This is the story of how I turned into that person.
In the 2nd grade, my doctor told my mother that I should be put on a diet. I remember being offended that the doctor told my mother as if I weren’t even standing there. In fourth grade, classmates remarked that they wouldn’t want to see my body at a pool party. By seventh grade, I was called Fat Sarah or Whale by at least three or four boys daily on the school bus. On AOL instant messenger, several students anonymously told me I was chunky or ugly. As a sixth-grader, a friend’s brother told me I should be nice and skinny like our other friend, Christine. I didn’t see a reason to have any self-esteem, which resulted in tenaciously holding onto a middle school boyfriend that dumped me seven times. When I finished eighth grade, I was down to 137 lbs through extreme dieting. After drinking alcohol with my cousin at New Year’s, she showed me how to throw up on demand. Thankfully, due to having a friend whose teeth had decayed from severe bulimia, I didn’t feel compelled to purge very often.
In my sophomore year of high school, I was back up to 160-165 lbs. By 11th grade, I was down to 145 lbs thanks to Weight Watchers. By this point I had started exercising consistently. At Weight Watchers meetings, I was shocked to meet a woman who confessed to eating in a bathroom at her lowest point. I couldn’t understand how someone could ever get to that point. By 12th grade, I was down to 137 lbs. I realized I could eat less than Weight Watchers allowed so absurdly I started counting how many bites of food I allowed myself per day. I was terrified to see that this diet may have become mainstream five years later.
Through my freshman year of college, I dipped to my all-time low of 134 lbs, before I finally ended the school year at 157 lbs. My weight skyrocketed as I tried to save time by skipping the gym and I mistakenly believed I might be able to eat “like a normal person” and maintain my weight.
Eating like a normal person quickly turned into an excuse to eat everything I had craved and denied myself the past two years: pop tarts, peanut butter and jelly, Reese’s peanut butter cups, cookie dough, bagels, ice cream, even vanilla frosting. My diet had become so terrible and so embarrassing that I did what I once found unfathomable: I ate in the bathroom stall of my science building. I didn’t want anyone to ask me what I was eating (peanut butter and jelly mixed with cookie crumbs). I avoided mirrors, a scale, and any other signs which may have forced me to face the truth. The idea of having regained the weight I lost was so traumatic I continued to wear my “skinny” jeans even when I had to unbutton the zipper after sitting down for long stretches of time. I continued to wear those jeans even when they ripped open at the inner thighs. The holes were barely noticeable when walking, but I remember wearing them to the airport twice and getting patted down by the same woman. I can’t imagine what she was thinking when she pressed her gloved hand on my jeans and felt two gaping holes twice.
One of my worst memories was coming home from college having put on close to 20 lbs. The boyfriend that I hadn’t seen in months was silent about it. My brother joked about it and no part of me could laugh or even mention my weight. In the summer I got down to 149 with my three-apples-a-day-diet (and nothing more). My extreme dieting also led to occasional weekends of binging, including my birthday in which I ate so much threw up shortly after trying to go to bed. I regained the weight by the end of summer. Through my sophomore year, my weight had ranged from 149 to 169 lbs as I cheated Weight Watchers. Through junior year, I weighed 146 lbs for about a week before I started cheating Weight Watchers again. In the Spring semester of my senior year I went abroad where I was without a scale or measuring tape for four months. Terrified of gaining weight, I asked my host mother to cook me salad and grilled chicken or fish for all meals. Nonetheless, I would lie to her up to three times a week and say I was going to eat out with friends when really I went to Haagen Dazs alone to have a Belgian waffle with scoops of ice cream on top. Once, when my host mom set up a date with me and her nephew, I sent him home after I claimed to be too tired to go out; what I really wanted was to binge on ice cream. I was mortified when I bumped into my host mom and host dad at the ice cream shop. I can guess now that I was probably around 145-155 lbs during my time in Spain, which were relatively “good” numbers for me. When I graduated college, I weighed over 164 lbs. I had entered college weighing 137 lbs. I felt like an absolute failure.
In the two years since I’ve graduated college, I’ve continued to vacillate between the 150s and 160s. As I type this story, I weigh 155.0.
My Skinny Journey
The earliest age I can clearly remember dieting is at age 13. I found lots of “thinspo” and “thinspiration” through Xanga, an older blogging website, and saw other girls post their daily caloric intakes. Let me be clear: if these girls were posting their true diets on these websites, they were unequivocally anorexic. I knew that at the time and didn’t care. They looked good, which was all that mattered. I started eating 600 calories a day. Ironically, eating that little can actually make it harder to lose weight because it slows down one’s metabolism so much. Thankfully this extreme dieting phase only lasted about a month. Scarily, I remember my hunger pangs simply going away. I was able to eat a single piece of sushi all day and still feel comfortable and energized. I got to 135 lbs this way.
Since then, for at least seven years I have obsessed with my Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI is a tool used by physicians to determine whether you fall into the underweight, ideal, overweight or obese category according to your height bracket.
I was simply consumed with fitting into the “healthy” category of a BMI below 25. I was able to maintain a “healthy” BMI for about two or three years in high school. I preferred fast food and chain restaurants solely for the fact that they had calorie counts (and at times I am still comforted by a meal free of worrying about over or under-counting calories). Once, I ordered a boiled potato at an elegant Spanish restaurant because that was the only food I could definitively count on Weight Watchers (even this was a false premise; my family still won’t let me live that down).
After graduating high school, my weight had increased to up to 20 lbs above the BMI healthy limit (possibly more, of course I couldn’t weigh myself at that point). Sometimes my waist circumference would even be in the healthy category, and this I don’t put in quotation marks because visceral fat (the kind around your waist, and around your internal organs) is really the fat that is dangerous.
Even though I knew I was healthy in the important measures, I was still obsessed with that number. I became self-conscious of wanting to go into a health profession, in which I would be coaching patients on healthier lifestyles, when I myself had a BMI over 25. In my mind, it was the ultimate hypocrisy.
I realized I hit rock bottom when I was at one of my best friends’ engagement party.
First: A friend commented on how thin I looked. I said thanks but snidely replied that “I was still 12 lbs overweight,” so in my mind of course it didn’t matter how I looked. I was still fat, and I had no protection if I felt big or unattractive. The healthy BMI range was my shield; it could justify any remark with the feeling that I knew “I was in the healthy category” so I’m by definition, not fat.
Second: Leaving that same party, my friend invited me to visit him up in Boston. Again, I snapped. I don’t want to do anything until I lose 12 lbs! He knew I was crazy and this was “my thing” so he let it go. He told me loved me and hoped I had fun. I reduced his beautiful party to simply “having a lot of unhealthy food.”
An event he planned for months, that he sent out beautiful invitations for, that he spent his personal money on, that he had invited all his family members and only his absolute best friends to. I reduced it to being an environment that had high-calorie snacks that I ate too much of.
Something had to change. I was so angry at myself. I drowned myself in research and reflection. I can’t believe in the BMI scale anymore. Being factually in the overweight category never inspired me to change, become healthier or “resist” unhealthy food. It just made me feel helpless, de-motivated, stressed and unattractive. I had to believe that “BMI is bogus.” This is why I support the Fat Acceptance movement: it promotes body acceptance, not hatred, as the media (and your friends) do by suggesting thinner always means more beautiful. (For example: “10 Ways to Get Flatter Abs Today”; “How to Lose 5 lbs in One Week”; “You look AMAZING. Have you lost weight?!”; “Wow! You look so thin!”
I used to be very guilty of making these comments. If you accept your body and your size you are more likely to make healthier decisions that are better for you. And this is why I try not to buy magazines that fill their front covers with thin-centric messages that suggest you are not thin enough. And that is why I’m trying to be a lot more conscious of how I contribute, and thus, tell my friends that they are beautiful all the time, and not only when they’re thin.
I’ve tried to drown myself in peer-reviewed research to try to make sense of why this has all been so difficult for me. Understanding the science behind why certain foods have addictive properties and learning about other weight losers’ struggles helps me to accept why I’ll never be “normal” around food. The lessons I’ve learned, from many books, documentaries, articles, research papers on the topic, are the following:
It is extremely difficult and rare to maintain a weight loss for more than 1 year, even more difficult to keep it off for 5+ years.
This is largely because in trying to lose weight or maintain a new weight, you are fighting the biology that was naturally selected for you through the course of human evolution. When humans didn’t know when their next meal would come, those who had the evolutionary “drive” to store the most fat were those that survived. As a result, we’re genetically programmed to desire and enjoy highly caloric, high fat, high sugar foods. For example: If your body was ever at a larger size, then you must consume fewer calories than another person at that same weight who has always been that weight.
I entered the magical 140s (magical because it was part of the healthy BMI range) at least six times in my life and gained the weight back. My longest stretch in this category was about three years. When I was unable to lose the “freshman 15” after my first year of college, I was embarrassed to go out in public, especially in my hometown. For three years I had based too much of my identity on someone who successfully lost and maintained that new weight. But I have lost and gained these 10-20 lbs almost every year since that time.
If it’s in front of you, it’s hard not to eat it.
My opinion, which is not in accord with all scientists, is that it’s not just about discipline. It’s about a food environment where the easy choice is almost always the unhealthy, obesogenic choice.
Over and over again I tried to buy junk food and resist eating it. I have memories of eating eight pop tarts or twenty-four pieces of cookie dough in a single day. I used to keep Betty Crocker’s vanilla icing in my dorm room and dip Girl Scout Cookies or Grandma’s Vanilla Sandwich Crèmes in them. I know I can’t buy junk food like this because binging makes my life miserable. I’ve become so used to this kind of life that sometimes I forget how abnormal I am. Recently I mentioned to an acquaintance that I had eaten a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in a single sitting and they were taken aback. I have eaten an entire pint of ice cream on so many occasions that I forget that anyone has the discipline to stick to one “serving size” (a fourth of the pint).
Sugar is not a “neutral” food providing “empty calories” just because it is devoid of nutrients.
Table sugar is called sucrose, which is made up of two parts: glucose and fructose. The sweeter component, fructose, is what really makes sugar such a powerful, controversial item. Fructose is the part of sugar that activates the reward centers of our brains and, as Dr. Lustig puts it, “we love [fructose]. We go out of our way to find it. Evolutionarily, there is no foodstuff on the planet that has fructose that is poisonous.” Thus, humans who liked fructose were naturally selected for because they were more likely to survive and breed children. This theory forms the evolutionary biology explanation for why humans evolved to like, even love, sugar (specifically fructose). Food containing sugar is like a “Darwinian signal” informing us that a food is safe. Food companies have taken advantage of this biological hack and attempt to sell more food by adding sugar to ketchup, bread, mustard, dressing and even meat. When more sugar is added to food, people eat more of it. Further, sugar prolongs the shelf life of food making it an even more popular additive. Unsurprisingly, excess sugar consumption is associated with obesity.
This lesson goes along with all the previous lessons: It’s really hard to keep weight off and that’s partly because it’s hard not to eat food when it’s in front of you. It’s especially hard to resist food in front of you when it’s sweet. I have an infamous sweet tooth: for my 17th birthday, a friend gifted me one of Costco’s 1000 packet boxes of Splenda. I opened it June 17th, and it was finished before school started in September.
Lastly, a calorie is not just a calorie.
Some calories keep you full and others don’t. Calories with fiber keep you full. A calorie is a calorie in a laboratory setting where study participants are locked up for a week and can only consume the food they are given. But in the real world, calories from processed food don’t keep you full so it’s much more difficult to lose weight.
Processed food calories don’t have fiber, which is important because it helps to keep you full. Fiber is also what makes the sugar in fruit safe and “neutral,” unlike added sugars – the fibers in fruit help to trigger your satiety signals and thus prevent you from overeating and damaging your liver. As Dr. Lustig points out, try eating 11 oranges and you will find it nearly impossible to consume them all. On the other hand, consuming the liquid equivalent of 11 oranges is easy because the fiber is removed by juicing the fruit. Processing food includes stripping food of its fiber because removing it prolongs a food’s shelf life. This information helped me to give up on eating candy all day.
Where I Am Now
I can relate to many of the people featured in HBO’s Weight of the Nation: Choices documentary. I can relate to Yolanda, who has to throw out half of her Kit-Kat bar when she buys a 210-calorie bar because it’s just too hard for me to not eat the whole thing. I can relate to Vivia, who at 5’5” weighs 341 lbs. She explains that “food can be my best friend… Food can be my boyfriend at the moment.” I know exactly what she feels like. I remember a particular moment when I felt neglected by a boyfriend – my thoughts were immediately “at least I’ll always have chocolate.” And even though I told myself I wouldn’t become someone more interested in food than people, seconds after my high school boyfriend went away to college I ate an entire box of Weight Watchers fudge bars. I can relate to the woman who can gain 10 lbs back in a weekend; my record is 11 lbs in just a week.
In order to keep myself accountable, I’ve had a food and exercise diary since 2012, now nearing 200 pages. I try to withhold telling family and friends what my favorite sweets are because it has always led to good-intentioned friends gifting me binge-worthy food. Upon learning that I would try to withhold this information from them, however, they would just buy me more sleeves of Oreo cookies and pints of hazelnut ice cream.
I still cannot gift people sweets, because I’ve eaten the sweets I’ve intended to give people. I won’t allow myself to buy more than one sweet at a time because it's a signal that I'm about to binge. When I do buy those sweets, I won’t buy anything over 600 calories unless I plan on throwing some of it away as soon as I buy it. While this may sound restrictive, I actually allow myself to eat all sweets and don’t feel the need to binge in the way I used to. I’m much more relaxed having these little rules to live by because I know if I throw a little bit of the package of cookie dough out beforehand, I won’t eat it until my stomach hurts and I only want to lie in bed.
Trying to enact political change also helps me to cope with my obsession and painful past. The role of government is to take on issues that are too large for us to solve individually. “Eat less, move more” encourages us to make healthier decisions, but the weight of the nation continues to rise. While I am fully responsible for my weight fluctuations in the past, I would still like to help create an environment where it is difficult for a child to grow up obese. Being mocked everyday riding the bus to school made me want to get skinny at any cost –- exactly the kind of extreme dieting and deprivation that led to binging and self-hatred. Modern dining now means the normalization of 20 oz. soda bottles instead of 8 oz., of pizza slices that are 700 calories at Costco, of happy “meals” far cheaper than fresh produce or real, unprocessed food. This normalization makes growing up fat easier to do.
I would like to live in an environment where it is harder for children to grow up fat, which means making the easy choice the healthy choice. Namely, make unhealthy food more expensive, get rid of soda vending machines in schools and make smaller portion sizes the norm, rather than having a mini-sized ice cream blast come in at over 500 calories. I support warning labels on soda, soda taxes, "added sugar" labels and bans on advertising to children. I know some of these opinions are unpopular, but it’s not simply about discipline. I don't say that because I don’t thinking “blaming” overweight individuals for being overweight is counterproductive, but because of the convincing evolutionary and biochemical explanation: we are genetically programmed to be rewarded by high-fat and high-sugar foods, so having to constantly resist such foods is fighting our innate desires. And in response to stress, our natural reaction is to reach for highly caloric, highly palatable food. Again, I’m comforted in the science: evolutionarily, as hunters and gatherers we wanted calorically dense foods at a time when we didn’t know when our next meal would come. So we still have the chemical pathways that send stress signals from our brain to our fat cells to store fat more easily.
I hope I can now be a name and a face to think of the next time you reduce someone’s story to a nothing more than that of a “fat person.” Love or hate Chris Christie, just don’t belittle his life story down to a “but he’s fat” remark. I want to cry when people say “It’s as simple as addition and subtraction” or “All you have to do is close your mouth.” When I heard people say this, it never made losing weight easier. It just made me hate myself more. It made me internalize that there had to be something wrong with me because it was supposed to be so simple. Part of what helped me actually recover from my self-hatred and weight loss obsession was learning about the science of how difficult losing weight really is.
I wish everyone knew that stigmatizing overweight or “fat” people does not “help” or motivate that person to change. Love and appreciation for everyone for all the wonderful and different sizes that people come in helps. The most scientific definition I can give beauty is healthy. And what’s healthy is focusing on a diet full of what feels good to eat and one in which you don’t feel deprived, and don’t get upset about numbers and measurements that may not be the best fit for you.
Am I there yet? Certainly not. Do I feel really good about where I am anyway? Yes. Proof? I bought jeans for the first time in five years, even though my BMI remains in the “overweight” category.