Do you struggle with weight issues? If so, you’re not alone. According to a study published several months ago by the Trust for America’s Health, Americans, both adults and children, are getting fatter than ever. The “heaviest” state, Mississippi, has an adult obesity rate of 34.4%, and the thinnest (Colorado) of 19.8% This same study last year rated those states at 33.8 and 19.1%, respectively. My own state, Virginia, has increased from 25.5 to 25.9% in its percentage of obese residents. But what distinguishes this report for me is the fact that until recently, I would have counted myself among those who made up the statistics. More simply, until a few years ago, I would have been labeled as one of those obese.
As a child I was “plump”–that was the word my mother used–and I’ve tracked my personal state of “plumpness” to the period following my parents’ divorce. Of course I have no empirical evidence, no weight logs from childhood, to support my thesis, but I look back on pictures of 4-year-old me, and a “normal” child looks back from the glossy photo paper. Then my father dropped us for the welcoming arms of wife number two, and my mother, sister and I packed up and moved in with my grandmother, half a country away. I vividly recall crying to my mother that I missed my daddy, and I vividly recall her response: “Don’t cry, honey. Have a cookie.” And I did, many times over, for many years.
I’m not blaming my mother for my weight gain. Truly. (I blame my father, but that’s another story.) No, Mom did the best she could, and I give her all the credit in the world for holding her little family together, despite difficulties that would send many of today’s young women to the comfort of drugs and alcohol.
Whatever the cause, I was a fat little girl. Those were the days, too, before it was socially acceptable to be fat. No fat cheerleaders or baton twirlers in my day. No, overweight kids from my youth weren’t considered “big and beautiful,” they were just plain “fat,” and that particular adjective and I became close companions. It wasn’t long before I began to try to shrink myself in any way possible, tried to hide from view, to insulate myself from any potential comparison with them (i.e., thin girls). It worked for the most part. Teachers took pity on me and left me alone, except for my 7th grade science teacher (whose real name I forget but who was early on dubbed “Barney” by the kids). In his quest for classroom relevance, Barney conceived a novel approach to teaching his students proper nutrition and the consequences of food abuse. He arranged for his class to be weighed and measured, an event to be followed by posting each child’s statistics on a chart on the classroom wall. (Today that might be cited as child abuse. Back then, no one blinked.)
When weigh-in day arrived, I approached that scale in the nurse’s office with all the apprehension of a death-row inmate taking that long walk to the gas chamber, my stomach churning and my heart pounding. And the scale proved me right in my fear. At age 12 or 13, and approximately 5 feet 4 inches tall, I moved the needle to the 165-pound mark. The nurse dutifully recorded my weight on the odious chart which was then hung on the classroom wall, as promised. And with that single public display, all the kids knew that I didn’t just look fat, I was fat. Barney might just as well have tattooed the word “whale” across my forehead. While the students studied the results with far more attention than they ever gave to actual schoolwork, and I slunk across the room to find a corner to hide in, little Lucy Peabody (name changed to protect me from her ire) declared to the world how “large” she was at a sopping-wet 90 pounds.
It was that humiliating episode that ushered in my life-long phobia of facing the scale. I went years without weighing myself, aside from doctors’ appointments, whose scales HAD to be mis-calibrated. Pregnancy with my second child should have made me realize my expanding girth had more to do with the amount of food going into my mouth than the baby growing inside of me. Yet after his birth, I blamed my increased size on baby-fat, or the need for food while nursing, or anything I could think of to explain the fact that I couldn’t fit into any of my pre-pregnancy fat clothes.
During the months that followed, I didn’t gain weight, but my clothing sure did shrink quite a lot, and manufacturers began to mysteriously make the fashions of the day smaller and smaller. The size 14 or 16 I wore as a teen became an 18W by the time I had reached my early 40s. For those who aren’t aware, plus-size clothing ain’t cheap either, and I wasn’t exactly flush with cash to spend on wardrobe. I was eating myself into the poor house and too afraid to admit it.
Why would I be afraid? Because I knew all the rules about losing weight. I’d tried over the years, but nothing ever stuck. I knew that acknowledging the need to lose weight would mean having to limit the intake of the food I loved. It would mean limiting my interaction with that friendly bag of chips that comforted me during late-night depressions, or the giant dish of ice cream that kept me occupied during long hours of boredom. And that I could not do. So I progressed well into my adult years being fat, then fatter, then obese.
I successfully avoided the truth of my obesity until a few years ago when we left my home state of New Jersey and moved to Virginia. Out of work, I had applied for a clerical position with the local police department. As I plowed my way through that multipage application form, I was stopped cold by two required fields: height and weight. I’d become so accustomed to “fibbing” about my weight (routinely using a semi-plump number from years before), I almost entered that bogus number on the application. Something about “fibbing” to the police department didn’t sit right with me though. I imagined going in for an interview, a police officer looking from me to the form, from me to the form, then sending me for a weight check! Not good. Scale phobia all over again. So I did it, I entered my real weight, as mortifying as it was.
And that was my personal black moment, the moment I understood my level of shame over being fat, and I never wanted to feel that way again. I joined Weight Watchers and somehow, with a lot of prayer and support from loved ones, stuck to the plan. Amazingly, after a year, I had dropped 80 pounds. I finally could walk up the stairs without pain, or without feeling like that simple act amounted to self-asphyxiation. I finally could buy clothes from the bargain rack.
Still, my own BMI is right on the line between what experts deem as healthy and overweight, and I know it will take little more than a few extra cookies a day to push me over that line. And still the fear of the scale stays with me. I cringe at every weigh-in, even in the privacy of my own bathroom, and especially if I’ve had a particularly undisciplined week. But I suppose I’m glad it’s there, and I suppose in a way I should thank Barney for his thoughtless and cavalier methods of education. Because it’s that fear of the scale that now keeps me honest, most importantly with myself.
So If you too are fighting the scale, don’t be afraid of it. Don’t be afraid to step on it and face the truth of who you are. If you’re not ready right now to give up the food you love, or alter the amount you eat, just know that in the back of your mind, when you are ready, you can.