I would barely eat and was a scrawny kid until I got my tonsils out. I remember the ice cream they served me in the hospital—delicious, smooth, creamy, and soothingly cold. After my tonsillectomy, I developed a big appetite for a little girl, or so my mother told me. A
pleasantly plump grade-schooler who loved clothes, I hated shopping in the chubby department with its narrow choices and elastic waist bands. By the time I got to high school, I knew I wanted to be thin, thin, thin. So I dieted, dieted, dieted. I cheered myself along by writing in my high school diary when I managed to get through a day eating only an apple. Just an apple—hurray for me! I left out my weekend binges when my mother scolded me for eating a bottle of sticky-sweet maraschino cherries that were for company or stuffed my face with candy bars sold to me by the clerk who called me “brown-eyed beauty” so that eating those candy bars became a ritual to feel beautiful.
In my first two years of college, I gave up trying to be thin and popular and threw myself into my studies. Somehow I wound up in a group of six highly attractive girlfriends and I was the only chubby one among them. All of them wore stylish clothes and had their pick of frat boys. Never fat but always weighing 10 to 30 pounds more than my tiny five foot frame could carry, I never felt I fit in. Most of the time I was convinced that being slim was the key to popularity, but I also went through phases when I believed it was thin plus having big eyes, or thin plus having straight hair, or thin plus dressing sexy.
After two years, I switched colleges and found a binge buddy. Cross my heart, the two of us had competitions on who could eat more. Competing really wasn’t fair because she was large-boned and weighed more than me to begin with, but I made up in zeal what I lacked in stature. I could eat a quart of ice cream in a sitting, a pizza all by myself, a frozen apple pie, a dozen donuts. Food helped me feel less lonely, less heart sick that I was crazy about a guy who only wanted me as a friend (except when he wanted more), and grief stricken to my core when my father died of a heart attack between my junior and senior years of college.
Chubby, but outgoing with a contagious sense of humor, I dated. I let one man jokingly call me fat fingers and chubby paws and another not so jokingly call me thunder thighs, and I laughed off the pain. Or if I couldn’t yuck it off, I ate it away, often with a glass or two of wine or scotch priming the pump. I ate and drank my way through my 20s, dieting and putting the weight back on, obsessed about being thin and miserable about being totally out of control around food. I had all the usual disgusting habits—eating food out of the garbage can and off the floor, gorging til my stomach ached, and chowing down on food stuff that was spoiling or even spoiled.
In my 30s, I began to exercise and eventually began over-exercising. I loved hearing people say I was thin, but the fact was that even when I approached what was a reasonable weight for me, I didn’t feel thin. Thin was always someone else’s body, never mine. When the weight crept back on, I knelt down by the toilet and vomited up what I’d eaten. It amazes me now that I thought this was such a clever, no consequence idea. While working in the high pressure, appearance conscious advertising world, I was bulimic for about 18 months. When I told a friend, she was furious with me and ordered me into therapy. It helped. I stopped purging and started to understand that there was something extremely wrong with my relationship with food and my body.
My ah-ha moment was reading Susie Orbach’s FAT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE and the handful of books which came out in the 1980s that told women they didn’t have to diet or binge, but could learn to eat according to appetite. I felt as Columbus might have when he “discovered” the new world. I toted Orbach’s book around with me everywhere, just like a recovering alcoholic carrying her “AA little book.” I talked about this new found way of eating ad nauseam to friends—eat when you’re hungry, choose foods you like, and stop when you’re full—and bought a second copy of FAT so I could lend one out and still have mine to cling to. I read every word of that book over and over. Sometimes my tears stained the pages. Other times I read it while eating to help me stay connected to my appetite. Pages were discolored by cream cheese frosting, marinara sauce, chocolate, and most of what I ate. The book was a revelation and revolution. I actually started learning to become a “normal” eater.
No one practiced “normal” eating as hard as I did: eating only when I was hungry, choosing foods that satisfied me rather than viewing foods as “good” or “bad,” eating without distraction though I hated doing so at first, and—hardest of all—stopping when I’d had enough. I learned over time to leave food on my plate, stop weighing myself, and do something with my feelings other than stuff them down with food. I managed a Goldilocks with exercise—not too much and too little. And, lo and behold, between not eating like a maniac or deprivation myself of foods I loved and exercising appropriately, I lost weight. A couple of pounds here and there, then 10, then 20. Unable to shake the thinner is better, I spent some time a little underweight, but then let the number on the scale gradually creep back up.
While I was still learning to eat what then was called “intuitively,” I started teaching in a friend’s program that helped people stop dieting and bingeing and eat according to appetite. What a novel idea, teaching people to do what humans had done since the beginning of time! I went to graduate school to become a social worker in the hopes of teaching other troubled eaters how to stop depriving themselves of foods they loved one day only to binge on them the next. I ran support groups and led workshops and eventually developed a private practice teaching people what I had taught myself, all the while honing my “normal” eating skills which came more automatically to me as the decades wore on.
After trying my hand at fiction writing, I wrote a book about the rules that helped me find a comfortable weight without dieting, then another on emotional eating, a third for general therapists treating troubled eaters, a fourth for “nice” girls who take care of themselves with food, a fifth on resolving psychological conflicts which plague disregulated eaters, and a sixth on how they can overcome life skill deficits to improve their eating. My practice grew and foreign translations of my books brought me clients from all over the globe. I’m only now, as I approach 67, starting to cut back my practice to do more writing and have more free time.
It’s not the weight loss that has made the difference in my life. Anyone who thinks it’s just the weight is doomed to regain it or live an unhappy life as a thinner person. It wasn’t losing and keeping off 30 pounds that changed my life, but all I learned along the way about myself and how to deal with the world without abusing food or my body. For many people who carry excess pounds, it’s not a weight problem, but an eating problem. My own experience and that of the hundreds of people I’ve treated over the last three decades assures me of that.
It’s not really about what you lose at all. The paradox is that people need to be able to say “yes” to food before they can say “no”. They need to learn about themselves inside out and brush up on life skills. When all that happens, life becomes easier and so does eating.