Monday, April 25, 2005

Big Fat

"Girl, you're just like me. God gave you the gifts, and Lord, was He generous!" -- Big fat fitting-room woman as she patted my butt and broke into raucous laughter. I was fourteen, and I wanted to sink into the floor of the school-uniform fitting room that afternoon.

"Waterfall has horse-thighs." -- Dumb boy on the school bus when I was in high school.

"Hey you. Go on a diet." -- Some dumb boy at the beach, 1986.

"You're fat, but at least you have a good personality and a pretty face." -- Dumb boy at summer camp

"You girls are SO FAT. It's disgusting!" -- Volleyball coach, 10th grade or so

"I hate myself I hate myself I hate myself I hate my big fat self ..." -- Typical journal entry from when I was a teenager.



"It's OK, Waterfall." My mom stood in the parking lot of Goudeau's Health Club in Baton Rouge. I sat in the passenger's seat, crying. "Don't be so self-conscious. No one's going to laugh at you. No one's even going to notice you."

I looked up at my mom. She wore short spandex leggings and gym shorts with a t-shirt. Had she no shame? I wouldn't be caught dead in short spandex leggings.

As we entered the all-women’s health club a few minutes later, I blushed violently with embarrassment. This gym was full of attractive, tan, muscular women in spandex. I was the opposite: pasty white, overweight, wearing long shorts with an oversize t-shirt and ... well, I did have a pretty face, even if I was fat (according to the dumb boy at camp). But I wasn't ready for this. My mom introduced me to her trainer (had she no shame? a trainer?!), then went to warm up on the treadmil. I hid in the locker room until she was ready to leave.

A couple of self-loathing years later, Dr. VH encouraged me to join a gym. So I swallowed my stubborn, self-conscious pride and shuffled reluctantly back into Goudeau's. I made an appointment with a trainer. I cried as I filled out my weight-loss goals on their sign-up sheet. Someone showed me how to work the treadmill.

I fought tears as I started the machine up and began walking. Was anyone noticing how jiggly my legs were? How pallid they looked, how seemingly fluorescent in the room's harsh light? I would never know. I didn't look at anyone. I simply entered my weight into the machine, covering the numbers as they appeared on the electronic display.

I walked, slowly at first. My face was purple, not with exertion, but with embarrassment. I sped up a bit. I forgot to be self-conscious as I watched the treadmill display closely. It switched from "total miles" to "calories burned" to "miles per hour" and back again. Each time "calories burned" appeared, the number had increased. Apparently, I was burning calories. Imagine that.

When I finished the half-hour, I had burned about 125 calories. I stared at the display in disbelief. One hundred and twenty-five calories! Just like that! That was at least half of breakfast, probably more. One hundred and twenty-five calories, gone! I felt more accomplished at that moment than I'd ever felt on the Weight Watchers diet, the bulimia diet, the anorexia diet, the nothing-but-bread-and-water diet, the starve-myself-and-walk-all-day diet, the grapefruit diet, or the diet-pill diet.

That first delicious taste of losing weight via exercise was all I needed. A week later, I looked into one of the health club's ubiquitous wall-length mirrors, and I didn't seem quite so disgustingly fat anymore. Amazing how our perceptions can change so quickly. A few days later (after treadmilling every day), I met with the trainer, learned to use the weight machines, and started my first-ever exercise plan. It about killed me to do five sit-ups, but it was a start. Before long, I could do more. I later discovered Stairmaster and step aerobics. Exercise became a priority. And with a new concern for my health, I started eating the way I'd learned to eat on Weight Watchers, several years before.

After a year, I'd given most of my old clothes to charity. I'd shrunk down to a size four. Really.

"I didn't realize you were so petite!" -- My dad, doing a double take when I wore a new, size-four outfit.

"Wow, and all that time, I thought you were just big boned!" -- A friend, seeing me for the first time after I'd lost weight.


Thanks to an exercise routine and decent eating habits, I've stayed at a good weight for nearly fifteen years now. Even though I've gained a few pounds since marriage in 2003, I was small enough to start with that those pounds didn't push me over the line to being "overweight." And, happily, I don't get devastated at every little bit of weight gain, the way I would have as a teenager. At the same time, I don't want to blithely "not mind" every little bit of weight gain ... only to wake up at age 40, weighing 20, 30, 40, or 50 pounds more than I do now.

When I mention that I'm "cutting back on junk food" or "trying to work out more" because I want to lose the few pounds I've gained, I get dirty, suspicious looks from women who are larger than me. "You don't need to lose weight," they say dismissively.

No, I don't need to lose weight. But I like where I am, and I don't want to go back to where I was. It still haunts me, even though low self-esteem, insecurity, and cruel adolescent peers aren't problems anymore. I still see myself as "a fat person who lost weight"--not as the trim, petite person that others see. I identify more with the overweight women who give me those dirty looks than with the slim, trim twentysomethings at the gym. I know what it's like to be stuck in a fat, out-of-shape body. I hated it, and I don't want to go back there.

So the Hubster has decided he wants to lose weight. I dragged him out of bed at 5:45 this morning, and we went to the gym. There were several men and women there, some older, some younger, who are overweight or obese. I know they're new because I haven't seen them there before. They are just starting their exercise routines, here at 6:00 a.m. on a Monday morning. They focus closely on their own workout, not looking around at anyone. Are they hoping that the rest of us aren't watching them? Are they wondering if we're laughing? Some of them aren't wondering. Some of them probably are.

For those who are wondering, I want to tell them it's okay, that half the healthy people in here used to be fat (even if that's not true). I want to tell them I know how hard it is simply to set foot in a health club the first time when you have a lot of weight to lose. I want them to be inspired by those first few calories burned, as I was in 1991. I want to watch and celebrate with them as they go through the same thrilling process of losing weight and/or firming up that I did.

So yeah, I'll guess I'll be watching them, in an off-handed sort of way. But I won't be laughing at them. Nobody will. We're all too absorbed in our own workouts. And if we do notice, we don't think, "Look at that big, fat person, all jiggly on the treadmill." We really do think, "Yay! Someone else has decided to get in shape. More power to them."

More power to you, Hubster. And to anyone else who's decided to turn over a new leaf, health-wise, this spring.

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