I learned at an early age that one could never be too thin. At least, that’s what my mother seemed to think when it came to me.
As a child, she called me fat repeatedly. She had me on a subsistence diet from the time I was 8 until I was 14. When I say subsistence, I mean subsistence. My daily intake of food was this: breakfast was 1/4 cup all bran, 1/2 cup puffed rice or wheat cereal with a little bit of watered down reconstituted dry milk on the cereal, a four ounce glass of prune juice and a six ounce glass of the watered down reconstituted dry milk. Oh yeah, and a whole handful of vitamins. Lunch was a half sandwich and a small piece of fruit, usually an apple, with a pint of 2% milk at school, or a six ounce glass of that powdered milk at home. Supper was a very small portion of what every body else was having.
I was constantly hungry. I’d wake up in the morning hungry, never ever get even comfortable, and go to bed at night hungry. In order to get some of the calories that I needed and wasn’t getting in my daily diet (you know, the calories needed to grow bones and muscles and cognitive functioning), I would occasionally sneak food. I couldn’t do it too often, as that would make my weight increase, and I’d be in trouble. But occasionally, I would take a small handful of saltines (something my parents couldn’t account for every single one of) and put a ton of butter on them. Or I’d sneak a small spoon of ice cream. Or a piece of fudge Mom had in the refrigerator. Or a banana right after the adopted grandfather brought them home from the store, before Mom had a chance to count them.
To this day, ripe bananas taste nasty to me, all I can eat are the green ones.
During this whole time, besides learning disordered eating behaviors (sneaking food, having food used as rewards for good behavior, a type of binging that increased in later years when I didn’t have the parents checking every bite I put in my mouth), I was also acquiring a dysmorphic view of myself. Because I was constantly on a diet due to me being so fat, I started to see myself as fat. I have a few pictures of myself when I was a child, and I was extremely skinny. However, I would look in the mirror and hate myself and my fat body.
Because of the lack of calories, my body didn’t develop as it should have. I’m 5’2″, and haven’t grown any taller since I was 12. At age 14, I weighed 90 pounds, and would have had a BMI of 16.5 (if there had been a BMI back then). 16.6 BMI is 2 points lower than the lowest ‘normal’ indicator on the BMI scale. In running in track and field, I would have severe leg cramps daily. The PE instructor thought I was faking it because I didn’t want to exercise, and so would make me continue to run, even after I’d fall down in severe pain. At the time, I didn’t know it was lack of nutrition that was doing that to me.
When I was 14 and a half, I moved out of my Mother’s house and went to live with my Grandmother. I went from famine to feast. Grandma put no restrictions on my eating. In some ways (right at the very beginning) she even encouraged me to eat more than I had been, because I was so skinny.
Unfortunately, that stopped when I became too heavy for her aesthetics.
Once I got to 145lbs, she stopped buying me new clothes except when I absolutely needed them. I had one pair of jeans for most of the time going through high school. On laundry day, I would have to wear my one pair of nice pants or one of my skirts (of which I had two) so my jeans could be washed. I suppose I was lucky that I had two bras (one spare so I wouldn’t be ‘flopping around’ on laundry day).
What we didn’t know at that point, and didn’t find out until much, much later, was that I had Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome/Disorder. PCOS is most likely a genetic disease that affects between 5 and 10% of US women. Back in the early 80’s, there wasn’t much known about it.
During this time, because of my family, because of my body dysmorphic views, I continued in a lot of disordered eating and behaviors. I would exercise for an hour a day during PE, walk 2 miles total to school and back (and yes, we clocked how far it was on the car one day), and then come home and do two hours of “high impact” aerobics. Remember Richard Simmons first exercise tape? Or Jane Fonda’s? I did them both, every night.
I became a “vegetarian”, although I didn’t know what it meant to be a vegetarian. I coupled that with starving myself as well for a real interesting time. I would only eat one “meal”, it being a serving of frozen veggies at dinner. Grandma didn’t understand what being a vegetarian meant either. So I had no protein, and very limited nutrition. I did that for about a month until I crashed and binged. When I came off that “diet” I ate everything in sight for a while.
The sad thing is that I only lost 10 lbs that month, for all the starving I did.
The really sad thing is that I gained 20 back.
The ultimate sad thing is that I ever felt I needed to do that in the first place.
Over the years, I’ve tried everything you can think of to lose weight. I’ve exercised as much as 4 hours a day. I’ve taken laxatives (Ex-Lax TM specifically) daily. I’ve “fasted” for two weeks at a time. I’ve done liquid only diets, I’ve tried protein powders instead of eating, I’ve tried Atkins, counting calories, severe caloric restriction (at one time 500 calories a day). Nothing worked.
Oh, I might lose 10 pounds, but that was all I’d lose. And when I eventually gave up on the diet, because none of them were sustainable, I’d gain back 20 or 30 pounds.
During this whole time, I would go to doctors when I had insurance. Even though my cholesterol and blood pressure and blood sugar was all within normal parameters, every single doctor always told me that I was fat, and would die if I stayed at this weight. I was ‘risking’ heart attack, stroke, diabetes. Never mind that diabetes doesn’t run in the family (although heart attack and stroke do). At one point I was trying extremely hard to get pregnant, but my insurance wouldn’t cover fertility treatments. I was told by one doctor that the way for me to get pregnant was to lose weight. When I went back a year later for my next exam, I was told I obviously didn’t want children because I’d not lost any weight.
Yeah, nice bedside manner, that.
That was only one physician in a long line of physicians who diagnosed me “fat” whenever something was wrong with me. I’ve had exactly three doctors since I’ve been an adult who’ve not diagnosed “fat” when there was something else wrong with me. One doctor, the one who finally diagnosed me with PCOS, still told me to lose weight, and it would cure the PCOS. Ummm, okay. Since obesity is one of the symptoms of PCOS, I want to know how that works.
I finally got off the diet roller coaster 8 years ago. I finally realized that, it didn’t matter what I did, how many hours I exercised, I wasn’t going to lose weight. However, I still didn’t accept myself.
That (accepting myself) took me finally getting angry at the world in general and doctors in specific last year. See, I had this knee problem…
In 2000, I used to do a lot of mountain hiking in the North Carolina mountains. Once a week, my husband and I would go hiking the mountains, having a lot of fun. This one Tuesday we were hiking on a pretty strenuous path (a 4/5 rating, where 5 is the toughest of the hiking paths, after that you start getting into ratings for climbing). One of the challenges of the path was a huge boulder that you have to go over to continue on the path. I went over, and coming down the other side, something “popped” in my left knee. It didn’t hurt, so I shrugged and tried to continue on.
My husband wasn’t having it. He forced me off the mountain (using the only thing he knew would work on me — guilt over having people have to rescue me in the dark if something really was wrong). As we were in the parking lot, I was doing the “I told you so” bit as I was getting into the car. That’s when my kneecap decided to dislocate.
I had no insurance, and had to deal with it myself. So, I forced the kneecap back into place.
For the next two months, walking at all was a challenge. I had a rigid knee brace and cane from an operation I’d had on my other knee a year previously (I’d been doing something athletic and fell, tearing my meniscus in the process), and so I used those. Obviously, my activity levels went way down.
Over the next following seven years, I would have times of extreme pain and agony with my left knee. Most of the time when I tried to do something physical. Sometimes my knee would act up for no reason, sometimes it came with a change of weather. Sometimes, it was in the performance of my job.
In October 2007, my knee locked up. I was in excruciating pain and couldn’t move for about 20 minutes. Finally, something unlocked and I could move again. This started a chain that sent me to the doctor (finally I had insurance). I went to a minor emergency clinic with a specialty in sports medicine, and they sent me to get an MRI. When the MRI came back, we found that my knee was slagged. I had multiple bone shards, it looked like a torn or no meniscus, bone spurs on the side, a cyst forming on one of the bones. Of course, I was told to get to a specialist.
Who took one look at me, and decided that my kneeS were shot, and that I only needed to lose weight and I’d be all better. He pumped my left knee full of cortisone and sent me on my way with a referral to a Physical Therapist.
I became angry. I knew my knee problem had been caused by that untreated injury back in 2000. The doctor completely disregarded what I’d said about it. I found a different doctor, and his findings were that when I put the patella back in place, I didn’t get it in the correct place. So for 7 years the patella had been wearing a new groove in my leg bones. And oh yeah, the groove was hooking, which is why my knee locked up like it did.
One reconstructive surgery and a lot of physical therapy to recondition the leg muscles and reteach myself how to walk properly, and my knee is good as new. I’m even wearing heals (low, only 2″ maximum height)!
But it was last year that I finally said I wasn’t going to 1) punish myself or 2) let anybody else punish me for something I had no control over. And yes, that’s exactly what the first surgeon was doing — punishing me for being fat. Because when he said to just do physical therapy, I asked him about the bone shards and spurs, and was told, “Oh, surgery would be helpful for those, but we won’t be doing surgery on you.” By the time I did get the surgery (it took two more months to get it all scheduled), I was in a wheelchair, walking on my knee was so painful.
So, yeah. It took a long time. I’ll be 42 in a couple days. It took 41 years to finally stop punishing myself for being “too fat”, or “too lazy”, or “too stupid” to figure out what I was doing wrong.
This doesn’t mean that I’m completely over my body dysmorphia, or my disordered eating patterns (there are things I still have a hard time eating where people can see me do so). But I’m doing a lot better. I’ve finally figured out that it really doesn’t matter if I’m fat or not. I’m a human being, and as such, I deserve a modicum of respect. I deserve my doctors to not be lazy. I don’t deserve to be moo’d at or almost ran over on a street (when I was exercising no less).
I’ve got a long way to go yet, but I’ve come a long way as well.