In 1992, I was 25 years old. I had two small children and a household income of about $16,000 per year. And I weighed more than 200 pounds.
We were living in Duluth, Minnesota. Why we were living in Duluth is a story for another day, but we were. Winter had begun that year with the Halloween blizzard: 36 inches of snow in a single night. All over the city, roofs were caving in. The roof on our tiny little house stayed up—thanks, no doubt, to the fact that my husband climbed up onto it and pushed the snow off. Once he’d done this, the drifts nearly covered our windows, making the rooms inside dim even in daylight. They stayed that way ’til mid-March.
Jim was my husband’s name. He’d been hopeful when we arrived in Duluth, May of ’91. Back then—while the place we came from was sweltering—we’d had clean, bright 70-degree days and crisp nights that were darker than any we’d ever seen. The lights of the Aurora Borealis scrolled purple across the sky mid-summer. Lake Superior was like a midnight-blue sea.
But around the time the blizzard came, Jim lost his love for the place and I did, too. Yet, we could only plow ahead. He worked as a printer, often walking to the newspaper office because the streets were impassable, especially for our old car. I stayed home with the boys because it literally would have cost us more in daycare than I could earn and we couldn’t afford that. Also, this was Duluth in the early 90s and there were no jobs for a liberal arts major like myself.
We suffered a series of calamities that year that seemed related, though they almost certainly were not. Our baby, Max, fell off the back of a rocking chair he’d been climbing and split his forehead on the hard wood floor. Jim scooped him up and ran him to the emergency room where we waited for several hours to have the wound clumsily sewed shut. There were some complications from this small surgery. And every revision of the scar and round of antibiotics triggered a bill we could not pay.
I, in a fervor of ambition, pitched the Duluth News Tribune (where my husband worked) a column about household management written from a Gen X point of view. Here I was, barely 25 and raising two kiddos on the small salary of my working man. The editor liked my pitch and asked me to contribute three pieces. The one he chose to run first was about selling a house without using a realtor (which we’d done before leaving Iowa); it resulted in the realtor’s association pulling all of its advertising out of the newspaper and the publisher’s running a note the following day saying I was an untrained freelancer whose work had somehow “circumvented” their process. Jim got harassed on the job and our mailbox filled with nasty notes.
But all this paled in comparison to the day when I took my children to the Duluth Public Library and my older son, Andrew, was ousted from story time. The library lady brought him to me, holding him by the pinched-up fabric of the back of his shirt, and told me we were no longer welcome. There was something wrong with my son: he kept making odd noises and getting up to flick the lights on and off. “He looks like he may be autistic,” she said over her shoulder as she went back to the circle of well-behaved children who were waiting quietly for her to read.
It was, by this time, mid-winter, maybe January. Andrew was just shy of four. I took him to the school district’s testing facility where they told me he certainly did not meet the criteria for autism: that always showed up before age 3, they said. However….they’d like to do some home visits and look into Andrew’s environment. For the next several months I attended parenting classes while the county monitored my son. Meanwhile, my husband had finally succumbed to the pressure and started going on benders again. We had little enough money to begin with; now he was disappearing and drinking it all up.
My weight just kept rising.
Strange that at every other time in my life, I’ve lost weight when under stress. I grew up in an upper middle-class household and became skeletal in junior high when I felt freakish and friendless. Years later, when I was on fellowship at the University of Iowa and Jim and I divorced, I dropped 20 pounds in less than six weeks. What was different about Duluth in the early 90s? Only this: I was poor.
There’s been a lot of talk about “food deserts” lately: those impoverished areas where convenience stores outnumber grocery stores and it’s far easier (and cheaper) to get a McDonald’s fruit pie than it is to get an apple or a peach. It’s an appealing and logical theory—food deserts equal obesity—and one that I’ve subscribed to for years. Michelle Obama has spent her first ladyship advocating to bring fresh produce into poor neighborhoods. But recent studies have debunked the food desert hypothesis, saying certain populations will eat unhealthy food no matter what’s available to them and at what price.
I just don’t think it’s that easy.
These are people for whom want and degradation and frustration are an ingrained way of life. I have no idea what that’s like; my turn at poverty was sudden and relatively brief. But I do know something about how living that way increases body mass and how futile it is to turn the weight around.
That winter of ’91, I was trapped. I couldn’t take my two small boys outside in the below-zero weather. Even if I could have, there was no conveyance—no stroller, sled or wagon—that I could have maneuvered through all that snow. I couldn’t afford a gym membership or even an exercise bike. I did buy a mini-trampoline for $12 at Kmart and I tried bouncing on it every afternoon. This was about as effective at raising my heart rate as eating cotton candy on a beach.
My grocery store trips were nail biters, every one. I had maybe $50 to spend on food each week and I had four mouths (including a large, voracious husband) to feed. There was a particular kind of generic macaroni and cheese I always loaded up on, because it cost 21 cents a box, versus Kraft’s 36. I tried to buy fruits and vegetables, too, but it was usually things like bananas and applesauce—partly because they were cheaper and partly because my older son (the one I was being told was not autistic) rejected anything with an unfamiliar flavor or texture, often spitting whatever it was across the room.
The days were long, and meals were the only thing we had to punctuate the time. I’d try to make a little event out of each one and I still have photos of my boys dressed in identical pajamas, sitting on the covered radiator in our breakfast nook. By afternoon, with eons still to go before their father came home (if he came home), I’d often kill two hours by having the boys help me make and decorate a yellow cake from a boxed mix. Afterward, we’d sit down in front of a video—usually The Little Mermaid—and each have a piece.
Stresswise, too, this period was different. There weren’t the exciting jolts of crisis. Instead, I felt a constant, heavy dread. And it made my body act in ways it never had before. My cycles were off and I got sick more often. The weight just piled on.
By 1994, we’d moved to Minneapolis, where Andrew was diagnosed with autism and put in an appropriate school. Jim found a job he loved, managing a paper warehouse; his mood lightened and his income doubled. I traded on that one terrible encounter with the Duluth paper to start a freelance writing business. Things seemed to have turned around so completely, we even had a third baby, a girl who was curious and self-contained from the moment she was born.
I walked Andrew to school, with Leni in her stroller and Max holding my hand. Back and forth each day under a soft, autumn sun. Then I took Max to preschool and three days a week I would stop at my parents’ house where they had a treadmill and a ski machine in their rec room. My mother would watch the baby while I exercised and then for another hour while I ran to the store.
In the evening, when Jim came home from his job contented and full of stories, I’d put out a meal that included blander foods for the kids and colorful stir fries or salads for us. The weight dropped off as if someone were carving it from my body. Seventy pounds in the space of six months.
I have never again been truly poor, and I have never again been heavy. I’ve held a gym membership—sometimes two—for the past 15 years. I now spend $50 a week on fruits and vegetables alone. Most days, this just seems like my life. But when I drive through a neighborhood with small, beat-up houses or go to Wal-Mart or renew my social security card at the office where SSI recipients go for their benefits and I see the people with tired eyes and girth spilling over their belts, I remember.
The best weight loss method I know is wealth. Pure and simple. It’s a luxury to be thin.