There was a time in my life when I would weigh myself every day. I would step on the scale each morning with hopes of a number popping up that was smaller than the number from the day prior, and whatever that number was would determine how I felt about and treated myself that day. I placed the scale in my bathroom outside of the shower so I could not forget. Because like brushing my teeth and bathing, I saw it as a necessity.
My fixation with the scale began in high school. At 16 years old, I bore a heftier set of thighs and a heavier frame than most of the other girls at school. I hated that I didn’t fit into Abercrombie jeans and cute tank tops. Even more, I hated hiding my body behind blouse-y tee shirts and jackets. I desperately wanted to lose weight. And after one particularly grueling and humiliating incident, I would have done anything to shed the pounds.
It was a dewy summer day in the Florida town where I grew up, and I was standing in the a la carte lunch line in my school’s cafeteria. As I awaited my turn to choose a bag of chips to pair with a sandwich, a group of several girls with perfectly developed and toned teenage figures dressed in name brands I could never afford and blue jeans I could never fit into, stood ahead of me whispering and giggling. The line moved along and the girls grabbed packages of cheese crackers and granola bars and I grabbed a bag of Doritos. One of the girls looked back at me and quickly turned away upon catching my eye. I heard more whispers. And then one of them turn toward me.
“Ummm…” she began, glaring at me and my chips. My heart began to beat in such a fury I was sure every thump was audible as a fist banging on a door.
“You probably shouldn’t be eating those. Don’t you, like, count calories or anything?” She said in a voice not much unlike “Cher” from Clueless. Just a lot snottier. (To put it nicely).
I didn’t know what to say. I was humiliated. With no confidence or courage to come to my own defense, I actually answered her question.
“No, I don’t do that.”
“Obviously! Ha-ha-ha-ha!” She laughed. And her friends followed suit.
I turned into a puddle. I was humiliated and ashamed.
I threw my lunch away that day and didn’t eat. Then, once I was home and “safe” inside my bedroom, I binged on chocolate ice cream and Ritz Bitz to numb the pain and the shame.
If those girls had considered the type of home life I had, they would have known that I was well aware of my unhealthy size. Because if it wasn’t coming from school, it was coming from home. I had an alcoholic step-dad who took pleasure in “mooing” at me like I was a cow or calling me degrading, vulgar names when he was wasted, which was most days of the week.
That shaming insult from the girl in the cafeteria coupled with the verbal abuse at home caused me to start buying into my own shaming thoughts. The “I’m fat” reel started repeating itself in my head, and rather than motivate me to change, these thoughts only drove my hand further down into the bag of Cheetos I would hide in my closet in an attempt to self-medicate, until every last orange-dusted cheese doodle was gone.
For the rest of my time in high school I chained myself to restrictive yo-yo diet programs, including an all-liquid diet in which for six days out of the week I could only have chicken broth and then on the seventh day, I could eat whatever I wanted. And when that seventh day came (if I made it without cheating which probably only happened once) I would eat until I physically could not eat anymore. Whole boxes of cereal, foot-long subs with all the fix-ins and cookies and chips on the side, entire packages of Chips Ahoy — I ate until I couldn’t feel anything but the food anymore. And like an alcoholic who relapses and goes on a three day-long bender, the “hangover” I felt the next day was absolute hell.
Internal fat-shaming became a way of punishing myself, believing it to be the “tough love” I needed to whip myself into shape. But in fact, all this did was further sabotage every effort I made to lose weight.
I went away to college after high school and for the first time in my life, I felt free. Free from my step-dad’s abuse and the four walls of the high school cafeteria that housed the taunts that ate away at my self-worth. I could finally take control of my weight and get healthy. And I could think of no sweeter revenge against those who had humiliated me.
So I threw out the scale and vowed to stop weighing myself. I also vowed to eat healthy and exercise. I started going to therapy on campus, too, for help with my body image and internal weight-shaming. And though my thoughts were not perfect and I still struggled with self-degradation at my own hand, I found the strength to fight back rather than believe the ugly lies.
I was 20 years-old at the time and in a little over a year, I went from a size 22 to a size 8. It was the hardest work I have ever had to do but I did it the right way and looked forward to the rewards I would reap, chief among them being: finally being seen for more than my size.
But I was wrong.
The reactions I received from people were mixed. Many people applauded and praised me. But there were some who questioned me and suspected I had an eating disorder. This baffled and blind-sided me. When I tried to defend myself I was dismissed and met with the response of: I’m just worried about you, that’s all. Hearing this from my mother or my doctor or my best friend would have been one thing. But hearing this from random people who never tried to forge some sort of friendship when I was overweight was another. And most of the time that is where this came from which made me think: Really? You’re just worried about me? That’s funny, because you showed no worry for me when I was binge-eating and had very few friends. Would have been nice to have known you cared then.
There is a difference between genuine concern, and baiting questions disguised as genuine concern. And it was never hard for me to spot the difference.
Other phrases I became accustomed to hearing when I lost weight (and the responses I should have given at the time):
What, are you a size zero now? (Nope. Size “6.” What size are you? Oh, too invasive a question? Doesn’t feel good, does it?)
You’re so skinny. Do you ever eat? (No I don’t. I starve myself all day long. Isn’t that sad? That’s what you wanted to hear, right?)
You’re too tall to be that skinny. (Oh, thank you for reminding me! I almost forgot!)
Shedding almost 90 pounds made me feel confident in the body that for years I loathed and mistreated. And I wanted to show off that confidence. I wanted the reward of acceptance. But acceptance should not have to be seen as a reward. Acceptance is something we all deserve and should never be denied someone based on how they look. Yet all too frequently, it is.
I felt like I couldn’t win. If I was overweight I was ignored, shunned, and pitied and if I was thin, there were people who questioned and scrutinized me for my thinness. It is likely that that was only the case because the transformation was drastic and maybe too hard for some to believe. But that didn’t make it okay. If you are concerned that someone may have an eating disorder, find a gentle way to approach the issue. And establish some level of trust, first. Otherwise, you may be inadvertently feeding into their struggles with their body image and/or food. And that damage is hard to undo.
I cannot tell you how painful it felt to be laughed at by kids in the cafeteria in school for being overweight. Or how worthless I felt when my step-dad compared me to a whale. And then after losing the weight in college, how frustrating it was to be asked if I had an eating disorder. Or whether I started using cocaine. (Yes, I was really asked if that’s how I lost weight). This frustrated me because it felt like a blow to all of my hard work. Instead of being recognized for doing something incredibly difficult and laborious, I was branded by some as having gotten that way by starving myself.
I am 26 now and finally at a place where I feel comfortable talking about this stuff. It’s not easy. Being “too big” and then “too thin” is not an experience many people endure — it’s typically one or the other. But for those like me who have experienced being called both, it is a cruel and unusual beast.
When I was overweight, I wanted to be seen for more than my size, but after working to repair the confidence that years of weight-shaming damaged, I now realize I can not control how people see me or what they see me for. The lens through which I am reflected to others is a lens that was fashioned after the circumstances of their own life and perhaps, their own battle with self-worth. That’s not something I can control.
Weight shaming of any kind is dangerous. It hurts. It leaves invisible scars and can bruise an ego beyond repair. And because we live in a society in which eating disorders and obesity are largely misunderstood, stigmatized, and ignored as serious mental health conditions or potential precursors to one, the language we use when addressing them is key. Furthermore, our preconceived notions and personal judgments about the nature of these disorders must be left out of the conversation. If someone has an eating disorder, that disorder is about them and their experience and may be too complex for even the sufferer to understand, which means it is not a subject for casual conversation or fodder for jokes.
Looking back on that day in high school when I was teased by the girl in the lunch line, I might have taken the suspension from school as a consequence for punching her right in the nose. And then shoving my sandwich in her face for good measure. But for her and anyone else who ever shamed me for my weight, whether it was for being too fat or too skinny, I think I have chosen a better kind of revenge: not caring anymore.
Because at the end of the day my health is what matters most, and being healthy is and should always be the goal. The definition of beauty does not include a single-digit dress size. Or any size for that matter. That’s because beauty is not defined by what you choose to eat for lunch. It is defined by the person on the inside. And that person has an appetite that calls for more than just food, but for love, self-care, and confidence.
For a long time, I felt that I couldn’t win. But when I look in the mirror and see how far I have come from being the 16 year old who was laughed at in her high school cafeteria to who I am now, I feel pretty victorious. And that victory belongs to me, for who I am and always will be behind the food on my plate and apart from the number blinking back at me on a scale.