Saturday, May 25, 2024

Boys, Bullying, Boomers, & Body Image


From a very early age, attention from boys was critical to my survival. It was a primitive desire tethered to my self-worth. 

In my family, being Attractive, Social, and "having good marks," as my parents and grandparents called grades, were the most essential achievements one was expected to make. Although I nailed "Attractive" and "Social," I failed when it came to grades because mine ran the gamut of the first six letters of the alphabet.

As a younger sibling to an older sister who "made excellent marks," I constantly compared myself to her. There was a point early on in my childhood when I realized competing with her would always render me a loser, so I needed to try to be good at something else. The best anecdote to underscore this was the Car Game my dad would force us to play on long car rides. He would pose science and math questions to us (mind you, my sister is five years older than me, so this game was ridiculously unfair). I never won. Not once. In my young mind, I decided I wouldn't compete with someone I couldn't beat. So I had to lean very hard into my other desirable attributes: Attractive and Social. 

Was I conscious of my oh-so-valued traits while I was young? No. What drove my sociability was innate curiosity and conversation. My earliest memory of this is being under the age of four, walking up and down the Amtrak train cars, saying hello to people, and asking if I could join them for a chat and snack. My mother allowed this—Boomer generation parenting at its finest! She was half-paying attention to me, distracted by her beauty magazine and siping her Tab cola. As far as the Attractive thing, I never actually saw myself as pretty, but my mother and grandmother often told me I was "gorgeous," and my mother even took me to model at Lord & Taylor when I was seven. I hated it. I wanted to wear this "twirly" dress, but another girl snatched it from me, and her equally nasty mother got into it with my mother, who was not one for confrontation. So, that was the end of that. However, my mother's favorite activity every year was back-to-school clothes shopping, where I was the doll that she dressed up in "outfits." I always had to buy "outfits". Not until I was in college was I allowed to purchase pieces of clothing that weren't all supposed to "go together." To make matters worse, Mom liked things tighter and more cinched than I ever did.

Looking back now through the lens of a forty-eight-year-old therapist (and long-time consumer of therapy), I get it. Part of it was societal (see the Barbie movie). Another was that my mother and the Boomer Generation taught us that women get their worth through their beauty (attractive=thin and pretty) and how many men they can attract. As far back as second grade, I can recall competing against a girl named Rose for the heart of Mitch Z and thinking, with a mix of desperation and competition, he will be mine. Losing that battle wasn't an option. He did, in fact, become mine. In fact, he loved me so much that when another suitor, Guido (real name!), proclaimed his love for me at my birthday party that year, a brawl almost ensued. And what did my mother do about it? Not stop it, but beam with pride. Years later, at my bat mitzvah, two boys almost fought over who would dance with me first. And, again, what did my mother do about it? She did nothing but brag to her friends about what was happening and left my friends to break them apart. Not long after that, she chaperoned a school dance and later observed with great enthusiasm in the car ride home, "The boys were swarming around you all night!"  

She would tell everyone—my friends, other family members, and even boyfriends I would go on to have as a teenager—that "The boys always love Hannah." Receiving validation from boys that I was special, starting as far back as second grade, became, over the years, essential to my self-esteem. 

The messages I received from my mother convinced me that it was my looks that landed these fellows. So when I got Fat (and developed the first of two eating disorders) freshman year of high school, which was equivalent to Ugly, I panicked. What was my value? What was my worth? As I got Fat, I was also demoted in Social Status and swiftly kicked out of the Popular Crowd (and straight into the Theater Crowd, which, truthfully, were my people anyway.) 

However, during my freshman year, when I transformed into a Fat Girl, I learned an ironic truth—being Fat doesn't make someone unattractive; I received the same amount of attention from boys when I was Fat as I did when I was Thin. 

What a relief that my mother was dead wrong! It wasn't my looks (sadly, I was still equating beauty with thinness!) that made boys like me. (Notice that my self-worth was still proportional to how desirable boys found me). Despite being demoted in social status, I was the same open, curious, chatty person as in my popular middle school days. I fearlessly (and naively) talked to anyone, regardless of their social group. Throughout high school, I leaned less on my looks and social status (because I was Fat and not part of the Popular Crowd anymore, I thought I had none!) and more on being myself. 

It seemed to work.

What was problematic, though, was that despite this accidental social experiment in Fat versus Thin and its outcome that Fat was irrelevant to attracting boys, I managed to buy into Thin is Better and Fat is Horrible. I starved myself down to far below a weight that was normal for me, to a place that others noted as "so skinny!" and developed another eating disorder in the last two years of high school.

Also problematic was the bullying by an ex-boyfriend from freshman year. As an adult, I can only use the word "bullying" to describe the dark turn our relationship took after our breakup. It wasn't a word I used back then. Similar to the bra-snapping and schoolyard chasing I experienced in elementary school, my mother described his behavior as a way of showing me he liked me. She referred to it as "boys will be boys" behavior.  


“Derrick” (name changed) harassed and taunted me throughout high school, even when we became so-called friends again. Even when that evolved into (sort of) trying to date again. 

For the first year or so after we officially broke up, despite periods of coming over to my house to hook up, he would scream bitch, slut, or whore at me in the hallways and in the lunchroom, he would shove me into lockers or push someone else into me so I would fall. He and his friends would prank call me (though it's only a prank if you don't know who the person is) and say equally horrible things. 

If I was dating someone and he saw me out socially at the local hangouts, he'd be sure to verbally harass me and shit-talk whomever I was with. But these other guys were good dudes who thought Derrick was a total clown and handled it by not engaging in the bullshit.

Derrick also tried to talk shit about me to my friends, saying how much he hated me and that I was this really terrible person. Mind you, the only transgression I made in our so-called relationship was to go off to camp the summer before freshman year and return Fat. I have no idea why I was the focus of his aggression. I speculate that his abusive and unstable childhood had something to do with it. But I will never know for sure. 

In general, being Fat was not hard on my social or romantic life in high school. Yet, my internal world and sense of worth suffered to the degree that if it happened today, I would have gone to (several) Intensive Outpatient programs. Instead, I tethered together my own Mental Health Recovery program that is detailed in my teenage diaries. I started by seeing a nutritionist who introduced me to what would later be called Intuitive Eating and Body Positivity. Neither phrase was used by this amazing woman named Barbara. Instead, she said things like "trust yourself and your process'' and taught me how to eat based on hunger and fullness cues rather than whether or not Derrick pranked-called me or was nice to me that day. This type of therapy went on for over a year, but my parents stopped supporting it when it didn't get me Thin again. That's when Mom brought me to Nutrisystem, and Dad bought me workout equipment at home. I did both, but neither brought me to Thin Enough. 

So by the end of sophomore year, I tossed aside all of the approaches the adults suggested and went with Starving Myself and eating only nonfat foods (remember Susan Powter?). This continued for about six months, and I finally reached Thin Enough, which was too thin. My parents ordered me to start eating again, but I had forgotten how. I remembered my work with Barbara, and somewhere deep inside, I knew that was the route I should take. Still, I remembered how it didn't get me to Thin Enough. Now, I was terrified of being Fat again. One night, I had a massive panic attack while making a can of vegetables (which had become my every dinner). As I writhed in the symptoms of panic—tingling in the face, numbness of the hands, shallow breathing, and heart palpitations I swore out loud that I would start to eat normally again. The only thing I knew about Eating Normally (and this is hilarious to me now) is that I should eat about 2000 calories a day to maintain my weight (I was an expert in calorie counting by this point), so because I was terrified of Fat, I decided to minus 500 and go with that. I told myself I had to eat at least that much. 

The internal battle of Not Thin Enough evolved into an anxiety disorder marked by frequent panic attacks, which, at a certain point, rendered me agoraphobic. I refused to go to school for almost two months. But this was October/November of my senior year. The same terror that led me to decide to start eating again led me to return to school so I could apply to college, get the hell out of my house, and start my life.  

The benefit of this anxiety disorder was that it drove me to find ways to survive. I told my parents to find me a therapist and psychiatrist, and they listened. I managed to pull myself together enough to apply to college, and I did, in fact, get the hell out of my parents' house.

The internal battle of Thin is Good and Fat is Bad continued to be a struggle for me over the next decade or so. But ultimately, I always subscribed to the motto that Fat and Alive is better than Thin and Dead.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Part 1 of 4: The Problem with Peaking in Middle School and other stories of bullying

Disclaimer: This is a several-part piece that talks about my most painful experiences in my childhood and teens years with bullying. In order to (emotionally) feel safe sharing these stories, some names have been changed as well as minor details. As a woman in my late forties, who has battled (for decades)—as many women do— with myself over whether or not I have the right or deserve to speak my personal truth and perspective on events that happened to me, I’ve decided to not allow that inner battle or my fears to stop me. Who knows if anyone will read this. Who knows if anyone who reads this will be someone from my past who participated, witnessed or knew about these events. And, who knows if anyone will care. I do know that someone out there will relate. That my story will connect with someone. So here are my true stories of bullying and the effects they had on me.

Part 1: Picked-On

The first time I was bullied was in second grade by my (supposed) best friend’s older sister, I’ll call her “Andy”. Andy caught us playing “doctor” in my friend's room, and then threatened to “tell on” us if we didn’t do certain things. One time Andy wanted me to wear a certain skirt “or else”, and another time when I declined a sleepover invite, she said I better come over (my friend was sad) “or else”. Although these things were benign, it was scary to have someone hold something over me, something which I wasn’t even sure would land me in trouble. (Our definition of doctor was a consensual flashing of private parts to each other!). In my recollection of this, I do remember that my older sister found out about the blackmail behavior Andy was doing, and basically told this bully-bitch she better watch out or else! My sister was a year older than Andy and had a team of junior high friends willing to have her (and my) back. I’d like to think this is what stopped Andy, but really it was that my family wound up moving away at the end of that school year. But this was the first of what would be many significant moments where I learned about bullying.

This is what bullied looks like. Me, age 7. 1982.
The second time I was bullied was in 4th grade. Ironically, as the new kid (yet again) in 3rd grade, no one bothered me for the entire year, so much so that I just about forgot that ever important-lesson of the year before—that some people can be really shitty. Then 4th grade rolled up, and the Pizza Hut outfit happened, and my life went right to shit again.


Here’s how it went down: Sheryl, my mother, insisted on dressing me, and we all know that as kids get closer to puberty and the tween years, that shit doesn’t fly. Kids will resist, but if you have a persistent mother who really thought of you as a living doll at times, you will lose and I did. 

Thus, as 4th grade began, Sheryl schlepped me to Filene's one weekend for some back-to-school shopping and bought me what would quickly be dubbed as The Pizza Hut dress due to its— you guessed it— white and red checkered pattern. Not cute. Oh, but Sheryl thought it was, and insisted—despite my wrinkled nose at the outfit— that I looked adorable. Though I wanted an Esprit tee-shirt and pair of acid washed jeans, those were vetoed quickly. My mother ascribed to the “you have to buy outfits or ‘“ensems” (as in ensembles) as she referred to them.


The next day when I picked out my clothes (she also bought me another outfit that, although I resembled a bee due to its black and yellow colors, was far more stylish and frankly less weird). I did not select Pizza Hut but instead chose Bee and she said, nope. “I didn’t spend 500 dollars on clothes for you to not wear that adorable matching shirt and skirt.” Guilt was a prevalent motivator with Sheryl. So I begrudgingly put on the ensemble and—the piece de resistance—she had also purchased matching red shoes that I had to wear as well.

The next day would be the first and last time that I would ever wear the monstrosity. I walked into the classroom to immediate shouts of “Pizza Hut!” led by the scrappiest, smallest girl in the class who also happened to be the scariest. She had a ratty mullet and beady eyes. We’ll call her Andy Andrews (yes, she shared the same first name as my first bully!). She followed her chant with “I’m going to kick your ass you stupid bitch.”  Yep, this school was a lot tougher than my previous one. She continued to taunt me all day and at recess. The only reason why she didn’t follow through with her threat was because it rained, and we had to stay inside where I sat, alone, doodling on a piece of paper, my friends all terrified of the Pizza Hut cooties I now possessed. Andy Andrews whispered how she was going to punch me in the tits and other uncomfortable places (I mean is there a comfortable place to get punched?). 


“Tomorrow, Goodman. I’m gonna kick your ass. I’m not kidding, either.”

And indeed she was not.

The  next day, I’m standing in the center of the chalked-in-lines for hopscotch when Andy decides to run up to me and pummel my chest, dead center between my barely-budding boobs. She does it over and over as I stand, like a weeble wobble who wobbles and wobbles and just won’t fall down. I can’t find my voice at first, the breath punched out of my lungs.


Then I do.

“Someone get a teacher,” I lamely squawk.

No one did.

But the recess bell wrang, the crowd dispersed, and Andy walked away like we had just finished a game of kickball.

Maybe it was my lack of falling down? Maybe it was because I didn’t snitch on her? Whatever it was, Andy Andrews never bothered me again.

Me with my beloved cabbage patch kid, 4th grade. 1984

Unfortunately, others did. 4th grade was just getting started and so was the bullying.

Not long after Andy Andrews punched me in the tits, another girl Traci S, befriended me. One time, we had an-almost sleepover at her house, where her mother confessed that they had a snake infestation in their basement but hadn’t seen one in a few days “so they’re probably gone”. I suddenly became too sick to spend the night (I had and have a crazy snake phobia). That Monday, at recess of course, she spread a rumor that reached me faster than Andy Andrew’s punches to my tits:

“Hannah humped a pillow at our sleepover.”

The most ironic part of this rumor included this confession from Tracy:

“Well, no, I didn’t see her do it, but she told me she did.”

I barely understood what “humping” meant!

Then others came forward: Jess D claimed I “humped” a shampoo bottle during a sleepover at her house. (There was never a sleepover, and also how does one “hump” a shampoo bottle?). 

It rose to a fevered pitch at recess one day where I clutched my cabbage patch kid named Diane Alise while standing in the middle of the crowd, numb and silent this time, as they pummeled me not in the tits but worse, right into my self-worth.

However, by the grace of I-have-no-idea-what, a popular and powerful girl named Denise P stepped right into the center of that mess and yelled at all of the kids that they had to stop. “Enough is enough,” she said. “Leave Hannah alone!”

And poof! With that, they stopped, and it was never mentioned again.

But damage done. So. Much. Damage. Done. 

The next moment of bullying was by one of my supposed best childhood friends who I’ll call “Heather”. Looking back, I see all the microaggressions she hurled. anti-Semitic is the word we would use today. She told me I had a “big Jewish nose” and she and one of her friends would come to my softball games and sing, “Hey, Jew” to me. Not all the time. Not loudly. But enough so I heard it. The culmination of her bullying me is a fuzzy memory. I’m not sure how it started, but we were at my house in my room, and she was brushing my hair. The next thing I knew she was taking handfuls of Vaseline and putting it in my hair. I don’t know why. I vaguely remember her saying, stay still. This is going to look good.

It did not.

By the time my mom came home from work, I looked like a greaser from the 1950s. I was in tears, screaming that I never wanted to go back to school.

I was home for a week. My mom tried everything to get it out. Vinegar. Dish soap. The only thing we could do was wait, and then I had to cut a lot of it off. For the first time in my life, I had short hair, and it horrified me to think I might look like a boy.

Then I went back to school.

You would think that I would be met with a flurry of more bullying. But no. The reign of terror was over, and it would remain so for another two years.

PART 2: From Picked-on to Popular to Picked-on (Again) to Invisible to... High School Reunions

PART 2: From Picked-on to Popular to Picked-on (Again) to Invisible to... High School Reunions