And She Lived Happily Ever After
By Rosemarie Augostatos
My father likes to show off baby pictures of me with pudgy cheeks and rolls of fat around my thighs and tells anyone who will listen how robust I was until the age of 5, then throws his hands up in disgust, puzzled as to why I lost my plump figure. I discovered a way to get what I want. I could not control the dysfunctional behavior of my immigrant Greek family but I did have control over what came into my body...or so I thought. At the age of 5, I made the decision to stop eating meat. I was not aware that I was becoming a vegetarian and I was too young to be part of the 60’s culture of rebelling against the system; I just did not like the taste of meat, the texture of steak with the small veins getting caught between my teeth repulsed me. I did not know on a conscious level that my refusal to eat meat would become a war of wills between my mother and myself.
To be Greek and a vegetarian is considered anathema. What true Greek can resist a piece of lamb roasted on an open spit? There is a memorable scene in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” where the protagonist introduces her boyfriend to her aunt. The aunt invites them over for dinner only to be told that he is a vegetarian--at which point the aunt responds, “No problem, I’ll make lamb.”
My parents, who lived through a couple of wars and a devastating earthquake in Greece, grew up eating whatever was edible, including the weeds growing on the side of the road. Food was a luxury and meat was eaten only on Easter or Christmas when the pet goat or chicken was slaughtered. My refusal to eat meat was not only a show of disrespect to my parents’ pain and suffering but a slap in the face that a 5 year old would be so obstinate, a girl no less, who is supposed to be obedient and subservient. I think my mother was secretly jealous that I had options that she did not have. As a female in her culture, she was not permitted to question the authority of her parents, especially her father, even if it meant suppressing her desires. The risk of disobedience was too great, she would be ostracized by her family and culture alike. In her own way, she was teaching me the skills she thought were necessary in order to survive a Greek family and culture. I, on the other hand, having been born into a culture that prized independence was willing to take the risk. My mother, faced with her own fears resorted to violence to get me to conform, smacking me across my tender cheek and shoving a piece of broiled steak down my throat as I opened my mouth to cry. “Swallow!” my mother implored. Through my tears, I could see the glee on her face for having won the battle. She believed she was doing what was best for me.
My mother quickly tired of the violent dinner time scenes but refused to make any special vegetarian dishes for me, hoping to break my will; tame me so that I would become marriageable. My diet consisted of french fries, bread and Coke, feta cheese and the occasional olive; my main fare being bread, Coke and feta. I oftentimes went to bed with excruciating pains in my abdomen from what is now known as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). What shocked me more than anything was that my parents, who truly believed they loved their children would jeopardize their child's health just to make a point, just to break my will.
They did not succeed, 35 years later I am still a vegetarian. But my conviction to not eat meat came with a price. Beside the physical pain, I spent most of my childhood, adolescence and adulthood believing that there was something seriously wrong with my body. In junior high school, a boy named Jimmy Curtin nicknamed me “stalk” as in Jack and the Beanstalk because I was so tall and thin. My mother pleas to “Eat, you are so thin, you’ll collapse from being so weak” and “is that all you are going to eat?” and begging me to eat more instilled the idea that I was too weak to do anything and that I was seriously flawed. Looking back now, I probably could have eaten more, but I didn’t. I basked in the glow of the little, albeit negative attention. The straight A’s, honor and achievement awards did not receive nearly as much notice as my eating habits and I wasn’t about to give up the few crumbs thrown my way.
My parents not only disliked my eating habits, they were dismayed that I was intelligent and opinionated. Double whammy! A thin Greek woman who speaks her mind. This was a big cause for concern. They battled me on both fronts, trying to force me to eat more as well as keep my mouth shut. After all, how could they ever marry me off to a good Greek doctor or lawyer if I continued to speak out as well as look so sickly?
During summertime visits to Greece as a teenager, I was ridiculed and talked about behind my back and in front of me by villagers and family alike for my thin physique. They thought there was something wrong with me not only because thin was not “in” but because they could not reconcile such depravity with the fact that I came from such an affluent country. Indeed there was something wrong but it was not for want of food.
When thin became “in," I was admired for what was once a liability in my family but the admiration was not enough to compensate for the sense of powerlessness I felt in my everyday life. Being deprived of love and acceptance left deeper scars then being deprived a good vegetarian meal. Love is nourishment for the soul and I was starving.
This starvation took on the form of self-loathing, low self esteem and even worse, being at constant battle with myself. I never stopped taking risks but the price at times included being physically abused. As an adult, it all came crashing down on me when I became ill, not life threatening but without any seemingly known causes; and leaving my job in pursuit of economic freedom in pursuit of healing my fragmented self. A couple of disappointing years of dealing with the western medical establishment and still feeling unwell, I turned towards holistic medicine and yoga.
Through yoga, I developed the commitment and discipline to challenge and change the misconceptions that had been planted by my family and culture about my “defective” body and the power I possessed. I became more confident as the view of myself transformed, and continued to be transformed as I learned to accept myself. I now draw from my personal experiences when I teach and write about yoga, impacting others positively as I continue to heal myself. Much to the surprise and joy of my parents, I am involved with a Greek man who is not only vegetarian, but appreciates my thin physique and intellect; and just as important, allows me to speak my truth.