It’s hot. I’m wearing an old tye-dye dress and sneakers, my bangs stuck to my sweaty forehead. Photographs will later reveal I have the sort of bowl haircut stylists default to when you’re too young to know what you want, and your parents just want something cheap that won’t get gum stuck in it. I’ve come to a standstill on the sidewalk to watch a mosquito bite my bare calf.
“What are you doing?” my dad shouts from our front door. “You’re supposed to be walking!”
Ah, right. That’s what I was doing. I was walking. I was following the “System”.
My parents came up with the Point System when I was still in elementary school, as a way for me to pay for my sin. The sin was being overweight, and the solution was walking to earn ‘points.’ Twenty minutes of walking for one point, and that point could then be spent on activities—watching TV, playing video games, etc. There were other things I could do to earn points too, like eating vegetables and abstaining from sweets. Stuffing myself with celery and carrot sticks was nausea-inducing, however, and utilizing my limited child’s willpower to resist a cookie after dinner was next to impossible. So walking was my chosen penance.
Calling it penance makes it sound like a weird religious thing, which it wasn’t. But there was something undeniably ritualistic in the way my world revolved around it, in the lists of rules pinned up on the fridge. I was supposed to walk, but I wasn’t supposed to stray too far from home, so I ended up just making endless circles around our apartment block. Hypnotic and futile. The same way some people don’t remember their relationship to religion when they were kids, I don’t quite remember how I felt about the System. I just did it.
The Point System wasn’t the only plan my parents devised to help me to slim down. There were all sorts of incentives tied to weight loss—money, a razor scooter, and a puppy were all things that come immediately to mind. I carried a calorie counting book around with me in middle school, and went on the Atkins Diet when I was thirteen. If I wasn’t losing weight, I was failing, I was breaking the rules, and I failed through all of my childhood. None of these methods worked. I did lose weight, eventually, but only after I had grown up and moved out.
It’s only now, sitting here almost two decades later and writing this down that I realize how truly bizarre all of this sounds. It sounds like I was being abused, although I don’t think I’d go that far. The Point System was fairly unevenly enforced, and by the time I was in my mid-teens, my dad more or less laid off. Years later, my stepmom would tell me that this was partly because she had told him to cut it out. You aren’t helping. You’re just giving her a complex.
Now I’m older and thinner, with no more lists of rules taped to the fridge. But that doesn’t mean the penance have stopped. The rules are just enforced by a new taskmaster: myself. I still regiment my exercise and I still scold myself when I eat. I still create arbitrary rules and berate myself when I break them. I have been on antidepressants for more than half my life. Sometimes I wonder if the source of my OCD and my anxiety have a root in the point system. My dad’s plan to fix me. I wonder if there will ever be a time I can’t draw a direct line from myself to that little girl in the tye-dye dress with the mosquito bite on her leg.
This is a hard story to write for obvious reasons, but the hardest part is actually how I feel like it’s going to make my dad look. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. We are very close—he has been a constant source of support in my life, and I think that everything he did, he absolutely did out of love. He saw me struggling—bullied mercilessly by my peers for my weight—and he wanted to help. He has had his own issues with body image and diet. But the shit that comes from a person we really love and trust and has our best interests at heart can be the most nefarious of all, because it makes it harder to really see the damage it did. Even if it was done with the purest of intentions.
I wish I could wrap this up with the report that I’ve figured it out. That I’ve somehow discovered the secrets to self-esteem and loving myself. I haven’t. Separating myself from the System—any system—is probably something that I am going to struggle with for the rest of my life. It’s built into my routine. Wake up, wash hair, get dressed, grit teeth against the oncoming eclipse of self-hatred. Not to be defeatist. I don’t think struggle necessarily has to be bad. It can just be there. Some days are easier than others.
But I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone this. Bizarre Point System or no, chances are you too have that voice buried somewhere inside. The one that says, “What are you doing? You’re supposed to be walking/running/working harder. You’re supposed to be better than you are. You’re supposed to be suffering.”
A.U. Farah grew up just outside Washington DC in a house that has since been torn down, in a forest that no longer exists. She likes coffee, robots, and driving with the windows open.