Fat is such a hot-button issue, even with people who don’t have a personal problem with excess adipose tissue. Everybody with issues of body weight has a story: how I got that way, why it’s still there, why it’s gone, what the hell happened to the slim girlish figure I’ve kept hidden for so long. So here is my story.
I started being fat long before my mom was even pregnant with me. Three of my four grandparents were morbidly obese. Not only is there a pretty potent fat gene in my family, but we love fatty, high-carb foods. My family recipes contain things like suet and butter and cheese, and we always drank whole milk, the whole family.
We’re mostly Welsh, English and Scottish, with a dash of Rom (gypsy) and always from the poor, starving classes. Some of them were on the Mayflower, which means they needed to leave our country of origin behind for some reason. People mostly don’t risk lingering death on strange continents if everything is perfectly all right at home. Believe it or not, being from a family which has starved for more than one generation sets up succeeding generations for excess weight gain. Famine encourages the body to clutch at every calorie it can get and never let go without a major struggle. (Incidentally, that’s why crash diets don’t work.) Also, those who starve to death in childhood do not live to breed children with their DNA.
So, my family is fat. Their families were fat. I was set up to be fat, and though I didn’t put on weight as a child and a teenager, I started to fulfill the family promise in my late twenties. It escalated when I became pregnant with my daughter.
But I need to back up a little. There’s more to me than heredity. My fat has added dimensions. (yes, that’s a pun.)
Back in the ’50s, when Mom was starting her family, doctors were in some ways even worse than they are now. They were Improving on Nature with strict diets for pregnant women, among other things. My mom, silly girl, kept gaining weight, so they put her on “speed” to kill her appetite and keep her thin and cute and energetic. This was not uncommon. The doctor insisted that she gain no more than 10 pounds during each of her pregnancies. She failed, but she tried very hard to comply. Apparently, nobody knew back then that it was dangerous for a woman to gain less than about 15 pounds during pregnancy.
I remember blowing out the match when she lit a cigarette, while she was pregnant with my younger sister. The doctor had taken her off the diet pills by that time and suggested she deal with the cravings and the shakes by smoking a few cigarettes a day. My guess is that my sensitivity to various aldehydes as well as my overly ample waistline are, in part, due to that doctor’s monkeying with my mom’s metabolism while she was pregnant with me. Plus, smoking seemed like a really good idea to me at a very young age. My sister was born with some birth defects, probably as a result of the cigarette smoking.
Even then, the doctors did not stop messing with my mother’s health. After Mom gave birth to me, the doctor told her to put the baby on a strict feeding schedule. None of that primitive breast milk for her babies, either! Of course the doctors could do better than that! Even though breastfeeding has proven health benefits for both mother and child, the doctors at that time didn’t believe in it. Human milk isn’t high enough in protein or fat to grow prize-winning babies as quickly as possible! So, after 4 hours, one or two of which had been spent listening to a hungry baby crying hysterically, my mom was allowed to plug in a bottle of Extra Nutritious Formula and take a little rest in between postpartum exercises and more strict dieting. Back then, formula was much higher in fat, sugars and protein than breast milk, and made no attempt at all to duplicate what Nature intended.
The doctor also told her to ignore the baby’s crying so she wouldn’t become “spoiled.” I didn’t know until I was twelve and my little brother was born how agonizing that directive was for my mom. As a baby, all I knew was that the only reliable comfort I could have was a bottle of high-fat, high-sugar formula. I was a formula junkie as an infant.
Eventually the doctor told my mom to take even that away from me, but by then it was too late; we grow all our fat cells very early in life, and I was a seriously obese infant. The combination of intermittent starvation and overabundant calories from fat in infancy, preceded by a hyped-up metabolism in the womb, set me up for a lifetime of weight struggles.
Oddly, though, once I grew from infancy to childhood, I was painfully thin. There were things going on in my life as a child that kept me sick and fearful, and the neglect and abuse I suffered apparently kept me thin as well. I missed a lot of meals as a child. We were not poor. We had plenty of food and money and shelter, but food was used as both a reward and a punishment when I was a kid. Food took on an inflated significance when I was young and knew nothing about any of this.
I gained a little weight when I went to college, but I didn’t automatically know how to eat in a healthy way just because I was suddenly in charge of my own eating habits. I finally gained enough weight to be in the normal range, and no longer looked like a concentration camp survivor.
I started smoking cigarettes to calm my nerves, and soon escalated my dosage to as many as I could smoke throughout the day. I smoked roughly 2 ½ to 3 packs a day when I could get them. This has a profound effect on a person’s metabolism, but more on that later.
When I met the man I would eventually marry, I was looking pretty good. Crazy as a bedbug, and abusing various substances; still, I was pretty damn cute. The packaging does not always illustrate the wholesomeness of the contents.
When we married, I had never learned how to cook. I had no idea what constituted a healthy meal. I had an old cookbook from the ’30s from which I learned to make all kinds of delicious but fattening foods, most of them starting with butter and cream and cheese and flour.
We had many meals that consisted of boxed macaroni and cheese and corn on the cob and Kool-Ade. We discovered later on that you could buy a 25-pound bag of flour pretty cheaply and enough yeast to make bread, so I learned to make bread and we lived on that and steaks for a while. My husband was the original “meat and potatoes” man, but he was willing to substitute bread for the potatoes. I was slowly gaining weight, but not in any alarming way. I think the smoking and other unfortunate personal habits helped keep it in check.
The first years of our marriage were spent in a rural college town in the hills in Pennsylvania. For most of that time, we didn’t have a functioning car, and I had places to go and things to do from one end of town to the other, so I walked and ran for hours every day. I got plenty of exercise without even thinking about it. I was relying on getting myself around on foot or hitch-hiking, which burns more calories than you’d think.
Then, we fulfilled one of my then-husband’s lifelong dreams: we bought an MG. It had a convertible top with one of those vinyl back windows in it. He adored that car. He got a job in a town 15 miles away or so, and he would just burn up the road going to and from it. He hated the job, but having his dear little sports car was some compensation. And neither of us walked anyplace when we could drive!
Then winter came, of course.
It’s not fun to have to dig your car out of a snowdrift in the early morning before the sun comes up. It’s not really a laugh riot at any time of day, but it’s especially bitter early in the morning on the way to a bad job with an unsympathetic boss. And hurrying this kind of thing can have disastrous consequences.
We were out there one December morning, digging and cussing and freezing, and finally got the car free enough to move, but the windshield and all the windows had frozen snow on them and needed scraping.
We scraped. It was 43 degrees below zero that morning, and the wind-chill factor was making grown men whimper, and we had to be at work within a rapidly decreasing time-frame. All the windows were done except the back one, the vinyl one.
You may not realize that vinyl can freeze. This was frozen solid and was rigid, so you’d think scraping it would be a piece of cake. In this case, several small servings of cake: it shattered. That was the day we decided, “To Hell With This, WE’RE MOVING TO CALIFORNIA!”
Extremely cold temperatures tend to make people burn more calories. I know that when I sleep, I give off enough heat that we don’t need the heat on, ever, though when I have been losing weight, I’m not such a pot-bellied stove as I was, in more ways than one. Anyway, living in the wilds of Pennsylvania may have had some effect on my relative slimness. I was burning enough calories to keep me and my husband warm, and I was getting a lot of exercise, so I didn’t start to really lay on the avoirdupois till we moved to California.
We moved in December, a year later. We sold, gave away, or stored all our stuff, loaded up the van with a few books, a family size mess kit, some clothes and our three cats, and took off. We had friends who had made the move a year or so previously, and they found us a cheap little upstairs apartment in Los Angeles, so we had the advantage of someplace to go when we got there. We had a mattress from an old sleeper sofa and the box we had had on top of the van to carry some of our stuff, and that was it for furniture at first.
I had never lived anywhere but small towns or in the country before. I didn’t know you couldn’t walk everywhere. I didn’t know about opening the door to strangers. I was completely clueless about things I needed to know to stay safe and sane in the city. I started working as a temp, taking the bus everywhere, which was also completely new to me. Eventually, so many things happened to me, or almost happened to me, that I stopped going out by myself. It was more like moving to a different planet for me than to a different state. I started getting a great deal less exercise than I had always had. And it was a very, very stressful time for me.
And then, my best girlfriend decided that we were both going to quit smoking. We enrolled together in a quitting smoking class at a local high school. I quit successfully, at least for a while. And started to put on more weight.
What I didn’t realize until much later was that smoking had been my way of keeping myself grounded. I had some emotional issues that I simply couldn’t face at that time, along with everything else I was trying to manage. My husband had grown up in and around Philadelphia, so he knew how to handle the city. It wasn’t something he could teach me, so I was becoming more and more stressed-out. Quitting smoking was good for a lot of my health, but my mental health had been depending on it, which I hadn’t realized at the time.
I had a nervous breakdown at that point, and was hospitalized for 3 weeks. I didn’t know that I was about 20 pounds overweight, so the staff at the hospital put me on a diet and exercise program. It was a revelation.
The weight gain had begun, and I hadn’t even been aware of it! Quitting smoking had not only thrown my metabolism for a loop, it also made me desperate to put things into my mouth. Smoking had been one of my very few “comfort habits,” too, and it was gone.
Suddenly, food started tasting good, and I had a huge appetite, besides the fake hunger that comes from loneliness, emptiness and fear. I couldn’t seem to control my eating, and I felt doomed to gain more weight or go completely out of my mind.
I did manage not to smoke for a number of years. I quit drugs and drinking, too, at least temporarily. I got some therapy and lost a little weight and started feeling more stable than I had for a long time.
Then, I got pregnant. My hunger up until then had been relatively insignificant. I became utterly voracious. I was bursting with health and hormones, and soon I was bursting out of my clothes. My husband and I weren’t getting along very well, and I lost my job. We had moved to a rural area outside of the city, where there aren’t any sidewalks. It was a long and complicated drive to anywhere, and I was completely isolated most of the time, except when my husband came home and yelled at me for a few hours, then went to bed. I spent a lot of time making friends with the refrigerator, and since my husband did most of the shopping, and he didn’t like fruits and vegetables, we were back on the bread and steak diet. Fortunately, I was taking some pretty hefty vitamins—probably too many of them, as it turns out, but I think it was overall a good thing.
Pregnant and alone all the time, I started reading about nutrition. My sister-in-law would send us health magazines, and I would actually read them. I would get my husband to drive me to the library for books on nutrition and raising healthy kids, and I would order them from my book clubs, and I immersed myself in them. I learned a lot, but I didn’t really take it all to heart enough to deal with my continued weight gain.
Mostly, I learned how not to abuse and neglect children, and how to feed kids properly and not install weight issues in their little psyches. It did help in some respects, and it laid the groundwork for my later weight loss efforts.
Everybody told me, doctors, friends, strangers on the street, that when my baby was born, if I breast-fed, all my extra weight gain from my pregnancy would come right off. I’d been doing a lot of reading about infant health and feeding, and I was planning on breast feeding anyway. I was already overdosing myself with vitamins and minerals with that plan in mind. In my case, at least, breast feeding did not have that effect. I didn’t lose any weight, and I continued to gain steadily.
I gained a huge amount of weight during the pregnancy, and kept right on gaining after my daughter was born. She was born about 6 weeks too early, and couldn’t breathe for her first eleven days, so she had to have a machine do it for her. It was stressful for her, for me, for her dad, for the whole family. Stress is a major influence in excess weight-gain.
The doctors were never able to determine what caused her to be premature, but I think I figured it out. I had a ferocious kidney infection within a week of her birth, and I think it was caused by overstressing my kidneys with all the supplements I was taking. In some ways, they helped make my baby healthy and strong and ready for anything; in other ways, it got her off to a too-early start.
She had a rough time for a little while, but she’s since got over it. She’s very strong and smart and healthy, and doesn’t have any prematurity issues any more. She’s actually quite mature for her age. So far, as an adult, she doesn’t seem to have any weight-gain issues.
Almost as soon as she tossed her last bottle on the floor and refused anything but a cup, I started drinking again. The dope was gone forever, but I still didn’t have much in the way of coping mechanisms, and when she was about 10 months old, repressed memories of abuse started arising. Alcohol also causes weight gain, as it is often very high-carb, and is always made up of empty calories.
My husband and I decided that I would be a stay-at-home mom, and my weight continued to rise. I had quit using all the cocaine and speed and pot and various other drugs when I had been hospitalized for my emotional problems some time back, and I had quit drinking while I was pregnant. My daughter had been too weak and sick at first to nurse, so I pumped breast milk until she was about 8 months old.
I had been out of therapy for a while, and I didn’t know what to do with the terror and pain and fear, plus I was isolated all the time. My husband was commuting about 2 hours each way, and we were living in houses that belonged to the company where he worked, and they kept getting sold out from under us. So, with infant in tow, we had to keep moving our whole household. We only spent about 3 weeks in the house where we were living for her first Christmas. It was a pretty nice place, but it never really felt like home.
This was all quite stressful, as you can imagine, along with all the arguments and the inevitable changes associated with becoming parents. So I was drinking and comforting myself with food as I had done as an infant. We moved about 4 times within the first year of her life. When we finally settled, and my husband had a new job, I was already starting to have trouble finding clothes that fit.
I had insisted on getting my driver’s license while I was pregnant, but I didn’t have a car for a long time. I didn’t want to be like my mom, who had had to depend on my dad or the neighbors when one of us kids had to go get stitches or something. We moved around so much, we never knew anybody, and that pattern continued after I was married. So, when my daughter was born premature, she had to go to the pediatrician’s office once a week for the first few months of her life, and there wasn’t anybody but me to take her, so we rented a car once a week. It wasn’t a perfect solution to the problem, but it was better than nothing.
Because of the childhood trauma fallout I had begun to deal with, and the stresses of a failing marriage and isolation and then toilet training, I got into therapy and started smoking again. It helped a lot. But I kept gaining weight.
When my daughter was about 4, I quit drinking again, and didn’t drink again for about 20 years.
Throughout my daughter’s childhood, the break-up of my marriage, my attendance at various support groups, and several different therapists, no matter what I did or didn’t do, I gained weight. Of all the changes I went through, I didn’t seem to be able to change that. When I was suddenly single again, I did start to lose weight, because I cut sugar out of my diet completely, and became a vegetarian for a number of years. I think I was actually less stressed as a single person, also; a bad marriage is a very stressful thing to endure. I got down to about 20 pounds over my ideal weight again, and then met and moved in with another food enthusiast.
We had a pretty good time together, and got a lot of exercise at first, but he was a sugar junkie and there were ice cream and cookies and candy and treats everywhere I looked again. I ate everything. We even started eating hormone-and-fat-laden meat again.
I had to go back to work, and got a few sitting-down office-type jobs, which was, of course, the ideal situation for continued weight gain. When we ended up having to move again, I had to find a job closer to where I live now, and couldn’t find much of anything, so I ended up working at a donation center for a non-profit organization. It was very physical work, and I grew very strong, but I wasn’t any thinner. I was stressed and miserable, and my relationship fell apart, and though I was very healthy, I was also approaching 300 pounds. I managed to get myself down from around 270 lbs. to 250 lbs. by pure starvation, but began to think that weight gain was inevitable, and weight loss was impossible for me. I gave up. I ate, I exercised at work, but not in any sustained or meaningful way, got strong and fat, and then found another sitting-down office-type job.
And there I sat, being fat and resigned. I had no hope for weight loss, and started looking around for fat clothes that I could stand to wear. I always liked being a sexy dresser, and for a long time, there wasn’t anything I could find to wear that wasn’t humiliating and depressing. Later, I discovered that if you spend a lot more money on clothes, there are places that cater to sexy fat ladies. But it wasn’t ever enough to make me happy or make me like myself.
Then, one day, one of the office ladies came around, saying that for a huge discount, I could join an on-site weight-loss meeting. I didn’t want to, and I didn’t believe in it, but the lady said that if they couldn’t get 20 people to sign up, they wouldn’t be able to have it, plus, we’d get paid while we were at the meetings, and the company would pick up most of the cost of the meeting itself. So, to do her a favor, and to indulge my curiosity, because they didn’t have enough signatures, I joined.
Going to a supportive group for the purpose of healthy weight loss works for me. There are a couple of different plans on the market that are completely mapped out and are easy to follow. There is never an unanswered question. They have scientists that do nothing but figure out how it all works, and who do all the brain work for you. You can exercise for quicker weight loss, or skip it and just be more careful with the eating. The biggest benefit for me is the support. Losing 2/10 of a pound is counted and honored. Every 5 pounds lost is a celebration.
And I met a thin, attractive woman who started at the same weight I was then, who had lost the weight and kept it off. She had been fat all her life, and then lost the weight. I’d never known anybody personally who had done that, so I guess I didn’t really believe in it. If it hadn’t been for Judy, I would not have known it was possible, and probably would have dropped out.
As it is, by following the most basic guidelines, like drinking lots of water and adding a lot of fiber to my diet, as well as some of the more specific strategies, I lost about 50 pounds at that time. I started exercising intentionally for the first time in my life, and that helped, too. I was down to just about 200 lbs. Still too heavy, but there’s a big difference between 200 and 250 pounds. I had energy, strength, and the experience of success. I had less trouble finding attractive clothing. I liked how I felt and looked.
Then, I hit a plateau. For months, I couldn’t seem to do anything but gain and lose the same two or three pounds, over and over again. Finally, I gave up on going to the meetings and I quit my exercise class. I met a wonderful man and fell in love, and in the rush of joy and the happiness of being with him, forgot all about healthy eating and proper exercise, and gained all the weight back. On our wedding day, I was the fattest I had ever been in my life.
With my husband’s assistance, I joined another gym, this time one devoted to women only, and began exercising again. I didn’t lose any weight, but I maintained and didn’t gain any more, and, once again, became strong and flexible. I know that I need to limit my calorie intake and become more vigilant about the kinds of foods I eat. That hasn’t happened yet, but I can see it coming in the near future. The struggle continues, and I gain more knowledge every time I fall off the wagon.
So, it appears that weight, at least for me, is not just a matter of “eating less and exercising more.” There are all kinds of other aspects to the problem of weight gain. My fat is hereditary, emotional, connected to a damaged metabolism, and is affected by many other factors. I suspect that I’m not the only one. I think it’s a worthwhile exercise, to go over all the possible factors contributing to one’s health, specifically weight gain, and to use that self-knowledge to make better choices in life.