I used to hate women on diets. They look at your frosted brownie, then at your waist, then at your cookie again. Women on diets whine, “I can’t eat that…” They poke and prod their bellies and upper arms like displeased factory inspectors. They complain about how “fat” they look seemingly because they want someone to compliment them. Let’s face it: women on “diets” are annoying.
Me? I thought I’d just count calories because I’m trying to lose weight.
I’ve been a vegetarian since age 14, but I’ve always been naturally slim, too—bony even. At one point in high school I weighed less than 110 lbs, not enough to donate blood to the Red Cross.
My mom praised me. I know other girls envied me. I think one of my bigger-boned sisters was envious. But I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t very healthy at all.
It’s not like I had an eating disorder, exactly, at least not by textbook definition: I just didn’t eat a lot and exercised too much because I was too busy. Chronic overachiever that I am, in high school I decided to graduate from high school at the end of 11th grade. In order to do this, I had to take all my “senior year” classes during the other grades, which meant that for three years I took classes instead of having a lunch or free periods. Sometimes I exercised in gym class twice a day without breakfast or lunch. I looked at my body, literally, like a machine: take eight classes a day! Work an after-school job! Write for the literary magazine! Do an internship! Take the SATs! Apply to colleges! Go, go, go, go, go all the time. I always felt tired. My fingernails were so malnourished they broke if I tapped them too hard.
When I went to college, thanks to a dining hall in my dorm, I finally began to eat three meals a day like a normal person. But unfortunately, I didn’t gain much, if any, weight: after September 11th happened during my first week at NYU, I was terrified of getting trapped in my dorm elevator during another terrorist attack. So I walked up and down nine flights of stairs several times a day, for my entire freshman year. (And I took a yoga class to deal with the panic.) My body wasn’t a machine in quite the same way; my body and its propensity to be stricken with panic attacks, and bouts of depression, scared me.
I slowly gained weight during the rest of college and after graduation, leveling out between 125 and 130 lbs. I still struggled with panic attacks and depression, but I couldn’t disagree when a friend who’d known me since 9th grade told me that I looked physically “healthy” for the first time ever.
It’s about then that I pretty much stopped thinking about body, especially my weight, and I never thought about food. I honestly just didn’t care. I adopted this attitude with a feminist reasoning: I’m not going to let anyone or anything belittle me because of my body. I didn’t own a scale and weighed myself only a few times a year at the doctors’ or the gym. I became close friends with a woman who is obese and, through her, I saw how cruel others could be; my older sisters all gained weight from pregnancies and I heard my mother’s criticism and the hurtful teasing from our brother. I read body-positive media, like The Fat Girl’s Guide To Life, by Wendy Shanker, and Shapely Prose, a blog by Kate Harding, which exposed me more to the concept of body positivity. For the most part, I thought weight loss gurus were total charlatans.
As a feminist, and someone who tries to be a decent human being, I didn’t want any part of a culture that treated my loved ones like that. My body-positive attitude—which I still agree with—was to enjoy the pleasures of food, ignore thin worship, and try to confront America’s “fat-hating” culture. I still aimed for a healthy vegetarian diet, but when it comes to sweets, I ate anything I felt like: a chocolate sundae with hot fudge, lobster claws soaking in butter, or mocha Frappucinos from Starbucks. Nothing was off limits just because it had calories! If I took a yoga and dance class at the gym, it was purely for fun. I lived with a roommate who I’m pretty sure had anorexia and it was easy to feel morally superior to this woman. I’m ashamed to admit I did feel superior to her: I was above fussing over weight and appearance.
The creeping-up weight gain happened slowly over a few years, then all of a sudden within the past year. Jeans and cords wouldn’t zip. Miniskirts and dresses couldn’t be tugged around my waist. My mother started making comments … and more comments … and more comments. A stranger asked me if I was pregnant. (I’m not.) And then, a few weeks ago I stepped on a scale at my gym and discovered I weighed around 150 lbs. I don’t know for sure what happened, considering I still eat a vegetarian diet, I still don’t smoke, and I still go to the gym pretty regularly. My best guess is that my metabolism is slowing as I age and the antidepressant, Lex, that I have taken for the past 15 months is slowing it down further. (FYI: Lest the folks at Lex be annoyed that I’m impugning their fine product, let me say Lex definitely isn’t the only antidepressant that has weight gain as a side effect. I’ve heard similar stories from folks on Celexa and Zoloft, too.)
I’m not writing this essay to add to the chorus of women complaining about themselves, to lament all those mocha Frappucinos I enjoyed, or to warn women from taking antidepressants. Not at all, in fact! I’m writing this essay because I can see something now which, in dress sizes past, I couldn’t see: I had a lot of privileges when I was slimmer and not being quite so slim anymore is eye-opening. It was easy to love my body when I was skinny, when I fit into everything in my closet, when no one suggested I join Weight Watchers. (That would be my mom.) It was easy to call myself a body-positive person when my mom, girlfriends and beaus complimented my body all the time. Shopping for clothes was easier. Feeling good about myself was easier. But these days, it’s not so easy and I view our body-hating culture in an entirely more personal way.
Do I still feel as accepting and body-positive as I used to profess to be? The feminist in me wants to say, “Yes, I love my body as much as I did when I was 120 lbs!” But I can’t honestly say that I do. So I’ll go so far as to say I like it. I like how I have curvier curves. I like how the weight gain has given me—former owner of a bony butt—an actual ass for the first time in my life. But, really, that’s it. I hate how I’ve literally had to put jeans, dresses, and skirts in storage because I can’t wear them anymore. I hate how I had to buy all new underpants because smaller sizes don’t fit. And I hate the comments from my mom. All that frustration brings me to tears sometimes. The fact that I mistakenly prided myself on being a person who wouldn’t hate things like that makes me even more frustrated.
I’m probably a more empathetic person now because I’m no longer just a “skinny girl”—as a writer, and more importantly as a woman, I now authentically understand the weight issues some girls and women have struggled with since they were kids. I’m trying to be gentle and loving with my body as I lose weight; I still believe most weight loss gurus are charlatans, I am not on a formal “diet” and I don’t “restrict” anything per se. I did join a free food log website, Fit Day, where I record the foods and drinks I consume and it shows me in a pie graph how everything breaks down nutritionally and calorically: proteins, carbs, and fats. It might seem obvious to some people that egg yolks or mozzarella are full of fat, but as someone who never thought about food until age 25, it is something I’m just learning. I’ve researched how many calories a woman of my ideal weight should consume and how many of those calories should be from fat in general and saturated fat in particular. I’m also planning on doing more cardio at the gym instead of yoga … just as soon as I can stop hitting “snooze” on my alarm clock.
I know I’m not a candidate for “The Biggest Loser” or anything; my health isn’t seriously, cataclysmically at risk. But I feel that I’ve been given the chance to literally practice what I’ve preached all these years. What I’m going through right now is really the first time in my life I’ve thought about my health and my body. I hope I can stay open to everything—the good and the bad—this experience has to teach me.