“Girl, you really have to lose weight!” a friend said to me at the start of this year. Oof, that stinks. She was right, though.
At 183 pounds, I was definitely overweight for my short build, but it still wasn’t fun to hear someone else say it, even if it wasn’t meant to hurt my feelings. I had planned to drop the weight, of course. Then again, I had been telling myself that for the past ten years. And rather than losing the weight, it had only continued to pile on.
As much as I wanted to say that I was comfortable with living in my own skin, that was a total lie. I wanted to be thin and glamorous, but mostly thin. For most of my life, I’ve wanted to look like Angelina Jolie.
I was raised in a family that values thinness and often makes jokes directed at weight problems, but many a truth is spoken in jest. I’ll never forget my mother rolling with laughter when my sister couldn’t fit into a hand-me-down dress that was tailored for my mother in her twenties. My mom had her ups and downs with weight over the years (having us children and all), but ultimately she achieved mastery of it with her strong-as-steel willpower; Weight Watchers was her go-to for keeping things in check. For most of my childhood, I didn’t even know she liked chocolate because I never saw her eat it. Turns out that she loves it but just denies herself the pleasure. Same with donuts.
I couldn’t do that, I thought. Donuts and chocolate were my friends. I already had a different build than my family members, but things got worse in high school when I gained thirty pounds. And they continued down a negative path for most of my adult life.
When I finally started on my weight-loss journey, two months after my friend’s comment, I told myself that it was because I finally decided that being healthy for my children was more important than one more delicious Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. And it didn’t help that I couldn’t fit into a single thing I owned without looking like the Incredible Sausage Girl (you know, when rolls of flesh are being stuffed into clothes the way that sausage is stuffed into casing). Motivated by my friend’s encouragement and my lifelong desire to look thinner, I decided to start a diet. It was for my health, I told myself; little did I know that what I would do was anything but healthy.
Too Many Voices
Armed with a goal weight, a diet plan, and sheer willpower, I muscled through the first fifteen pounds. I was feeling awesome. Then, thirty pounds down, I found myself subject to yet another unexpected weight-related comment. “Oh, Regan, you just aren’t as beautiful anymore,” a coworker said bluntly.
Startled, I asked what she meant. She said that she thought I looked better when I was heavier. Several coworkers quickly agreed: “You are getting too skinny in the face.” “You look fine right now—don’t lose one more pound.” “If you keep losing weight you’ll be too skinny, and you will look sick!”
Is this a joke, I thought? First I am too fat. Now I am too skinny? I can’t win!
It’s not like I’ve never encountered weight stereotypes before. Years ago a friend told me she couldn’t invite me to her potlucks because her husband’s relatives would be horrified by how skinny my kids were. Instead of viewing my children’s bodies as active and fit (which is what they are), they would instead think that I don’t feed them properly and that they were in need of “fattening up.” All these friends’ comments got me thinking about how much “ideal weight” is affected by culture, family perceptions, and the media. With so many opinions circulating, I began to wonder, exactly which voice should I be listening to?
I kept telling myself that I was in this for my own health, and I continued to trudge toward my goal weight. I decided to let all outside opinions of my weight roll off my back. I was on a mission, and as the weeks and months wore on, I felt the urge to push harder for the weight to come off more quickly. Despite knowing that I wasn’t supposed to do strenuous exercise on my particular diet because of the significantly reduced calorie intake, I started to run a couple of miles a day in order to shed extra pounds. Nothing is going to stop me, I thought.
Then, one night at work, I started to have a strange, uncomfortable feeling in my arm and chest. I ignored it and kept working. A little while later I felt dizzy and warm. Starting to get concerned, I took my pulse. Forty-nine.
Oh, crap, I thought. I’ve overextended myself this time. And it’s my own fault. Here I was trying to be healthy, and instead I was doing the opposite by being so obsessed with a certain number on a scale.
Worried about the episode at work, I visited my doctor. Thankfully nothing was wrong, but when I mentioned the diet, I got my latest dose of weight advice. “The diet is over,” she stated in no uncertain terms.
I tried to protest. I told her I was trying to get to a healthy weight. “What are you talking about?” she asked. “You are healthy. Your BMI (body mass index) is exactly where it is supposed to be. Are you trying to be healthy or make yourself sick?”
My hair was falling out, my muscles felt weak, and I hadn’t had a period in three months. She was right, I thought. It’s over.
But even with that knowledge in mind, I still found it incredibly hard to go easy on myself. If the point is to be healthy for my kids, I was blowing it. If I am unhealthy because I am too large and end up with heart disease, then I am missing the point; if I am unhealthy because I am losing weight in a manner that depletes my body of necessary nutrients, then I am not doing myself any favors either. I had completely lost sight of the goal: establishing good health for my children’s sake.
Making It Sink In
I knew there had to be a middle road—one that allowed leeway on both sides without a strict bottom line. While it is appealing to drop weight quickly, my setbacks proved that it would ultimately be more appealing to do it properly and keep it off for the long term.
The urge to purge pounds is still a struggle for me. Despite how many times I tell myself to quiet my self-doubt, somehow others’ voices have a way of sounding louder and more powerful.
Then one day I was serving dinner to my kids. At this point I was used to hearing them say, “Mom, we are sick of you not eating the food we eat” and “You look good now; you don’t need to stay on this diet.” But this time I heard something different.
“Mom, I’ll pass. I don’t need dinner today.”
My 13-year-old high school–bound daughter had just declined dinner. No way. Instantly I knew it was because she had watched me these past several months living a starvation diet. When she went on to tell me she was afraid of gaining weight, I was horrified. I quickly told her that she is perfect the way she is and didn’t need to worry about her weight.
Words to live by, as they say. I hadn’t been following my own advice; how could I expect her to? If I really want her to grow up with a healthy sense of eating and fitness, then I have to live it myself as well as counsel her along the way. Turns out, my words admonishing her that she need not worry about her weight are ones I needed to hear—and live—myself.
What ultimately helped me embrace these words wasn’t just to correct my wrongheaded “do as I say, not as I do” attitude. It’s that despite the many voices I hear telling me how to view myself and my weight, the only voice I should be listening to is the one that comes from a place of love—not a place of insecurity or worry about meeting arbitrary standards of beauty perpetuated by family backgrounds or the media. It’s easy to forget, yes, but now I know better than ever: If I ever forget how to find that place of love, I should think about what I would say to those I love—the most visceral example being my beautiful children.
And, with that, I’ve added a whole lot more meaning to my mantra: “I’m doing this for my kids.”