My mother’s ongoing weight issues led her to go to Weight Watcher’s when I was about 12 years old. Her sister’s, also overweight, made fun of her for paying money to lose weight. It was 1964 and Weight Watchers was a new idea in a blossoming weight loss business.
My mother was determined to be thin again, lost about 35 pounds, and worked at Weight Watchers as a clerk for many years after. Not only did she keep her weight off, a mandatory requirement for employment, she became consumed with everyone else’s. “Joan should lose some weight. Did you see the way she leaned on the dining room table? She is going to break it with all that weight.” “Phyllis would be so much more attractive if she lost weight.” “Marilyn, don’t you think you should lose some weight before your wedding?”
She developed a circus-like ability to guess anyone’s weight within 5 pounds. It was a very creepy skill as there were times when her eyes were zeroed in on my biggest body parts. I didn’t have to see her looking at me, I could feel it and it was a repulsive, invasive feeling as she stared so intently. I could hear her silent criticism, comparing my butt to hers, as well as her harsh judgement. I already lived with the feeling of not being good enough — I felt stupid and burdensome. Add fat and ugly to the mix, and together, these qualities didn’t make a very pleasant childhood experience.
My father was also very critical of people who were overweight. He never had a weight problem but he would criticize others who did. “They should put people in jail for being so overweight.”
“Really?” I asked, “Don’t you think that’s a bit extreme?” I wasn’t sure if he was kidding, but even if he was, it wasn’t funny.
“It’s for their own good.” He responded. Was he talking about me? Upset and anxious, I took a handful of M&M’s and walked away.
The interesting thing about my mother was that she clearly had this weight issue and knew just how overweight everyone at the table was, visitors as well as family, yet she would still put out lots of food, candy and cake and would insist, even demand, “Have more!” She wouldn’t stop until our plates were full again, till we were all stuffed.
Needless to say, I was always a bit overweight. Coming of age in the 1970’s, a time of feminism and body acceptance, I insisted that this was me, take it or leave it. On a deeper level, I didn’t completely believe it and knew it was a defense because I would occasionally go on diets. I would try any other diet other than Weight Watcher’s, which was my way of rejecting my mother. Slim Fast was one of my favorites, I loved the name and its implication. It involved 2 drinks a day instead of meals and dinner was a moderate meal like chicken and salad. The trouble was, the drinks made me gassy. Once while on Slim Fast, I went to a Broadway play and was sitting in the middle of the row with a great view of the stage, but I was miserable because I was trying to hold in the gas, until intermission. I was in physical pain and overcome with the possibility of being embarrassed: it was the last time I ever requested center stage seats. I fasted once for about 2 weeks, just having fruit juices and water. I did lose a lot of weight, but gained it back just as quickly. I also tried just not eating breakfast or lunch but depriving myself made me feel weak, lethargic and sad.
Eventually I learned about conscious eating. I didn’t lose weight but I became more aware of my eating patterns and the emotions behind it. When I wanted something to eat I learned to think about whether or not I was actually hungry and what was I in the mood for? Did I want something crunchy or smooth? Sweet or salty? Hot or cold? If I wasn’t hungry, what was I feeling and why did that particular feeling make me want to eat?
I had an “eye-opening” experience when I was in my 20’s. On occasion I would buy brownies at a bakery— I learned delicious brownies did not need frosting — and would take my box of brownies to the movies. Once, while waiting for the movie to start, cradling my delicious box of brownies, I asked myself why I was doing this and what I was feeling. The answer came through loud and clear. “I am depressed so I want to eat brownies and I don’t want to think about anything!” I ate the brownies with less gratification than usual because now I understood, at a “gut level,” that I was hiding my feelings. The next step was to figure out what I was depressed about, but there were clearly times when I didn’t want to think or feel. I just wanted to eat. The general feeling I lived with was a constant low level sadness and dissatisfaction about every aspect my life. I needed escape from not feeling good enough.
I still like brownies but I always remember my “ah-ha” moment and when I do have an urge for a brownie, I think that sadness must be brewing somewhere under the surface, just waiting to be acknowledged.
Conscious eating helped me become aware of the difference between stopping when content rather than full. It didn’t take me long to recognize the difference but sometimes being full made me feel content. That stuffed feeling was comforting as I sat back feeling sated physically and emotionally. It was like being drugged. As I got older and my body began to change, I began to notice that being full wasn’t as comforting as it once was because I was beginning to feel nauseous instead: however it didn’t always stop me from wanting to eat more and the term, “My eyes are bigger than my stomach” rang true. By this time in my life, I knew that eating in excess was my way of hiding my feelings, and stuffing unpleasant feelings beneath the surface was a habit that was difficult to stop.
Conscious eating did help me become more accepting of my body image. I was still overweight but it was more OK than before. Food was a way of nurturing myself and I came to accept that this is me. I didn’t have a model’s figure for sure, but it was my body and I enjoyed buying clothes that were creative and complimented my full figure. Then, when I was diagnosed with angioimmunoblastic T cell lymphoma in February 2020, everything changed. Chemotherapy was harsh on my body and for the first time ever, I lost my appetite. I didn’t think about food until suddenly I realized I was famished or sometimes even nauseous. I began to lose weight and when I would weigh myself I was stunned to see pounds disappearing each week. A month after chemotherapy was completed, I had a stem cell transplant which put more of a toll on my body. I couldn’t eat and became bothered by the thought of what I could eat that wasn’t going to make me feel ill. I lost more weight. Between chemotherapy and stem cell transplant, I lost close to 60 pounds and shortly after the transplant, developed “a touch” of gastritis and colitis.
At the time of this writing, 11 months after treatment, I am thin for the first time in my life. It is easy to assume now that I am thin, my weight issues are over, however it’s the opposite because I’m used to thinking about food as a source of emotional comfort but my digestive issues create food restrictions and that makes getting comfort from food difficult. I am thrilled at being thin but worry about a fragile stomach. Because food is not doing its usual job of comforting me, there are times when I am faced with feelings I’ve been hiding for a long time — fears of inadequacy, jealousy and repressed anger are big ones and the heavy hearted sadness that has always existed inside emerges once again. Sometimes I can hide it, other times I am consumed by it. When I can’t hide it, it emerges like unwanted weeds in a garden and I am confronted with a sadness that I became accustomed to hiding with brownies and big sweaters. I am learning that losing weight is easier than gaining self esteem, and facing old demons is harder than having cancer and that now I have the task of coming face to face with my sadness.
Surviving cancer, however, has given me the ability to see the depths of my inner strength and perseverance, and I notice that all my emotions seem closer to the surface. I cry at commercials. Though I wish my sadness would just go away, I see that it is the other side of me which needs to be comforted like a crying baby instead of being ignored and shoved in the back of the closet.
When I can acknowledge the sadness, I see that it is not always as painful as I thought it would be because it doesn’t consume me which I believe was my fear. When I let the sadness out it is a relief, like I’m finally being recognized after being ignored for a long time. Feeling it and watching it pass actually makes me feel stronger. Each time I let the sadness happen I feel more complete like I just found another piece of the puzzle.
I try thinking about food simply as a source of nourishment for my body, and I try to stop eating when I am content rather than full, enabling the emotional upheaval to emerge. My favorite way of nurturing these feelings has become my walks in the salt marsh. As I enjoy the beauty of the marsh, anxiety and sadness comes out: my fear that cancer will come back, of having an attack of gastritis or colitis, and of gaining weight. I worry that I will never have the energy I once did and now my newest worry is that I won’t have enough antibodies to fight off COVID. I have, however, become better at understanding that I am not in control of very much other than to do the best I can in taking care of myself. My emotional load is lightened by the end of my walk, because I am l learning how to balance what I can control and what I can leave behind.
I’ve been buying some new clothes that fit me properly and getting rid of old clothes that are way too big. While looking through my sweaters, I was struck by the fact that all during my heavier years I was buying oversized clothes that camouflaged my body. Seeing them now makes me feel sad for all the years spent not being content with who I am and of being ashamed of my body, even though I thought I convinced myself that I was fine the way I was. I pack up my old clothes, a symbol of my past, as I take pleasure in neatly tucked in T shirts that are sized extra-small.
I am not the inadequate person I once thought I was. I haven’t accomplished all of what I wanted, but I like that I strive for truth and I believe that gives me strength. I don’t want to look at life through a lens of self doubt so when I see that old pattern I move my attention away from this harsh way of thinking and instead take comfort in knowing who I have become. There are lessons in everything and working toward a balance is necessary. Leonard Cohen’s brilliant line, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in,” helps me see how the opposing feelings I experience can work together to lead me toward growth.