[Image description: The photograph shows the author, a biracial woman with curly black hair and black-rimmed glasses. She is wearing a pendant and a black shirt. She is smiling and looking into the camera.]
I am having trouble finding my beautiful.
For more than 30 years, I have taken out my emotions on food. Being unemployed for much of last year caused depression and an increase in the many calories I already consumed. Long before a spring visit to my doctor and her infernal scale, I knew I had gotten bigger. I felt the difference in the way I walked and how comfortably I could sit in the car. Additionally, a chair that didn’t used to cut into me began to leave the sides of my legs marked in angry red lines.
Sigh. Not again.
I started putting on weight in elementary school. I was teased for being fat when I outweighed by classmates by what I would guess was 50 pounds. That number grew steadily higher throughout junior high and into high school, where I seemed to gain weight exponentially with each passing year. All told, I gained more than 100 pounds before I graduated. I couldn’t have told you then and really can’t explain now why I was eating so much; it’s just something I’ve always done. Doomsayers dictate that something terrible must have happened to me as a child, something dark and sticky that I can’t remember. Perhaps it did. Perhaps the “it” that has caused me to pack away food so desperately is simply the memory of being teased, of seeing boys avert their gaze, of being told time and again by the fashion industry, media, and society as a whole that being fat makes me worthless and unlovable. But not if I’m on a diet!
Hoo boy – the diets? I’ve tried ‘em. Nutrisystem. Jenny Craig. Deal-A-Meal. Weight Watchers. I’ve kept the food diaries, seen the nutritionists, and talked to the shrinks. I’ve fought and cried with my parents who have done everything from threaten to put locks on the cupboards to sit next to me in an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. It’s hard to find beauty, recognize beauty, and feel beauty when you spend all your time tugging your shirt down over your ever-expanding belly, terrified someone might actually see a part of your body that you both hate and will die to protect from scrutiny.
I spent years thinking I was camouflaging my size in oversized shirts and baggy jeans. I can tell you now that it didn’t work. In fact, I made myself look bigger. It took a friend’s suggestion and a lot of courage to leave behind a wardrobe of navy blue and black and begin to wear jewel tones and clothes that better conformed to my figure. Even though I still have moments where I think a purple shirt only makes me look like a grape and orange screams “pumpkin,” I have gotten a lot better about being kind to myself, holding my head up, and being proud of who I am.
The remaining problem, then, is sticking to my guns as a confident fat girl. It’s hard to do. Every day, the reminders: sidebar ads on Facebook advertising diets, skinny jeans, gastric bypass surgery. At my last job, I was surrounded by women who shrank in fear from company lunches and desserts that others would bring in to share. They would stand around a table cutting bites from one slice of cake, vehemently insisting they could not – COULD NOT – take more. Sometimes I would be nearby, suddenly self-conscious that I dared to enjoy an entire slice of cake by myself, wondering how much different my life would be if I existed at the other end of the food and weight spectrum. What must it be like to maintain thinness? To live in such fear of calories and weight gain that the stress would render a person snappish and mean? A thin coworker who worked out at least twice a day would tweet about being hungry at night, lamenting that eating would only lead to a “food baby” in the morning. Another work friend would bemoan the hundreds of calories – generally in the low 300s – she was consuming by eating a Lean Cuisine frozen meal for lunch. Her tone implied that she was at fault for being hungry, that she was giving in only because she had to. During a holiday lunch, she adorned her plate in what amounted to garnish and said she had to maintain her figure because she wasn’t married yet.
As you would likely guess, these same women bore flat stomachs and showed off visible hipbones in bikini pictures. Society revered them as whole and perfect in their skintight leggings, Victoria’s Secret bras, and celebrated the light that shone between thighs that didn’t touch. What of it was real, though? Was it possible to live life to the fullest if every second of every day was spent obsessing?
For me, the answer to the above was no. At the beginning of 2013, I became much more mindful of calories, finally accepting that unhappiness had sent me spiraling to new and dangerous levels of overeating. I was spending large amounts of money on takeout, the phrase “I’d like to place an order for delivery” all too familiar on my lips. I kept a food diary and counted calories for about two weeks before the stress of my new language – what I could and could not consume – got to me and I had to stop. The good thing about being mindful was that I realized how easy it was to surpass the 2,000-calorie daily limit referenced when looking at a food item’s nutrition information. I treated bread like an enemy, avoided diet soda, upped my water intake, and ate chocolate by the serving size rather than the handful.
Eating according to caloric guidelines and serving sizes wasn’t the problem. My new attitude and guilt were. I found myself scared to eat and angry when confronted with a new wave of shame about my body. I didn’t want to turn into my coworkers who shrank away from homemade cookies as though they contained poison. In any case, I had far more than a tricky five pounds to lose before I could stop wearing my “fat pants.”
Overall, my strict efforts to get my eating under control ended because I refused to believe that the only way I’m going to be seen as valuable is when I lose weight. That does not mean I am averse to eating healthier or exercising; I am quite the fan of all sorts of vegetables and grains. I have even been learning more about cooking in recent years and gathering recipes for a “someday” moment when I treat my kitchen as more than a spare room tacked on the end of my apartment. I simply know that dieting isn’t going to help me heal from years of taunts, of treating myself poorly, of choosing fast food over patience and health. Finding my way back to beautiful will happen as I continue to learn about foods that will enrich my every cell and move with greater frequency the luscious body I call home.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a black woman with shoulder-length black hair and dark eyes holding a sandwich in her left hand. She is wearing a light blue long-sleeved shirt, and she is looking to her left with her lips turned down. Behind her, white kitchen cabinets, a beige counter, and various containers are visible.]
Chi Sherman enjoys writing essays and poetry, being a documentary nerd, and hanging out with her family and friends. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post and on her blog at http://www.chirising.blogspot.com.