My cousins and I ran through the house, little legs pumping in unison. We came to a halt in the kitchen and oohed and ahhed over the birthday cake. The adults were chatting about Saints’ football and setting out even more food.
Riding on the high of making my middle school dance team, I blurt out hopefully, trying to join the grown-up conversation, “I want to dance with the Saintsations when I get older.”
“Aren’t Saint’s Cheerleaders supposed to be skinny?” My aunt’s boyfriend shot back almost immediately. Over 20 years later, I remember exactly how that made me feel…crushed.
We were at my aunt’s house for a birthday party; I was 12 and with one sentence her boyfriend was able to overwhelm my blossoming self-esteem. I wanted to hide in my cousin’s room for the rest of the day and cry. But, I could not. The last thing I wanted to do was let anyone in my family know I felt fat.
When I try to talk about my struggles with weight, I’m not really sure where to start. I’ve always thought of myself as fat, ever since I can remember.
In elementary school, I was small. Not tiny but not fat or chunky either. I don’t remember being teased much in school about being fat. My insecurities didn’t come from my peers; they came from my family. I come from a Cajun family of big women who love to cook rich, fatty foods, and my mom has yo-yo dieted all of her life. She was always trying one diet or another.
Slim Fast, Dexatrim, only veggies, only tuna, only soups…it was never-ending.
Over the years, my mom and I have discussed different dieting strategies and how we’re always struggling with our weight. But, despite my weight fluctuations over the years, I just don’t have the confidence issues she has. She got really depressed about her weight back then and still does now. She has always had little to worry about. The largest I remember her getting when I was a kid was a size 14, the national average.
I knew from an early age that I didn’t want to spend my life dieting like my mom did.
While my mom was always trying to reduce the space she took up, my nanny, on the other hand, has always been a very large woman. As a kid, I can remember being told perpetually, every time I went into the fridge that I would end up like my nanny if I ate again. I internalized this fear that my family seemed to have for me; as a result, these comments combined with my mom’s obsessive dieting taught me to hate my body, no matter how small the girl in the mirror appeared.
By fifth grade, I had developed breasts. This only added to the “Sandy’s getting fat” comments at home. My grandmother was usually the culprit. I love her so much, but she was horrible for my self-esteem. She started asking me when I was going to lose weight from a young age and while grandma scrutinized, dad always joked about me getting fat. I think, in retrospect, he thought that as long as he smiled while he said it I wouldn’t get my feelings hurt. That was not a good and effective strategy.
With an inherited self-fulfilling prophecy in my back pocket, I succumbed to the scrutiny because when someone asks almost every day when you’ll lose weight, it becomes easy to believe that maybe there is some weight to lose. Despite the comments from my grandmother and the men in my family, I don’t recall my mom ever telling me to lose weight. I suppose it’s because she understood how it felt.
Middle school was no different at home. But, things changed at school.
A B-cup and a bubble butt in 7th grade meant teasing. Boys said I stuffed my bra; girls were mean.
I brushed off the comments as jealousy.
I was still what most would call skinny and was aware of that. I was on the Golden Girls dance team in 7th grade and felt pretty good about the way I looked in my uniform. I was on the volleyball team in 8th grade, and I was active outside of school too. However, all of that activity still didn’t stop my family from calling me fat. All the damn time.
By this time, I was watching what I ate. My self-esteem having sustained quite a blow with the Saintsations comment, I still didn’t really see myself as fat, but so many people were saying that to me that I assumed they were right. I was also getting attention from boys by this time, but I secretly often wondered if they were just teasing me behind my back.
Then there was high school…
I was on the volleyball and track teams in 9th grade. I tried running but quickly realized that I was too fat to run. I tried shot-put and discus instead and while I wasn’t very good at it, I enjoyed being a part of the team. I loved volleyball but was increasingly aware of how short our uniform shorts were. I was always convinced that people were laughing at my fat legs. By 10th grade, I was back on the dance team. I was developing more each year, so by this time I was pretty busty.
Looking back at dance team photos, I had a great body. At the time, I felt huge. I hated putting on the uniforms, especially the leotards we wore for pep rallies. I was still getting bombarded with “Sandy’s fat” comments at home, and I had two younger brothers that were always teasing me. My mom did her best to show me that it was ok to gain weight, but then she’d move on to the next fad diet and so her encouragement felt like empty words uttered to placate.
I would vacillate: I’m a pretty girl with a great hourglass figure; I’m a cow. It was brutal. I tried really hard to project confidence. I wasn’t going to let anyone, especially my family, know that I felt fat.
Junior year I had my first real boyfriend. He called me his little moo among other wonderful pet names.
At this time, I was 5’2” weighed about 105 lbs. and had a 34C chest. Not exactly what one would call fat. But, he still teased me. I looked past it because I was falling in love. The teasing never stopped.
I gained 15 lbs. by the end of junior year. Still not fat, but it gave him more fuel.
Senior year was no different. I was still around 120, and I still vacillated between thinking I looked great and thinking I was too fat. This mentality continued after high school.
I married that boyfriend at 19; the teasing still didn’t stop.
His view of me a contradiction; he would tell me all of the time how beautiful I was and how great I looked. But, these compliments were always shadowed by fat jokes peppered here and there.
The contradiction was even worse when we fought. His go-to insult was that I was fat and unattractive.
But, it wasn’t just when he was angry. For example, I remember a date night where he took me to a steak restaurant. Halfway through the meal he started saying “moo” in different tones.
Only that one word. Moo…moo…moo.
After several reiterations, I asked him what he was doing. He said he thought I might understand him better if he spoke my language.It was funny; I laughed.
I never forgot that meal.
Part of me knew it was just how he joked with me and part of me was furious with him. That joking back and forth at my expense had become part of our dynamic and how we communicated with each other. Who was I to try to change the conversation we’d been having since we were 16?
Another time we were eating steak, he asked how it was being a cannibal. Slow on the uptake, I should have known right away where he was going with that. Moo…moo…
That was my marriage. No matter how great I looked, I was his little cow. And he said so constantly.
Looking back, his contradictory view of me was just weird. Friends of his would tell him how attractive I was and of course he would tell me how proud he was, like he was the reason they found me appealing. Hearing about these compliments made me feel great. I was the short, chubby chic that guys found sexy. If I lost weight, then I would just be another skinny girl. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I accepted how these men viewed me. Like my aunt’s boyfriend, my husband’s friends were defining how both he and I viewed myself. So, while at times I was the chubby chic, at other times I was not, but I was easily influenced and couldn’t see it for myself.
By my first pregnancy, I weighed about 160 lbs. Despite my fear of gaining 100 lbs. while pregnant and being fat and unattractive forever, I was excited beyond belief to finally be pregnant. It took almost nine months of trying and giving up more than once for it to finally happen.
I was going to be a mom. It was all I ever wanted out of life.
While pregnant I craved Butterfingers, frozen vanilla coffee, and Slim Jims. By the time I went into labor, I was around 180 lbs. I hadn’t gained much at all during my pregnancy. And, I didn’t lose much after my pregnancy either, but I didn’t care.
I think that’s when I decided that I loved my body, no matter the weight. I created a life and had given birth to a beautiful little boy. My husband loved me; and, while he still called me his moo, he told me often that I was beautiful and sexy.
I didn’t care if other men found me attractive; it didn’t matter anymore.
I was still around 170 lbs. or so two years later when I got pregnant with my second son. I knew I should try to lose weight before getting pregnant again, but it just wouldn’t come off, and we wanted the kids to be about two years apart.
My second pregnancy was nothing like the first. I was sick all day, every day. I couldn’t cook. Most days the smell of food would send me into the bathroom. I couldn’t keep anything down. By the time I went into labor, I weighed about 160 lbs. My doctor wasn’t happy that I had lost weight, but the baby was healthy and that’s what mattered.
My second son was born in 2003 and over the next four years I steadily put on weight. I always said that anyone could tell how happy I was by how much I weighed. I was married to my high school sweetheart, had two beautiful little boys, and was able to stay home with them instead of working.
Life was good. Until it wasn’t.
By 2007, I had reached 205 lbs. and found myself in a crumbling marriage.
By February of 2007, my husband wanted a divorce. I was devastated. I knew it was coming; we had been growing apart for years, but I still believed we’d be together forever. At 29, I found myself divorced with two small boys and no job. To say that I was depressed is putting it mildly. I cried all day, every day. I knew that it was best for us, but I was still in love with him.
We had been together for 12 years. He was all I had known.
During the months preceding our divorce and my moving out, I was called fat, unattractive, disgusting, and more, more often than I can recall. He told me he was leaving me because I was fat, and he didn’t want me anymore. That was a major blow to my self-esteem. I knew he was trying to hurt me, and that he may not mean it, but it still threatened to crush me. In April, we decided officially that it was over.
But, due to finances we still lived in the same house until June. In those two months, I lost almost 50lbs.
I couldn’t eat or sleep. I looked better than I had in years, but I couldn’t enjoy it because of the reason behind the weight loss. By July, I was over it. I started to get my confidence back, and I promised myself that I would never again allow anyone but myself to control how I felt about my body. Ultimately, as much as my ex-husband tore me down, he’s part of the reason I have self-confidence. I refused to allow him to define me.
I thought I had endured the worst part of my life until 2008. Over the course of the next eight months, I would lose three very important people in my life. My brother-in-law and one of my best friends died tragically in December that year. It was sudden and heartbreaking. In February 2009, my uncle died of cancer. I was grieving for my friend and uncle. In cosmetology school at the time, I tried to focus on school and not on all of the death around us.
But, my Grandma Red used to say that deaths came in three’s and she was right.
In July that year my dad was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer.
The doctors found a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his belly and needed to operate. Unfortunately, when they opened him up they found that the cancer had spread throughout his trunk, and there was no way to get it all out. He would need two weeks to recover from surgery before they could even begin chemo treatments. The doctors didn’t think he had that long.
When he was coming out of the anesthesia, the nurses noticed a heart palpitation. They were afraid that he would have a heart attack if he found out right away that the surgery was unsuccessful.
I had to look my daddy in the eye and lie to him. I had to tell him that they had gotten the tumor, and he would be ok. That was the most difficult thing I’ve had to do in my life. In the three weeks he was in the hospital, I lost another 20 lbs. Again, I looked better but felt worse.
My dad succumbed to cancer on August 5th, 2009. I had never experienced such grief.
I took a leave of absence from school for three months. I thought for sure that I would be the next one in the hospital. I couldn’t eat or sleep for weeks and more weight came off. By the time I went back to school, my scrubs were almost too big to cinch up anymore. Getting back to my routine of school and work and the kids helped me get through the grief, at least as much as can be expected. So, of course, I put the weight back on. By the time I graduated the next spring, I was back up around 180 lbs., and I stayed there for quite a while.
That same year, I started a new relationship with a wonderful man who has never said a negative word about my body. Naturally, I slowly gained more weight. We’ve been together four years now, and he still has never said a negative word about my body. If I say I’m feeling fat he tells me I’m crazy. If I say I want to join a gym, he says “Whatever you want to do, baby.” We’ve fought a few times over the years, but he has never called me fat, even during our worst fight. He loves me no matter my size.
At 35, I weigh 227 lbs. I have no medical excuse for being this big. It’s not bad genes or an overactive something or other. It’s because I love good food. I’m from New Orleans, where everything is deep fried and covered in a rich cream sauce. And I’m ok with that. I know I’m overweight, but I don’t feel negatively about my body. I see my doctor once a year and have blood work done. So far, all is good. As a wonderful lady I know puts it, “I’m a healthy fat.” The BMI chart says I’m still about 100lbs too heavy for my height. Ok, so I’m too short. What do they know anyway?
Dita Von Teese has said, “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.” In my childhood and young adulthood, I fell into this vicious cycle where I allowed other people to define me and how I saw myself, in part because I was a kid and in that way I was vulnerable. But, in other ways because as a young woman I knew that society had certain expectations of me and my physicality, and I was forever eager to please. But, as Von Teese says, we can’t please everyone because someone, somewhere won’t be interested. Awhile back, I was discussing weight loss with a classmate and told her how thankful I am that “No matter how much weight I gain, I still have an hourglass shape. Mine is just a little bigger.” She said, “It’s like a 2-hour glass.” I love that comment.
I know that I need to get some weight off for the sake of my bones and my joints and my heart; however, I refuse to lose for the number on the tag in my jeans. Or, for the men that don’t find me attractive. Or, for the women who call me fat behind my back. I won’t lose weight for any of those reasons. I will get healthier for me. I will get healthier, so I can keep up with my boys who are almost teenagers. I will get healthier, so I can grow old with my husband.
When I look in the mirror, I’m happy with what I see. At the end of the day, that’s what matters. I refuse to be motivated by superficial societal standards. This is one “peach” that no longer seeks validation from male appreciation and definition. I define myself.