I was six years old the first time one of my family members suggested that I go on a diet. I was also told that I should practice sucking in my stomach to look leaner. At that age, I didn’t know what diets were all about. Beautiful women like my mother and grandmother went on diets–and that’s about all I understood. I didn’t feel any shame about my body because I hadn’t started comparing myself to others. I was a huskier child, but I spent most of my time playing outside and running around after my older brothers. I felt happy and healthy and didn’t think much about what it meant to be fat or thin.
In second grade, two male bullies in my class decided that I would become their target for the year. They sang the Jenny Craig jingle to me everyday. I’d go home in tears from their relentless taunts. In that year, I realized what it meant to be fat, and I finally understood why people went on diets. By third or fourth grade, I started to weigh myself almost every day. I didn’t know how much I was “supposed” to weigh, but I became obsessed with the number on the scale. What did it mean? How much did my friends weigh? I was taller than most of my peers, but I was also bigger. I started paying attention to shapes and admiring other girls who were lankier and leaner. As young as nine, I began to identify myself as an overweight person.
After puberty struck, my hips and butt began filling out their curve potential, and I became utterly horrified with my body. Horror turned to obsession. I constantly examined and critiqued my body. I compared my self to other girls every day. I kept a scale in the pantry and weighed myself every time I went in. My friends made fun of other girls for being too fat or for having small boobs. They even slung horrible names and slanders behind the backs of mutual friends. I wondered what they said about me when I wasn’t there.
I fell deep into depression before I started seventh grade. I refused to attend public school anymore because I was so terrified of being teased about my weight. My mom let me homeschool instead. I spent most of my time with my best friend–she was pretty much my only friend–and the rest of the time I isolated myself from the world. Even going to the movies made me feel self-conscious and gawky. I felt as though everybody was starting at me. In my mind, my body filled the entire room. At that time, I weighed more than I should have for my height and activity level, but I only wore a size 14.
I pined over Seventeen magazine and wished that I could have more than just the “pretty face” that people often complimented. I compared myself to magazine images–which is never a good idea–and found my own body to be lumpy and pale in comparison. Unlike thin girls who could wear trendy clothing, I hid myself under baggy pants and t-shirts. I dreaded summertime because I refused to wear shorts or swim suits, and I was always uncomfortable in the heat. I spent most of my time in my room listening to music, staring at pictures, and wishing that I could die. I dealt with my feelings by writing in journals and composing bad poems. I spent two years as a prisoner of my own self-hatred. I contemplated suicide many times and had frustrating visits with therapists who drank out of rainbow coffee mugs and didn’t understand. I felt my life narrowing down to a pin-point of hopelessness, and I never thought I’d feel happy again.
During my eighth-grade year, my mother talked me into going to the gym with her. She had just divorced my step-dad and was trying to sort out her life. Working out made her feel better about herself and I think she sensed that I needed the same boost. Reluctantly, and under the protective wing of my mother, I started lifting weights and exercising on the elliptical machines. I wasn’t very strong, but my mom encouraged me to stick with it. Though I was still depressed, I started to lose some weight, and my self-esteem started to rise.
Though I was still scared to of being judged by my peers, I decided to start high school in ninth grade. I enrolled on the first day of school, and I cried like a baby when my mother left me. I wanted to melt into a wall and reemerge in four years to claim a diploma. Though I felt a little better about my body, I started second-guessing my ability to succeed in high school. I was scared that I wouldn’t be as smart as my peers who had gone through middle school “the normal way.” I thought that I wouldn’t make any friends or that people would jeer at me and call me fat. I kept my head down and tried to concentrate on doing well in my classes. I continued to work out almost daily and even became brave enough to go to the gym without my mom. As I lost more weight, I became more confident and comfortable. I made friends, joined activities, and excelled in my classes. I finally felt normal. What I didn’t realize then was that my mood and my temperament were contingent on how thin or beautiful I felt. My happiness balanced tenuously on the number I saw each morning.
By the beginning of my sophomore year in high school, I looked like a fitter, happier version of my former-self. But on the inside a new turmoil had begun. As I saw my body changing, I became more and more obsessed with my weight. I would stand naked in front of the mirror for hours pinching “problematic areas” or flexing my leg muscles trying to decide if they made me look fatter. Then I would go to the gym. I would lift weights and use the elliptical until I was exhausted and dripping with sweat. Then I would go home and do sit-ups and floor exercises.
Then the food obsession began. I denied myself any form of sweet treat including jam and frozen yogurt. I no-no food lists on the fridge along side a list of snacks that I deemed acceptable. I even refused to eat a piece of my own birthday cake on my sixteenth birthday. I began counting and cutting calories. I had no real nutritional knowledge off which I based my decisions. I arbitrarily decided that I should only be eating 1500 calories a day, and that would keep me thin. All day long I would compulsively calculate and recalculate the number of calories that I had eaten that day, and if I went over 1500, I would feel an overwhelming sense of panic. In those moments of panic I instantly transformed back into a fat girl. The next day I would push myself even harder at the gym.
One Thanksgiving I walked to the gym to work off all the extra calories that I had consumed. I actually thought they would be open on Thanksgiving day. I wrenched on the locked doors in a fury when I realized that they were close for the holiday. I went home angry and complained to my mother that the gym was closed on the one day when people need it most. Then I went upstairs and resorted to sticking my finger down my throat.
My mother, my friends, my grandmother, my father, my aunts and uncles were all so proud of me for getting fit. I was constantly complimented and congratulated. During this period of my life, nobody ever told me that I had a pretty face. People told me that I was beautiful. But I was still flipping through the beauty magazines talking about how I needed to lose another ten pounds. Fear of gaining weight consumed me, and my zealous efforts to remain thin drove happiness and normality back out of my life. Every morning before school, I would go through ten different outfits, tearing off each one in frustration. In addition to stepping on the scale each morning, I would also measure my waist and hips. My figure constantly left me feeling dissatisfied, so I would calculate, plan, and set goals for a better me.
It never occurred to me that it was abnormal to spend the majority of my day thinking about how I looked, how many calories I had eaten, or when I would be able to workout next. I thought that obsessing about weight was a normal female activity. I knew that diet pills were dangerous and that anorexics only ate crackers and oranges. But I didn’t have an eating disorder because I didn’t fit the paradigms that we talked about in health class. I ate an appropriate number of calories, worked out, and only threw up when absolutely necessary. On the outside I looked like a healthy person who had beaten the bulge and become a well-adjusted member of society. But on the inside I was still miserable.
When I was nearing the end of my sophomore year in high school, I broke up with a boy I thought I loved. The separation devastated me. I thought we grew apart because I wasn’t good enough for him. I carried an inconsolable heart. Instead of turning to exercise like I always had, I turned to food. I stopped caring about my perfect body because I realized that it wasn’t good enough anyway. I broke my junk food fast on four Krispy Kream doughnuts and got sick, but I kept eating. I felt even worse about myself. I would exercise and obsess about my weight one minute, then be eating ice-cream right out of the carton saying “fuck it” the next.
The rest of my high school career was like this, and eventually I gave up my regimented workout routine. I started to view exercise as a punishment and eating ice cream as a reward. I didn’t want to punish myself any more. Though I maintained a relatively healthy weight during the rest of my high school years, I saw myself through old eyes. I felt ashamed at my inability to maintain perfection.
My confidence fluctuated with my weight. When I was thinner, I felt better; when I was fatter, I felt unworthy to be among my peers. Being overweight made me feel like a bad friend, a bad daughter, a bad student. My other skills and gifts didn’t matter when compared to the way I looked. My weight dictated my mood and how I felt the world perceived me. Even gaining a few pounds meant a drastic drop in how I felt about myself, my relationships, and my achievements. I could not reconcile my insides with my outsides.
I entered college thinking a lot about my body and my personal health. I wanted to be healthy, but I still thought that my early high school years were ideal. I wasn’t ready to rededicate my life to my body. Besides that, just thinking about being thin filled me with anxiety. Being thin for me meant living in fear of becoming fat–which would ultimately drive me to gain weight anyway. I didn’t want to live in fear of myself. Being overweight was much easier than constantly worrying about becoming overweight.
As my college education progressed, I developed strong bonds with a few girlfriends. I felt comfortable enough with them to open up a little about my own experiences. We talked about women as they’re portrayed in the media, body image issues, and eating disorders. I soon realize that my “healthy” habits from high school were not normal or healthy. Developing strong, genuine friendships and dating a man who loved me even when my weight fluctuated helped me start to love myself. I began to appreciate myself for qualities that had nothing to do with my body. But, in all honesty, I still wished that I were thinner.
Though I’d made incredible progress since my lonely middle-school days, my thinking didn’t undergo a drastic change until my junior year of college. For women’s history month I attended a showing of the film “Thin” which is a documentary about a clinic for women with eating disorders. The women’s attitudes about food and their bodies were exactly like mine had been. They would pinch and pull at their skin, wishing that the fat would just come off. They would stand in front of mirrors judging and contemplating. They spent hours getting ready, changing their outfits several times before they were satisfied enough to go out in public. They saw a fat person staring back at them no matter how thin they were. They obsessed over calories, threw up, exercised, and cried. They were depressed. They felt worthless. Watching them struggle hurled me back to my early high school and middle school days. I felt their pain as though it were my own again. An old ache that I hadn’t felt for a long time welled up in my heart, and I realized that I wasn’t the only person who looked normal and happy on the outside but felt hideous inside.
A professor named Dr. Lelwica lead a conversation after the film. She talked about how western ideals of beauty can put unbelievable pressure on young women. In our society, she explained, exercise is often viewed as a punishment for a body that’s viewed as too fat. Often times, the ultimate goal of exercise is not health or well-being but emaciation and thinness. She introduced a concept that was simple yet one that I had never considered: she said that it is important to live in one’s body and appreciate it for all that it can accomplish. She put emphasis on the fact that the mind and the body are not separate, and that punishing the body with excessive and sometimes painful exercise is unhealthy for the body and soul. That kind of exercise does not promote well-being nor does it promote a healthy mentality.
As she discussed these concepts, I felt her words fill me up. The idea of living in my body clicked with me. I realized that I had been living outside my body, looking at it through distorted eyes and never believing that it was good enough. I belittled my physical accomplishments and never appreciated the things my body did for me. So many people lose the ability to run or jump or just stroll down the street. And though I’ve been blessed with a well-functioning, perfectly healthy body, I’ve spent most of my life thus far abusing it and taking it for granted. I’ve been obsessing, craving, hating, and punishing myself into fat and thin shapes for years. I had been diseased with the notion that I was a bad person for being overweight. Until I took part in that discussion, I had no idea how diseased my mind had been.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about nutrition and have a more solid foundation for making healthy choices. My attitude about myself has changed a lot too, and I partake in activities like yoga, hiking, and frisbee golf not because they will contribute to weight loss, but because I enjoy them. I like to feel my body working and I try to appreciate what I can do rather than what it can’t. But I still struggle to maintain a healthy weight, and sometimes those obsessing thoughts crop up when I least expect them. I try to stop my mind from reeling when I read how many calories are in chocolate pudding, but once I get going it’s difficult to stop. I am still afraid of being a thin person, but I’m also afraid of the consequences of being overweight. I have bad knees, for instance, and the extra weight I’m carrying strains my already weak joints. I have asthma and not exercising makes less strenuous activities more difficult. I already have high cholesterol. As I get older, the threat of obesity-related health issues becomes more real. I’ve made great strides for myself, but I need to keep pushing myself to become the healthy person that I’ve always wanted to be.