A week ago was Martin Luther King Jr. Day and it got me thinking: In history, leaders, heroes and trailblazers have earned their place by facing challenges, overcoming obstacles and declaring victory over lifelong struggles. They had something to overcome, and that task became their life's work. So I wondered, what was mine?
What was the one thing I had been trying to overcome my whole life, the area in which I exerted the greatest effort in the face of probable failure?
I realized, with some degree of horror and hilarity that my life's work has been to achieve my goal weight.
Laugh if you will, roll your eyes... but it's true.
In recent years it hasn't been just my focus, it's been my obsession. You see, I have seen the mountaintop. I have been there. And now I can't get it out of my head. Healthy or not, I want to go back.
I was always a fat kid. If I wasn't fat, as some pictures attest, I thought I was. It wasn't like my parents ever pressured me to lose weight, in fact, my mother always insisted I was "perfect," which would upset me because I felt it was so far from the truth. I was always bigger than the kids around me, or at least I felt that way. Where other little girls were ballerinas, I felt like the bull in a china shop.
And while I longed to be skinny, delicate like the other girls, and pretty instead of "jolly," I couldn't want it enough to put down the sweets or stick to a diet. Eventually, what you perceive becomes a reality, and I became the fat kid I always thought I was. And I hated myself for it.
The first time I joined Weight Watchers, in the sixth grade, I weighed in at over 160lbs. That's honesty right there, folks. But I joined because wanted to lose weight. I was motivated. In fact, I always believed that eventually one day I would be thin. So I asked my mom to help me, and knowing that Weight Watchers was a healthy, reliable plan, she sent me along with my dad. He had just had his first of several heart attacks, and had been ordered by his doctors to lose weight. I dedicated myself. I lost 30lbs that first time. In subsequent years, I would join again, lose weight, and quit, only to gain again.
My desire to lose weight wasn't because of the taunting I was getting from other kids, but the taunts certainly added to my motivation. Everyone has horror stories, here are some of mine: One day, on the bus home, an older kid named Seth Benkel and his friend Albert (whose last name escapes me, so let's just call him "Albert Fuckface") stopped me in the aisle on my way to my seat.
"You should be a model," Seth Benkel said. I was cautiously flattered... a boy had never complimented me before.
"For Porky Ham!" Albert Fuckface finished, and they laughed uproariously. For the remainder of the year, they taunted me, calling me Porky Pig and chanting while I kept my head down and said nothing, praying my stop would come sooner. The stress and anxiety of boarding the bus was pure torment. Eventually, my friend Corinne and I began walking home. To this day I can't look at one of those Porky Ham 18 Wheelers that drive around New York without thinking of those two sadistic seventh grade fucks.
It should be said, neither of them were thin. In fact, Albert was actually fat. So maybe we could say it was his own insecurity that caused him to reduce me to tears every day, but frankly, I don't go for that. My insecurity didn't see me picking on the kid the next size up. Some people are just born assholes.
I could go on. For example, I could tell you how, during my Confirmation in the seventh grade, the boys in the pew behind me, Vinny Mancino, Paul Rabaste and some weirdly Nordic kid I can only remember as "Eric" sat and hissed into my ears that I was fat, a whale, blubber and finally dubbed me "The White Whale," chanting it throughout the mercilessly long rehearsals and the ceremony itself. Models of Christianity.
It's helpful to note that Paul grew into one of the most horrifyingly ugly adolescents you could ever imagine- a combination of Rocky Dennis and Dr. Frank-n-Furter- all distorted features and hormone-frizzed hair. In high school people--even his friends--viciously called him by his new nickname, "Handsome." Karma, my friends, will get you every time.
I never told my parents about any of it. I was too ashamed-- like those boys and their cruelty were somehow my fault.
In high school a growth spurt gave me a few brief months of thinness. The summer of 1991 was a perfect storm: I was 16, I hit puberty late but hard, skintight bodysuits were in vogue, and it seemed that my diet of potato salad and beer went straight to my chest. It was an amazing few months. In later years, once the weight had redistributed itself to my midsection and upper thighs, I would try again to recreate this diet and it's wondrous effects, and fail-- miserably.
Throughout all of these years, the brief moments of manageability and the longer periods of self hatred and shame, I never once was able to freely enjoy a morsel of food. Unless it was a salad or something extremely dietetic that could convince me I was on the road to Skinnyville, Population Me, I would feel guilty as soon as I swallowed.
Not one bite of even my own birthday cake-ever- has passed my lips without a chaser of remorse.
In June 2004, when I was 28, I decided that the day I always told myself was coming-- the day I'd be thin-- wasn't going to come to me. I had to set the date, and make it happen. Again, I joined Weight Watchers and, determined to do everything differently this time, I took off 40lbs in 10 months. In the years that followed, another 20lbs came off.
I began to exercise, to run, and to treat my body like the machine I was realizing it could be. I was amazed at what it could do. It was like it had been waiting my whole life for this. It was let out of its cage.
In the fall of 2008, I was at my lowest weight. Maybe not my best weight- in fact, people liked to tell me that I was too thin, but when you're a fat kid in your head and in your heart, that still sounds like a compliment. I wasn't too thin, but an extra 5-10lbs wouldn't have hurt me. It was at that time that a friend told me she had stood up for me when gossips started saying I had an eating disorder. I was thrilled. It meant people were talking about me being thin--not fat.
It wasn't just being thin that I loved, it was the confidence I got from losing weight. If I could do this, really- what couldn't I do? I applied myself at work and received professional kudos and bonuses. I went on dates, socialized, and approached anything and everything with an absolute expectation of success. I interviewed for jobs and got them. I flirted with guys, they flirted back.
I wanted everyone to feel what I felt. When friends asked me how I lost weight, or said they wanted to try, I sincerely wanted to help. The concept that you have to "give it away to keep it" is a philosophy that Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson, and the principal of passing it on was something I wholeheartedly embraced. I don't preach, I don't bring it up-- but if people want to talk, hey-- pull up a chair. Need someone to go to a Weight Watchers meeting with you? I am there. Want to cook a healthy dinner? I am in.
But the truth is, right now I am struggling. And my physical challenges have taken a tremendous mental toll- after all this time, I just can't separate the two. In 2008, after a series of unsettling experiences, I went on antidepressants and in the course of two years gained 20lbs. To anyone else, 20lbs is nothing to freak out about. Not great, but not life-altering, especially when you could have stood to gain 5-10 anyway. However to Ms.Porky Ham 1987, it's cause for panic. After experiencing other troubling side effects that only manifested over time, I came off the meds.
It's been five months, and the weight won't budge. My copious research on the choice tool of obsessives, the internet, has told me that most people have a very hard time losing the weight gained from SSRIs. It takes months-- even years-- to see results. And there are no guarantees.
Not willing to accept time and persistence as a solution, I went on a cleanse and then, once I finished, decided to do my "own" diet, which meant a desperate and unhealthy cutting of calories that resulted in a severe nutrient deficiency and corresponding side effects. In other words, I just made matters worse. Instead of seeing the 40lbs that were still off of me, the weight loss I had maintained, I saw the 10 I needed to lose to be "happy," the 15 that would leave me "without a problem in the world."
When I am feeling rational, I just need time, body acceptance, healthy eating and exercise--not to whittle away my body but to make it as happy as it once was. When I am not, every tight piece of clothing feels like failure, every too-short skirt just reinforces my helplessness. My boyfriend tells me I am beautiful, and I wish I could believe him, the same way I wish I had believed my mom when she said I was perfect.
I look at the pictures from when I was a kid, and I know that what I felt like I looked like and what I actually looked like don't match up. I always thought I was fat, even when I wasn't. My perspective was wrong from the get go.
What I've realized in writing this is that even though I've been working towards it for my entire life, I don't actually have a goal weight. I never had a number, I've just been struggling towards this blurry ideal for 30 years. It's almost laughable, if it wasn't so sad. My goal weight has always just been categorized as "less than what I am now," and yet I've let it determine my moods, my self worth, and in some cases my success. I've let it push me into unhealthy behaviors, and
I have actually physically harmed myself in my unrelenting zeal to get "good enough." A lack of a clear definition of what it is I am striving for has rendered it completely unattainable.
And yet, how do you give up fighting when you've been in battle your entire life? I don't know. I guess you do the next right thing: you take care of yourself, and exercise and eat right, but you don't obsess. You ask God to fix your perspective because frankly, it's pretty fucked. You blog about it, and hope that some people won't read and the ones that do will identify or share something with you. And eventually, hopefully, it sinks in that real success and real self worth can't be measured by the pound.