A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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I didn’t know I needed to lose weight until my senior year of high school. I was sitting near some of the most popular girls in class, and they were talking about their weight. All of them weighed twenty to thirty pounds less than I did. I looked down at my thighs, which were bulging out of my blue cotton shorts with the giant psychedelic polka dots, and realized that I was fat.
All my life, my overweight parents, bless their hearts, had told me I was “just right.”
That summer, I went on my first diet. I counted calories, exercised incessantly, and lived on lean meat and vegetables. I entered college twenty pounds thinner. Too busy to eat, I continued to diet until I got so skinny I scared myself.
Then I fell in love, got married, discovered the joy of cooking, and gained back every pound. My husband, who had fallen for a skinny girl in green velvet hot pants, found himself living with a demanding wife in stretch pants. He moved on.
Divorce proved an excellent weight-loss tool. Too broke to overeat, I found comfort in running several miles every day and lost weight without even trying. Then I remarried, started cooking and eating out, and . . .
Do you see a pattern here?
One day, for no reason, I suddenly started losing weight. Having watched my grandmother shrivel to nothing before she died, I figured I probably had a serious illness. I was right.
When I developed Graves’ disease, I dropped twelve pounds in two weeks and continued to lose a pound or so a week after that. Suddenly I could eat my favorite mint-chocolate-chip ice cream every night and still lose weight. Hallelujah! My jeans now hung loose on my hips, and I started tucking in my shirts again.
Graves’ is a nasty disease: racing heart, screwed-up periods, blurred vision, deteriorating muscles, trembling hands, brittle fingernails, falling-out hair. But for a person who has been dieting all her life, it’s the holy grail.
Alas, the cure brings the weight back. One day, I gained a pound. The following day, another. No more mint-chocolate-chip ice cream. No more French fries. No more seconds on potato salad. No more tucking my T-shirts into my jeans. Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted.
My doctor said that some people with Graves’ disease are tempted to stop taking their medicine so they can continue to lose weight. They could die, he said. I heeded his warning and stayed on my medication. But I was tempted.
Sue Fagalde Lick
South Beach, Oregon
As an official “expert in weight management,” I’ve been helping people lose weight since 1977. In that time, there’s one thing I’ve learned: it is much easier to lose weight than to keep it off. Anyone who claims otherwise is either naive or a scoundrel.
Of the multitude of dieting programs that make up the $30 billion weight-loss industry, remarkably few follow up to find out what happened to the people who invested their faith, time, energy, and money in the product. According to the weight-loss programs that do keep follow-up data, most participants regain the weight after six months or a year. By five years, more than 90 percent have gained it all back.
Several years ago, a colleague and I wrote a book about some of those rare people who have lost fifty pounds or more and kept it off for at least five years. These amazing individuals had one thing in common: each had found his or her own way — no diet, book, program, or person was the Answer.
What these people did was never quick or easy. They followed trails of clues, trusted intuition, and confronted truths about themselves and their world that they had not wanted to see. A single mother of six saved enough money to hire a sitter for an hour once a week so she could ride her bike. Another woman, recognizing her loneliness, divorced her gay husband, brought up three children alone, and joined a quilting group for fellowship. One man joined a twelve-step program, accepted his sexual orientation, and started meditating.
Not surprisingly, thirteen publishers rejected the book. All asked that we write a diet book instead.
I used to keep a tally of every pound I lost, even though I gained them all back. By the time I stopped counting, I figured I had already lost about three and a half people, and I hadn’t even found myself yet.
My mother was also fat, but during her pregnancy with me, pictures show, she was trim and pretty — and, I am told, taking diet pills. I wonder if I was losing weight in the womb.
Daddy owned a grocery store, and when I was sad or lonely, I’d steal from the shelves, slipping a Hershey bar up my sleeve or pocketing a little cup of ice cream to savor in the alley. I used to sit at the checkout sipping a two-calorie can of Tab, but no one was fooled. Customers would say, “You have such a pretty face.” What they really meant was “What a waste.”
In high school, short skirts were in fashion, and not only were my legs fat, but I was also knock-kneed and had many scars from being whipped as a child. When the senior yearbook came out, my fellow students had sarcastically voted me “Best Legs.” I was humiliated, so I ate.
In college, it finally hit me: I would be happy if only I became thin. I set about losing weight with a vengeance.
Breakfast was black coffee with Sweet ’N Low (two calories). For lunch, I had a boiled egg (eighty calories) cut into tiny slivers and eaten slowly with a knife and fork. This I washed down with my new favorite drink, diet orange Shasta (two calories). For dinner, I would pig out on a huge platter of iceberg lettuce drenched in red-wine vinegar (fifteen calories) and half a slice of toast (forty calories), plus more orange Shasta and coffee. Of course there were slip-ups: a dollop of skim milk in my coffee, a stolen bite of a roommate’s cookie, or even a huge bowl of air-popped popcorn. For these transgressions, I would punish myself for days.
It worked. I lost thirty-five pounds in the first month. Men used to mock me; now they came on to me. By spring, I was in a size two. But the mirror still showed a fat woman. I still wasn’t happy.
My initial excitement turned into a deep depression. I was angry with the men who now trailed me (no doubt stepping over clumps of my fallen-out hair). I was scared and defenseless. I didn’t understand why men felt that my body was theirs to possess. I became cold and unavailable, but they didn’t notice. My life was out of control. I looked for a friend to guide me — and magically found it in a half dozen éclairs. Now things were starting to fall into place.
I have repeated this pattern five times in my adult life.
I am a big man. Whereas once I was tall and lean, now I am a bear, lumbering through life, dipping into trash cans in search of a treat. I especially like good beer and will fill myself with it at the slightest excuse, such as entertaining a guest, or a celebration — or thirst.
At twenty-eight, I weighed 185 pounds. Now I weigh 240. I can see both of those people when I look in the mirror, but one is hiding. I asked my wife if she remembered when I started gaining weight, and she said, “When you resigned yourself to me.” Perhaps there’s some truth to that, but not the way she thinks. I think I gave up some lighter part of myself over the years because it wanted to go places I couldn’t. I’ve said my goodbyes, had my regrets. I like being a bear.
I’m a better basketball player than I was at eighteen. I live in the country, have a rich collection of friends, a loving family, and good work. Yet I’m still sometimes startled and shamed by my size. My thirteen-year-old’s best friend calls me his “favorite fat man.” I worry about my long-term health, make elaborate plans to walk more, eat less. But these fantasies dissipate like an October mist, and I’m left lumbering toward the next trash can, humming, looking for honey.
Pittsboro, North Carolina
I was obsessed with trying different diet plans, but none of them worked for more than two meals. Desperation was beginning to set in when, one morning, I dropped my children off at my friend Carol’s house so I could attend a dance class. (Maybe I wasn’t getting enough exercise.) Carol, a wraith of a woman, was sitting at her kitchen table eating a big piece of apple pie. I jealously watched as she lifted each bite to her mouth, marveling at her guilt-free pleasure. About three-quarters of the way through, she abruptly put down her fork, patted her stomach, and tossed the remainder of the pie into the garbage.
I was in shock. She had relished the pie, yet she could throw it away. Later, as I sweated through the dance class and choked down my miserable cottage-cheese lunch, I could still see that perfectly good pie sitting in her trash. How could Carol eat pie for breakfast and stay thin while I ate cottage cheese and gained weight? Maybe I’d been looking for solutions to my weight problem in all the wrong places. Diet experts based their programs on studies of fat people. Perhaps I should study how thin people ate.
The next week, I embarked on my “take a thin friend to lunch” project. I observed my subjects, took notes, and asked probing questions. Then I practiced thinking and acting as if I were one of them.
It took a year to get back down to my proper weight, and several more before I felt free of fat-person thinking, but I’ve never been overweight since.
Joy Imboden Overstreet
I had to tell my mother that I could no longer follow the “health plan” that the diet center had given me. I was thirteen years old, for Christ’s sake! My friends and I ate doughnuts and cookies and chips and fries and chased it all down with a gallon of Pepsi. Fruit? Vegetables? Water? How was I supposed to live on that?
I played through the confrontation with Mom numerous times in my head. I figured that she would beg me — no, plead with me — to stay on the diet for fear I would grow too fat and die on her. In response, I would rattle off the latest statistics about weight, producing scientific proof that we were not all meant to be as small as she was.
But when I told Mom that I was quitting the diet, she didn’t beg or plead. She yelled.
“How do you think I feel when I have to walk down the street with you looking like that!” she snapped as she slammed the refrigerator door in front of me. I couldn’t breathe, let alone speak.
Lynnae C. Brown
Brooklyn, New York
There was a time when, each morning, I would approach the bathroom scale with trepidation. I had to know: What will it read today? Bypassing that little square box, with its revealing glass window, would have made me feel unfaithful. I had learned this behavior from my father, who had a long-term relationship with his scale, weighing himself every day.
A gourmet cook, Dad loved to eat. Sunday-morning breakfasts were special. He always had melon, which he had selected himself, carefully smelling it, turning it in his hands, and pushing in the “belly button” to determine its ripeness. In the curve of each moon-shaped slice he would place strawberries or blueberries. With the fruit, he had just-baked bagels and freshly whipped cream cheese with scallions and Nova Scotia lox. And breakfast was not complete without coffee ground from his favorite beans.
My parents had many Saturday-night dinner parties, and Dad was often bound to the kitchen Friday night and all day Saturday preparing his specialties. People longed for his shrimp romalade with tiny bits of chopped celery, onion, and egg, or his Key lime pie with peaks of egg white lightly browned in the oven.
One of our favorite pastimes was to reminisce about the various meals and dishes we had eaten together. Our most cherished memory might be the chocolate bread pudding at Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard.
Though my father delighted in rich and fattening food, he forced himself to diet his entire life. When the Scarsdale diet came out, he tried it: a grapefruit and one slice of dry toast for breakfast every day. I was fourteen then, and I went on the diet with him, hoping that I’d be happier when I faced the scale each morning. I was too chubby to be popular in school, but I didn’t have my father’s tendency to gain weight.
Bothered by my father’s obsession, I eventually made a decision to stop dieting, though the scale continued to haunt and control me, and I never lost the desire to lose weight.
I had just turned thirty-four and was having breakfast with my father in the Mamaroneck Diner when he told me he had been diagnosed with leukemia. I can say with certainty that it was the only meal I didn’t enjoy with him.
After a few rounds of chemotherapy, he lost all taste for food and had to force himself to eat. He tried desperately to keep his weight up. We would visit Carvel for ice-cream sodas. He buttered his bread. I bought him the best steaks from Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. Nothing helped. He weighed only 144 pounds when he died.
I haven’t stepped on the scale since.
Ossining, New York
All my life, I prayed I would get a life-threatening disease — anything to take the focus off how fat I was. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to wake up with a brain tumor? People would say, “Poor Barbara. I can’t believe she has a tumor” (although they’d whisper behind my back, “It probably has something to do with her weight”).
The real turning point for me was my junior prom. I worked up the courage to ask my brother’s best friend, Al McGartland, to go with me. Al and my mother were the only two people in my life who never judged me.
Asking Al was the easy part. Finding a dress and trying to fit into it was pure hell. I’d asked him ten months in advance so that I’d have time to lose weight. I feared if I didn’t, Al would change his mind and say he couldn’t go. I starved myself until I was so weak I couldn’t pick my head up off the pillow. I tried diet pills, Weight Watchers, Dr. Atkins, home remedies, herbal wraps, acupuncture, behavior modification — all the while fantasizing that I would wake up the next morning and weigh two hundred pounds less.
Instead, the day of the prom, I was twenty pounds heavier than I’d been when I asked Al to go. My dress didn’t fit, so I had to wear one of my mother’s. I was humiliated. Before my father left for work that day, my mother asked him if he’d be coming home to see me off to the prom. “No,” he replied. “The only way she can get a date is to ask one of her brother’s friends to take her, and that makes me sick.”
For the next twenty years, I did everything in my power not to feel the pain those words caused me: lie, steal, drink, do drugs, injure myself, fuck anyone I could. Nothing worked. My whole identity was the fat girl who couldn’t get a date from anyone but her brother’s best friend.
One night, I had a dream. I was standing on the street in front of my house, and my father was standing on the steps. I went from age six to thirty-seven, and at each age, I was the perfect size. I was everything I had fantasized about being: loved, happy, adored, safe — and two hundred pounds lighter. The final image was of me at thirty-eight and weighing three hundred pounds, holding in my hand a dove with a sign around its neck. The sign said, SHAME. I opened my hands and let the dove fly away, and my father turned into Al.
The next morning, when I got out of bed, I felt two hundred pounds lighter, because the shame was gone. No more life-threatening illnesses for me, just life.
I’m on the Stairmaster when a new woman enters the gym. Her sharp cheekbones and hollow eyes recall photographs of Auschwitz. Yet, when she finds herself in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, her lips peel back in a smile. Moving with the jerky, floating rhythm of a marionette, she walks over to the pull-down bench. Before sitting, she puts a thick copy of Vogue on the seat — extra cushioning for the bones that press through her baggy, child-size sweat pants. Her stick-figure arms reach up and grab an impossible seventy pounds.
Suddenly I realize that every other woman in the gym is furtively watching her, too, all of us politely pretending not to notice that she’s killing herself.
Santa Barbara, California
One day, I looked in the mirror and was jarred by the sight of my body. My stomach pouched out; my hipbones were indiscernible; my legs were flabby — I was fat. I began eliminating foods from my diet, one by one.
Before long, I was skipping meals. I adored the feeling of emptiness and euphoria it gave me. Twice a day, I stood naked in front of my full-length bathroom mirror with the lights so bright they hurt my eyes, measuring the figure in front of me. Slowly, hipbones replaced curves, a concave dip replaced the pouch, and straight, smooth thighs replaced flab. Turning around, I relished the sight of my spine protruding from my tight back.
Banished from my plate, food began to intrude on my dreams: I would wake each morning from a glorious feast full of rich creams and massive portions — then skip breakfast and eat half an apple for lunch.
My new favorite activity was shopping. Finally, I could fit into the sexy clothes I had seen in movies. I would skip school and spend the day in dressing rooms, spinning in front of three-way mirrors, reveling in my new shape. I felt perfect and free.
Then one night, I made the mistake of biting into a piece of chocolate cake, my first real dessert in three years. Each bite sent a sensual shiver through my body. I ate until only crumbs were left. Then I went for the cold pizza in the fridge, the cookies, the ice cream, the peanut butter. I ate all night.
Since then, when I see the open box of cookies in the pantry, I try to keep my hands in the pockets of my sexy new black pants, but something draws me into that dimly lit space and compels me to munch cookie after cookie.
For three years, I was happy and beautiful. Now my sexy clothes are getting too tight, my hipbones have gone back into hiding, my legs are regaining their former flab, and my spine has disappeared. I no longer dream of food but of my former self, skinny and euphorically empty.
I know about the negative side effects of anorexia, but it felt so good to be skinny, weightless, delicate. Instead of feeling freed from the “chains” of anorexia, I feel like a prisoner, held captive by the bonds of fat. I regret each bit of food I put into my mouth and wish with every swallow I could stop.
When I was very young, my mother worried that I was not eating enough, so she gave me vitamin shots and tried coaxing me to eat with games. When that didn’t work (because I just wasn’t hungry), she punished me for not eating.
All that changed when I turned eight. I started to like food and devoured everything in sight. I remember the first time I had homemade chocolate-chip cookies. A neighbor had made them for us, and I thought they were delicious. I soon began to gain weight.
I also entered puberty at that early age, which for me explains the change in my appetite and my body. But everyone in my family attributed my weight gain to a newfound sweet tooth. My parents began to hide sweets from me in unusual places, like the file cabinet or their bedroom closet. If I picked up the lid on the cookie jar, one of them would call out that I didn’t need that cookie and should leave the kitchen.
When I was twelve, my mother asked her gynecologist to prescribe diet pills for me. He did, without ever examining me. These pills were true amphetamines (it was the early sixties), and I took them for months at a time, trying to become my parents’ image of a beautiful daughter. I was forever failing; as soon as I finished a round of drugs, I would gain the weight right back again.
My worst diet experience was when my dad decided to weigh me every Saturday. “The weigh-in,” he called it. My mother and brother would wait in the wings to hear how I did. Afterward, I would sneak out for a hamburger, fries, and a milkshake. Sometimes I’d eat two hamburgers. Then I would forget about the diet until the following Friday, when I would start fasting.
As you might guess, I never lost any weight on this diet. In fact, I gained one pound per week. I hid this fact by sneaking into the bathroom before the weigh-in and resetting the scale so that it started below zero. By the fifth week, my father figured out what I was doing and said he was “very disappointed” in me. I had let him down. He did not speak to me again before he left on a business trip that afternoon. I felt confused, ashamed, and violated in a way that I could not explain.
I weighed 110 pounds and was five feet, three inches tall.
As a child, I was “husky.” Oh, how I hated that department-store euphemism for fat. I wanted to be a junkie, because they were thin.
In my twenties, I found out I had HIV. One would think that confronting my mortality would have put my craving to be thin in perspective. On the contrary, I felt even worse. Now I had to deal with the dual burden of disease and my unacceptable appearance.
Then, after years of sloth, I got bitten by the exercise bug and also started eating as healthily as possible. I looked great, and I felt great, too — for about ten seconds. Then I’d hear the little voices:
“How do you know it’s from working out and not from wasting?”
“You could lose too much and not be able to gain it back.”
“Is it such a good thing to be losing weight? You look like death sucking on a lemon.”
I don’t know whether I’m dieting or dying.
Last year, I tried Weight Watchers for the second time. I called it WWII. They gave me a booklet to help me “count points.” Each thing I put in my mouth counted as a certain number of points, unless it was a vegetable, which was zero points. I was allowed so many points per day. I noticed right away the portions were not in pounds or half gallons, but in cups and teaspoons.
Because everything had to be measured, it took a lot of time to prepare food and clean up. As a shortcut, I ate my cottage cheese and drank my milk out of measuring cups. After rationing out a teaspoon of butter (one point), I’d lick the spoon. If a bedtime snack was two graham crackers, described as “two inches by two inches,” I brought out my tape measure to be sure I got the full amount.
This year, a friend and I have decided not to pay anyone to help us lose weight. We have come up with our own plan using a little bit of this diet and a little of that. We weigh ourselves each Thursday (giving us four days to lose the extra pounds from the weekend), write down each thing that we put in our mouths, and do some sort of exercise four times a week. For each pound we gain, or meal we fail to write down, or workout we skip, we have to put a buck in the pot. At the end of three months, the money in the pot will go to an organization we do not like. We’ve chosen the Republican Party.
I do not know what it is about weight and me. Once, a man I loved very much asked me what I weighed, and I refused to tell him. The next morning, my refusal nagged at me. Here was someone with whom I shared my thoughts, my body, my dreams, yet I could not tell him how much I weighed. I called him and told him, “One fifty-four.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“One fifty-four — that’s how much I weigh.” Then I acknowledged the problem I’d had admitting it.
He laughed and said, “Guys are the same way, only it’s not our weight. It’s the size of our penises.”
I still love this man. But now he is with a woman who weighs 118.
My ten-year college reunion is next week. Pulling out my yearbook to reconnect names to faces, I come across my senior picture.
I love this picture. I look like a little bird, fragile and delicate. I bought lipstick just for the occasion. I remember feeling that I finally fit in. At five-foot-six and one hundred pounds, wearing a string of pearls (fake), I looked like all the other girls at my school, a private women’s college.
I remember, too, that I had my hands behind my back to hold up my pants, which otherwise would have fallen down.
I’d been dieting for a decade, but the summer before my senior year, I’d raised the stakes. I militantly ran five miles every morning and ate only a can of soup a day. When the weight did not come off quickly enough, I swallowed a box of laxatives. The empty feeling it gave me made the misery worthwhile.
I spent most of my senior year passed out on the floor of my dorm room, or just too weak to stand. (I realize now I could have killed someone if I’d passed out while I was driving. ) One night, I slept in the lab because I couldn’t make it back across campus to my dorm. Another time, I found myself unable to call for help because the dry heaves wouldn’t stop. There were times I wanted to die, and times I thought I was going to. By the fall, I’d lost forty pounds.
Since then, the FDA has banned the laxatives I took because they’ve been proven to cause cancer in lab rats. (I consumed them in greater quantities for a longer period than the rats did.) I have spent fourteen thousand dollars on laxatives alone and lost more than a decade of my life to this obsession. I do not want to consider what I might have contributed to the world had I not been focused on destroying myself.
Despite all this, I still want to be that girl in the picture. I want to remember the compliments, not the misery.
Dillsboro, North Carolina
I remember my grandmother’s voice when I asked for a second piece of cake: “How could you? Don’t you realize you have a weight problem?” Meanwhile, she whipped up malteds and force-fed my long, lanky brothers with glee. My oldest brother had an intestinal disorder and could eat only noodles, hamburgers, cereal, and soda pop. He drank Coca-Cola for breakfast and never had to eat vegetables. Why did I get the short, stocky genes? I thought. It’s not fair!
Every day, after school, I would sneak off to the local candy store and stand before the majestic display of sweets, studying and deliberating for what seemed like hours. More often than not, I bought a vanilla Turkish taffy, a Three Musketeers, and a Nestlé Crunch. I would walk home happily devouring my forbidden treats.
Now, in my forties, thanks to genetics and candy, I have to attend weekly Weight Watchers meetings. The program specializes in clichés, averaging about twenty in a thirty minute session: “You must first be a believer if you want to be an achiever!” “Failing to plan is a plan to fail!” “Today I dare to struggle; tomorrow I dare to succeed!” And so on, ad nauseam. Maybe dieting lowers your IQ. In between, there are the testimonials. I must admit it is quite thrilling to have a roomful of people clapping as you announce your five-pound loss and receive your red ribbon. And of course there is the sharing of the latest low-cal, low-fat, low-sodium, low-palatability recipes, which I eagerly write down but never make.
Sometimes I want to run out of the room screaming, but I sit there because I have to, because it seems to be my destiny, dictated by my gender, my culture, and my genes. No matter how long I “work on these issues,” the layer of sadness never goes away.
I’m hoping to have all this resolved by the time I turn eighty. I’d like to go out eating cream puffs.
I come from stout, German-peasant stock. That and a love of food in all its forms have given me a figure that can kindly be called substantial.
I was just a year and a half out of college when my first marriage began splitting at the seams. My husband moved out, and I could neither eat nor sleep. I cried through the nights. The doctors put me on two types of antidepressants. As my weight dropped, friends took me to fast-food restaurants, where I choked down roast-beef sandwiches under their watchful eyes.
In three months, I lost thirty pounds. For the first time, I bought a skirt that ended above my knees. I wore it to visit my husband at the friend’s house where he was allegedly staying. (I later found out he was staying with his girlfriend.) He told me I looked good and that he was proud of me for losing all that weight.
Funny, I thought, he hadn’t been proud that I’d worked my way through college; he hadn’t even bothered to attend my graduation. And he hadn’t been proud of the promotions I had earned at work. But he was proud that, because I was too heartsick to eat, my clothes hung off me.
Then he told me I could stand to lose another ten pounds.
That was almost a decade ago. I have put back on every pound I lost, and a handful more. I am strong. I am healthy. And hardly a day goes by when my husband of seven years doesn’t tell me I’m beautiful.
A former athlete, I began gaining weight after college, reaching nearly four hundred pounds by my midforties. I developed the ability to avoid mirrors, even while shaving, and resorted to wearing sweat pants all the time, fooling myself into thinking that they were sports garb.
I gained most of my weight eating gourmet food. I am an excellent chef and a connoisseur of high-quality ice cream. I ate so much Ben & Jerry’s I nearly set myself up for a politically correct heart attack.
During this time, I was in and out of relationships. The longest one was based on eating. We both had weight problems, and we literally fed each other reasons for overeating — including our growing dissatisfaction with the relationship. When we split up, I was left to deal with my problems on my own. My solution? Eat more.
Finally, I decided to lose weight by adhering to a well-known vegetarian plan. A friend said it wouldn’t work and had the audacity to suggest a garden-variety weight-loss center. I told her that my body was not a Wal-Mart, and that I would wait until I could afford a fashionable eating-disorder facility. “What are you going to do in the meantime?” she asked. Exasperated, I agreed to attend the center just to prove her wrong.
It’s been more than a year, and I have dropped 160 pounds. I still haven’t changed my opinion about the program. I think any action, no matter how mundane, would have given me the push I needed.
And I still don’t like my body, though I am beginning to view myself as an athlete once again. Shortly after I began losing weight, I entered a relationship with a bold, beautiful woman. We were married, and I am now a husband and a stepfather to a twelve-year-old girl. My new roles are a far cry from my old patterns of isolation and boredom. Finally, my plate is filled with more than just food.
“Please step up on the scale.”
“No,” I tell the nurse, “I don’t think I will this time.” I know how much I weigh, probably to the pound, even though I don’t own a scale and haven’t been on one in more than a year.
The nurse insists.
“It’s not important,” I say. “Look at me. I’m not overweight. I’m not underweight. I’m just fine. I feel good. I look good. And I don’t have any concerns about my weight. If the doctor has a problem with it, she can talk to me.”
The nurse leads me to the examining room, but I can see her thinking, Difficult patient.
Someone once told me that you should envision each extra pound on your body as a box of butter. Take out the four sticks and position them on your body. That’s a pound of fat. Gain twenty pounds? That’s eighty sticks of butter. Most people think, Where will I put it all? How will I walk? But as my friend told me this, I was thinking, Salted or unsalted? On a freshly baked baguette or pooling inside a baked potato?
Only once in my adult life have I been thin enough to measure up to Madison Avenue standards. It was after my divorce. I was supporting two young children on public assistance while trying to obtain my teaching credentials. I also had an ovarian tumor the size of a grapefruit and a mountain of terror the size of Pike’s Peak. But I looked great. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t sleep, but I could zip up my single-digit-sized jeans without having to lie down on my bed, suck in my gut, and pray to the ceiling god. What finally convinced me I was thin is when a girlfriend remarked that I looked like a heroin addict.
One year later, after a forty-thousand-dollar surgery (to remove the tumor) and plenty of deep emotional catharsis, I didn’t look so good, but I felt a hell of a lot better. The weight I had truly needed to lose was on my psyche, not on my hips.
El Cerrito, California
“Lard butt!” he yelled at me, steering the car with one hand and beating my thigh with the other. I was breastfeeding, but the baby was oblivious. “I’m giving you one last chance,” he screamed, his face contorted with rage, “and that’s it!”
The baby — our third and last — was three months old. I’d gained forty pounds during pregnancy and couldn’t get it off. I’d also been depressed, crying, and out of sorts with my children and my husband. Our small businesses were sinking, and he’d become distant while battling off creditors.
That night — one of many my husband stayed away from home, saying he was sleeping at the office — I stopped eating. For days, each time I looked at food, I chanted silently, “Lard butt.” As my body began to draw energy from stored fat, my senses became extraordinarily keen. Touching wood, glass, and fabric became a rich, sensual experience. The wind on my skin felt unbelievable. My vision sharpened such that light and dark, shadow and color took on new meaning.
Little by little, I began eating again, developing a diet based on my body’s cravings: water, orange juice, boiled eggs, hot chocolate. Everything else was repulsive.
I was pretty sure my husband was sleeping with an employee, a hippie with long, flowing hair, gossamer skirts, and clinking beads. She was fifteen years younger than me. One night that he stayed away, I simply drove around town at 4 A.M. until I saw his truck — with the name of our business emblazoned on the side for all to see — parked in front of her apartment building.
After that, he continued to sleep over at her place several times a week, and I continued to lose weight. I began singing, dancing, and acting in a local community theater. Though I was barely eating, my energy was astounding. I told my husband that our family was more important than anything — the businesses, his affair, our reputation in town. I thought I could withstand it all and hold our family together until he saw how important we were. (Instead, my marriage would end, but my children and I would not only survive; we’d come out the better for it.)
One day, I met a friend walking down Main Street. We hadn’t seen each other for a couple of weeks. She stopped abruptly in front of me, took my hand, and said, “Eat!” I looked at my reflection in a store window and saw what she saw: my bones poking out sharply, my face drawn, my eyes bulging from their sockets.
Slowly, food became acceptable again. It was weeks before I could manage a full meal. My arms and face began to fill out. I was sad to lose my heightened awareness and sharpened senses. I was changing again, but now I knew my limits.
“Why do women always gain weight after they’re married?” my husband asked.
I knew he wasn’t talking about women in general, or even his former wife, who’d gained more than seventy pounds in the few years they were married. No, he was talking about me.
I tried to stay calm, detached. “Did you really like how I used to look?” I asked, searching his eyes for an answer. I saw none.
This wasn’t a new debate. It had been going on since our honeymoon: we were lying naked on a white-sand beach when, out of the blue, he told me I was fat. Shortly thereafter, he stopped wanting to sleep with me. At first he blamed headaches or exhaustion. Then he outright blamed it on my weight.
“Look,” he said now, “I’m just not attracted to you anymore. Lose weight. Be like you used to be.”
In the two years we’d been married, I had gone from a skeletal size six to a svelte size ten, and I felt as healthy as ever. But he persisted.
“I don’t think I can do this anymore,” he said.
His veiled threat was like a revelation. Suddenly I saw clearly. I ran to the full-length mirror and stripped off my clothes to make sure. I was a little rounder and softer, more feminine, my breasts full but not pendulous, my hips sensuously curved. I saw nothing of my former angularity. No bones protruded. I loved what I saw.
When I returned to where he was sitting, I told him I was filing for divorce. I felt lighter already.
I was seventeen when I started modeling seriously. I lived in a wealthy Long Island community, but my parents were poor and uneducated. My father worked as a short-order cook in an all-night diner; my mother was constantly ill. (She would later be diagnosed as schizophrenic.) I was lonely and unhappy, and modeling offered a way out. My goal that summer was to put together a professional modeling portfolio and be accepted by a major agency. I also decided to diet. I had always been slender, but I wanted to be skinny. It was part of the package, the dream.
It was fairly easy for me to lose weight, and exciting. I had never experienced such success — not at school or at sports, at home or in the world. Dieting gave my life a structure based on calories, fats, and carbohydrates. By controlling my body, I felt I was controlling my life. I got accepted to a top agency in New York City and began getting catalog and magazine work.
The more involved I got with modeling, the more furious my father became. He equated “model” with “slut” and was convinced I was doing something sleazy. We began to have horrible, ugly fights. We couldn’t be in the same room together. My mother begged him to stop attacking me, but he was beyond reason, as if driven by some inner demon. The constant stress and violence caused me to binge.
I had never been obsessed with eating, but now I could think of nothing but food. During the week and at school, I stayed on my diet, but on the weekends I gorged on ice cream, cake, and cookies, and then took laxatives to purge my system. I created stricter rules: fewer calories and carbohydrates, more exercise. My body became a battleground, and dieting took on a blind, obsessive quality.
My last year of high school was a nightmare. I gained all the weight back and then some, shattering my dream of becoming a model. What was worse, the starving and bingeing had messed up my system such that I had trouble maintaining my normal weight no matter how little I ate or how many dance classes I took. In my new career as an actress and a dancer, I was still constantly aware of my body. For years, the struggle with my weight defined my life.
Luckily, my addiction to losing weight led me to health-food stores in search of diet foods. Once there, I became fascinated with products such as whole grains, organic produce, and vitamins. I developed an interest in health and eventually left show business to open a natural-foods restaurant, which I owned for twenty years. Little by little, food became my friend, and my relationship with my body began to heal.
New York, New York
My friend Liz leaned in close to my hospital bed, trying to understand me as I croaked around the tube running down my throat. “There has to be another way,” I told her. “I don’t want you to have to go through this.”
Liz looked at me dubiously. She and I had met in a support group for people considering surgical treatment of chronic and severe obesity. I had just undergone a stomach-stapling operation. I could tell what she was thinking: why did I want to deprive her?
This was the second time around for me. I’d had my first stomach stapling in the early eighties. It resulted not only in massive weight loss, but also bulimia, hypothyroidism, and severe anemia. Eventually, I regained the weight. This new surgery included repair of several abdominal hernias (a result of repeated forced vomiting), as well as a more sophisticated type of gastroplasty.
Liz thought I was lucky to have been among those accepted for the procedure. Now I’d be able to look forward to a perfect (i.e., thin) life. Or so she believed.
How could I explain to her how I felt? I was angry — for myself and for so many others whose pain, isolation, and humiliation equaled mine. My body was scarred and ravaged from a lifelong quest to achieve our culture’s feminine ideal — an ideal upheld by my mother, for whom looks were the only measure of one’s worth; by a blind date who informed me he’d rather date someone who was ugly than someone who was fat; by the radio talk show host who said of me, for all Chicago to hear, “She’s really beautiful, but very overweight”; by the suitor who brought me a tabloid survey showing that the majority of men won’t consider a fat woman as a potential marriage partner.
Oh, Liz, I thought, how can I express all these things? We are pretty, smart women — also warm, funny, caring, and, yes, even beautiful. We are all of these things when we are a size sixteen. So why are they recognized and valued only when we’re a size eight?
St. Charles, Illinois
The Readers Write on “Losing Weight” [October 2000] made my stomach hurt. So many stories, so much shame. Our obsession with thinness causes deep scars and steals our dignity.
I see my own story in many of those submitted: the shame at being heavy; the degrading remarks that burn into you and haunt you for a lifetime. I wish I could say that reading these stories was cathartic for me, but mostly I felt a great sadness.
I’ve seldom read as strong an indictment of America’s cultural demise as your Readers Write on “Losing Weight.” The energy spent on this sick pursuit of being thin is a waste. That so many in our society would buy into this unnatural enterprise, believing the myth that protruding female bones are beautiful, confirms my worst fears. Our common sense has been blinded by media-driven standards. Those letters from readers opened my eyes as few essays or interviews have.