Sunday, March 3, 2013

Are those available in Salt 'n' Bitter Self-Consciousness flavor?

Last week I needed to pick up something for a small gathering.  Because I was pressed for time, I ran into the nearest grocery store and grabbed a bag of chips and a container of dip.  As I walked through the store carrying these, I felt like everyone I passed was looking at me and judging me.  "Why is that fat lady eating chips and dip? She should be eating broccoli!" I imagine them saying.  Or "Look at that typical fatty, filling her cart with junk food."  Or "What a fat slob!"

This has been a lifelong thing for me, self-consciousness.  People are generally surprised when they find out I am so painfully conscious of myself because I'm regarded by many as relatively fearless, pretty tough, and someone who gives approximately zero shits what anyone thinks. On some levels, this is true.  I am sort of fearless and definitely possess a sense of adventure.  I'm not a pack animal; I travel solo most of the time and prefer require living alone.  I've always been recognized as that chick who'll do the crazy shit that no one else has the balls to do. I march to the beat of my own drum, and I've demonstrated a fair amount of resilience in the face of adversity throughout the years.  But the's always been there, and during times when I am not feeling great about myself, it's even worse.  And the ultimate self-consciousness has always involved food and its consumption in the presence of other people.

When I was in junior high (what the rest of the world calls "Middle School" - Buffalo has weird vernacular), I used to skip lunch a lot.  I wouldn't physically leave the building, as that was not an option, but I would sit in the cafeteria while everyone else ate, and I'd talk or do homework.  Sometimes I would go practice in the music room if I was feeling particularly unpopular that day. I hardly ever ate.  If my mother had packed me a lunch that day, I'd already found a minute to scarf it down in the bathroom earlier in the day.  If I hadn't brought my lunch, I hoarded the 85 cents, which was then used at some point to buy that week's pack of cigarettes (they were 90 cents when I started smoking, if you can believe that).  This, of course, was the start of the smoking vs. eating system of checks and balances that I would employ for 25 years.  The other days' lunch money was pooled with my babysitting/lawn-mowing money to buy cheap makeup from the drugstore (which was just as much contraband as the Marlboros) and the latest-release issues of Hit Parader and Circus for a new crop of glossies of hot hair metal dudes to plaster on my bedroom walls.

Some days I would convince myself that it was okay; I could do this. But it was never something I could pull off without enduring an internal freakout.  I couldn't carry my tray of food to my table without terrific anxiety.  As I walked through the cafeteria, I imagined everyone staring at me, judging my size and scrutinizing what was on my tray.  Most days I would opt for the salad, but even then I could feel all the eyes upon me, watching me eat.  I kept my head down and averted the eyes of everyone around me.  I would feel the walls closing in on me, feel the heat rising up into my face with every forkful I tried to gracefully place in my mouth. It bordered on traumatic, and to this day I still feel self-conscious any time I am in the presence of people I'm not completely familiar and comfortable with.  Buffets are weird. And first dates over dinner are extra awkward, which is why on the rare occasion that I get a date, I usually opt for something not involving food.  It's not that I worry I'll spill something or drop food in my lap or get a chunk of spinach stuck in my teeth; it's the actual act of feeding myself that causes the anxiety.

The thing is - no one is judging me.  No one cares.  And no one even notices.  Rationally, I should know this.  However, my relationship with food is anything BUT rational.  Blame the guy who made me feel guilty for every morsel that passed my lips from the time I was able to hold my own fork, and who made me eat in the garage when he felt my table manners weren't up to snuff (yeah, that really happened - maybe I'll write about that another time), but it is what it is.  Thirty-plus years on, some things are just that indelibly stained on my psyche.

So as I walked through the store with my bag of chips that day and felt the (imagined) stares of the people pointing and laughing at the fat lady with the junk food, and headed for the self-checkout to avoid judgement by the cashier, I ticked off one more thing on the list that I'm not going to miss.  I know that the issue won't just magically disappear. I have no lofty expectations of any of the deepest-seated issues just dissipating the second I leave the hospital, and understand that it will take just as much work to lose the anxiety as it will to lose the weight. But I look forward to the possibility that it will at least subside a fair amount, and that's what's getting me through for the moment.

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