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May 25, 2007

Fat Girl

Part I
A few months ago I went on a date with a guy and we were talking at dinner and somehow I stumbled on the topic of awkward co-worker dreams. And he said he didn't know what an awkward co-worker dream was.

"Oh you know the one," I said. "Right? I mean you've had one, haven't you? Like where you have an inappropriate, uh, graphic dream about a coworker, probably someone you never even considered EVER in that way, and you wake up feeling gross and somewhat scandalized and then you can't look at your coworker for four whole days?"

"Um," he paused. "No...?"

And I felt even weirder, then, because the conversation was straying into Not First Date Territory and I needed to get a lid on it real quicklike and then he must have seen my awkwardness because he tried to put me at ease by saying the following:

"I did have a huge crush on the two girls who worked in the office at my last job." He kept on talking, rather enthusiastically, actually. "They were both about eighteen years old and a size zero. They were so tiny and cute! And sexy. They were REALLY HOT."

And I was quiet for just a beat and from somewhere inside me, some place of self-confidence I did not know I even had (or perhaps it was self-preservation, or Wine With Dinner nerves) I said, "Well what the heck are you doing asking me out? I'm not fitting the fantasy, darlin'. I'm way way over 18 years old and let me disavow you of the notion I'll ever be a size that even contains a zero in it." And I laughed a little, to take the sting out.

He sat there for a minute. Quiet. I think he realized too late he'd just said out loud he was really attracted to women who were:
A) 28 years younger than him and
B) Many, many pounds smaller than me.

I think he was mentally debating which had been the zinger -- that I was old or that I was not skinny or that I did not fit the picture of his desires. And I felt kind of bad for him, actually. He knew he'd said the wrong first-date thing as soon as he saw my reaction. But when I get nervous like that I can't shut up, chattering on in my Southern mask-the-horror ways.

"And furthermore," I continued, running the whole awkward sentence together, "I'm strong and sturdy and fine just the way I am. And I still can't look this one coworker in the eye because I did indeed have a wildly inappropriate dream about him once. Darn subconscious... oh, where is the ladies' room? Be right back!" And after a trip to the ladies' room and a pause, things sort of re-righted themselves into normal first-date-awkwardness and neither of us brought it up again. I think we both got anxious for that date to end rather more quickly than expected.

Later when I was home alone putting on my pajamas and about to get into bed, I felt a little embarrassed, wishing I'd handled it better. Then I started laughing. It was kind of funny. Men are weird. Women are weird. I'm weird. But mostly what surprised me was that I had apparently somewhere along the way defined myself as "strong" and "sturdy" and "happy" without my even knowing it. And I remember on that night, several months ago, proclaiming to myself, I plan to live up to those adjectives.

Part II
I started Atkins in 2003, on January 2nd, of course. (Got to get that resolution started... just as soon as the champagne hangover wears off and I get my last giant make-me-sick-I-ate-so-much at McDonald's meal.) January 2nd was The Day I Started A New Diet EVERY frickin' year. Amen.

Atkins was different from my other diets. For one thing, I could eat butter and cheese and STEAK. All the roasted, broiled, seared, barbecued STEAK I wanted. I ate steak every day for weeks. I hadn't eaten a steak without low-fat dieting guilt in years! Steak! WITH butter!

It was like someone had given me permission to eat all the prohibited foods and I went insane, never believing I could eat steak with a giant pat of butter on top and lose weight. After all, I was the girl who gained weight on Weight Watchers. But Atkins not only worked, it worked like spooky magic. I lost seven pounds the first week, four the next. I was hooked.

I stayed on Atkins for 18 long months. In the first six months I got down to my almost-high-school weight, which is just crazy. I was so thin! I also carried around a 1-cup measuring cup in my handbag (sealed in a ziploc baggie) so I could measure out lettuce. I took to Atkins at a time my whole marriage was cracking and I knew I was losing control. That diet was the ultimate excercise in control, and I was an evangelist. I LOVED Atkins. I BREATHED Atkins.

For a while.

That way of eating gave me discipline, and carb-counting, and let us not forget the steak. It also gave me pervasive and horrible rashes, insomnia and plumbing problems. And I was depressed and angry, both of which I blamed on my marriage, and scared all the time that I would inhale an extra carb without realizing it. My hair began to fall out. But whatever, dude! I am in control! I am CONTROLLED! Not hungry! Steak! Size eight -- no, size six! -- jeans OH MY GOD.

I lost weight more effectively on that diet than any other before or since, it was amazing. I was so diligent. I counted every olive, every ounce of cheese, every 1/2 cup of radishes. I was completely obsessed with it. But there were small problems, like the aforementioned rashes. And I started dreaming about food. Not metaphorically or anything, no -- every night I had vivid dreams in which I would eat ice cream, or cupcakes (foods I had never before craved) and of course I dreamed of potato chips, pretzels, corn chips, tortillas, oh cool ranch doritos! Potatoes, hash browns, anything with gravy, and Oh God, bread. I dreamed of bread every night. Sometimes I would wake up in a sweat with sheets twisted over my legs, Mr. X snoring soundly beside me, jolted out of sleep by a dream so real I was just sure I had eaten a whole loaf of bread and I would rush down the stairs to the kitchen to double-check that everything was in its place, that I was still good, that I was still in control.

But there is no control. Control is just an illusion, like phantom ice cream dreams.

We went on vacation that last summer and by the time we got on the plane our marriage was barely holding together, but I took a million pictures, safe in the knowledge I was so thin. I was also with a man who was not in love with me and I knew it, and so we drank a lot. Carbs. I tried so hard to plan for the food, but the tension and the anxiety and the travel got to me, and before long the carefully packed tuna packets and individual servings of nuts I had brought languished with the Atkins bars at the bottom of my bag while I ate the toppings off a pizza, or had half a croissaint. I almost cried biting into it, so warm and perfect and croissainty. When we came back I couldn't stop, I felt like I couldn't give up bread again, I re-considered Weight Watchers, I felt it all falling apart, I watched him shut the door, silent, I watched myself cry alone in the guest room, the more I reached for control the more I failed.

I gained 14 pounds in two weeks.

Because the truth was yes, I lost weight better and more efficiently on Atkins than any diet before or since. I also gained weight more efficiently and faster when I stopped than I have ever gained before. That coupled with my divorce was disastrous, and before long I was a carb-fueled pile of rubble and despair. Covered in gravy. Side of mashed potatoes, please.

Fast forward 70 pounds, many months and one divorce later and you have me, sitting alone on the back patio, crying, knowing how far off the map I had gone and knowing I could never ever again go on a diet. I was so tired. I was done. I was fat, and 34 years old at the time, and it was that January 2nd -- January 2nd, 2006 -- when I decided I would once and for all figure out why I have such a time with my weight, why I hate my body so much, why I never feel thin enough, small enough to be good. I didn't care how long it might take me to accept my body, but I swore to myself I would one day get to a place where my self-esteem wasn't wholly, entirely dependant on my jeans size. That night I smoked another cigarette. I prayed to God, please help me. Please help me figure this shit out. I am tired. I need to learn how to just be okay with what you gave me.

It's been about 18 months since that night. I would like to say I am all the way there, but I'm not. I'm close, though. Much closer than ever before. I did quit smoking, that in itself was something. I would also like to say I stopped praying to God with swear words but you know ... work in progress.

This week I got a lot of email about my pictures from Dodger's Stadium, how my not-a-diet was working so well. And I guess it is. It's working for me in the way that I wanted -- I eat normal, sane healthy food. I do not measure lettuce, or dream of Doritos. I have all my hair and my skin is rash-free and I'm sleeping better. Sometimes I have a meal that is not healthy but because I'm not on a diet I don't spend the next sixteen weeks at McDonalds, vowing to get back on track one day, tomorrow, always tomorrow ... there is no track to get back on. Tomorrow is just like today, no diet. No do-overs. No magical Atkins. It is just food and breathing and sometimes you order the small fries and just eat them much slower, and enjoy them. They are not evil, they are fries. Life will not end. You will not die over one small order of fries. (It is the 22 months of fries that gets you, especially when they come with a side of Big Mac and Marlboro.) You look for choices you can live with for your whole life, you enjoy little things like how you can walk up stairs without needing oxygen now, you try to take a little walk every day. You take a multivitamin. You make your health your priority and your ass size a secondary issue.

It hasn't been exhilirating like Atkins. I lost zero pounds the first week. After that I stopped weighing myself, just stepping on the scale once a month and writing it down no matter what the number. This has not been about weight loss, it's been about stopping the insanity that was my entire life since age seven, always on a diet.

But I have lost weight. It has averaged out over all this time as about 1/2 a pound per week. That is a whopping TWO POUNDS per month. Not very exciting. Not dramatic at all to people who see me every day. Like me, for example. I can't tell any difference at all ... I can't see myself.

Last week Faith and I went shopping at the Eileen Fisher store in Century City. I never in a million years expected I would fit into anything off the rack, it just didn't cross my mind. But I went with her anyway because she was excited about going and trying on stuff for our trip and I thought I could look at the accessories (ah, the fat girl's corner of the store, accessories! Well, that and shoes.) There weren't many accessories at Eileen Fisher. I searched through a pile of stretch crepe pants for the biggest size, a little sigh of relief that they had an extra large.

I went into the dressing room and tried them on. I stared at myself in the mirror. Who is that? I walked out in the mirror area between dressing rooms, maybe that had been a trick mirror. I almost started crying when the clerk handed me a large because the XL I was trying on was just too big.

I can't see myself. I can't see what I really look like. I have to keep reminding myself that fat is not an actual emotion. One cannot feel "fat." One can feel scared, terrified of flying, shy, awkward, and tired. But one cannot technically feel "fat" as an emotional state.

The pants were too expensive so I put them back. But I must have walked a little taller back to the car. "Faith," I whispered as we left the store. "Can you believe I fit into anything in here?"

"Yes, " she said. "Yes I do!"

Part III
I woke up three days this week staring at the clock, remembering what day it was, remembering what's coming at the end of the month. The very first automatic thought in my head no, oh God, I can't go, I'm too fat. Before I went on that trip to Paris last year with all my girlfriends, I cried shamefully for a week, terrified I would have to ask for a seatbelt extender. I had never been so big and I wasn't sure I would fit in the seat. I did fit, just barely. It was horrible, squenching in to make myself as invisible as possible, all my friends were tiny little size zero waifs and I was the fat girl. I remember hating myself for not having the willpower to do Atkins before the trip. But even then I knew it had nothing at all to do with willpower. Atkins had already taught me that lesson.

I can't do this, people will be disappointed by me, I want to stay home, I can't do this. I'm too fat. I'll fail.

Being overweight is an awesome thing to pin fear of failure on, because you can always retain the illusion that if you were just a little bit skinnier (or a lot of bit) you'd be better at whatever it is you're scared to do.

Even though I know I have used my weight as an excuse to avoid taking chances in life, and even though I'm trying much harder not to do that anymore, it still surprised me how deep the fear runs. I know I've got to stop blaming every single mess-up and fear on being fat. If "fat" is what I blame my life's missed opportunities on, then I will forever stay "fat" because I am shy and sometimes want to stay home instead of meet new people. If I were skinny, I would still feel scared of saying dumb stuff and making a poor impression.

"Can you believe I fit into anything in here?"
"Yes, yes I do!"

So, I will just concentrate on small successes, the sturdier things, breathe deep. Hope for the best. Remember that one time I fit into something at a fancypants upscale store. Remember that even if I weighed half of what I weigh today I would still be terrified, scared of change, afraid of screwing up. I hope I can remember all that. We'll have a good trip. I know I will fit better in the seat this time. Hopefully I won't have any awkward co-worker dreams about people I meet at the convention.

But at least I know I won't wake up scared half to death I ate a piece of bread. Because that is just crazy. Way crazier than a naked co-worker dream.

Posted by laurie at May 25, 2007 7:59 AM