, she’s calmed by the microwave’s marquee, “5:00 a.m.”
She enjoys the walk to the gym because it is dark and cold. This is the only time she likes being outdoors. Even so, she is grateful to enter the peaceful, air-conditioned lobby, staffed by a busy senior citizen and a high school lifeguard. She waits with her chin in her hand resting on the desk by the keypad, ready to enter her top-secret gym security code as soon as the clock hits 5:25. Every minute counts. The sooner she finishes the elliptical, the episode of “Bones” and the 45-minute workout, the sooner she can shower and catch a quick nap before school. Some days, if she’s running short on time, she’ll dry her hair for four minutes instead of five. This allows her one more minute of rest.
She ate a breakfast bar and drank a sugar-free energy drink before exercising, but the calories have worn off. As she closes her eyes for forty-five minutes, her stomach grumbles in discontent. She tries to focus on the Oprah-preaching positive: If you are hungry, then you are actively losing weight. By the time she awakens for work, she is too anxious to be hungry anymore.
Eating, though, is like the pile of papers that gathers on her desk every semester. It is okay to avoid it for minutes, hours, days and maybe months. It’s okay to let it slide and ignore it, even though it causes great discomfort and may even put others in an uneasy state. But one day, one very frantic day, she suddenly begins organizing and cleaning, depleting the stack of papers one by one until her room is the epitome of perfection. It is the same for food and hunger. Eventually, she will be full, sickly full, regardless of how long she can avoid it.
She quit wearing make-up in college. She quit caring how she dressed after her first teaching job. She just added it into her quirky character label that she gained in high school when she color-coordinated her days of the week and wrote scathing political columns in the school newspaper. Elitism is an easy excuse for lack of self-confidence. Justification is the easiest way to turn a negative into a positive.
Dieting for 15 years is not easy, for anyone, but especially not for her. She loves food, and sometime in college, she learned the glorious combination of food and alcoholic beverages. Drunken pizza, tipsy Taco Bell…they are all staples in her lifestyle. She eats more than she drinks, for sure. It definitely doesn’t take an evening of frivolity to instigate a trip to McDonalds. Aside from alcohol, her reasons for eating are very good: rough day, hard decision, emotional crisis, fabulous celebration, and important social experience…she never eats if there isn’t a good cause.
Music and food are similar in this way. They can fill the void in her life at anytime. The presence or absence of said item can really make the different in a wonderful or terrible day. Just as she could say, “I’m in the mood for Italian,” she could state, “I’m in the mood for some Mozart Violin Concerto in G Major.” Music and food represent the solution as much as the problem, and the tone and mood of her attitude.
She knew the food obsession was an issue, because she started trying to fix it as a teenager. A person who operates in extremes, however, is not so good with balance and nutrition. The most successful diets were difficult and severe, and they lasted no more than a month. At most, she lost thirty pounds and if she was lucky, reduced her blood pressure to an age-appropriate number. Then, tragedy struck, celebrations continued and food was a necessity once again.
Looking in the mirror today makes her sad and disappointed. Whereas before she had instances of security and self-confidence, that assured stature has completely faded. No longer does she appreciate her curves, her naturally highlighted hair or her dark brown eyes. It all seems secondary to the glob in between. Part of her body doesn’t even feel like hers anymore. It is like an uninvited guest that just can’t take the hint.
And when she stands in the classroom, her biggest fear is that the girls that love her can see her pain. She wants them to be strong, smart and caring. She focuses on their growth, intelligence and personality. She doesn’t want them to look in the mirror and see what she sees, which makes her feel like a hypocrite. How can she say it’s okay to be big and beautiful and hate it all at the same time?
As she slumps up the stairs and waddles into her apartment in the evening, she stands at the door and ponders her success. Job, check, education, check, talent, check, personality, not brilliant, but check. There is no mention of her eyes or her hair anymore. There is no reference at all to image or physical appearance. Even without the acknowledgement, the issues push through. For how she looks on the outside is how she feels on the inside, and refusal to look in a mirror is equal to refusal to assess ones faults and weaknesses.
By doctors’ standards, she is obese, yes. By society’s standards, she is just unattractive. Either viewpoint is uncomfortable, and both seem to be based in fact rather than opinion. She gets confused, “Am I fixing a problem?” she asks herself, “Or altering a solution?” The biggest question on her mind, the most dramatic question that she doesn’t express is: “Am I even worth it?” Maybe this is it, she thinks. I’m just supposed to be this way and the consequences will occur regardless.
Grasping at spirituality, music and writing will not help her at this point. She must take drastic, but reasonable, action. She must refuse to settle into the label that she has endured for fifteen years and through confidence or weight-loss or both, prove them all wrong. She does not fit into a category, a box on a sizing table, or a highlighted column on a weight chart. She just needs to fit into her own body, with enough cushion room but also a safety belt.
When the first alarm rings, she presses “dismiss” without hesitation. She resets the 15-minute-ahead-alarm-clock and crawls back into bed. She feels the weight of her body pressing against her most inner doubts and fears. She is full of compromise, justification and pure desperation. She feels defeated. The baggage she has acquired is heavy, but her responsibility. She’s strong enough to lift it, which means she must also be strong enough to throw it away.