My girls hate getting ready with me. They never say this out loud, but we all know it. My indecision is the stuff of legends and on this particular night it had elicited many an eye roll and hissed teeth. After spending 45 minutes closet diving, I plopped on the floor in front of them in frustration.
“I don’t know what I look like anymore.”
The words slipped out my mouth as a mumble, and as they floated off into the air, I sat there stunned by how true they were. Keeping my eyes focused downward, I pretended I was a tiny speck of dust traveling through the grains of the hardwood floor. This is a technique I use to keep myself from breaking into tears. I perfected it in the 2nd grade.
I didn’t grow up chubby; I was fat. No ph, no thick; I was just fat. The biggest of my cousins, my grandmother told my mother I should spend a summer with her in Spanish Town, as she was sure America was making me fat. My days at school were hell. I was the only girl in my class to have to order adult-sized uniforms and wear a bra before our time. After enduring a school ride home being teased for having crumbs on my cheek, I spent the afternoon locked in the bathroom hugging the toilet. I turned the knob on my radio all the way up and let SWV drown out the sounds of me throwing up.
The women on my father’s side of the family were all heavyset, but the genes they carried with a womanly pride crushed my self-esteem before I became a teen. I couldn’t even feign the confidence of a Gabby Sidibe; my tears came too easy. After one too many cafeteria meltdowns, I found that if I found something else to get lost in, I could make it through the teasing without tears. By the time the check yes or no game was being played in middle school, I had already learned I was not the kind of girl who got a note. No boy would like or even like, like me. Sitting on the sidelines, I watched as my friends talked about crushes, found summer loves, and then boyfriends. I listened to their conversations and wondered what it would be like to have a boy call my house phone. And it wasn’t just the boys. I wondered about things to which my friends never gave a second thought. What would it feel like to wear a bikini to a pool party and not dread being the girl in the big t-shirt? How did it feel to eat half a plate of food and be stuffed? When would I have a picture of myself that I could say was my “favorite”?
Those questions were harder than the ones my teacher would ask us in class. And so I became the girl with all the answers, the nerdy one hiding my stomach behind books. It wasn’t the worst form of escape; by the time of my high school graduation I was off to a top college on a full ride. “Ha-HA, skinny girls! The joke was on you!” I wanted to say this, but it wouldn’t have been true. So instead I did what I had always done: I found other places to hide.
I was exposed on a Wednesday morning in the emergency room of our campus hospital. I woke up feeling something cold touching my stomach and when I realized it was the cooling jelly for my sonogram, I nearly passed back out.
“Don’t’ worry. You’re not pregnant.”
“I know I’m not! What are you doing to me?”
The doctor explained that I had a ruptured cyst on my ovaries that had caused internal bleeding. Cysts could be caused by many things, but given my family history (ovarian cancer running on my mother’s side, diabetes on my father’s), mine was most likely hereditary. Because I had a large amount of fat stored in my stomach, it had pressed down on the cyst, causing it to rupture. Listening to the doctor speak, I searched the room to find something to get lost in, but couldn’t find anything for my eyes to trace.
Exam rooms are stark and sterile. Without a crevice to hide, without a way to distract them, the tears in my eyes welled up and fell down my face. I thought about my dad’s mother, who I had kissed goodbye as she laid in a coma after her last stroke. I remembered the Sunday afternoon my uncle came to help my dad fix his car and left in an ambulance after his heart seized with our minivan propped above him. I was that fat. Fat. And if I didn’t do something about it, I was going down the same path.
When I called home to tell my mom about what had happened, she was silent. The moment quickly lost its seriousness when she sighed, “Oh. And I thought it was just bad gas.” I laughed as much as I could in spite of the pain.
The next couple of weeks, I went to every free class our gym offered, bought every Lean Cuisine pack I could get my hands on, and stuffed a granola bar into every handbag I had. Total weight loss: one measly pound. By the next month I had gained that back and more. My weight yo-yoed like a celeb’s on-again off-again relationship. If I lost what I said I would, I rewarded myself with a “bad night” of pizza and hot wings. Eventually, I realized taking one step forward and 10 back to Papa John’s was probably not going to get me where I needed to be.
There was no magical moment where things in my head clicked. I wish I could tell girls that there was, but there wasn’t. I just worked every day to overhaul 20 years of avoiding exercise and putting crap into my body. Four years later, I had cut my mile time from 16 minutes to 12, become gym regular, and had re-learned how to eat what I needed instead of how I felt. I had started my freshman year weighing 178 pounds and graduated at 132 pounds. Losing 46 pounds had moved me from a size 16 to a 4. I was healthy and proud of myself for the work I did to get there. I finally arrived at my goal weight. And I had no clue where I was.
A report on MSNBC called it “Phantom Fat,” saying:
“Losing pounds doesn’t automatically shed larger-than-life self-image… often times, the brain hasn’t ‘caught up’ with the new, leaner body, particularly for people who were obese for many years and then experienced rapid weight loss.”
The smaller me still had the bruised heart of the chubby kid. I over analyzed every compliment, convinced there was a jab hidden inside it somewhere. I was ready for any fat joke people could think of. I shunned anything body skimming because I didn’t want to show my rolls. After years of staying under the radar of the opposite sex, I was severely awkward upon being approached. When the goons on the steps of my dorm suddenly felt the urge to make conversation, I used my headphones that had shorted in one ear to slide past. From learning what size I was in the Joe’s I could finally fit to buying my first bikini, I felt like I was light years behind the born and bred size 4s. Even in this skin, the insecurity from my childhood was still with me.
I have come a long way, but I am still not where I should be. If the weight loss was stage one, confidence gain was stage two. Ironically enough, sweating was the easy part compared to this. I couldn’t just hop on a treadmill and melt away years of being ashamed of my body. The damage was deeper than that. As a girl, I would imagine what it would be like to have a body as perfect as the celebs in the magazine. I say “imagined” because I didn’t really ever believe I could actually lose weight or change the way I looked. After losing the pounds, I was in such disbelief at how different I looked and how different I was treated that I put up the defenses I had as a girl.
I am getting better and loving the woman I’ve become. But every now and then, the 2nd grader in me resurfaces. And to keep it real, being smaller hasn’t made my life a walk in the park. I’ve had petty girls click-through my Facebook photos like a Janet photo timeline, all to determine whether or not I’m gaining it all back. I’ve had guys come at me with the pickup line, “Damn, you look good … now” (which, for future reference, is a deal breaker). But I am learning that big or small, short or tall — someone, somewhere will notice you and what matters is how you deal with the attention. I am still learning not to put a guy through the Spanish Inquisition on our first date, because I was waiting for him to admit he is only attracted to me because I am not a big girl anymore. I am still learning that punishing my body in the gym for hours is not the right response for indulging in a cheeseburger. I am still learning the art of gracefully accepting a compliment without attaching an ulterior motive to good intentions.
My hips may have gotten smaller, but like Lucile Clifton’s, they still “need space to move around in. They don’t fit into little petty places.” After all this loss, I am so grateful for what I have gained. I am day by day learning that my body is just the shell on my soul and that I truly, truly do deserve to be loved as I am. So here’s to stage two, to crawling from the crevices and being unafraid to love this woman I’ve become.