Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Numbers Game: Learning to Love the Fat Girl

Earlier today, I was browsing through food blogs–I’m making the first tentative steps toward taking The Family Foodie into another format, so I wanted to look at a variety of examples for inspiration.  In the process, I happened upon Can You Stay For Dinner?, written by the lovely Andie Mitchell.  I wound up spending much more time on her blog than I’d intended to, largely because Andie is a very engaging writer, funny and wise and insightful.  I found myself reading about Andie’s weight loss journey–she’s lost 135 pounds–and about her relationship with exercise.  So much of her story felt familiar to me that, even though she’s nearly half my age, I felt like Andie understood a few things better than I do even now.  Or, better than I did until I read her blog today.

If you’ve read my bio, you know that I’ve struggled with my weight for a good part of my life.  I’ve never been obese–at least, I’ve never considered myself obese.  But when I looked at the medical file from my first pregnancy, the first words I saw were Obese female.  That’s how my doctor described me after our initial meeting.  I weighed, at the time, 158 pounds.  I’m 5′ 5″, and while 158 pounds is not a healthy weight for that height, I don’t think of it as obese.  My doctor did, obviously.  She spent the rest of that pregnancy cautioning me against any weight gain, telling me “You’re already heavy enough.”

158 pounds was not the highest non-pregnancy weight I’d ever seen on the scale, but it was close: 162 pounds was my all-time high.  Some little warning bell in my brain went off, at that point, and I started a liquid diet that brought me down to 140 pounds.  I managed to stay close to that weight for about two years, but then the scale started creeping upward again.  It was a pattern I’d grown familiar with:  lose the weight, maintain for awhile, start thinking I was set for life, gain the weight back.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

I have no idea how much weight I’ve gained or lost over the course of my life.  I can, however, give you various readings from the scale at key moments.  For instance, I weighed 128 pounds on the first day of my senior year of high school (after a summer that included one day per week of fasting.)  That was 14 pounds less than I’d weighed on the last day of my junior year, when I pledged to use the summer months to improve myself.  Improvement, of course, just meant losing weight.

I weighed 132 pounds the day I left home for college.  Already, the scale was creeping upward again.

For years, I relied on those numbers to tell me whether or not I should be proud of myself.  All I wanted was a lower number, every time I stepped on the scale.  Just less than last time, that’s all.  Or the same number, at least.  No progress, but no damage–I could live with that.

But I lived in a household where desserts and junk food were readily available at all times, which meant maintaining a healthy weight was difficult.  When I complained about this, my mother said “Your brother has to have something to eat.” (My brother weighed 72 pounds for three years during elementary school.  When he sucked in his stomach, you could count every one of his ribs.)  She was not a big fan of desserts, so she didn’t see why I couldn’t just leave the sweets alone.  But it wasn’t that easy for me–I wanted dessert with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

I’ve often wondered why I carried the extra weight for so many years.  If I was so deeply unhappy as a fat girl, why didn’t I just take control of the food I consumed?  It seems so logical.  For years I attributed my behavior to low self-esteem:  I didn’t like myself, so I didn’t take care of myself.  I was unhappy, and eating made me happy.  Simple.  But today, reading Andie’s blog, I had a revelation: it was more than that.  I ate because I loved food.  Just like I still love food.  The problem was that I believed losing weight meant avoiding food altogether.    Once I’d fallen off the wagon–which is to say, started eating–I had already failed.  There was no reason not to eat to excess, and I might as well enjoy my failure while it lasted,  because the diet train was sure to be pulling into the station again.

That behavior followed me around for years.   By the time I was 34, I had two children and a husband who loved me  no matter what size I was–and you would think being loved unconditionally might change the way you feel about yourself.  But no. Those are two different things entirely.

Then came the horrible day that my daughter came home from preschool crying Jack said you were fat and I told him that’s a mean thing to say!  I don’t like it when people say you’re fat!  It hurts my feelings because I love you!  I hadn’t yet lost all the weight from my second pregnancy (which I began at 142 pounds, and during which I was chastised by the doctor for losing weight during my morning-sickness-plagued first trimester), but I was maybe five pounds over what I thought of as a healthy weight.  Still, according to my daughter, people say you’re fat.

I gained (and lost) 15 more pounds.  And then, after that final dip in the scale–when I was over 40–I made a major change in my life:  I started running.  (If you’d like to know why, you can read that story here.)  I was stunned by how much better I felt, almost immediately, and by how much better my clothes fit.  Nothing was bunchy.  Nothing pulled.  Nothing cut into me at the waist.  And I felt so powerful and confident, in addition to feeling physically healthier.  Sometimes I’d go to work and spend the whole day watching the clock, just waiting until I could go home and take a run.  No one was more surprised by this transformation than I was.

I stopped weighing myself almost by accident–I didn’t feel fat, so it didn’t feel necessary.  And when I did weigh myself, just out of curiosity, I discovered that I’d lost exactly two pounds. Two pounds.  Almost nothing, really.  I felt so much better about myself than I ever had before–and it had nothing to do with the number on the scale.

It would be another year before it occurred to me that maybe I needed to buy new clothes.  My husband, actually, was the one to suggest that I needed to buy clothes that actually fit.  I thought he was crazy, but I wasn’t going to object to the idea of buying a new wardrobe.  When we went to the store, I automatically went to the size 14 section, out of habit.  “I think you need to try a smaller size,” he said, reminding me of why we’d gone shopping in the first place.  But I was reluctant.  I couldn’t believe a size 12 pair of jeans would actually fit.  I’d only lost two pounds, after all.

And the 12 didn’t fit.  It was too big.  

I hadn’t worn a size 10 since I was in seventh grade, but when I looked at myself in the mirror, I couldn’t deny that it was the right size.  That was me.  Size 10.

I was sure those jeans were a fluke.  At every other store we visited that day, I insisted on trying a 12 before I’d admit that I really, actually, needed a 10.  When I looked in the mirror, no matter what size I was wearing, I still saw the fat girl.  I still see her now, five years later, even though all the clothes in my closet are now that size.

And today, reading Andie’s blog, I figured out why this is: because the fat girl is part of who I am.  She’s not a person I left behind when the numbers on the scale changed.  I loved food then, and I love food now.  The difference is, I can love food now and eat it, too.  Eating is success, not failure.  It fuels my body and lets me take care of the people I love.

Including the fat girl.

I think about all the years I spent in that body, and I know there were many happy moments:  the births of both of my children.  My wedding to the love of my life.  Travel, both cross-country and overseas.  There were things to be proud of, too: accomplishments in graduate school, admission to a highly competitive MFA program, earning my Ph.D.  I did all of those things as the fat girl–and when I think of them, I don’t think about my weight.  I think of what a miracle it is that any child is born whole and healthy.  I think about how amazing it is that I managed to earn my doctorate while holding down a full-time job and raising two preschoolers.  The fat girl and I did that, together.

And then she brought me to this moment, and I am grateful she let me make the journey with her.

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