A few years ago, I submitted a piece to Chicken Soup for the Soul called “Being Fat Set Me Free.” It was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength, and I heard from many people who told me how much my words had inspired them.
The gist of the piece was this: I’d spent most of my life as a morbidly obese adult, and in gaining and living with all that extra weight, I’d learned to rely on something other than my appearance to develop self-worth. While the article was truthful, it never told the whole story about what it truly felt like to be fat – or what it felt like to gain and lose hundreds of pounds over the course of 25 years.
Currently, I’m about 150 pounds down from my highest weight, and I feel fabulous. I’m active, mostly pain-free, and energetic. At the same time, there’s a little voice in the back of my mind reminding me I’ve been here before. It’s not the first time I’ve dropped a significant amount of weight, although I hope it will be my last.
Being a YoYo dieter requires a lot of hope and optimism – and it also comes with crushing disappointment. In the past, it was always painful as I began the slow slide back into obesity once again.
So many people felt it was their place to comment about both my weight loss and my weight gain. When I was losing weight, I’d get praise. In fact, the weight loss would seemingly become the most praiseworthy thing about me, to the point people would talk about that before and to the exclusion of any and all other accomplishments. And then, as I’d begin the slide into obesity once again, I’d see glee in some people’s eyes and disappointment in others. Once again, for many people it was about my weight and little else.
When I was at the top of the YoYo, “I’m a person!” I’d want to yell. “See me? I’m ME! This weight thing? It’s not me. Look beyond it and see me – no matter what size I am.” But I knew I’d be yelling into a vacuum.
Catching glimpses of myself in the mirror, I’d stop, surprised, and think, “Who are you? That’s not how I feel on the inside.”
This is what it was like for me to be morbidly obese. I was still the same person inside I was when I was small. I felt, experienced, and recognized that every day. Fat was just one thing about me. I was a person. I lived a life of joy and contentment. I had trusting and loving relationships. I engaged in creative activities. I was professionally successful. I worked hard. I was an engaged parent, a volunteer, a busy member of my community, a loving wife, a spiritual being, a loyal and supportive friend.
At the top of the YoYo, I was terrified to go to the doctor, because no matter what was wrong with me, every conversation was about my weight. Went in for a broken arm? “Lose weight, fatty – that arm wouldn’t be broken if you were thin.” And so, I put off going to the doctor for those times when I couldn’t hold out any longer. And then I sat in the waiting room, dreading the scale. In the exam room, I’d flush with shame when the inevitable conversation came up. And it always did.
I had some “friends” who felt it was okay to discuss my weight freely under the guise of concern. “I am so worried about you,” they’d say. “I want you to be healthy, you know.” These are the same “friends” who, as I lost weight, seemed to drift away or develop resentment when they could no longer make themselves feel better by pointing out to me that I was fat. As if I didn’t already know that.
At the top of the YoYo, I often felt invisible, and I liked that. At other times, I felt conspicuous as people surreptitiously stared and judged. One day, I was walking through Macy’s behind two women. As we passed through the plus size department, one pointed out the clothing on the racks to her friend and started laughing.
“Look how gigantic it is,” she said to her friend, stopping to touch a large sweater on display.
Then, she caught sight of me as I continued past her. She looked at me and smirked. As I passed, she said loudly to her friend, “Fat ass.”
I wanted to stop and look her in the eye and tell her that at least I was a kind and compassionate person who would never make a remark like that. Instead, I put my head down, burned with shame, and continued walking with my heart pounding in my ears and my face hot.
Once, when the YoYo was just starting to rise, I was lying in the sun by the pool at my apartment building. There were two young adult females splashing in the water nearby. One kept ducking under the water, gathering water in her mouth, spitting it at me, and saying, “Look, I’m a whale.” That was my first taste of how some people treated overweight individuals.
When the YoYo was rising, I was shopping for a wedding dress. I was probably a size 12 to 14 at the time, significantly heavier than my size 3 frame had once been. In the bridal shop, I went to the size 12-14 rack and started looking at dresses. I saw a salesperson eyeing me from across the room. She approached with a frown and asked how she could help, one eyebrow cocked high.
“I don’t think you’re in the right section,” she told me. And then she pulled a size 20 dress from the rack. The style was ugly and the fabric worse – it looked like a potato sack, and I told her it was too big and really wasn’t my style.
“You just need to learn what’s available to you and stop trying to be something you’re not,” she told me, sniffing and walking away. I realized in that moment she’d decided if I wouldn’t fit within her definition of what I should be, then she felt I wasn’t worth helping. It was at that moment I decided instead of a having a wedding, I’d get married in a chapel somewhere with no one else in attendance.
Those were the early days when I was still learning to navigate the waters of being fat. Those were the days when I earnestly tried everything I could to lose weight, such as very low-calorie diets and lots of exercise. Those were the days when I was hungry, exhausted, irritable, sore, bewildered, sad, humiliated, confused, hopeful, and optimistic. Those were the days when seeing myself in the mirror was a shock, because I didn’t feel any different inside.
When I was at the bottom of the YoYo, I always received positive reinforcement from others. But I still felt the same inside. The only difference was that the size of my ass was smaller. It was bewildering people considered that an accomplishment but barely noticed any of the other, truly amazing things I had going in my life. At the same time, I would feel euphoria associated with chiseling down my size and squeezing into smaller jeans. I’d also feel apprehension, because I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for the YoYo to rise once again.
When I was at the bottom of the YoYo, I stopped being invisible. I both reveled in it and missed it at the same time. People were kinder, more engaging. People provided positive reinforcement.
Once when I was at the bottom of the YoYo, I had been doing some intense volunteer work – spending about 50 hours a week volunteering in addition to doing my regular job and raising my kiddo. Someone I respected came up to me and said, “I am so proud of what you are doing.” I thought that person was talking about the volunteer work, and I started to discuss it. “No,” that person said. “I mean the weight loss.”
Why is that more worthy of comment than helping others, I wondered. And so it went.
At the top of the YoYo, I often felt I was betraying myself. At the bottom, I often felt I was betraying my community, because instead of accepting myself as a fat person, I was behaving as a “good fatty” in the eyes of society and doing what it took to lose weight. Losing weight, I heard, meant I didn’t truly have self-acceptance, and I was also telling other fat people they shouldn’t accept themselves as overweight either.
One day on the bottom of the YoYo, I walked out the side door of my office building and saw an overweight woman sitting in her car eating. Our eyes met through her windshield. I smiled at her, but I saw the shame flash in her eyes. In that moment, I recognized her as me. She was eating alone in her car, feeling shame for the simple act of providing her body with fuel. I have been her possibly hundreds of times – eating alone somewhere and praying nobody saw me and judged me harshly for the simple act eating.
I can’t tell you how many times I ate a meal with thinner “friends” who had plates piled high with processed junk foods while lecturing me because I was eating a single chicken leg. Or felt it was okay to comment on my weight as they shoveled junk foods into their mouths. Or offered what they surely felt was well-meaning advice about exercising while they sat at home watching television and eating popcorn.
And I allowed it. Somewhere, I’d gotten the idea my body was fair game for others to discuss, and that because I was fat, the state of my body was open for commentary.
On the bottom end of the YoYo, it appears my body was open for commentary, as well. Men have often felt free to sexualize my body. I’ve heard how amazing my rack is. I’ve been told my ass is juicy and squeezable. I’ve been catcalled on the streets, propositioned by strangers in bars (or even walking down the street), and grabbed without my consent. I’ve had women call me a skinny bitch or assume I am sexually promiscuous because of my figure. I’ve been slut-shamed because of the way I looked. These interactions feel just as icky as the fat shaming.
I’ve had “friends” who have dismissed me on both ends of the YoYo. I’ve had other “friends” who have just shifted the content of their negative commentary depending on whether I was fat, skinny, or in-between.
The noise surrounding weight is loud, and it is often difficult to filter. If you listen to it, it just might make you a little crazy. On the one side, you have people telling you to be a bold, proud, fat person. On the other, you have people shaming you for being fat, stereotyping you, treating you as if you aren’t a person at all. The media is loaded with messages about weight. Being too fat or too thin is treated as a moral failing. People have no compunction about commenting on your appearance, no matter how you look. And no matter how self-assured you are, that noise is nearly impossible to completely filter.
Right now, I am on the down side of the YoYo. Not at the bottom, but in a place where I feel well, energetic, and vibrant. In the back of my mind is that little voice always there at the bottom of the YoYo – the one that warns me my weight may rise again. It feels different this time – like this is a permanent change, but I’ve felt that way before. I’d like to believe I’ve got it dialed in – that because this time I’ve made changes for my health that happened to affect my weight instead of making changes for the sole purpose of losing weight, the YoYo won’t start to rise again.
But here’s what I know to be true. Regardless of where the YoYo is, it isn’t a determinant of my self-worth. Certainly being fat has provided me with amazing benefits. It has taught me to focus on health instead of weight. It has moved me away from being appearance- focused, helped me find self-acceptance and self-worth in a world that values appearance above all else, made me compassionate towards myself and others, and many other amazing things. It’s taught me not to judge and showed me I can’t possibly understand who someone is by looking at their appearance. Size doesn’t determine worth, and regardless of whether anyone’s YoYo stays down or zips back up to the top again, what matters is that I treat myself and others with kindness and compassion, listen to my body’s signals for good health, live a life of purpose, respect others’ journeys, and find joy in each moment.
So while my body has often been on a YoYo, the rest of me is not. I have reached a place of equilibrium where I am settled in myself, the noise around me has quieted, and I can meet my own eyes in the mirror knowing I am trying my hardest every day to be the best person I possibly can.