I was seven or eight years old when it first came to my attention that I was chubby. In the classic manner of certain elderly folks who decide that they’ve lived too long to bother with politeness any more, my grandmother looked me up and down, pursed her lips, and said, “Oh, dear. You’ve put on some weight, haven’t you?” Thus began fifteen years and counting of insecurity over my body image.
Long before I ever worked up the nerve to ask my mother to buy us a scale, I started standing sideways in front of a mirror every morning, resting my hand on my stomach then sucking it in to assess the degree of my chubbiness by the resulting gap. My first diet involved simple calorie counting, which was a far bigger deal before we all carried around smartphones in our pockets. Half a cup of raisin bran with skim milk for breakfast, half a lean turkey sandwich with romaine for lunch... these didn’t do it for me, hunger-wise, and the diet died before it ever found momentum. By the time I hit puberty, I still had twenty or so pounds I didn’t need.
At the age of twelve or thirteen, two diametrically opposite diets entered my awareness. My mother decided to try Atkins, so, naturally, my step-sister went vegan. My overwhelming impression of veganism was that,while my step-sister was undeniably thin, she couldn’t eat anything. Atkins, though... could you really get thin by scarfing bacon and cheese?
My mother could. I could, too, it turned out, but after a week of constant nausea, I decided that no bikini body was worth the torment of what had sounded like the perfect diet. My return to “normal” eating involved at least twice as many carbs as it had prior to my attempts to eliminate them altogether.
Before I knew it, my freshman year of high school rolled around, and I signed up for two hours of dance classes a day in an attempt to get in shape. I felt great, and I suppose I looked alright. By the time we were fitted for our June recital costumes, though, I was still one of the only girls in class who had to order a “large.”
It was time to give veganism a shot, but there were several flaws with that plan. I didn’t have the patience to cook every day, and by then my step-sister had left for college. Also, we were moving across the country midway through the summer, which involved a five-day road trip full of rest-stop food.
The Internet has told me since that McDonalds fries are not actually vegan (or even vegetarian, for that matter), but at the time it didn’t occur to me that they would consist of anything other than potatoes cooked in vegetable oil, whereas even fast-food salads all had bacon bits on them. Five days, three meals a day… you get the idea. Shockingly, I did not lose weight, nor did I feel any less nauseous than I had on Atkins. When we rolled up to our new house and my step-dad offered to make a Subway run, I flipped my “diet” the mental bird and asked for a good old-fashioned ham and cheese sandwich.
Years passed, and my weight stayed more or less where it was. At one point, I cut pictures of models in bikinis out of CosmoGirl and taped them to the fridge to remind myself of what was at stake any time I wanted to eat. Another time, I took a thoroughly disheartening photo of myself in a bikini and did the same thing. Several gym memberships were purchased, used for a week, and forgotten about. I enjoy activities like dance, karate, or a pickup game of frisbee, but I’ve always found walking on a treadmill or lifting weights to be intolerable chores, and I never made the cut when trying out for sports teams.
For a while, I simply made peace with my weight. I was a steady size twelve, and while I still didn’t relish bathing suit season, it wasn’t as though the ground shook when I walked. Now and then I actually tried to convince myself that it was a good thing that I wasn’t rail thin, because it filtered out the shallow heartbreakers who chased after some of my friends for no reason other than their perfect bodies. Sure, it was depressing to date guys who were a foot taller than me and weighed the same as I did, but the ones worth bothering with all told me I was beautiful regardless.
I graduated college approximately the same size I’d been at age fifteen - not as thin as I wanted, but not gargantuan either. My first job after graduation, though, turned out to be a disaster. Lunchtime and trips to the vending machine became crucial breaks for my sanity, and the spiffy professional wardrobe that I had purchased mere weeks earlier began to feel snugger and snugger.
The job with which I replaced it was even more stressful. Most of the other women responded by forgetting to eat, but once again, I found snacks to be the perfect excuse for a quick break. To make matters worse, the cafeteria replaced their Starbucks coffee with sludge from Dunkin’ Donuts not long after I started, prompting me to fuel my caffeine habit with soda instead (our boss objected to strong smells, and wouldn’t let us keep a coffee maker in our area). After a few months there, I no longer fit into my size twelves at all.
My coworkers tutted, eyeing my Mountain Dew and telling me that I really ought to try a juice cleanse, where one consumes nothing but freshly squeezed produce for a month straight. When I refused such an extreme notion, they insisted that I would find kale chips and wheatgrass shots delightful. I didn’t. At one point, we all went shopping after work in an effort to relax and bond, and even after I told them that I wore a size fourteen, they kept handing me outfits in sixteen and eighteen.
I now work in an office of primarily men.
The few women at my current job do talk about diets, but in a supportive way, and I lost ten pounds almost immediately after starting just by switching back to coffee. Not needing an excuse to flee my desk every hour or two helps too. In a twist of fate, I’m once again surrounded by several vegans and a few women on Atkins, but I’ve decided that extremes are not for me when it comes to dieting. I like what Michael Pollan says in his book Food Rules: Don’t eat too much. If you can’t pronounce all of its ingredients, don’t eat it. If your grandmother wouldn’t recognize it, it isn’t really food.
Well,my grandmother may know a fat seven-year-old when she sees one, but I doubt that she could correctly identify a Double Down or a kale chip. So there.