February 16, 2006
Scales of Injustice
I was 10 the first time I stepped on a scale. It was the summer of 1978, and I was visiting my grandmother in Florida.
Every day, grandma and I went for our daily two-mile walk, past the golf course, past Publix, the supermarket where the old people bought prune juice and cod liver oil. On the way home we'd stop there to weigh ourselves on the giant outdoor scale.
"Girls have to be thin and beautiful," grandma would say. "The world judges on first appearances."
My grandmother didn't look like you'd expect a grandmother to look -- soft and round and smelling of gingerbread. No, this grandma was all sharp angles and points -- her make-up and hair carefully arranged, her clothes stylish and neatly pressed. She was skinny, and the needle hovered around 120.
Then it was my turn. My grandmother would peer over my shoulder. "Same as yesterday." Or: "You've lost a pound. Aren't you happy?"
And I was.
Was I ever really "fat?" Well, no, I suppose not technically. As a child I was a gymnast, muscular, firm; my greatest pleasure was going to gymnastics and coming home to a large cheese pizza, the oil dripping on my leotard and tights. I loved food, loved everything connected with it: cooking it, reading about it, consuming it. I could (and still can) match my father Whopper for Whopper; at the dinner table my mother would shoot me dirty looks when I reached for a second helping. But this food-love was never a problem; as a child I ate pleasurably, without guilt. Occasionally, I'd weigh myself on my mother's little green scale, wearing layers of clothes, a pair of hiking boots. The numbers meant nothing to me.
They did to my mother. She always warned that if I wasn't careful I'd "blow up like an elephant." This had always been impressed upon me; I can't recall a time when I wasn't conscious that fat was something "bad." I remember calling home from a neighbor's house -- I must have been about 7 -- for permission to sprinkle "real" sugar into a cup of tea; I was constantly warned by my mother and grandmother never to gain weight. Fat was ugly, undignified, a sign of weakness and failure. But though I was aware of this, I never really worried about it. Fat, like fatal car crashes or terminal illnesses, was something that happened to other people.
And then adolescence hit, and I quit gymnastics. My muscles wilted. My waist cried for looser belts. My breasts grew faster than I could say "D cup."
Not surprisingly, food stopped being a source of pleasure and became, instead, the enemy. My grandmother refused to let me come to Florida unless I lost 10 pounds. The kids at school came up with all sort of creative nicknames for me ("Flabby Abby!").
My mother insisted I "get hold" of myself and lose weight. So I joined Weight Watchers, NutriSystem, Diet Workshop. I devoured books on the Atkins Diet, the Scarsdale Diet, the Pritikin Weight Loss Program. I'd be "good" for a day or so, but then I'd binge on cookies, cakes, ice cream.
This Yo-Yo cycle went on for three years, until my grandfather died, left me a few bucks and I had enough money to send myself to a weight-loss camp, or food rehab, as I liked to think of it. Sure, it was expensive -- about $3,500 for nine weeks, money I could easily have put toward college -- but I thought it was worth it, and I happily forked over the cash. Losing weight seemed something I had to devote all my energies to, a full-time job, and at home there were too many distractions. I couldn't wait to go to camp, couldn't wait to return home and lead a different (read: happier, better, party- and boy-filled) life. How would it not be? I'd be thin.
I lost 15 pounds that summer, which I kept off for a little over a year. And then it crept back on (plus 10) and I returned to camp. This went on for six years: thin, fat, camp, thin, fat camp. In the end, none of it really mattered. Sure, I was happier when I fit into a pair of Size 6 jeans, but I was beholden to the numbers on the scale, beholden to a cycle of eating that affected everything I did.
I'd like to say that epiphany struck me over the head and one day, in a flash of clarity, I discovered that who you are on the inside matters more than externals. But the truth is much less exciting. Over time I simply got fed up -- pun intended -- of dedicating my energy to calories. After devoting six summers and 25 years to my size, I got bored of focusing so much thought on my body and ignoring what was going on in my head; of putting myself in an environment where I could feel superior instead of learning to feel that way in the real world; of being convinced that my life would be better once I knocked off 10 pounds, only to discover that it wasn't.
Of course, this doesn't mean that I've overcome my obsession with achieving a certain body type (I'd do anything, for example, to be 5-foot-8. Even 5-foot-6 would be fine). Our appearance is endlessly appraised; we live in a culture that values Cameron Diaz over Kirstie Alley, and it's hard not to fall victim to that. My heart breaks when I see an overweight kid; nothing's worse than being a fat child.
And food certainly still ranks high in my personal pantheon. By no means am I ready to throw in the kitchen towel and accept fat defeat. I order low-calorie or low-fat meals on airplanes, and have been known to hand the contents of the hotel minibar to the front desk. Still, you can be conscientious without being crazy. You can be a little zaftig and still attractive; some of the sexiest women I know -- most of them, actually -- have extra meat on their bones. And you can be fit no matter what you weigh.
But I never step on the scale, I don't deprive myself, and I don't eat like a refugee who might never see food again. I work out, but not maniacally. If I feel heavy, I eat less. Mainly, I try to remember that there is a wealth of things to worry about other than the size of my thighs (which are really not huge). There's no reason to miss a social gathering because I'm too fat. There's no reason so stay home because I'm too big.
After 25 years of dieting, this is what I know: There's more to me than the sum of my parts, no matter how much they weigh.
Abby Ellin is the author of "Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs In on Living Large, Losing Weight and How Parents Can (and Can't) Help" (PublicAffairs, June 2005).