Lately, the topic of "what's your weight story?" has come up in conversation. (In other words, "yeah, so, how'd YOU get fat?"). For a lot of people, it's something that caught up with them later in life. They were either really active in their youth or had super fast metabolisms, and could eat what they wanted and didn't have to think too hard about health or fitness. It was when they stopped playing a sport, or after they had kids, or when circumstances changed which led to eating habits changing, and the pounds slowly went on until one day they didn't like how they felt. That's not my story. While I don't find it helpful to dwell in the past - it only leads to holding on to resentments and looking for blame - it does help to look backwards every now and again to remind yourself (and myself) of the big picture. How'd I get here?
I’ve pretty much always been fat. Somewhere between third and fourth grade, around the time that puberty hit (hello, hormones!), I went from being a scrawny stringbean to “the fat kid” in school. Looking back at photos, I can see that there was hardly much difference between me and my thinner peers. I was not a poster child for the “childhood obesity epidemic.” I was just … fat. I hadn’t changed my eating (yet) or my activity level, but my body changed. I definitely felt fat, by then, though I don’t think I knew what that meant or the life-long ramifications. Actually, I think I felt ugly before I felt fat, and it all went together. I was still pretty confident. Adults would have said I was cocky. Independent. Self-assured. Social. Most of all, I was stubborn. I emphatically did not like anyone telling me what to do. I sucked my thumb into grade school, and fought all the attempts to force me to stop, mostly on principle. The harder people pushed, the more I dug in my heels that I would not give it up. Once *I* decided I was ready to stop, I replaced it with biting my nails. They were self-soothing actions that I didn’t grow out of until they became socially unacceptable, and then I replaced the hand-to-mouth self-soothing with food.
Food in our house was pretty healthy. Even when my mom cooked hearty meals, they were always from scratch. We never had processed foods. But she was a dieter of the 80’s so fat was the enemy, and what we know now is that it’s much more complex than that. She baked the way my grandmother did, with lots of sugar and butter. We were a meat-and-potatoes family. I was a picky eater, but my dad’s philosophy was that you didn’t leave the table until you finished your plate. Learning to listen to your body and know when you’re full is hard to do when what you put in your mouth makes you gag, and when you have to finish what was doled out (even if you’re full), or get shamed for asking for more (when you are still hungry). When I would have more food than my father deemed appropriate, I’d get called “Miss Piggy.” There was a lot of shame around bodies and eating, in my house, coming from both parents albeit in different ways. My mother defined herself by her cooking, and to this day she takes it as a personal insult if you don’t have what she’s made, and if you don't enjoy it. It's not surprising that, between my sister and I, one of us ended up with such a disordered relationship with food. Given all of the emotional significance attached to it in our family, and the conflicting battles for control, it seems inevitable, in retrospect.
As I got a bit older, I learned how to hide my eating. I had stashes of candy hidden around my room. I would eat at friends’ houses. I would eat after school on my way home, spending my meager allowance at the corner store. First it was bags of penny candy, eventually it was entire bags of chips. By the time I was in high school, I would ditch the lunch my mother sent me with and buy my lunch “in the caf” with my friends. And because I was doing it to fit in, I bought what they all bought: fries with gravy and a big cookie. That was the norm. For teens in high school, fitting in meant everything. It didn't hurt that there was an element of rebellion, the "piss off" to the world trying to tell me what and who to be. It just backfired on me, because I didn't hurt them, I hurt myself.
But, as I grew, so did my sense of shame and self-loathing. Every so often I'd decide to do something about it. I would diet. I would restrict. I'd keep it up for a few weeks, until I lost the willpower and "fell off the wagon" or "caved in" or "was bad." The problem with a diet is that when you stumble and fall, you fail. Rather than getting back up, I'd give up. And then the weight would go back on, more than before, and the cycle would begin again.
And for too many years, that's just how it was. Try half-heartedly to lose weight, fail (most often with an epic binge), blame myself, decide it was either impossible or not worth the effort, and fall back into old comfortable habits.
I know my story. Its roots run deep. But, for me, understanding how I got the size I did, why I stayed there for so long, even understanding some of the biology behind it - it's all important information in making changes NOW. Awareness is key. In particular, I see many of my friends struggling with these kinds of questions with their own children. Do pacifiers used for babies lead to the thumb-sucking, hand-to-mouth self-soothing eating issues that some say they do? How do you handle a picky eater? What do you say about yourself in front of your daughter so that she doesn't pick up her mother's body issues? Which parenting method is better or worse, which one "caused" my eating disorder: the clean-your-plate method, or the catering-to-your-wants method? My parents still argue over whose fault it was that I turned out the way I did. I am beginning to understand just how complex the task is, for parents. Body image and relationships with food start so young, and influences are passed along whether you're trying to or not.
So. That's MY weight story. There are a lot of pieces to that puzzle, and some are probably still missing. But, I have a clear enough picture to be able to address and undo a lot of the things that got me here.
Sometimes, in order to move forward, you do need to look back at where you came from.