I was born a healthy baby in NYC in 1957. However, a few short weeks after I was born, I started losing weight. My parents took me from doctor to doctor and finally Dr. Scheuer, an Abraham Lincoln look alike, found the cause; I was allergic to milk, therefore he put me on soybean formula. Mom and Dad were thrilled when I continued to thrive and gain weight.
We continued with Dr. Scheuer for years. He had literally saved my life and my parents traveled an hour to see him. I remember he had an obsession with his doppelgänger, Abraham Lincoln, because there were framed photographs, autographs and official presidential documents dressing every wall in that office. I studied them endlessly while nervously awaiting my appointment. Dr. Scheuer, was the kindest man you’d ever want to meet, but his wife was Nurse Ratched’s double. Every time she would put me on the scale, she would criticize and admonish my parents and declare that I was overweight and something had to be done. Her tone was cruel and degrading.
Food was always important in my house. I literally would daydream in school what we were going to eat for dinner. My mother frequented the local bakery and brought home black and whites, Napoleons, chocolate eclairs, cookies and fresh rye bread and rolls on a regular basis! There was regular gastro excitement in my house, but of course, only if you completely finished your dinner.
It wasn’t long before I developed a cute little potbelly that I was completely unaware of, until one day at the age of six and in first grade, a classmate, approached me. I was wearing a red pleated jumper ( a sleeveless dress that was worn with a long or short sleeved shirt). She looked down at my protruding tummy and proceeded to tell me that I looked like I was having a baby. I never forgot it. It’s pretty amazing how a thoughtless comment could have a lifelong effect on a person.
Clothes shopping became a nightmare. My mother took us ( my younger sister and myself), twice a year- spring-summer and fall-winter. Nothing ever seemed to fit correctly. My stomach and waist were larger than the rest of me and nothing was made of stretch material. “You’d better watch what you eat,”my mother warned me in a caring way. The next step is the Chubbettes Department. (Yes, they actually had a department like that in Alexander’s!) I would usually come home with clothes that fit me, but I never liked them.
I wasn’t exactly in style either. I will never forget, standing on the lunch line at my elementary school and being asked why my skirt was so long. Mini skirts and go-go boots were in, but my mother felt they were not appropriate.
My friend Judi and I loved to play with Barbie dolls. Yes, at that time Barbie and her unrealistic measurements were the ideal. Our Barbies were our avatars. We would save up our hard earned babysitting money and allowances and walk into town to buy our Barbies new outfits. I remember the feeling of being able to dress my avatar in anything and she would look wonderful. Judi and I would spend hours negotiating trades for these treasured outfits.
Friends loved to come over my house to do homework after school. My parents were generous enough to leave me money for numerous snacks before settling down to our serious after school tasks. We needed strength, didn’t we? I loved the little toaster pizzas that were encased in yummy crusts. Then came the chips and Twinkies! It was a taste bud bonanza! Those were the days!!!
As Judi and I grew into teenagers, we struggled with the body ideals of the times. You could never be too rich or too thin was the ubiquitous saying. We tried every diet imaginable. All the women’s magazines had lists of them monthly. We traded recipes and techniques. We stuffed our cucumbers with cottage cheese, the famous Grapefruit Diet and suffered on the Stillman Diet, which allowed for minimal amount of carbohydrates and caused great weakness.
The clothing was completely unforgiving. If you wanted to look trendy, there were ribbed sweaters, Huckapoo shirts ( stretchy, skintight button down shirts), tucked into hip-hugger jeans which were not too forgiving in the stomach area.
There were not too many fashion choices for our age group and limited sizes, unless you went into the Chubbettes department.
Then came the Sweet Sixteens. We ran from store to store to find the perfect dress. We usually went last minute, when there was tremendous pressure “to just find something.”
Inevitably, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin because I never seemed to find anything that fit my body type.
I commuted to NYU my first year and formed the second. Needless to say, I enjoyed that year away. It was trendy to live on toasted bagels with melted American cheese, and eat endlessly while pulling all nighters. We ate cheesecake and ordered in pizza at all hours to keep us fed and awake. I never stepped on a scale until I came home. “You look like you might have gained a little weight,” mother said, studying me. “Why don’t you step on the scale?” We bantered back and forth and I finally conceded. What was she talking about? The scale cruelly registered thirty pounds more. I declared that it was not possible and she needed to buy a new scale!
I also remember being in denial when my dad gave me money to go into Macy’s to purchase a new dress. I had gone up three sizes and was miserable in everything I put on. I truly believed that they were making the clothes smaller.
After my second year at NYU and consciously trying to get back to my high school weight, my parents let me take a year off from college to go on auditions and pursue one of my dreams, acting. I was actually at a normal weight at the time at 5’7” tall and 138 lbs. Every audition I went to, I was told to come back after I lost 30 lbs. I started to wear flowy clothing in an effort to look thinner. Twiggy was still an icon at 5’6” and 91lbs. Twiggy’s measurements were 31–23-32. Not an easy image to live up to which was unhealthy both mentally and physically!
I remember I got a part in an ensemble cast of an off Broadway show at LaMama ETC. I was good friends with another actor named Richie who was also friends with Amy, another young member of the cast. He always thought Amy and I resembled each other. I will never forget the day when he shared his opinion with Amy and she looked at him with disgust! “Are you comparing me to a fat girl?” she cringed. I could never look at her again. Her personality repulsed me. How could anyone be so cruel?
I quickly left the toxic theatre environment and returned to college. I entered Baruch in the fall of 1977. My other two loves were psychology and education. I graduated in 1980 with a degree in Elementary Education,Special Education K-12, and Psychology in 1980. Clothing styles were changing and I was thrilled to discover the blazer, tunics, pants that have stretch and developed my own distinct edgy style which fit both my personality, body type (inverted triangle) and weight. I was feeling so comfortable sticking to certain basics and not struggling for hours on which clothes to wear which were flattering and comfortable. The only problem was that I discovered the art of layering. I loved it so much that many people asked me to teach them how to layer clothing which made the outfit more flattering and interesting.
You would ask- now why would layering ever be a problem? It wasn’t until- the weather became warm; really warm and there wasn’t any air conditioning in the classroom. I literally would be dripping in sweat as I was teaching. I noticed many teachers were wearing sleeveless tops. I never felt comfortable in sleeveless tops because although my arms were not bad, they were not great either. I always had more confidence when I paired my outfit with a jacket or light cardigan. I thought I was being totally ridiculous. Yes, there were people in my past who made me feel uncomfortable with my body shape, but this was renting superfluous space in my psyche. Who cares about anyone’s arm? Who’s going to think anything but me? It was an epiphany! I slipped on a simple black sleeveless top and pants and confidently entered my classroom. Karen walked in and exclaimed, “Mrs. Epstein, I never knew you had such big arms!” For the last 25 years of my teaching career, I never wore a sleeveless top again!
It is so sad that for all of these years, society, the entertainment and modeling industry, and the media made people feel self-conscious about their bodies. I have to be honest, that feeling never left me. Those remarks, though put into proper perspective, stayed with me. I am so thrilled that different body types are accepted today and there many styles and choices of clothing. Almost everything is comfortable, stretchy and forgiving; especially now with activewear reaching the forefront as every day wear.
What are young people struggling with today? Who are the ideals that people are comparing themselves with or trying to live up to? There are innumerable images bombarding the young people on Instagram. Though different body types are acceptable and celebrated, young women feel the need to have plastic surgery or other face altering procedures to attain a look like Kylie Jenner, for instance. Instead of eating the food, people are photographing it. Every era has its pressures and ability to devalue the psyche. Will it ever change?