Work in Progress
Is there a recipe for happiness when a mother can’t eat, and a daughter can’t stop? In A LOT ON HER PLATE, a 12-year-old girl starved for approval is challenged by diet culture and the fear she’ll have to give in to fit in.
Eden Sterling has quit every activity except for cooking because she loves the yummy prize at the end. Trouble is her body is growing wider not taller and now her bat mitzvah dress must be ordered in a larger size. Oh, yes there are tears at the store. Mom’s tears. Then Eden finds out why. Mom isn’t just weight-conscious she’s been diagnosed with an eating disorder and the tables turn. Mom is admitted to a treatment center that will force her to eat while Eden gets to savor her first taste of freedom. One day she sneaks into a kids’ culinary school only to meet Chloe, a skinny rival who can sharpen a knife and her tongue. Chloe eyes Eden’s body and warns her not to lick the mixing spoons which so mortifies her she goes home to binge on comfort food. Eden feels so ashamed of her stress eating she vows to hang up her apron until she is urged to enter the baking competition Chloe wins every year. But just when Eden’s confidence is building, Chloe sabotages Eden and now she is torn. Will she try for the sweet ending she deserves or let her dream of winning go up in flames?
Girl Power? Is That a Joke?
I was born on New Year’s Eve, so maybe that’s why I love countdowns. Not that anything is as fun as waiting for the ball to drop- in Times Square, near where I live. But one other thing is definitely high on the list. (Get it? High?) It’s the countdown to sleepaway camp, which starts the day I get home from spending the summer at Emerald Lake. I seriously can’t wait to hang out on the waterfront, share secrets and laugh until my stomach hurts.
And this summer, the summer of seventh grade, when my friends and I were finally in Junior Girls, would be our best yet. Yes, please to later bedtimes and more overnight trips. But when I kept waking up with a gigantic knot in my stomach, and sometimes it lasted all day, I started the most awful countdown ever.
I checked off how many days until I could go home. 42… 25… 20.
At first, I wasn’t sure I was being ghosted because the girls were nice to my face. But then they kept leaving for activities without me and whispering when I changed into a bathing suit. Ugh. I went from being really annoyed, to being really hurt to being really miserable because the only time anyone looked for me was if they wanted to borrow my straightening iron, which Ava Zelinsky broke and never apologized for.
So, on the last day, after my daisy-painted trunk was carted off to the bus, and right before our final friendship circle, I made a brave choice. Well, brave for me. I didn’t wear our bunk t-shirt with the stupid saying about Girl Power like I was supposed to, since girl power turned out to be a fake way of saying we could be anything we wanted. Was that a joke? We could be anything we wanted as long as it was exactly what everyone else wanted. Instead, I put on the tank top I made at the Tie-Dye Den that said EDEN STERLING IS A SURVIVOR.
Then came the moment I’d been counting down to.
The girls from Bunk 17 were standing side by side on the tennis court for our LAST friendship circle– the one with all the sobbing and selfies Love you… I’ll text you every day. And I thought, okay, two choices. Say all the things I practiced like, sorrynotsorry I’m not obsessed with wearing makeup and cute outfits because hello, it’s camp… not my fault I wasn’t born skinny and don’t have a favorite diet influencer because we’re twelve and starving ourselves is dumb.
Or I could grab my backpack and run for the bus.
My legs were short, but the morning breeze coming off the lake put the wind at my back. Soon, I was racing up Dead Man’s Curve, behind the dining hall, in front of the camp office, past the infirmary and the nice nurses who played card games with me during evening activity.
Winded, but happy, I reached the parking lot and found the bus going to bee-utiful Manhattan. Yes! The driver let me hop on early to enjoy the air-conditioned tundra, but I wasn’t the only camper who made an early escape. There was Shauna Becker at a window seat twirling her fire red ringlets. She was in the oldest girls’ division, so we didn’t hang out. But like me, she lived on the Upper East Side and always seemed to be alone.
“Okay if I sit with you?” I asked.
“Go for it,” Shauna said. “Good summer?”
“Worst one ever. You?”
Shauna stared at her phone. “This place is dead to me.”
“Same,” I said.
“Are you deleting everyone from your phone?” she asked.
I fist bumped her. “Awesome idea.”
Soon, the bus rolled down the narrow dirt roads and I could feel my breathing get slower and slower. But after the driver sped past the Alleghany mountains, it felt like my chest caved all the way to my ribs. Four summers of sleepaway camp in Pennsylvania had been the absolute best time of my life and now it was over. For. Ever.
Shauna nudged me. “Were you bullied?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “Mostly I got ditched.”
“How come?” she asked.
Did I dare tell the truth? That my short, round body was a HUGE disappointment to the skinny girls who danced through the cabin in their undies with side-eyes that screamed you wished you were us? “Guess I’m turning out different than everyone else.”
Shauna used her finger to draw a big X on the frosty cold window. “Someone spread a rumor I had a contagious rash and one night they put bugs in my bed.”
“Sucks,” I said. “Why?”
“Because… I’m different than everyone else too.”
Really? But she was cute and tiny and even though her hair was the same red as the markers we used to make signs, it looked cool in a messy bun.
“Not sure what you mean about being different,” I said. “But get this. One time I told everyone our looks should be the most boring thing about us and they acted like I insulted the host country at the Olympics.”
I liked hearing Shauna laugh.
“You’re funny, Eden. And nice.”
“Two things that don’t matter,” I said.
“They do matter.”
“Maybe on a different planet… can I ask what’s different about you?”
The way Shauna’s cheeks turned as red as her hair made me want to shove a stinky sock in my mouth. “It’s okay if you don’t want to say,” I offered.
Then she waved me close and whispered. “Everyone thinks I like girls.”
“That’s okay,” I blurted. And I meant it.
“But I don’t know if I do.”
Now my heart hurt because I knew how awful it was to feel confused. To want to be like everyone else because it was easier but not want to be like everyone else because it didn’t seem right. “We sort of have the same problem,” I said.
Shauna rolled her eyes.
“No, really. Everyone decided there was something wrong with us because we didn’t act exactly like them. It’s like being in a play and you have to say the lines in the script.”
“It’s not a play,” she said. “It’s my actual life.”
“I know,” I said. “But can I ask you something else? Why didn’t you leave?”
She looked out. “My mom had to find us a new place to live… her and my dad split.”
“Sorry.” And I totally was because one time my parents split but then somehow figured out their stuff.
‘Did you try to leave?” Shauna asked.
I nodded. “We’re talking epic fail.”
Quitting is never the answer, Mom said.
I wish I could spend the summer in the mountains, Dad said.
Dude, no one misses you,” my fifteen-year-old brother said.
“I’m glad you stayed,” Shauna replied. “At least I made one friend.”
Sweet! I finally did too.
While Shauna played a game on her phone, I closed my eyes and tried to find my happy place, like when I snuggled under the covers to watch a good movie. I couldn’t wait to be back with my real friends, especially my bestie, Faith Feldman. No matter what she would never ditch me and in a few hours our families would be getting together for our annual reunion dinner at Venti Uno. Yum to the crispiest, crunchiest mozzarella sticks in New York City.
And maybe tomorrow I’d cook with Mrs. Adler, our down-the-hall neighbor. She had been giving me lessons since I could stand on her kitchen chair and stir, and I couldn’t wait to see the new recipes she’d collected because I dreamed about being a chef.
Hopefully, Mom wouldn’t be her usual annoying self and schedule things for the exact time Mrs. Adler invited me over. You need a haircut… I made you a dentist appointment.
Suddenly it was as if the channel changed because I could hear Mom’s welcome home speech. The one where she reminded me it was back to her rules on healthy snacking (“Read nutrition labels!”), working out (“Get in 10,000 steps!”) and good hydration (“Drink a glass of water before every meal!”).
Now instead of being excited about being back anger built like steam in a pressure cooker. Twelve was old enough to eat what I wanted and to pick the activities I liked. Which was what I planned to say to her if she had come on visiting day like she was supposed to.
Still so mad.
She said she had a bad cold, but if I knew Mom, she had too many cases piling up at her law firm and needed an excuse to work. And knowing how quickly she abandoned me put me in such a bad mood I dozed until the bus arrived at our pickup spot.
Shauna groaned. “Someone’s parents showed up in a limo.”
I opened my eyes to look out.
“Who’s the Richie Rich?” a counselor shouted, and everyone laughed.
Not me. But I still felt my heart pound as I bounded down the steps of the bus to find my parents. Also, to pray they weren’t standing around holding another balloon bouquet because, what was I. Seven? And maybe now wasn’t the best time to pick a fight about visiting day because the only time I won an argument with Mom was when I was in the shower. In fact, why fight with the one person in my world who had a solution for every problem?
Lori Sterling was my human Alexa.
“Eden! Over here, honey.”
I turned to see a frail looking woman waving beside the shiny, black limousine. A woman I barely recognized. “Mom?”