Tuesday, November 22, 2005

"Are You Thin Yet?"

The refrain heard by almost every overweight kid, past, present, and future:

"Are you thin yet?"

My entire childhood revolved around "becoming" thin, a state of body reached only for short spurts, before "becoming" fat again. It seemed I was in a constant state of weight--yes, the play on words is intentional. My entire childhood was about weight and wait. Hell, most of my adulthood.

Back in August, an epiphany, perhaps a re-epiphany. Perhaps this time it will take root.

I just joined a Yahoo Health group called dietsurvivors: Non-dieting for intellectuals. Looks fantastic, and, so far, everyone has been very friendly and supportive. Link:


Linda Moran, the owner of the group, has posted "How Children Eat," an excerpt from her book How to Survive Your Diet and Conquer Your Food Issues Forever in which she discusses how normal vs. overweight children relate to food.


What an eye opener!

I was the kid who hid sunflower seeds underneath the mattress and Twin Bings and peanut butter cups in my underwear drawer, while my skinny friends and cousins ate freely and openly. I don't remember the first time food became taboo--it just always was.

One late night, in early 1991, I couldn't sleep--something was on my mind, but I didn't know what. So I dragged myself out of bed and started to write.

By dawn, the following had poured from my pen:

* * * * *

"Are you thin yet?"

Those words, arriving one day--cloaked in a birthday card and sizable check from a great aunt in California--will remain forever grooved in my mind.

So will the words that followed: "I hope so because, if not, you'll have to spend your birthday money on fat clothes, and we know how ugly they are. And you have such a pretty face."

Happy thirteenth birthday.

I'll never forget the pain from that cruel and cutting message, perceiving, somehow, that love and acceptance were doled out according to how close I could get to my ideal body weight, that fat was a sacrilege, a dirty family secret to be eradicated like a communicable disease, even if it meant sacrificing a little girl's self-esteem.

At thirteen, I was a shell-shocked veteran of the diet wars, having already embarked on reducing regimens, ranging from the downright fad diets ("eat sugar and lettuce for every meal for one week") to the downright dangerous (amphetamines prescribed by my family doctor who himself weighed in at a whopping 300 pounds).

So I was an expert in attack strategies required for tackling those extra pounds, having begun several years before the vicious cycle of food deprivation, weight loss, bingeing, weight gain, guilt, more food deprivation, more weight loss, more bingeing, more weight gain, more guilt, a cycle that has stalked me throughout my adulthood.

I started picking up unwanted pounds when I was eight. At first, my family teased me about being "pleasingly plump" and "a whole lot to love." Yet, as I look back on old pictures, I wasn't overly obese; perhaps I was simply going through a stage where my height hadn't yet caught up with my weight.

I'll never know, however, because my family would not accept me as I was, and (with the best of intentions, I'm sure) started me on my diet merry-go-round.

First they tried "scare tactics": "If you eat those potato chips, we'll need a derrick to get you to school." Then it was "let's-hide-the-food-from-the-kid-and-maybe-she-won't-notice" approach.

I noticed all right and took steps to compensate by raiding my piggy bank and sneaking down to the corner grocery store for Reese's Peanut Butter cups; I could always depend upon my good friend chocolate to fill that empty spot in my stomach. Once, when I was home alone, desperate to fill that void with something warm and soothing and yet too frightened of fire to light the pilot light on the stove, I heated Campbell's Chicken Noodle soup in the electric percolator.

So by the time I had received the fateful birthday message, I was still not thin,
even though my family and doctor had tried just about everything, including
thyroid pills, even though my thyroid was (and still is) perfectly normal.

By now, the verdict from my family, peers, and media was obvious: I was not okay. I was fat; therefore, I was stupid, oafish, somehow sub-human, unfit to play with "normal" children. And they let me know about it, too, calling me "Fatso," "Heifer," "Fatty-fatty, two-by-four, couldn't-get-through-the bathroom-door."

I hated myself, and, even though I was raised in a staunch Catholic family, I once considered selling my soul to the devil "if only I could eat all the peanut butter cups in the world and still lose weight." Instead, with my immortal soul intact and my self-esteem shot to hell, I began, in earnest, my self-imposed cycle of food deprivation, etc.

By high school, I was still not thin, but my regimen now included days of total fasting, followed by sheer bouts of gluttony. I was completely out-of-control, and, except for periods of self-imposed exile into "Dietland," remained out-of-control on into adulthood.

In 1986, I embarked on my last regimented diet, a grueling journey through the Optifast Program, certainly the hair shirt, the sack cloth and ashes of all programs, The Ultimate Food Deprivation Diet, the Just Punishment for the Fat, my last crack at formal self-flagellation: for twelve weeks I ate no solid food, limited to drinking 70 calorie milk shakes six times a day. During that three months, I became totally obsessed with food; I counted the days when I could finally put one bite of poached chicken breast into my mouth; I had sexual dreams about food, bacchanalian banquets where the line between good taste and raunchy sex blurred; my senses sharpened, my eyes grew gaunt, my temperament developed a steely edge.

So was I thin yet?

Of course not, because the minute I stuck that first bite of real food into my mouth, I was fat again, no matter what the scale told me. In a matter of weeks, I was fat again, simply reinforcing what my head had known for years.

I finally gave into my old enemy food, eating whatever I wanted, feeling guilty after every bite and every binge, hating myself more and more. I was mired in a four year feeding frenzy.

August, 1990: I found myself facing 40--and still not thin yet. For the first time in my life, I actually considered suicide; however fleeting the thought might have been, the possibility was frightening enough to send me scurrying for professional help. I know this revelation will shock my loved ones, including my husband, but I have to tell my story like it is.

Two months later, after receiving some excellent psychotherapy in conjunction with a workshop on overcoming food obsession, I'm finally coming to terms with my
love/hate relationship with food. Most importantly, I'm discovering that I need to learn how to love and accept myself--no matter what my weight is and no matter what others (including my family) think about me--unconditionally and without reservation. I'm not quite there yet, but for the first time in my life, I feel hope, real hope.

Sometime in late September--I'm not exactly sure why or how--I made a decision to toss away all the diet baggage I've been carrying around for all these years. Now I ignore all the diet gurus and their snake oil remedies and have vowed to get on with the rest of my life.

Also, I have given myself unconditional permission to enjoy the foods I love, in whatever quantities I desire, and whenever I want--guilt-free. Moreover, I have called a moratorium on foods I never really liked in the first place but felt I had to eat because they were "thin" foods for "unthin" people.

In essence, I have thrown out all the old diet rules. After all, generally speaking, people who are naturally slender and have a positive self-image don't put themselves through a lifetime of agony over food. And, now, neither will I.

Am I thin yet? No, but, hey, I'm a heck of a lot happier now than at any other point in my life. Even at slightly under 200 pounds, I am able to look at myself in the mirror and see someone I could genuinely like--even love.

Will I ever be thin? I honestly don't know. I do know that ever since I have purged myself of useless guilt, I have not binged. I'm not sure what significance this has in the long term, but I now realize that my future success must be measured in the way I feel about myself, not by the scale or public consensus.

"Are You Thin Yet?," copyright 1993 Jennifer Semple Siegel, originally published in Eating Our Hearts Out: Personal Accounts of Women's Relationship to Food, edited by Leslea Newman, The Crossing Press (1993).

This small essay earned me a positive mention in a review on Amazon.com and a footnote in an academic study on (surprise!) girls and weight issues. But my own words didn't take root. They were the right words--they bounced from my lips, looping out into the void.

A few months later, I expanded the essay, published here for the first time:

* * * * *
Addendum: January 1992

My journey into self-acceptance is still an ongoing process: some days, I feel pretty good about myself, others, the old self-hatred comes through, especially when I still see so much prejudice leveled against overweight people. For example, I just recently found out that in Pennsylvania, there is no law protecting overweight people from job discrimination. Quite simply, a person can be cut out of the job market solely on the basis of weight. I felt so angry at that revelation, and yet, in many ways, I feel powerless to effect any change. Perhaps lawmakers believe that overweight people can diet, lose weight, and keep it off. But the fact is, only 5% of dieters keep their lost weight off for two years or more. Consequently, I'm going to have to wage my war via pen and paper, perhaps forcing those people fortunate enough to be blessed with the "thin privilege" to walk in my shoes for a short time.

Why haven't more overweight people spoken out? I can venture some guesses, based on my own experiences as an overweight person: As a general rule, these people

--possess low self-esteem

--tend to agree with public consensus that being overweight is not okay, that those who carry extra pounds are stupid somehow.

--tend to be ashamed to appear in public because of weight

Last semester, I had an opportunity to speak out against "weightism" (I believe that is the new term these days), and I blew it: I remained mute as a Clinical Psychologist, the instructor in my psychology course, went into a tirade about alcoholics, drug addicts, and overweight people not taking responsibility for their own actions. He then said, "Take overweight people, for example: to lose weight, all they have to do is close their mouths. It's so simple." I could feel myself choking on my anger; the words were there, but they were piling upon one another, stuck on my tongue. After all, I was sitting in a college course, not a therapy group. Also, my fellow students, for the most part, were 19 and 20 year olds, probably one of the most unsympathetic segments in society toward anyone who is different. And believe me, many overweight people go to great lengths not to call unwanted attention to themselves.

So what would I say to Dr. Arrogance now that I'm in front of the keyboard, fairly safe from the judging eyes of post-adolescents?

First, I would tell him that if weight reduction were such a simple process, there would be very few overweight people in the world--that sometimes people feel that the price of being thin is not worth the energy, the deprivation, and the pain. Sometimes, the choice is conscious, sometimes unconscious. Nonetheless, it's an option that should be accepted and respected--not severely judged by others who have little knowledge of the implications of being overweight.

Second, I would let him know that being overweight is not a sign of inner weakness, for many overweight people go on to lead successful lives.

Third, I would tell him that his standard of what is normal is out of whack--that I'm as normal as anyone else, except that I carry extra weight. Big deal. That I desire the same things he desires: love, success, esteem, self-actualization. That I care for my body and appearance, try to eat healthy foods, and take time out for recreation and leisure. And I hurt when other people view me as something as subhuman because of what I weigh, just as Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities hurt when people judge them solely on the color of their skin.

Fourth, I would call into question his ability to do psychotherapy on overweight people who might seek help in trying to find out what makes them overeat. I doubt very much if he could offer them much insight because he has little understanding of the pain that many overweight people experience when they contemplate putting a piece of "forbidden food" into their mouths.

The last thing an overweight person needs is a misguided shot of shock therapy.
I can only try to explain the mechanics of what happens before, during, and after a binge, although mere words cannot begin to explain the torment a person feels when he/she is locked in a struggle with two opposing desires: to eat (= gaining weight) or not to eat (= losing or maintaining weight).

In my case, I feel any guilt associated with food the strongest when I'm supposed to be on a diet, at least consciously. However, when I'm not dieting, the guilt is still there, but I can stuff it away--with more food. Generally, during the morning and early afternoon, I seem to do okay. Late afternoons and early evenings are a different matter, and the subsequent urge to binge usually begins as a small, nagging nudge from the id, such as,

"I'm really in the mood for_______________."

At first, the thought is just that, one not to be taken too seriously--at least yet. Sometimes I can slough it off and go onto to other things in my life. Most of the time, I cannot. Then the thought begins to grow into an urge, and I begin to feel anxious. This is the warning bell that I'm about to overeat, and that I had better do something, perhaps examine something in my life or leave the house, because once the urge becomes an obsession, I cannot seem to stop it, for now, I'm beyond anxious: I'm terrified that if I don't eat, something awful will happen. On a conscious level, I know that my fears are irrational, but I'm helpless now, far beyond rational thinking. The fear just continues to grow until something "clicks" in my head, and another Jennifer, a ravenous alterego, stumbles into the kitchen and consumes whatever is there, with little regard for what it is. I usually choose soft, starchy foods, such as a mound of mashed potatoes, smothered in margarine--anything quickly consumable. I eat fast, cramming food down as fast as I can, until I'm so stuffed that I can barely move. It is then, only then, that the feeling of peace comes over me. I would compare the feeling to a marijuana high in that I get a feeling of floating and forgetfulness. The guilt comes later, the sense that what I have just done is an irrational, self-destructive act. Then the belief that I'm nothing but a weak-willed pig begins to play over and over in my head. Now the recriminations and self-hatred begin. I might even look at myself in the mirror, and scold my bloated image, "How could you do this to yourself?"

Thus, overeating becomes a moral issue as opposed to a biological one in which the result is added weight. Now I have begun a vicious cycle which may last for months.

The above is much easier (though still painful) to write about because I do not binge as much as I used to. Yes, I still carry the extra weight, but my self-concept has improved. Also, I have learned strategies which help me to head off binges before they get out of hand, such as indulging in the "I'm in the mood for______________" urge. If I'm satisfied with my choice, I have discovered that getting a nip of the "virus" actually helps to inoculate myself from the big time binges. There are numerous other strategies as well.

Still, one does not break long-standing habits overnight, so when people suggest simplistic solutions, I have this urge to reach up and squeeze their faces because they just don't have any clue what it is like to live my life. However, sooner or later, I'm faced with the fact that I can't change other people's attitudes, and that perhaps my best strategy is to change the way I feel about myself.

And, no, I am not thin yet.

* * * * *

From the distance of thirteen years, the addendum seems more honest than the published part, which is why I include it here.

I truly thought I had conquered this food thing, but I now know that complete success will probably prove to be somewhat elusive, that victories will be small, and occasional backsliding likely.

Day-to-day, I fear.

Today is the forty-second anniversary of JFK's assassination--a horrifying and sad day in history.

Jennifer Semple Siegel

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