I’ve read tons (haw!) of those weight-loss books, seen plenty of talk shows with crying people, heard the interviews, skimmed the web sites, all that. And one of the common elements of the “Fat Story” is that the fat/formerly fat people will point to One Big Thing – lack of a parent’s love, sexual abuse, school teasing, bad genes, a sweet tooth – that made them fat. And there’s one thing, one really over-the-top embarrassing Fat Moment or super-empowering Potential Thin Moment – that makes them lose weight: not fitting into an airplane seat or passing out at the gym or having a heart attack or their spouse cheating on them with a thin person or their adorable child said “I love you, Mommy, even though you’re fat and not as pretty as Brianna’s mommy!”
But the real Journey of a Fat Person isn’t that linear. It isn’t that obvious. It isn’t that cut-and-dried as a chapter in a book or a five-minute chunk on a talk show. It’s a constant battle against the barrage of Embarrassing Fat Moments and Potential Thin Moments that come in big clumps, no matter which way you personally decide to approach the issue.
Unlike many people with weight problems, I was always super-skinny as a child and young adult. I could have a candy bar and a soda for lunch daily and not see any effects. I was never physically active, and usually opted for books and Barbies over softball and tag. No matter how it was glamorized in the early 80s, I was never going to find jogging or aerobics particularly fulfilling pastimes. I was a pretty picky eater, and not particularly fond of fruits or veggies (which, in my household, were almost uniformly the mushy canned kind) or anything healthy, but it didn’t seem to be a problem. Food in my house wasn’t particularly healthy, either, and no one liked cooking much because “messing up the kitchen” was a big ol’ hassle. Our cupboards held lots of Price Club booty: cereal, Top Ramen, cans of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee and chili con carne, Kraft macaroni and cheese. Vegetable sides came out of a can, period.... Dinners involved some sort of meat (either dipped in flour and fried or baked with cream-of-mushroom-soup-sauce), a can of green beans or peas, mashed potatoes or a box of Rice-a-Roni or Shells & Cheese, cottage cheese and canned peaches or pears. And maybe some baked rolls. A normal snack for me was a PB&J on squishy white bread or two bowls of cereal. Food in my house was also competition; if there was anything remotely good to eat – last night’s leftover roast, Halloween candy, a box of Frosted Flakes – it was an unspoken race to eat it first. If there was something good to eat, you better eat it NOW, because it sure as hell wasn’t gonna be there when you went back for it later. Even if you’d asked for it to be saved for you.
But even with all of that, I was pretty skinny, and certainly not overweight, through most of high school.
My weight was an almost-overnight problem. When I was 17, I went on the pill, and was gifted with a number of special side effects, including two lasting ones: migraine headaches, and a 30-lb weight gain in less than 3 months. To make it even better, I had a charming old curmudgeon of a gynecologist who told then-tentative and easily-intimidated me that “the pill doesn’t make you gain weight! You just need to quit putting so much food in your face!” Considering the fact that I had been living off tuna-and-sprouts for the last month to deal with the sudden weight gain, his advice was pretty disheartening. He put me on a 1000 calorie a day diet and gave me a thrice-hand photocopied list of the only foods I should be eating. For God’s sake! I could have a thousand-calorie SNACK and still be hungry! I couldn’t get excited about “unlimited veggies!” and couldn’t get my mom to pick up that kind of expensive, healthy stuff for me at the grocery store. Stepfather #2, Blevens, when he heard I was struggling with my weight, seemed to take a perverse delight in fixing insane deep-fried things, ordering pizzas for delivery, or having neighborhood BillBQs with burgers and hot dogs (redolent of lighter fluid, natch) and punishing me for not “eating with the family” if I asked to fix my own dinner. His chum up the street, a 300 lb charmer named Frank, thought it was funny to call me “Fatty” (even though at the time I was about 130 and a size 9, and his own two obese daughters were easily twice my size) and comment on my body in front of the whole neighborhood. My faltering complaints, after a year of his bullshit, were dismissed with “He’s just trying to be friendly/funny” and “he doesn’t mean anything by it.” Cute. My dad, on the two or three occasions I saw him as a teen, thought it was funny to make comments about my changing body, and tell me I was getting chubby, and sing a song called “Chubbetta, Chubbetta, Chubbette” to me to the tune of “You Better, You Better, You Bet.” Adorable. The majority of the books I read – Sweet Valley High, Sweet Dreams paperbacks, various other YA crap, VC Andrews and Jean Auel – featured beautiful, effortlessly thin characters... “perfect size-6” girls, or girls who were former “140 pound slobs” who lost weight by giving up desserts to become svelte and attractive and popular. And Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, after all, “never had to diet to maintain their slim figures,” could have pancake breakfasts every morning, eat carbohydrate- and fat-packed school lunches, bags of Fritos and Oreos, have dinners with veal chops and mashed potatoes and gravy and frittatas and big pots of spaghetti, followed by movie popcorn, followed by a burger or fried clams and shake at the Dairi Burger or a pizza at Guido’s or a banana split sundae at Casey’s, and magically maintain their perfect slender bodies with an occasional cheerleading practice, game of tennis, or a couple laps in the pool.
As an already-screamingly-insecure teen girl who had been sexually abused since age 4, a young woman with no self-confidence and a great deal of blind faith in what others told me was attractive and acceptable, I was ripe for a big bundle of weight-related neuroses.
Things ballooned, in all senses of the word, over the following years. DumbAss, my h.s.b.f., constantly criticized my looks (in the name of love, mind!), telling me sorrowfully that I wasn’t “the same girl” he’d fallen in love with. He’d take me daily to his usual fast food joints, order two bacon cheeseburgers and a twenty-piece chicken nugget dinner, two super-sized fries and a giant soda, and then berate me for my lack of willpower, expecting me to just sit and watch him, or maybe have a plastic-wrapped salad, while he downed chunks of greasy fried food. I decided that constant, public dieting – just like the teen girls around me and in books and movies and TV shows – was the only way to get people to shut up about my body and my weight, but of course, it wasn’t. I was a whopping size 11 by the time I was in my early 20s, but felt like I was a gross abomination, Jabba the Dwanollah. I even became something of an exercise fiend for a while, and was taking two ballet classes five days a week, aerobics four days a week, jogging the track at school after, playing tennis, and then swimming laps. I’d lose five pounds and plateau hard for weeks at a time. My group of friends would go to dinner or a happy hour, and God knows I couldn’t – and didn’t want to – sit around twiddling my thumbs and serenely (make that hungrily) looking on while baskets of chicken fingers or mozzarella sticks or double-pepperoni pizzas were passed around. I’d live off broccoli and grilled chicken, or tuna-and-sprouts on wholegrain bread, hating every second, and not lose anything for a week, then “ruin” it all by having a salad with ranch dressing or a couple slices of cheese pizza for one meal. I was frustrated and I was hungry, and sorry, but carrot sticks or a small salad weren’t going to cut it... even with DumbAss making all those comments about how he “just want[ed] to be able to walk into a club with [me] and have everyone go ‘WOW! Who is he with?!”
Behind closed doors, I was even more of a compulsive eater than an exercise bulimic. After six months of over-working-out and yo-yo dieting had gotten me maybe 10 pounds lighter overall, I got sick of it. I’d skip breakfast, have a small salad at school for lunch, and then by evening I’d be ravenous and pack away a couple pilfered candy bars, two Weight Watchers frozen chicken fettuccines, and a baked potato. I’d put diet protein powder in fast food chocolate shakes. I’d polish off dinner leftovers as a midnight snack, or take home the half a leftover pizza from work so it “wouldn’t go to waste.” I’d hate what I saw in the mirror, but decide “fuck it” and make a batch of cookies or hit one of the drive-thru places for a combo meal. I ate out of frustration. I ate out of boredom. I ate out of genuine hunger. I ate as a “treat.” I ate when I read. I ate when I drove. I ate in secret.
I just plain had crappy eating habits.
(I always had a sick, twisted, perverse love of the almost pornographic details of food included in various Diet Books and Books about People with Eating Disorders. Nothing could make me want to drive to the grocery store and spend my own hard-earned and desperately-needing-to-be-budgeted money on a bag of Oreos or a couple Gino’s frozen pizzas than reading about a teen with bulimia. But I lacked the disciple to actually be bulimic myself.)
I just couldn’t figure it out, no matter which approach I took, “good” or “bad,” and only ended up more disheartened with every new diet or exercise program or pointed comment or Kelly Bundy-styled tight dress or size medium shirt that pulled across my breasts. I’d read about the woman who’d sip Slim-Fast at home, but at night drove through three different KFCs to order all that she wanted, gobbling it all in her parked car in her garage after the kids were asleep. I’d read about the man who would have an entire carton of eggs, fried, an entire package of bacon, fried, and a loaf of bread, toasted, with butter and jam for breakfast. I’d seen the made-for-TV-movies about people obsessively cramming food in like wild animals, bits and crumbs falling messily all over them, making horrible noises as they ate. I’d read the “problem novels” about the cheerleaders or figure skaters who’d polish of an entire box of messy cheese Danishes and plump apple tarts, or pounds of savory deli ham and macaroni salad in one sitting, and then barf it back up on a daily basis, the ballerinas or teen models who consumed only diet Coke for weeks or started taking speed to boost their metabolism and ended up hospitalized as frail skeletons. I’d seen the talk shows with people holding up shirts that looked like tents, with pants that could fit two people in each leg, or who had to be cut out of their homes or bathtubs, or talking about the midnight raids they made on the family cupboards to devour boxes of dried cake mix, jars of jelly, chunks of brown sugar. I wasn’t like that! So what was the problem? Why was I still fat? Why was I still bad? Why was I still subject to all of this criticism?
I joined Jenny Craig around 1990, swayed by the calendar date four months down the road that my diet counselor had promised me I could be a size 7 again, and spent too much of Gram’s money, eating nothing but their crappy food and being depressed and dissatisfied because nothing at all tasted good – I didn’t like plum-sauce beef or veggie medleys with red peppers, dammit! – and I was being told to never have fried rice or ice cream or cheese ever again and was dreaming at night of homemade waffles with chocolate sauce and for all that only lost about 12 lbs despite that calendar target date. Fuck! I wasn’t obese! I wasn’t even really that fat! Why was I being punished and tortured by society, by my loved ones, by the stupid skinny-bitch SDSU Phys Ed major working at Jenny Craig, just because I no longer fit those jeans I used to wear when I was a high school sophomore? Why was I never ever good enough? Why couldn’t I just be loved the way – the weigh – I was, gawddammit?!
For the entirety of my adult life, my weight fluctuated constantly. I’d gain 20. Lose 10. Gain 30. Lose 8. Throw out the scale and gain 40. Go on another diet – Herbalife, Phen-Fen, Weight Watchers – and lose 40, only to gain back more the following year. Fit into a slenderizing dress one month, then, three months later, have to find a bigger pair of jeans. Buy a smaller-size blouse in hopes that it will fit “soon,” but hide in men’s XXL sweatshirts from Ross Dress for Less. Lose weight after a bout of illness, gain it back plus some after a stressful school semester.
It’s a familiar story, isn’t it? God knows I’ve been hearing it constantly since I was old enough to buy my first issue of ‘Teen magazine or watch a talk show on the telly.
My first round of therapy when I was in my early 20s helped me deal with the “fat as protection” issues from sexual abuse and “eat to fill the empty space” issues from non-sexual abuse and lack of self-esteem. I learned how food was a constant comfort, something that – unlike people, loved ones – would always be there for me when I wanted and needed it. With the therapy, I stopped the compulsive eating and no longer felt the need to quickly eat anything remotely good or special because it certainly wouldn’t be there later. But I didn’t become magically skinny. I learned how to love myself for who I was, and decided, amongst other things, to throw out my scale for good. But I didn’t become magically skinny. And who the fuck cared if I didn’t?!
FUCK YOUR FASCIST BEAUTY STANDARDS!
For a long, comfortable while, it was incredibly liberating to decide to not play the game anymore. As a feminist, I didn’t need to get caught up in the surface-oriented bullshit. I was more than just what I looked like. It helped that The Husband-Type Man genuinely thinks I’m sexy, lovable and gorgeous whether I weigh one hundred and something pounds or two hundred and something pounds. (So many of the “Fat Books” include a spouse who cheats on the fat wife with someone skinnier and hotter, sending her ego – already low – plummeting into depths that only a gallon of Jamocha Almond Fudge topped with caramel sauce, whipped cream, and a package of chocolate chips can help.) I decided I would just go ahead and be a proud fat chick! I was never going to be super-skinny; I could be okay with myself and love myself no matter what I weighed, too! I would eat what I liked, within reason, but wouldn’t go on the emotionally gut-wrenching roller-coaster of calorie-counting and trips to the gym. I was healthy and active and happy; I had an incredible life, was reaching educational goals, and was blissfully in love with my husband who was blissfully in love with me. I wasn’t going to get caught up in the debilitating cycle of being a “skinny bitch” like THOSE women, after all.