The first installments of Confession of an Obese Child could be construed as a little depressing. The excessive taunting, the spewed vitriol, the utter embarrassment heaped on me was quite unpleasant (to use a classic British understatement). I strive in these blogs to bring poignancy and honesty with some humor and levity. Today’s installment is all levity…pizza party time!
For a brief time of my childhood I was a competitive eater. No, not like those guys who compete in the Coney Island hot dog binge competitions for money and fame. No money was involved in my bouts with other kids, but the incentive for more food was the only currency about which I cared. Just like in the Convenience Store, if I could set up a racket where I could guarantee a fresh supply of more food, then I was all in.
My parents had a knack in dropping me off at places to let me wander. This quasi-abandonment suited my personality, for it satisfied both my insatiable curiosity to experience new things and my equally voracious appetite to be left alone. Why be around people, especially kids? They will let you down in some fashion. Food and books don’t.
Mr. Gatti’s was a popular pizzeria in the 80’s. (I do have fond memories of all 80’s restaurants. The old arcade games in the back, the felt walls, the gigantic big screen projector TV, the cheesy, albeit very catchy 80’s dance music, the smoking sections. (Listen to my podcast to hear my favorite 80’s bands.) Most Gatti’s offered a very inexpensive lunch buffet. During the summer, my parents had to entertain me in some fashion either by sending me to the amusement park (fun), the local pool (horrible), or to camp (dreadful). So they sent me to Mr. Gatti’s with $7: $4 for the buffet and $3 for the arcade games.
I loved going to the pizzeria. I developed relationships with the workers (I always had a propensity to make good friends with adults), watched the soap operas on the projector screen (no cable yet), and plunked in quarters to play Centipede and Space Invaders. unlimited pizza, soda, and desserts! It was like Shangri-La to the binge eaters of all ages!!
My “career” began when I was around 10 or so. One day a large family sat next to me and the dad commented on my lack of parental supervision. (Stranger danger!) I told them that I lived only few blocks away and that my parents would be here soon (both lies.) His son, who was a normal-sized kid, then called me a “Fatty!” I smiled sheepishly while the dad mildly scolded him. They later left freeing me to gorge on more pizza.
I saw the kids a few days later with a nanny. When I was going up to get my first slices, the boy called me another fat slur. I have no idea why, but I uttered “At least I can eat more pizza than you.” He chortled and said “I doubt it.” He said “if you eat more pizza than I, I won’t make fun of you.” I thought to myself “Look at me…and look of you.” I had nothing to lose so I agreed.
Now the slices in most pizza buffets are smaller and not as toppings-laden as the regular ones. We proceeded to pile up our plates with pizza and watched each other from our respective tables. (I don’t recall the nanny seeming to care much about the exploits of her charge.) By the end I beat him 23 slices to 18. I won, but it was a Pyrrhic victory since he continued to ridicule me in the future. Naivety is purged through experience not age.
This win stoked the competitive fire in me. It was an exhilarating feeling, almost as satisfying as that first bite of Vanilla Zingers (my pastry of choice) on a particularly tough day. Now I wasn’t known to excel in anything. I wasn’t particularly a good student (aside from geography). My years of binge eating stretched out my stomach so it could be used for good. I had a superpower! I sure knew how to pack in the food so perhaps I had the competitive edge in something..albeit something that was completely deleterious to my physical health and mental psyche.
I had to change my modus operandi. Parents would thwart my “slapping of the face with a leather glove” so I targeted my duel challenges to unsupervised tweens or young teenagers. My approach was pretty direct “Hey guys…I would love to challenge you to a pizza eating contest.” The kids would almost always agree to it, due to that double combination so pervasive in teenagers: competition and love of food. They also likely thought a young kid challenging them to eat as much as possible was amusing.
I played this game on-and-off for about 4 years. I dueled against boys and girls of all ages and races. I don’t recall my specific record, but I easily won more than I lost. (The 16-18 year-olds would normally take me down.) On occasion, when I beat them they call me a fat slur, but now always. I distinctly recall my best day was a whopping 36 slices. Now these slices were diminutive but not that much. It was probably the equivalent of 3-4 large pizzas.
What was the bet? I was young and naive. I never really thought about a wager. I never won money or trinkets from the losers. My sole remuneration was for every 2 wins, the guys are Gatti’s gave me free buffets. (I was close with the manager.) That in itself was reward enough.My parents never found out…even to this day. I think 11-year-old Albert knew that they would not take me to the pizzeria anymore had they found out.
The euphoria of winning belied my underlying sadness. Like the first quick bites of a binge, the high of victory was ephemeral, followed by the pangs of stomach aches and shame. It is no surprise that during my tweens my weight exploded, but at the time I didn’t care much…at least on the conscious level. I was happy that I excelled at something.
To this day, I stay away from buffets. In all honestly, I wish they would stop serving them. The myriad of options for a reasonable price is a ruse for the true intentions of frequenting places like that: binging. It breaks my heart to see overweight people taking their overweight kids to these locales. I want to yell at them “Don’t you see what you are doing to yourself and more importantly to your kids!”
It is like the broccoli-in-the-teeth analogy. What does the true friend do: tell or not tell you when you have that in your teeth? Am I doing a disservice by not speaking the truth to overweight people? Perhaps some strong words will wake them up like it did me. Or maybe it will continue the shame cycle. It is exasperating either way.
(If you are interested in my weight loss backstory, click here. Subscribe to my Confessions podcast here.)
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(I would appreciate your stories or comments below.)
A. Gregory Luna, double-certified health consultant