On being fat: the early years (part 1)

I swore I wouldn’t make this blog about being fat and endless diets, but here I am with it. 

I feel like I need to write this series to provide context — where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and the serious, potentially health-robbing mistakes that I’ve made. Feeling heavy or being abnormally fat has been a part of my existence forever and, therefore, impossible for me to ignore. My adult weight has ranged from 150 to an estimated nearly 300 lbs. A huge range, I know. I lived it.

One thing I’ve learned is that my weight is directly linked to what is going on in my life at a given point in time. More stress equals more pounds. And while my weight gains were often due to stress eating, I know that this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, my body just hung onto fat, no matter what I did. I suspect that this may be the case for others, as well.  

I can’t write about my current outlook towards my pending retirement and future athletic pursuits without acknowledging this background. While it was the cause of much pain, fat also protected me. I’m still working through the emotional aspects of my diet and weight history, particularly as it relates to my career in an esoteric field that perhaps wasn’t the ideal one for me. 

This series of posts was challenging to write, and I’ve reconsidered posting them several times. But all signs point to the necessity of going through this history if only to point a way forward. 

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The harsh beginning: I’m the youngest of 3, with 2 much older brothers who were 10 and 17 when I was born. I was definitely not planned, arriving a decade after my parents decided to stop having more kids. I came along at a less than ideal time — strained health, financial distress, caretaking of grandparents, one son out of control, and (later) death of that son by a drunk driver. It was an anxious environment to grow up under, as my parents were pre-occupied with just surviving. There was much tension whenever they were together, manifested as either yelling or silence. I learned that my role was to stay out of the way and not make trouble. I spent a lot of time alone while growing up, often away from the house. I’m pretty certain that I sought solace in food through all of that. This led to weight gain, enough to be ridiculed by other kids for being too fat. Yah, I was the fat kid that everyone made fun of. Which led to more solace in food. A bitter cycle.

My family did try, really. They were doing the best that they could under some stressful circumstances. I think that we all were dealing with some trauma in that household, although from different sources. I wasn’t neglected, but I felt like I was an afterthought much of the time. But my primary torment came from bullies at school. My fat body made me an easy target, and I couldn’t walk down the hall without some dimwit pointing out my round belly or thick thighs. Facing that every day was unrelenting and harsh.

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My first weight loss and athletic goals: I lost weight when I left high school and got away from my bullies. I went on my first “diet” the summer before my freshman year in college. I cut back on food, swam, and walked daily. The results were pretty dramatic. I lost 60 pounds and started college looking much different than my senior high school picture. The difference in how people treated me was startling. Unfortunately, I also attracted attention that I simply did not know how to handle, after years of being ignored or targeted.

I had been a casual swimmer in high school, even swimming on a junior “training team” at a local swim club. I also worked at a sports facility as a swim instructor and lifeguard. Yes, I did that even while fat. Now, newly “thin” and starting my freshman year, I decided to try out for the collegiate swim team – a huge leap. While I wanted to do a sport, I also saw this as a way to burn enough calories to stay thin. But, I knew very little about sports nutrition and the need to adequately fuel for strenuous workouts. I kept austere eating habits while trying to swim 1 to 2 practices a day. I was an okay swimmer, but certainly not exceptional. I wonder how I would have done if I had simply eaten enough food.

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The ED period: I tried to eat as little food as possible to stay thin during my early college years. That approach soon turned into a raging eating disorder — fast-binge-purge. The thing about bingeing and purging is that while it’s brutal, you generally keep enough food to maintain yourself. Most purgers don’t obtain super-thin levels — much to the disappointment of many purgers.

Ironically, nearly all my friends (collegiate athletes in swimming, soccer, and cross-country) had eating disorders too. One roommate would fast all day, run a cross-country practice, and then hit up an ice cream shop for their largest serving (topped by cookies) after her daily workout. A fellow swimmer was bulimic and forced herself to puke nightly. Still, another swimmer practiced severe eating restrictions, such as having only a bran muffin in the morning and only a big bowl of air-popped popcorn at night. In a way, we sought each other out to justify our behaviors — and maybe feel normal in the process. We were all crazy around food but were surviving, so it must have been okay. Or so we thought.

I eventually sought help from a psychologist for my eating disorder. My shrink suggested that I use purging as a tool for those occasional times that I might overeat. He didn’t get that I was doing this multiple times a week. I’m not sure if he was clueless or that eating disorders were a relatively new thing that he was seeing in his practice. This was in the ’80s, and there was less understanding of these behaviors and the accompanying impacts. Instead, he seemed more interested in discussing my relationship with my boyfriend at the time. I ended up leaving my shrink after he started hitting on me.

Later, I was part of a newly formed eating disorder group organized by our student health clinic. There were 8-10 of us in that group, with a range of disorders. We talked, but there wasn’t much trust or support amongst us. Instead, it became a competition to see who was most disordered. I found that I wasn’t even good at disordered eating because I wasn’t super thin like some of the others in the group. I recall one girl pointing this out, saying that she was surprised that I purged because I was so large (!). I wasn’t fucking large. The group was disbanded after a few months because everyone’s behavior was getting worse.

It quickly became evident that I was on my own with this.

To be continued….

Photo from author

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