This is my story about negative body image, disordered eating, dieting, and ultimately, healing.
In no way am I judging, shaming, or giving advice to anyone who is dealing with similar issues. If that is you, I wish you well on your journey.
me at deception pass circa 2004. peak skinny.
I was nine years old when the idea was planted in my head that I was fat.
In truth, I wasn't fat. Not even a little bit chubby. But once the idea was planted, it put down roots and settled in.
Over the rest of my childhood, it grew.
In shadowy dark corners of my mind.
I might be snacking on cheese and crackers before bed,
drinking one of my two-per-week allotment of sodas with a big bowl of popcorn,
dipping my hand into the cookie jar four or five times after an afternoon of swimming,
when the negative thoughts would come.
Fat girls are not allowed to eat delicious snacks.
me in college circa 1979
It wasn't until I got to college that the dieting began in earnest.
I noticed that the two cutest 'it' girls in my dorm always had salads for dinner.
Oh sure, they generously ladled the thousand island dressing over a bed of greens topped with layers of ham and cheese. I didn't really think about that. I mostly admired the way they denied themselves the regular dinner options, and limited themselves to the salad bar.
Fat girls don't get to eat whatever they want. They must restrict themselves to diet foods.
Of course, these girls weren't fat any more than I was. Later, we all became dear friends and mulled over the guilt and shame we all felt around food. These discussions often took place after we had 'gone on a run' which meant jogging up to the ice cream store and walking home as we ate our cones.
Fat girls must punish themselves with exercise before they are allowed a treat.
After graduation, I lived with a roommate who was slim, trim, and 4'11" tall. I'm 5'8" tall. At breakfast, while I tucked into two halves of an English muffin, she would eat only one. When we ordered pizza, I wolfed down three pieces as she struggled to finish one. Though I was never disciplined enough to be truly anorexic, I was ashamed. So I started eating less for breakfast and dinner - the meals I shared with my roommate - and allowed myself to fill up only during my midday meal at work.
Fat girls want to eat all the time. They need to learn to deny their hunger.
me at age 24.
By my mid-twenties, my self-image as a fat girl was well established and growing with fury.
Still, I was not actually fat.
I bought stylish clothes that fit me well.
I had many friends - male and female - and plenty of boyfriends who admired my appearance.
I was physically active, reasonably fit, and in wonderful health.
But my mind carried this ugly self-image and I struggled with shame around my eating habits every day.
- At lunch one day, a co-worker made a joke about how quickly I'd eaten my cheeseburger. I turned scarlet and didn't speak for the rest of the meal.
- One of my work girlfriends and I often took lunch together but prided ourselves on eating only soup.
- My social drink of choice was lite beer which of course is still Very Fattening. Luckily, I tended to get sick to my stomach after just a few glasses, which I considered a delightful relief.
Life moved on. I got married.
me on my wedding day in 1984.
And that opened up new shoots of leafy, green concern. I was very concerned about becoming an old married lady who let herself get fat.
Or should I say, fatter.
So I turned to exercise. Aerobic dancing. This was the 80s, after all. I bought a bunch of cute leotards and some high-top Reeboks, and kept careful track of my progress, logging my workout sessions on my calendar with a special red pen, admiring my consistent dedication.
Fat girls must exercise obsessively in order to keep their weight from spiraling out of control.
Then I got pregnant.
Four babies in six years.
me in 1991 at 8.5 months pregnant with my third.
hiking in the mountains with my second-born on my back.
Now, with pregnancy came a whole different philosophy for eating, and I gave myself permission to eat. No stress, no rules, no shame.
I gained 35 pounds with my first baby; effortlessly lost it all within a year.
I gained 30 pounds with my second, and easily lost all but the last 5 pounds.
I gained 25 pounds the third time around.
All of that felt great.
But in the year after my adorable and perfect third daughter was born, I lost almost none of the pregnancy weight.
And with my fourth, I gained a mere 18 pounds - of which my darling baby child weighed 10 - but I lost none of the remaining weight. None.
This was a terrible turning point for me.
My fat fears flowered into full, magnificent bloom.
I no longer simply felt like a fat person.
When I looked in the mirror, I saw a fat person.
I could barely recognize myself.
Looking back, I'm not sure if I actually was fat, or if I was just a normal woman whose body had been cranking out babies left and right. Probably the latter, though I had no ability to judge. All I know for sure is that I gave up on jeans and fitted clothes, and bought only soft, stretchy, over-sized things like leggings and tunic-length hoodies, voluminous cotton knit dresses with empire waistlines and full, flowing skirts.
These are the best clothes for mothers to wear, I told myself. Soft and cuddly; perfect for bending over and scooping up little children and holding them close to me.
But I knew better. These were the only clothes that fit me. Because I was fat.
Physically, I felt fantastic. I had a ton of energy, kept up with my busy babies and even stayed a few steps ahead of them, constantly carrying them around on my back and in my arms. Worked out hard at Jazzercise 3-4 times a week, had tons of friends with their own little ones with whom we had many delightful and active adventures.
I loved my body for serving me so well But I hated myself for being fat.
Every day was an exercise in self-denial. I ate the same kid-friendly and adult-approved, balanced and healthy meals that I served my family, trying to limit my portions and settle for less. Mostly, I failed at that, and excused myself because keeping a positive mental energy seemed more important for this phase of life than a trim waistline.
I'll eventually lose the weight, I told myself. When the time is right.
In 2003, we were visiting family in the Midwest. At my mother-in-law's house, I was flipping through a women's magazine and came upon an article about weight loss that emphasized counting calories: "Manage your food intake by the numbers, because numbers don't lie, and watch the pounds fall away."
The day we got home from that trip, I began my diet.
For the next eight months, I ate 1000 calories a day.
For two months after that, I ate 1200 calories a day.
That is not very much food. But I had known for a long, long time that if they ever want to be slim, fat girls must suffer and deny themselves. So all of this suffering and denial felt very effective.
And it was.
I lost a ton of weight.
me (on the left) in 2008, five years post-weight loss.
I didn't weigh myself, but according to my calculations, I dropped at least 60 pounds.
I was undeniably skinny.
I fit into all my pre-pregnancy clothes. With room to spare.
I was sharing clothes with my slim now-teenage daughters.
People didn't recognize me.
I didn't recognize myself.
At some point, a friend asked me when I was going to stop dieting. I said, I don't know. She said, well, just don't lose too much weight. You don't want to be too skinny.
That puzzled me. I'd never considered that before. Too skinny? Was that even possible?
Because even though I could objectively see that I had lost weight, I did not feel skinny. I still felt like a fat person. And I slowly realized that I was going to have to be skinny for a long time before I finally felt anything other than fat.
Still, I decided to stop the calorie counting, which was an all-consuming lifestyle, and began looking for another eating methodology that would more easily yet still effectively restrict my calorie intake.
Over the next few years, I tried
eating for my blood type
and any other kind of dietary restriction I'd ever heard of.
None of those strategies really worked for me - they didn't take the weight off like the straightforward calorie counting - so I resorted to a modified version of my original diet.
I just starved myself as much as possible.
Breakfast was a bag of snack-size rice cakes and a fruit smoothie, dinner I ate with the family. Otherwise, I survived on Diet Dr. Pepper.
And you know, it kind of worked. I kept most of the weight off for ten years.
me in Malaysia in 2013
Then, in 2013, I went on a three-month long trip of a lifetime to visit friends in Malaysia.
And I sure as heck wasn't going spend my trip of a lifetime eating rice cakes and drinking diet soda.
So I ate.
I didn't go crazy wild.
I just ate what was offered to me,
ate what was polite,
ate what looked interesting.
I ate like a normal person.
And my poor metabolism, which had been so drastically deprived for the past decade, bounced back with a vengeance.
I gained weight. And I felt fat.
When I came back home, I decided that I was not going back to starving myself.
I needed to find a new way to eat.
And until I figured that out, I was just going to live with the fact that I was fat. Again.
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Read about my body image journey: