Monday, September 26, 2016

More Than a Number

When I was 12, I sat down to dinner with my brother and grandparents. Delicious fried shrimp awaited us on the table. At my place, there was a green salad. I do not remember exactly what she said as the others dove into their meal, but it was something like, “You’re getting to big, you need to lose weight.” And that small salad with iceberg lettuce and tiny slivers of carrots was all I was allowed to eat that night.

That was the last day of my life that I didn’t know my weight.

When I was 17, I wrote a column for my school newspaper about my weight loss goals. I was 189 pounds and my goal was to be 149 pounds. Everyone thought I was brave. The captain of the cheerleading team told me so.

I wasn’t brave, I was lost.

After my first year in college, I weighed 210 pounds. My dad promised me he would never bring up my weight unless he became concerned for my health. He brought it up. I lost 40 pounds that summer. Back at Oberlin, a stranger walked up to me and said, “You look like you lost a person.”

My guess is that I’ve been on roughly 30 diets in my lifetime, and spent close to $2000 on special meals, books, motivational programs, and weight-loss fees. I have tried all the big names: Atkins, Nutrisystem, Slimfast, South Beach, Weight Watchers, Slim4Life, etc. Then, there are the even crazier fad diets. One time, I ate almost nothing but cabbage soup and green tea for 17 days. Another time, I had 11 foods I could eat as much of as I wanted for 11 days and then take 3 days off. I stuffed my face with baked chicken breast, boiled shrimp, cashews, and sugar free candy until I just stopped eating altogether. On my three days off, I gorged on Chipotle and French Fries until I was literally sick.

On the Atkins diet, I ate so much Jell-O with real whipped cream that to this day, the thought of Jell-O or whipped cream makes me gag. Add that to chicken, shrimp, and cashews to the list of “Foods Diets Have Ruined for Me.”

When I moved to Egypt, I was at my heaviest, 266 pounds. I lost 60 pounds that first year, without really trying. When I was unsuccessful in meeting my final goal of “getting under 200”, I spent the second year gaining almost half of it back. When I left Egypt, I was 226 pounds.

In Indonesia, I worked-out harder than ever before, and tried to eat healthy. I attribute the 20 pounds I gained there to high stress, loneliness, and drinking. In case you’re keeping track, I was back up to 246.

Last April, when my feet became swollen and painful, I was diagnosed with tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, and a reoccurring ankle injury. I started to really think about this journey. In Egypt, I had to become confident in my body because I was defending it against sexual harassment all the time. By the time I left, I was solidly in the “health at any size” camp. I was convinced I could be indestructible at any weight, as long as I exercised. My foot problems directly contradicted that, and I knew something had to change.

By gaining that confidence in Egypt, I felt I had finally overcome the years of abuse inflicted by my grandmother, the taunting by my classmates, and the constant obsessing with the numbers as I stepped on and off the scale each day. If I started dieting again, in my mind, the confidence and my belief system would be diminished. I would be a hypocrite. Grandmother would win. Other big girls would feel I betrayed them. I would be betraying myself.

I continued my research over the summer, consulting my mom, the Internet, my podiatrist, and my doctor. I researched my family history and followed it with genetic research. I looked into different types of food to try to figure out what could be helping or hurting the pain in my feet. I discovered that my sensitive skin, which is prone to rashes, my daily upset stomach and dependency on Tums, and my recent foot problems were likely linked. I knew that given my family history, diabetes, dementia and severe obesity were practically imminent.

So, I decided to make a permanent change. It started as an experiment, which I guess one could call a diet. It turned into a lifestyle choice. I realized that though I still believe in “health at any size”, I also believe that I have to find the right size to be healthy. Scientifically, my feet cannot withstand my weight. Someone else’s feet can. For me, inflammatory foods live up to that distinction, but for others, they may not have that effect. By cutting out processed foods (specifically gluten, dairy, sugar, and alcohol), my body responded positively. That may not be the same for everyone.

I wish I knew my magic number—the weight that is right for me and my body. But part of me wishes I could forget all the numbers. Why do I remember my weight at all of those times in my life? Why do I still feel most successful when the numbers go down?  I cannot remember that head cheerleader’s name in high school, the one who called me brave, but I can remember my weight at the time.

While my physical journey is in process, so is my emotional journey. I’m still exploring all the reasons and feelings behind why this adventure feels so good sometimes and so crappy at other times. I’m still trying to get to a point when my body is more than a number. Thank you for sticking with me through this process.

Me at age 12 or 13.