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PRIVATE LIVES

"We will all be in Florida next week to see you," my best friend, Kay, told me on the phone. Instead of excitement, all I felt was panic. "Oh, my God," was my first unspoken reaction. "How can I lose 10 pounds in eight days?"

What I weigh has been the foundation of my self-esteem for most of my 49 years. The yo-yo cycle of gaining and losing started when I was in fifth grade. "You are too fat," my mother scolded me as I entered puberty. "You look just like the Griners," she would often say _ a slap at my father, whom she divorced when I was 4.

My parents split when the practice wasn't popular, during the mythical Father Knows Best '50s. Whenever I saw my daddy, we would eat. He was born into a family of 14 kids, and his mother made magic out of white flour every day. Grandmama made biscuits, chicken and dumplings, and peach cobbler. They were served up fresh and hot with fried chicken to whoever turned up for the midday meal called dinner. The leftovers were heated and served for supper at night.

There would be eating contests at Grandmama's house on Sundays. Everyone would eat as much as they could stuff into their mouths. Some would go to sleep. I would go into the bathroom and throw up.

Summer vacations were spent with my father, where we ate fish sticks and mashed potatoes for dinner and discovered fried shoestring potatoes and greasy hamburgers at the new drive-in fast-food restaurants. Every summer, I put on weight.

Mother remarried an Air Force officer, and school years were spent moving from one military base to another.

"Look at you. Welcome home, Porky Pig," was her greeting to me as I would step off the plane in September. "Now we have to work to get that weight off." I was young, and in a few weeks I would be thin, my mother's definition of success.

When I came home from college overweight, my mother again went to work. I stuffed myself with my last meal of pork roast and gravy, went into the bathroom and got rid of it. The next morning I embarked on a diet. I was 21 years old, and within three months, I had reduced the 140 pounds on my 5-foot-1 frame to 102. Still my mother would pinch the flesh on my forearms. "You are too fat," she'd say.

I weighed, measured and watched everything I ate. I exercised in front of mirrors. But I never saw myself as thin. When I went to a department store to buy a new pair of jeans, a kind saleswoman took me by the hand. I was looking at sizes 11 and 13.

"No, honey," she said, leading me to the size 5's. "This is you." This stranger put her arm around me as I really saw myself in the full-length mirror. I was petite. I was pretty. I was thin.

I met my friend Sue in 1970. We worked together, and when my mother left for another military base, Sue adopted me into her family. Her daughter Kay is my best friend. All of us have a love of gourmet cooking and an obsession with weight and dieting. They moved away several years ago, and now we see each other only during brief visits.

Coming to grips with my compulsions hasn't been easy. I have learned that it's not what I'm eating, it's what's eating me. I have eaten for both pleasure and pain. Food has too often been my medication, my addiction, my friend.

Now I feel apprehension. Often when Sue sees me, the first thing she does is pat my stomach or hips to see how my weight is doing. I have resisted the urge to push her away.

They will be here in just a few days. They say they are looking forward to seeing me. I cannot lose 10 pounds by the time they come. I kindly take myself to my bathroom mirror and stand up straight. "Look at yourself; this is you," I tell myself. What my friends and family see is what they will get _ the real me.

Pamela Griner Leavy is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.

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