If I knew then what I know now about dieting, I might not have let it consume my life like it did, for as long as it did.
Since early childhood, someone was always watching my weight…and it wasn’t me because, at 5 years old, I didn’t know any better. I ate what I was given so, if I was headed for Chubbytown, it wasn’t me driving that train.
I first became aware that my weight was an issue when my mother—a model—made me and my grandmother join her in generational fashion show to raise money for charity. The outfit I was supposed to wear was too tight, so after several minutes of pulling, tugging and telling me to suck in my stomach, they gave up and put me in something totally random and unrelated to the theme.
It was the first time I ever felt embarrassed about my body…so much so that I hid backstage, crying my eyes out under the snare drums, hoping no one would find me until after the show was over. No such luck. My mother found me, and she was not happy.
As the announcer introduced us, my embarrassment morphed into defiance. “I’ll show YOU,” I thought, as I puffed myself up into some kind of Honey Boo Boo-like prancing show pony: hands on hips, snarling lips, all swagger, with a balls-to-the-wall attitude that made my hurt go away. Then out we came… me mimicking every catwalk move my mother made, like I was a sassy little supermodel.
The audience began to laugh, harder and louder with every move I made and it started to make me feel bad. “They’re making fun of me,” I thought. I remember feeling like I was being suffocated by shame. Years later, my shrink would tell me they were probably laughing because I was adorable, but you couldn’t have convinced me of that back then. Maybe if someone had comforted me at the time… hugged me and said it was OK; but no one did. Instead, I was put on my first diet.
Dieting coincided with me starting first grade. My first foray into the cafeteria got off to a pretty decent start. Everyone was “new”–no cliques had formed; no best friends had been made; lunch table politics hadn’t kicked-in yet, so it was a pretty level playing field. Each kid had a lunchbox; all that differed was the theme…until the soon-to-become-ritual unpacking of the boxes began.
Since it hadn’t occurred to me to pre-check the contents of mine, I had no expectations—silly me. One by one, out came the thermoses full or juice, sandwiches– bologna, PB&J, tuna salad, ham and cheese–bags of chips, pieces of fruit, cookies. Then it was my turn. I preface this by saying that if this happened today, it would have set me up as a really cool kid, but back in the day, a skinless chicken leg, cold artichoke, blue-tinged skim milk and a grapefruit made me seem like a freak.
My relationship with food forever changed that day…and so did I. Eating, which had previously been a carefree, innocuous and enjoyable part of my life, suddenly became fraught with anxiety. Every mouthful held the power to punish, reward, comfort. My mother’s laser-like focus on my weight made me feel abnormal, damaged, unlovable and unloved. She barely took notice of the fact I was smart, funny, talented, pretty; I began to define my value by the pound: the less I weighed, the more she seemed to love me.
“It’s amazing you’re not more ‘effed-up’ than you are,” my shrink told me at our first appointment. “You have a spark of mental health that’s helped you transcend your history.” I was 24 years old. Even as a child, I knew that I did—I just didn’t have the language for it. There was something in me that kept me going…that made me push through my fears.
Years ago I was diagnosed with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), which for me, was like seeing myself through a distorted lens, regardless of my weight. I have weighed as much as 190 pounds and as little as 115 pounds—no matter. When I was having an “episode“, I’d look in the mirror and be so repulsed by what I saw, I’d literally feel nauseous…desperate.
It was when my therapist said, “I’ve seen you 40 pounds heavier, 40 pounds lighter and you’re never happy with your appearance, so maybe it’s not about your weight after all,” that something clicked. “Next time you’re feeling fat and ugly, take a few deep breaths and look at the kinds of thoughts you’re having and feelings you’re carrying around inside of you.” When I did, I discovered that I had repressed my anger; I hadn’t spoken up for myself when someone had done something aggressive or hurtful to me…at least not out loud. Instead, I would replay the situation over and over in my mind, thinking about what I should have said and didn’t, until I was so full of ugliness, I ended up hating myself. It had nothing to do with my body after all.
My shrink had given me a gift… a mental life jacket that would keep me from drowning in my own desperation…something I could really hold on to and integrate into my life.
In spite of the weighty issues that I have grappled with throughout my life, by focusing on feeding and nourishing my spirit, I have been able to achieve a healthier balance. It’s the weight of my character that defines me now.