I still remember my parents’ argument vividly.
It was a Saturday morning. My dad had made pancakes, a regular weekend treat at our house. As the butter melted on mine, I reached for the maple syrup and began to squeeze.
“That’s enough!” my mom said.
“Let her decide how much syrup she wants,” my dad said, hovering over the pancakes on the stove.
“It’ll go straight to her hips!” my mom said, as though I wasn’t even there.
I kept silent. Inside, I was glad my dad was defending my right to have as much syrup as I’d like. Even so, I used a little less than I’d wanted.
It was the first time someone had suggested in my presence that my eating could affect my looks — or that I should care.
As a kid I had a solid, sturdy body. Both of my parents were thin at some points and heavier at others, so it was no surprise that when puberty hit, I developed a layer of chub like the fondant that enrobes a cake. A few kids at school began calling me fat. When I at pictures of myself at that time, I see now that I was only a little plusher than other girls my age. At the time, though, the insults stung. In some ways, they still do.
My weight ballooned in college. By the time I was in my mid-twenties I weighed more than 200 pounds. I’d also made peace with my curvy body. I felt strong and beautiful. I admit it — I also felt like the weight was a kind of armor, protecting me from leers, come-ons and harassment.
In my early thirties, unrelated to my weight, my health deteriorated. I had constant gastrointestinal problems (I’ll spare you the details; let’s just say I knew the locations of all the public restrooms on my hourlong commute), my joints ached and I was tired all the time. My thyroid had stopped working and my blood sugar was creeping into pre-diabetic levels. I needed help and my doctors didn’t seem to have any answers.
When I found a nutritionist who specialized in thyroid issues, it felt like a miracle. She went through my symptoms and health history and made three immediate recommendations: stop eating gluten, cut back on other carbs and start walking a few times a week. I lived on pasta — it was healthy, right? — so at first her plan sounded impossible. But after following her advice for a week, my gut and joints were happier and I suddenly had a lot more energy. I was sold.
Aside from accidentally sussing out my undiagnosed celiac disease, my nutritionist’s advice led to another novel experience. When I ate mostly protein and plants and went out for regular walks, pounds melted off me. In retrospect it was hard work, but at the time it felt almost effortless.
I refused to do one thing she recommended: keep a food log. Avoiding certain foods and eating others only in certain combinations already felt a little like eating-disorder territory. Writing it all down, calculating weights and portions and calories felt too much like obsession.
Within a year, I dropped about 75 pounds. In some respects, it was great. I had more clothing options. Moving around was easier. But my body had garlands of loose, sagging skin that no amount of moisturizer would shrink. I had persistent pain in my hips. It turned out all the walking and hiking I’d done was damaging them; I was facing early hip replacement if I didn’t stop.
Losing the weight brought one major gift: fertility. After a year of struggling to get pregnant, it happened. My belly swelled as my growing baby filled up all that loose skin. I regained my layer of chub and my breasts were fuller again. After my daughter was born I gained and lost the same 10 pounds a couple of times, and once she weaned the pounds crept back to me like estranged friends. I didn’t understand why; I was eating healthy food and walking a lot. Even my Fitbit’s calorie-burn estimates seemed way, way off.
I got worried. As usual, my doctors didn’t really have any suggestions. During one particularly awful visit, one of them said, “fat bodies just want to be fat again.”
So I called my nutritionist. “I’m wondering if you can figure out why I’m gaining so much weight,” I said.
She went through my health history in detail again, but her tone seemed different this time. She thought I should try pea-protein shakes instead of real food for breakfast. She wanted to sell me some kind of supplement involving pig adrenal glands. She told me not to have more than two squares of dark chocolate — 70 percent cacao or higher — per day.
Even when I told her I didn’t necessarily didn’t want to lose weight, I just wanted to know whether I might have health issues that were making me gain weight, she didn’t really seem to get it. When she saw on my food log (ugh, that again!) that I was snacking on peanuts, she told me to ration them.
“Peanuts are really high in calories; don’t eat more than 20 a day,” the nutritionist told me. “I want you to count them.”
It felt like she was trying to make me have an eating disorder.
So I stopped working with her.
As it turns out, there’s a biological reason for my body’s return to its former curvy shape: weight loss itself. A recent study found that most of the contestants on weight-loss reality show The Biggest Loser gained their weight back, in part because losing weight slowed their metabolisms down.
“[Researchers] were not surprised to see that The Biggest Loser contestants had slow metabolisms when the show ended. What shocked the researchers was what happened next: As the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight.”
Fat or thin, I’ve struggled with how I feel about my body. There are always a few parts I like, and others I find myself hating even though I know better. But I’m glad to be pretty healthy, and frankly glad that my skin isn’t so saggy anymore.
And I’m starting to learn that my energy is better spent fighting fatphobia and modeling better self-love for my daughter. They’re big challenges, for sure, but they actually stand a chance of making a difference.
Instead of, say, counting peanuts.