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 of the yummy prize at the end Trouble is her body is growing wider not taller and now her bat mitzvah dress has to be ordered in a larger size. Oh, yes there are tears at the store. Mom’s tears.
Soon after, Eden finds out why. Mom isn’t just weight-conscious she’s been diagnosed with anorexia and the tables turn. She must eat to survive and is admitted to a treatment center which lets Eden savor her first taste of freedom. When her dad is at work she sneaks into a kids’ culinary school and meets Chloe, a skinny rival who can sharpen a knife and her tongue. Chloe eyes Eden’s body (in front of a boy!) and warns her not to lick the mixing spoons which so mortifies her she goes home to binge on comfort food. Lots of it. 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. Now Eden is torn. Will she go for a sweet ending or let her dreams go up in flames?
Sleepaway camp was my entire world even though I was the worst at sports and my singing voice was of zero help during SongFest. Didn’t care. I went back every year to hang out on the lake with my friends, share secrets and laugh so hard my stomach hurt.
Until the summer of seventh grade.
For no good reason, Ava Zelinksy got everyone in our bunk to ghost me which meant I walked to activities alone and talked to my napkin at dinner. Then I found a note under my pillow saying I was the reason boys didn’t think we were the Best Flirts in Skirts. Sorry not sorry if I wasn’t obsessed with flat stomachs or low-cut tops that showed off our bras.
One night after lights out I braved an honest question. “Shouldn’t our looks be the most boring thing about us?”
“NO!” the girls shouted as if I’d offended the host country at the Olympics.
Sheesh. I was only trying to share a lesson I learned from my Glamma who used the prize money from beauty pageants to pay for law school. But after that little chat, I felt like the star of a TV series who suddenly got written out of the script.
Eden Sterling? Never heard of her.
It almost made me wish I’d gone to day camp instead. At least I’d be sleeping in my comfy bed every night and eating fresh Manhattan bagels instead of the frozen waste of dough the cooks pretended were bagels.
Trouble was spending the summer at home meant not getting a break from Mom’s nagging. Sure, I loved her, especially when we snuggled in bed to watch our favorite movies. And nobody on planet Earth would have taken me to see as many Broadway shows. What I didn’t love– the part that really hurt- was her blah, blah, blah lectures about “proper nutrition” because in her opinion being thin was more important than being happy. Hello? It’s not!
At least when I was hundreds of miles away in Pennsylvania, she could only pressure me during our weekly phone calls.
“Honey, are you wearing your fitness tracker?”
“And how do your shorts fit?”
“They’re kind of big.”
“Should I send smaller ones?”
“With Oreos,” I said.
I knew she’d wouldn’t send cookies because it was against the rules (the #1 reason she picked this camp). But if I told her the truth– that I needed to share them so my friends would like me again– look out camp directors! Lori, the lawyer, would demand to speak to whoever was responsible for my unhappiness. Then my counselors would have to talk to the bunk about respecting each other which would end in a fake friendship circle and side-eyes from my supposed friends.
Instead of ratting anyone out, I shared my vanilla scented shampoo and made each girl a beaded name bracelet. Didn’t help. I still found notes on my bed: Wear a bathing suit under your clothes so it sucks in your gut.
One morning, I quiet-cried into scratchy toilet paper behind a bathroom door. Before camp, everyone said I was funny and sweet and the best listener. Now that didn’t matter and what did, like acting older and flirting, didn’t matter to me. So, I prayed hard for things to get better right away. Please, please, please let me have friends again.
But after trying extra hard to be nice to everyone I couldn’t take another second of the loneliness and begged to go home. I knew Mom already thought I was a quitter, except that camp was different than an after-school sport. It was my entire life!
“Sorry, Eden,” she said. “I’m too swamped with cases to entertain you.” Dad said he wished he could spend the summer in the mountains and Jayden, my 15-year-old bro, made the closing argument. “Dude. No one misses you.”
My last hope was to plead my case on visiting day. Lots of kids went home then and I was sure when Mom realized I wasn’t joking about being miserable she’d say okay. But of all times for her to get a bad cold and not come. Even worse, she missed my awesome cooking demonstration- my one chance to convince her I should go to culinary school in the fall.
I’d asked before, but her answer sounded like the music from HAMILTON. Classes are expensive. Your schedule is full. They use butter in their dishes which goes against my wishes and if food isn’t nutritious who cares if it’s delicious…
“Butter is an innocent dairy product,” I’d cry.
“It’s the gateway to high cholesterol,” she’d say. “I’m concerned about your health.”
If only she cared as much that with my whole heart, I dreamed of being a chef. That I lived to mix and chop and smell food simmering. That I couldn’t wait to try out a recipe and get a yummy prize at the end. Plus, I secretly loved being better at something than Mom. Seriously! Get this woman out of the kitchen before the smoke detector went off.
YES! to making it to the last day of camp and one last friendship circle- the one with all the sobbing and selfies. Love you… I’ll text you every day. No thanks. I boarded the bus early and discovered Shauna Becker had too. She was in the older girls’ division, so we hardly saw each other, 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,” she said. “Good summer?”
“Worst one of my life.”
My chest puffed with relief after the bus rolled on to the narrow dirt roads because soon, I’d be hanging with my real friends and baking with Mrs. Adler. She was our down the hall neighbor who had been giving me lessons since I could stand on her kitchen chair and stir.
Wait. What if Mom gave me a hard time about enjoying my favorite activity? Anger started building like steam in a pressure cooker. I was twelve. Old enough to make my own decisions and to know the truth. I still felt crushed that she’d abandoned me on visiting day.
I drifted off thinking of a good way to tell her she owed me a huge apology when Shauna nudged me. “You snooze you lose.”
“Sorry,” I said. “How was your bunk?”
“Someone put bugs in my bed and spread a rumor I had a contagious rash.”
I handed her my last good tissue. “Sucks… are you okay?”
“I decided if I like me who cares what anyone else thinks. I already blocked everyone and deleted their pictures.”
To be nice I said I would do that too, but it was a lie. I #wanted/needed/HADTOHAVE a long list of “friends” in my phone to prove I wasn’t a loser. I also couldn’t wait to entertain my bestie with my secret videos of girls trying to look cool when they looked the opposite.
Faith Feldman was already back from camp and tonight our families were meeting at Venti Uno for our annual reunion dinner. Hello, best mozzarella sticks in New York… and a scary thought.
If this was the year of not knowing which friends to trust, could we be ghosted? So dumb that there were GPSs to help us find places and Alexa to give us weather reports but not one device to tell us if we were about to be ditched. And that sad thought put me in such a daze I didn’t realize the bus had arrived at our pickup spot.
Shauna groaned. “Someone’s parents showed up in a limo.”
“Who’s the Richie Rich?” a counselor shouted, and everyone laughed.
Not me. But I could feel my heart pound as I bounded down the steps. Maybe now wasn’t the best time to pick a fight with Mom about visiting day because the only time I won our arguments 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 GPS.
“Eden! Over here, honey.”
I turned to see a frail looking woman waving beside the shiny, black limousine. A woman I barely recognized. “Mom?”