They called me "Minnesota Fats," or "Minnie," for short. Other people's parents called them things like "honey bunch" or "sweetie pie." I got "Minnie" or "Pooh Bear"—not because I was actually fat but because fat-shaming nicknames were considered terms of endearment in my family.
My sister, Jane Bennett, got the nickname "Benzino McFatso." She may have been a tad chubby as a baby, but she grew into a slender young woman. I doubt she ever weighed more than 120 pounds in her lifetime. I have to admit, I was more than a "tad" chubby as a baby, but I too grew out of it. My two other siblings, Genna and Champ, somehow escaped these fatty sobriquets, landing less damning nicknames like "Genna Beffa," or "Tampy-toes." They left their nicknames far behind as they fled into adulthood. Mine stayed with me like a childhood friend who just won't fade away.
It didn't help that I was never actually skinny. My mother used words like "sturdy" to describe my shape. It's true, too: I AM sturdy. I'm 5'2"; I'll never be lean and lanky. She dressed me in A-line dresses called "shifts" when I was in elementary school. I actually remember her telling a friend's mother, "Julie looks best in a shift. They suit her solid frame." Great. I had a solid frame. Just what I always wanted.
I grew up dieting. All the women in my family did it. My mother and grandmother cooked enormous and delicious Southern-style meals of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, wilted lettuce salad with bacon grease dressing (sounds gross but I'm telling you, that salad is to die for). I'd look over at their plates and see a couple of lettuce leaves and a spoonful of potatoes, maybe a skinless drumstick. "Why aren't you eating?" I'd ask, viewing my own loaded plate. "I'm watching my weight, honey," my grandmother would reply. "You'll be doing it too, soon enough." She was right.
I dreamed of getting skinny. Around 1967, the English model Twiggy landed on the cover of Vogue. Everyone wanted to look like Twiggy. At 5'6" and 112 pounds, Twiggy looked like a stick. Maybe that's how she got her name. I was 9 years old and pushing 100 pounds myself. I hoped I'd grow and stretch out like Twiggy. It didn't happen. I was fully grown by the age of 12. Five feet two inches and 110 pounds. I weighed as much as Twiggy, but she had four inches on me—four lovely inches in which all that weight somehow disappeared. She was skinny; I was still solid.
One day, I noticed an advertisement in the back of a True Confessions magazine about a special camp that kids could go to if they wanted to lose weight. True Confessions, a racy rag sheet in which women revealed their deepest, darkest secrets, was my favorite source of information during my pre-teen years. "Mom," I said, after carefully stowing my magazine under my bed, "Can I go to fat camp?"
"Fat camp?" she responded. "What on earth is that?"
"It's a sleepaway camp where kids go to lose weight. They spend the summer dieting and they get to be skinny when they go back to school! I want to be skinny!"
"Honey, you're not fat," my mom said. "You're just sturdy! You're pleasingly plump. You're a pretty, solid, healthy girl and I wouldn't change a thing about you."
I was sunk. Destined to solidity. Something had to be done.
I tried every diet. One summer in eighth grade, I discovered if I slept late enough I could skip one whole meal. That seemed like a genius diet idea, but it didn't help me lose weight. I guess bacon and eggs and cinnamon toast dripping in butter for lunch made up for the skipped breakfast. I tried the grapefruit diet. Eating a grapefruit before every meal made everything that came later taste slightly acidic but didn't do much to curb my appetite. I tried fasting. Too boring. Once, I tried to make myself throw up. Couldn't do it.
I noticed another ad in the back of True Confessions—this one for a diet candy called "Ayds" (unfortunate name). These ads were written in true confessional style, featuring a fat, miserable person who miraculously lost weight WITHOUT DIETING, just by EATING CANDY! I sent away for a box. You were supposed to eat one candy before each meal as an appetite suppressant. I still remember the gluey, not-quite-chocolatey taste. The candy was OK, but apparently you DID have to cut back on your food intake as well. I didn't lose a pound.
In college, I didn't gain the "freshman 15" but my weight did continue to climb. At my height, five pounds equals about 15 pounds in a normal-sized person, I figured. Then I discovered the perfect college-kid's food plan: The "Drinking Man's Diet." My mother had a battered old copy of this diet among her cookbooks. Written by a peppy man-about-town, Robert Cameron, the diet is a low-carb one. You can eat meat, cheese, tons of bacon and, best of all, tons of alcohol, especially the hard stuff: vodka, gin and whisky. Who knew hard alcohol was low carb? Who knew what a carb was back then? I stuffed myself on steak and bourbon. I lost weight, too. But, in the end, I couldn't sustain this lifestyle. My grades suffered as the pounds melted off. I went back to bread and light beer.
I am now nearing 60 years old. I am what I am—still sturdy, still solid, still 10 or 15 pounds more than I'd like to weigh. I wish I could say I don't care. I'd like to let it go. But I can't. Instead, I'm trying something new. I call it "The Diet of Deliciousness." I made it up myself. It has one overall rule: Everything I eat has to be delicious. You'd be surprised how much crap this cuts out, including most processed foods. Problem is, my new diet DOES include potato chips and ice cream, on occasion. Life just isn't worth living without them. So maybe I'll lose weight; maybe I won't. I know I'll never be Twiggy. But, seriously, Minnesota Fats? Never.