I was at the gym recently doing my best to keep up with the other ladies in my Zumba class when something caught my eye. I turned and saw a trainer kneeling down next to a woman, quietly speaking words of encouragement. The client was overweight and struggling through a set of push-ups. I was riveted by what I saw in the woman’s eyes—determination and hope. My own eyes clouded with tears; her struggles mirrored so many of my own.
My childhood was a mixed bag of insecurities. I ran home from school often, cutting through neighborhood yards to escape the children who taunted me. I was a shy, pudgy little girl who struggled in school and dealt with an eye condition known as “mixed dominance,” which required me to wear a patch over one eye. This made me an easy target for the bullies who thrived on breaking me down in order to build themselves up. The insecurities created from this situation festered deep inside me, causing years of fear and shame. Little did I know how damaging it would be to the quality of my life in the future.
The lack of confidence in my physical appearance prevented me from doing many of the normal things girls my age were doing—attending swim parties or clothes shopping at the local mall. I was incapable of confronting the body issues that plagued me—I had been cursed with a large frame and a chubby stomach that I despised and hid behind blousy clothing. I was also taller than all the girls at my school and yearned to be petite like them. My reflection in the mirror was a constant reminder of my shortcomings, and some days I couldn’t bear to look at myself because I knew how bitter the self-recrimination would be.
Outward appearances were important in the prominent family I grew up in. My father’s convoluted view on weight loss in correlation to beauty was damaging not only to me but to my two older sisters, who also endured his sharp criticism. Rather than growing up with a healthy attitude toward food, we grew up fearing what it would do to our waistlines. Ironically, my mother was a stellar cook, but food was the enemy that led to diet failure, and both my sisters and I feared we could never measure up to our father’s expectations.
The message in our house was clear: The inability to lose weight signified a lack of self-control. If we were unable to control our bodies, we were weak. As a result, I spent my youth yo-yo dieting and binge eating, but was never able to escape my addiction to fattening foods. I obsessed about every calorie I put into my mouth. It was a vicious, destructive cycle that involved starving, binging and purging, and it would form the basis of a pattern throughout my adult life. Despite my husband’s best efforts to compliment me and assure me that he found me to be beautiful inside and out, it wasn’t enough. I didn’t believe him because I didn’t believe in myself. I was suffering not only from a binge-eating disorder but also from body dysmorphic disorder and was ill-equipped to deal with either one of them.
My life was dictated by the numbers on the scale, which left me with a closet full of clothes ranging from the smallest to the largest sizes—a testament of all the years I’d spent dieting and failing. I tried every fad, gimmick and diet pill out there to lose weight and warily ignored researchers’ claims that overeating is caused by a need to fill an emotional hole.
There were times when my weight spiraled out of control, impacting my social life by causing me to isolate myself from people. I was playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette by engaging in episodes of mindless binge eating. For a brief period, I thought I had found my salvation in the form of a little miracle drug known as fen-phen. I jumped on the diet pill bandwagon and dropped weight effortlessly, which fed into my obsession to be thin. People told me to stop losing weight—I was getting too thin—but their words only fueled my desire to keep losing. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of power over my body and freedom from my food obsession. But as is true with any diet, I set myself up for failure, looking for a quick fix rather than doing all of the hard work on the inside first. In a few years, I gained back all of the weight and more, further engulfing myself in feelings of self-loathing and disgust.
My biggest mistake was allowing my children to see that darker side of my psyche. While I was focused on building up their confidence and self-esteem, I was busy tearing down my own. I failed to see how my depression and self-recrimination were affecting them—especially my daughters. They grew up with a compulsive mother who calculated calories, categorized food as “good” or bad” and berated her own physical appearance daily.
Whenever my children slipped into bathing suits for a swim at my parents’ house, I insisted they wear T-shirts over their suits because I wanted to protect them from my father’s critical comments. In reality, I was passing down the same lessons that I had grown up with—shame and fear of how others perceived them. My older sister died from the devastating effects of her eating disorder. She literally ate her way into an early grave. My sister had a binge-eating disorder, which researchers have now found is closely linked to anxiety and depression. The disease damaged her heart and gastrointestinal system when she became morbidly obese. I was helpless to stop the self-destructive path she was on because I was busy fighting my own eating disorder demons.
I handled her death the only way I knew how—I ate through the guilt and grief to punish myself. Stuffing down my emotions with food was an easy solution to filling the void that was left in my heart after she died. It numbed me, allowing me to ignore the pain. One day my husband handed me a picture he had taken without my knowledge and said, “You look so pretty in this blue dress.” My eyes blurred as I stared at the overweight, middle-aged woman in the photograph—a woman I no longer recognized, but one my husband still saw as beautiful.
How could I have done this to myself?
How could I have allowed my unhealthy attitude toward food and body image infect the lives of my children?
They are beautiful adults now but are haunted by low self-esteem issues and are self conscious about their appearance. I am responsible for their attitude because I didn’t set the right example when they were young. They learned incorrectly from me that thinness equated beauty. Since the day I saw that unrecognizable woman in the photograph, I joined a gym and am learning to eat healthier. I no longer punish myself with grueling diets or berate myself every time I look in the mirror. Instead, I focus on my positive attributes and take pride in my workouts at the gym.
Once I stopped counting calories and obsessing about the numbers on the scale, the weight started falling off. I have tuned into what my body has been trying to tell me all along: Life is a gift, and every human being is a work of art regardless of size, shape or color. The path to confidence and self-respect will not be an easy one for me, but this is a start.
I am determined to be the person I know I can be—for my sister, who gave up too soon, for my children, who need to discover their own inner beauty…but mostly I am doing this for me. Life is meant to be lived; it’s time I start enjoying the ride.