As a child, I was no stranger to blackened feet. The summer was an excuse to be barefoot, to pick blades of grass with my toes and to transition from ground-walking to pond-wading with ease. But dirt wasn’t the main culprit for blackening my soles. It was the trampoline.
We loved that trampoline. We would break all of the safety rules and play games like “crack the egg,” and we’d work for hours towards the elusive but high-reward double bounce. Often, I’d transform the round blacktop into my imaginary stage. My cousin and I especially found great use for it when Disney’s The Lion King came out; we sang every word to every lyric, and the high-energy ending to “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” called for an equally high explosion of trampoline bounce. (My little brother, however – in true boy fashion – thought it was hilarious to turn the trampoline into a peeing platform from which he and the neighbor boy would stand on the edge and see whose stream reached the farthest. Ew, boys.)
On one particular day, the weather turning to autumn with enough of a chill in the Ohio air to make us wear jackets (but still no shoes, of course), I remember jumping on the trampoline with my cousin while the rest of the family stayed indoors. He has a three-year age advantage on me, but although that is a profound difference when you’re a kid (and he’s a boy), we were always close.
We jumped, jumped, jumped, always trying to fly just a little higher than the last jump. We impressed ourselves with our ability to fall on our backs, then spring back into a standing position, and we thought ourselves amazingly nimble if we could manage the 180-degree butt bounce (jump down into a seated pike, then twist in the air to land in a seated pike facing the opposite direction). We took turns lying on the flat black surface while the other person tried to bounce us as high as possible.
I enjoyed being the jumper and exhibiting my strength, showing how proficient I was at this trampoline (after all, I had the blackened feet to prove my dedication and hours of practice). As I bounced my cousin’s prone body, watching his chest jump while his big, bowl-cutted head lagged oddly behind and his glasses got knocked askew, I exclaimed, “I can’t believe how high I’m making you bounce!” He barely reacted, so I kept pushing. I repeated myself in various ways:
“It’s crazy how high you’re going!
I can bounce you higher than you can bounce me!
Why am I so much stronger than you?
Look how high you’re going!
How can I bounce you higher when you’re older than me and a boy!
Why can’t you make me bounce as high as I bounce you?”
And then, I got the reply: “It’s ‘cause you’re fat.”
With that comment, of course, I immediately ran into the house in sobs and tears, tattling to my mom about what the mean cousin had said, getting him into trouble and souring the mood for everyone for the rest of the day.
But even now as I remember that incident, I knew that I was searching for that answer. I kept asking him because I wanted him to tell me I was fat. I didn’t want to be fat, of course, but I wanted to hear the words. (It’s ridiculous to think about how mixed up my psyche was even then, when I was only about seven.)
Why did I do it? Why did I egg him on? Why did I want him to say that word to me – about me?
I think I wanted confirmation. At that time in my life, I was becoming conscious of myself as a separate entity from my parents. I wasn’t trying to establish my independence from them (that struggle is in the dreadful realm of Teenage-hood), but I was trying to understand myself. The bullies at school told me I was fat and ugly, but my friends seemed to like me OK. My parents said they loved me but also took me to special doctors for childhood weight loss. Was I special and beautiful like my parents said? Or was I an object of scorn like some of the kids at school taunted (and like I myself was beginning to believe)?
So my cousin was a test. He was a way to clear the confusion, to tell myself that somebody whom I adored and looked up to could look down on me and prove that I should dislike myself, too. In some way, I think I also wanted to call him out on it, to let him know that I knew how he really felt, and to prove that this weight thing really did matter and really did define me (at least to others…at least).
Other explanations exist. I wanted him to call me a name because I wanted to be a child diva, to run inside and get the attention by getting him in trouble (even when I had baited him). It seems just cruel enough to be a childhood motivation. But it also marks the beginning of a pattern of self-victimization, in which I create scenarios where I will be condemned or treated poorly because now I feel like I deserve it for looking a certain way.
As an adult, I know that these feelings are way off-base and that weight does not define me as a person. Nor do I deserve the harsh treatment that others sometimes give me or the harsh regard that I often have for myself. But this is an explication, an examination of how – or at least when – these patterns and thoughts develop.
If it goes back this far, to the days of black-soled childhood “freedom,” then imagine how hard these thought patterns are to break. (But I’m trying.)