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The More I Lose, the More I Win

This journey is a long one

By Barb DukemanPublished 3 months ago 49 min read
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Reaching for those carbs

This is not a typical essay on weight loss. I am not a typical person. Don’t expect recipes for darling cupcakes made of cauliflower and kale. I am stubborn, smart aleky, protective, immature, sincere, intelligent, intuitive, and sometimes a pain to be around. You should learn from my mistakes. Also understand I am NOT a physician and have NO medical background whatsoever. You should always check with your doctor before you change anything in your life regarding your health, like skydiving or maybe having that weird mole checked out while you’re there.

This is part of my personal meandering journey, one that I believe is more realistic than what I’ve read in weight loss tomes. My soul is completely bare, even though no one likes to see a naked soul. There’s never a dull moment. Some of you may be able to relate; it’s to you I tip my hat and say, “Go get’em! You can do this!” If you can’t relate, you might want to read something else more interesting.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

I knew I’d eventually become a real diabetic after being gestationally diabetic for both of my babies. I had my primary care physician (PCP) add the A1C test to my annual bloodwork; the numbers came up in the early 2000s showing elevated blood sugar (around 13 if I recall). I was a walking time bomb, and I never knew it. I didn’t experience what long-term high sugars can typically cause: gangrenous toes and fingers, diabetic retinopathy leading to blindness, transient ischemic attacks, or strokes. Not even headaches or thirst. I started on the most common diabetic pill, metformin, and hoped that a little dieting would be good enough. For me, however, “diet” is the sum total of what a person eats. Not necessarily healthy eating habits. Just whatever goes in my mouth.

Since diet wasn’t cutting it, they upped the ante. Gastric surgery and the lap band procedure were suggested by another endocrinologist. I researched it, and having my personal stomach cut, folded over, and stapled didn’t sound like a safe or fun procedure. My body parts are not conducive for origami. I had to lose some weight. Ok, not some, but a lot. I gained nearly 100 pounds since my wedding day. Happy life, happy wife, fat wife.

Everyone has a defining moment in the creation of a goal; a moment when a monumental decision must be made. Mine was at a doctor’s appointment. My endocrinologist said, “I’d like you to wear a monitor to determine why your morning blood sugar was so low but your A1C is high.” He looked perplexed. The monitor would measure every bit of sugar in my blood, every minute of the day.

The thought of having something stuck on me day and night to tattle on me was unsettling. I told him, “No, thank you. Give me one more chance.” What I didn’t tell him is that I didn’t need a monitor to know what happened; I fasted a whole 24 hours before the vampiric bloodwork after eating like a feral pig the prior three months with a devil-may-care attitude. I pleaded for him to wait – wait until my next scheduled bloodwork to see if I can’t improve my numbers.

Numbers. Uh-oh. Now what? I don't math well.

The weight loss industry rakes in over $72 billion a year, taking advantage of our vulnerability, our shame, our wallets. Like the snake oil dealers of yesteryear, these companies and salespeople make vapid promises of losing weight “without dieting OR exercise; just buy our specially formulated capsules at the ultra-low price of $49.95 for a month’s supply.” Promises of dramatic weight loss most likely happened only to one person in a study who also had a four-foot-long tapeworm, but that’s never mentioned. I’ve been trying for a few more than three days. Five and half decades later, and I’m still carrying extra weight around. None of those things worked. Now what?

I guess I had to bite the bullet and actually do something about this. I guess that time is now since I’ve retired. I wonder how many carbs in a bullet.

With such a humble beginning, one would think that my destiny included being ultra-thin since my birth weight was 5.2 pounds, and I was under 5 pounds when we came home from the hospital. Such a tiny thing I was - I mean, hey - this was the decade of Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy and all the other anorexic models after all. There’s a simple reason for my low birth weight: back in the mid-60s, smoking during pregnancy had not been deemed unhealthy yet. In fact, many mothers smoked on purpose hoping to have a smaller baby and a less painful delivery. My mother started smoking in the 50s when actresses such as Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe made smoking elegant onscreen; women took up smoking to keep their weight down. Audrey Hepburn made smoking glamorous with her long cigarette holder in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Ads on TV between the 30s and 50s showed doctors encouraging smoking as a refreshing past time. It wasn’t until 1964 that the surgeon general announced smoking was dangerous, much too late for my mom to quit having started in 1950. Luckily my mom didn’t have nausea during her pregnancies and take thalidomide or else I’d be typing this with my flippers. On the other hand, having flippers might have prevented me from stuffing so much food into my piehole.

I was a cute baby. Almond-shaped eyes, puffy cheeks, small mouth. GIRL. Of course, my mom didn’t see me for a couple of days because the protocol for birth included knocking the mom out to give birth. My parents heard their share of “Oh, look at those chubby cheeks!” “I could just pinch them!” (which they did), and “Oh, she’s so healthy!” The word “healthy” was the trendy euphemism for “ginormous” back in those groovy times. In the 30s when my mom grew up during The Great Depression, food was scarce, and everyone was emaciated. They understood the significance and symbolism of food. Being overweight meant you were prosperous, wealthy, and “healthy.”

During a routine medical check-up in my early childhood, the pediatrician told my mom I was already overweight and gave her the directive that I needed to go on a diet. It’s written down on a little piece of paper, kept in my baby scrapbook as another memento. Just more proof that this problem started way earlier than my teens.

I.

Was.

Three.

I can say I was fat most of my life. But wait – can you hear the trolls? – “Being fat is your own fault.” I must have been having the time of my life as a toddler, hitting all those drive-throughs, enjoying 8-course dinners, and tossing back bon-bons on the sofa watching Sesame Street and Electric Avenue. How did this happen, one may ask. I’ll tell you what I think started the ball of fat rolling…my grandmother watched over me when I started kindergarten while my mother went back to work, and she enjoyed spoiling me. An old Italian woman, a mother herself during the Depression and understanding what a lack of food felt like. And I was her only granddaughter. Snacks? High-fat puddings, cookies, cake, a weird sweet candy made from spoiled milk (dulce de leche cortada). Dinner? Something over pasta or rice. Drink? Orange juice or chocolate milk. A surfeit of calories.

I’d come home from grammar school, and the smells of baking and cooking welcomed me home. There was always something cooling on the stove, or a plate of cookies ready for snack time. I loved to snack. I also knew which houses down our street had the best snacks, which houses had the best candy for Halloween, and who had the best dinners each day (it was an Italian neighborhood). Eating over at friends’ houses was a thing; family sit-downs were still the norm. You just had to figure out at which house you wanted to be.

I cannot fully say that she was the only reason I was a chunky kid. She just made sure I never went hungry and made sure I satisfied my sweet tooth at every turn. To this day it’s hard for me to fathom that meals can be complete without rice or pasta. Or that meals don’t have to have dessert to follow. Or that 4 ounces is a serving size of OJ. Who knew? She had a set of juice glasses that were so small I thought they belonged to a kids’ tea set. They looked more like large shot glasses, not that I knew what those were at that age. Turns out those were meant for the tiny amount of juice in a serving.

My mom saw that I was getting too chubby and couldn’t fit in regular sizes for little girls. Stores advertised clothing for chubby, husky, or stout children. Husky. Not just a dog. When I was about five, she took me to this ladies’ gym in New York called Elaine Powers. I remember the little apple emblem as its icon – looked much like Steve Job’s handiwork. I had never been in a gym before and didn’t know what to expect. Boxers? Weightlifters? I also didn’t realize at the time she had signed up just for me. I tagged along as if we were just going to visit another friend or family member. There were treadmills, stationary bikes, hula hoops, jump ropes. It was recess for grown-ups. It’s hard to believe that some of those odd-looking machines were thought to induce weight loss. I liked the one that looked like a swing seat that pulled around your back side and jiggled your flab off. This is easy! Another weird machine looked like a round ottoman made of wooden spindles turned on its side. I would lean on it, and as it rotated, it was supposed to jiggle the fat off my butt and hips. Jiggling fat off was a big thing back then, but so was Jell-O.

Fast forward a few years; we moved from New York to Florida when I was about 8 years old. It was also my first introduction to bullying. Fourth grade, and I was brand new to the elementary school in the county where I currently reside. There was this boy, D., who used to call me “Shamu” under his breath as he passed me in the hall. Now, as a child raised in New York, I was unfamiliar with Sea World or any of its aquatic inhabitants. I had NO IDEA what a “Shamu” was, or why D. would be saying this around me to make his friends laugh. This continued for months, and I was blissfully unaware of what he was talking about. Until, that is, I saw a Sea World commercial on TV touting “SHAMU, THE TWO-TON KILLER WHALE!” I burst in tears when I saw that, which confused my mother. She thought maybe I had somehow become fearful of whales or dolphins, so she hugged me and tried to console me, using her term of endearment for me, “little elephant.”

Just kidding. I had to continue hearing “Shamu” and “Two-ton” in the hallways, whispered by D. and his friends. Of course, we were taught that “Sticks and stones may break my bones/but words will never harm me.” That’s just BS to a 9-year-old girl just trying to survive in a new school, a new state, a new culture. This is how my identity began to develop, experiencing the abject cruelty that kids inflict on one another. The drawings they’d leave behind so I could see them – a giant round circle with tiny arms and legs and a head, my name written above. I internalized the pain, and guess what? I ate more to soothe the pain away. I horded food, lied about what I ate, and traded food with kids at school. I’m not proud to say I once ate a tub of frosting. Each year I put on more weight, and D. and his crew continued their name-calling as we went through the grades.

It never helped that the houses I lived in always had more than one fridge. In fact, the last house where I lived with my parents had two full-size refrigerators and a full-size freezer. There were days a bag of mystery meat would be put in the fridge to defrost; we never knew quite what it was through the ice particles. Sometimes it was edible; sometimes it was tossed out. The pantry was huge, and my mom would buy extra food when it was on sale and stash it away in various parts of the house. Food was stowed in her closet, her bedroom, that bathroom closet, etc. Growing up during the Depression made them view food as a luxury, something to horde so that they’d never run out again. Down to five bags of rice? Put it on the list – time to get more. Only four bottles of olive oil? Who has the buy-one get-one this week? Sometimes we’d find things that expired many years earlier, and I’d sneak them into the garbage before she could say, “It’s still good. Don’t throw that out!” Mom, I’d say, this expired during the Carter administration. We’re two presidents past that.

Remember those Presidential Fitness Tests that were required back in the 70s? Of course, you do. Nothing is worse than having to prove to your peers that you are a fat slob and completely unfit to be drafted into the military if the Cold War ever thawed out. I think the sadistic gym teachers looked forward to this kind of torture; it was their way of dealing with their bad career choice. I took issue with the Shuttle Run: I run, pick up a 2x4 block of wood, run back, drop it, run again, pick up another block, and run back. How many seconds? Please tell me where and when I’ll use this skill as an adult. I’ll wait.

Never. That’s when. The other parts of the test as I remember included sit-ups, push-ups, and pull-ups. Each year I would tell the P.E. teacher that I can’t do even one pull up, and each year he/she would force me to try. “Why can’t you do pull-ups like Janie? Why can’t you do sit-ups like Lisetta?” Because I like to eat everyone else’s food when they’re not looking. I’d hold on to the cold metal monkey bar, and slowly let my feet slide off the top metal step. Then my hands would unwind and let go of the bar because my arms couldn’t support my weight. Down to the ground I’d go, like soft ice cream coming out of the machine. “One,” the teacher would happily record, counting that as one so her stats would look better. Sit-ups I tried, and the next day I couldn’t get up off the bed because my mid-section hurt so bad. Push-ups? Not even the girl ones on my knees. I don’t know if they still have the fitness test in elementary schools anymore; probably stopped them and started focusing on, you know, things like reading and math.

It’s a shame I was forced to skip PE in high school. Oh, I was enrolled; I just didn’t go. Being made fun of by my peers while exercising is why 9th grade was torture. Truthfully, as a freshman, I was good at running, and I liked going over the hurdles. The moment I heard boys on the other side of the field making noises like a cow running through a pasture (“ba BOOM ba BOOM ba BOOM”), I knew D. and the douche-canoes were making fun of me, and I wanted to melt right into the track. I was the only one out there because the other girls were incapable due to their perennial periods. Part of the problem was that I developed boobs at a younger age, and there is NO SUCH THING as a jog bra for larger girls, or one that works keeping the girls in line. As I ran and jumped, the boobs jumped, too – that’s what they were mocking. The derision in their laughter brought me shame and kept me from participating in PE, or from joining any sports group for that matter. I’d have to get my physical education in band where were marched and wore heavy, fat-hiding wool coats with shiny buttons. Today two years of band counts as a PE credit. Wish that was around back in the disco days.

Once I survived childhood, one would think I have left those problems behind. One would be wrong. A plethora of physical setbacks accompany being an overweight woman. If you’re overweight, there’s a good chance the boobs came along for the ride. The ridges that dig into my skin on my shoulders from bras are painful – in the future it might lead to bone issues or tissue damage. Going without a bra is not a choice here – I don’t want the girls dragging on the ground. It doesn’t look well with knee-length dresses at all. The prices we pay for good sturdy bras is astronomical; extra material, 4 -5 hooks minimum, steel girders, etc. I’ve seen sales of the cute bras, with lace and pencil-thin straps – 2 for $5! On sale today! Those are useless to me unless I use them as a headband.

Now that bullying and body-shaming are considered bad form, I’d like to think we live in a world where fewer kids go through what I did. Secretly, though, we know fat people are still targets, big ones at that, so we have national groups such as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) and Overeaters Anonymous (OA). Do they work? Not much, really. There are still bullies out there, both big and small. It’s a cruel world. I’ve read essays from students recalling some of the same pain I went through. They survived with a great personality or a wicked sense of humor. Others boldly transformed themselves into fit young adults, and I hope they stay that way for a long time, never looking back.

Don’t think bullying doesn’t happen in the grown-up world, either. In my first year of teaching, I attended a required training that offered a complimentary breakfast. I didn’t have any particular friends at the time or peers to sit with since I was new to the school. No problem; I was used to being alone. After getting my plate of food, I went back to my table where along the way I passed another teacher, unknown by me, on her way up. She looked at my plate and commented, “My, we’re a big girl, aren’t we?” as she walked back toward her group of teacher friends. I sat down, absolutely dejected, unable to eat, and holding back the tears. I couldn’t believe someone with a college degree would say that to a colleague. My self-worth plummeted even farther, which was a difficult thing to do.

I’ve worked under 90-pound principals where there was an obvious bias against “teachers of size.” They were without a doubt targeted, and undue attention and pressure was applied to the point where teachers resigned or switched schools. Teachers were placed upstairs, farther away from the front office, had neon lights installed over their classroom door flashing “CAUTION: WIDE LOAD AHEAD.” It was best to fly under the radar to avoid being noticed; disappearing into the background was a survival technique that some of us had to develop to keep our jobs. None of these managerial prejudices should be present in any office space, and especially not in schools where we are supposed to be models of behavior. How can kids trust us when they see teachers bullying other teachers because of their weight? Or for any reason?

Freshmen are worse than seniors at being unaware of others’ feelings. Some keep track, for instance, of what teachers wear each day and when sweat stains start to form. They pick up on any habits or preferences, like shaking chalk or wearing jean skirts. Once smartphones became a part of their anatomy, I was terrified of being recorded and posted on social media with “My Big Fat English Teacher” labeled across my body.

Teaching in front of adolescents is not easy, and if you’re plus-size, that becomes your identifier. At my school there’s the pretty senior English teacher…and the fat one. I’ve developed a strategy where I pre-empt student scorn by making fun of my size on day one. Get it out of the way so they won’t start in, see how the mere mention of it just rolls off me like water off the side of a hippo. My sense of humor and knowledge of content had to be blended to protect my self-esteem. It doesn’t matter how old I become; it still hurts to be called fat.

I worked on breaking the assumption that fat teachers sat at their desks all day. I’d skulk around the room every period, checking on everyone, making sure they were on task, making sure my behind wasn’t near anyone’s face. By the end of the day, I was exhausted. During my internship, my feet hurt so badly I developed hard spots on the bottom of my feet. I had to wear super comfortable orthotic loafers, aka old lady shoes. My supervisor from college chided me on my choice of footwear saying it was unprofessional-looking. This was coming from a tall, thin ascetic woman in 4-inch heels who sat down to supervise. From the very beginning of my career, my weight was still defining me.

Moving along…thank God for professional seamstresses. Shopping for the wedding dress at David’s Bridal, I’d bypass the gorgeous gowns for the size 8-and-under and head toward the “women’s” section (aka moose-gowns). Once I settled on a poufy-sleeved and embroidered lace frock with the bow on the back, the seamstress had to ADD a wide swatch of white satin on both sides for it to fit properly. I could see it in her eyes that she wished I had just picked an ugly tent-gown instead. SHUT UP, WOMAN, WE PAID YOU. And thus, my dress was strategically altered for my special day. I think if I had sneezed, the dress would have split open, and everyone’s eyes would burn from the sight of flab.

Dresses and pregnancies are not the only things that women of size have issues with. Seat belts don't fit right, no matter if it’s in the front seat or back, driver or passenger. I use an adapter that clips onto the seat belt across the hips so the upper strap fits across my chest. I always hate having to be the one to sit in the passenger front seat because three people in the back couldn’t possibly include me as one of them. Seat belts on planes are another cause of anxiety. In hushed tones I ask the flight attendant for the “extra wide” belt; it’s an extension that fits into the seat belt buckle that allows a person of extra girth to be belted in. It’s an embarrassment to even ask for one. I don’t know what would happen if they didn’t have one available. Would they call over the speaker, “Does anyone know where the extension belt for the bigger passengers is? We have one entering the plane right here.”

Speaking of embarrassing, I was once utterly humiliated at a Florida theme park. I had waited for more than an hour to get on a popular Harry Potter ride, and when I was within 10 minutes of reaching the front of the line, an employee beckoned me aside. Just me – not either of my two teacher friends who were with me. She asked me to sit in a facsimile of the ride’s seats to see if I would fit. She judged from a distance that I might be too fat for the ride. I was annoyed and mortified beyond belief. Why the hell isn’t this “judgment” call being made at the beginning of the line, where it wouldn’t be IN FRONT OF EVERYONE standing in line? I must have passed this preliminary judging because I was let go. We finally make it to the front of the line and get into our seats. The attendants put me into the seat farthest to the outside where “the seats are bigger.” When the ride operator came to push the safety bar down, it didn’t quite fit and wouldn’t lock. I panicked and angrily told him under my breath, “I don’t care how you do it, just PUSH DOWN with all your weight. Make it click!” and he did. My lungs squished, my eyes popped open like one of those weird stress-relieving silicone pigs, and I felt like I was having a mini-heart attack. Once I was able to breathe again, I smiled. See? I can fit in your dumb old ride.

Because of that incident, I don’t do “scary” rides any more. Not because they’re scary, but because I’m afraid of not fitting in the seats and being reminded once again HOW FAT I AM in front of others. I already know; I own mirrors. I’m the best holder of bags and purses now; “Bad back” I tell my friends. “That one hurts my neck.” I go to the same theme park each year as a high school chaperone, and I can’t even keep up with the others without tiring. Luckily, they have a chaperone lounge with snacks and free movies. Living in the state known for theme parks, I miss out on a lot of rides.

Bullying (a recurring theme here) occurs in different forms. Trolls online. Park ride operators. And even wee little tiny strangers. When my sons were in the after-care program at their elementary school, I would pick them up each day after I was done with my own long day of teaching. One day I walked into the cafeteria to retrieve my pair of spawn when this random kindergartner with raggedy hair and a dirty face looked me up and down, and asked me, “Why are you so fat?”

I kid you not when I say that a hundred different things went through my mind.

First, I thought, “My, aren’t you incredibly $#%@&’ rude.” My next thought was how quickly I would get fired if I dropkicked his little ass across the lunchroom. I looked around the room for the adults in case I decided that Punky Brewster here became a punching bag. I commanded respect; this was not acceptable. My brain immediately scrambled to come up with something witty, something that would PUT HIM IN HIS PLACE. All I could come up is, “I like food” and kept moving. Lame, but that was all I had. I was defeated by a half-pint. I left the school, kids in tow, wondering why things like this had to keep happening. What did I do to deserve this?

I once broke a scale at home by jumping up and down on it because I didn’t like the number it gave me. The truth enraged and tortured me. Something had to be done, but I was too dense (literally) to figure it out. My cocoon of denial was thick. I was stuck in a twisted version of Shallow Hal where I thought I looked good but the reality was quite different.

I’ve always been an overachiever: I had FOUR doctors telling me to lose weight. My primary care physician, my endocrinologist, my gynecologist, and my wellness center doctor. They all conspired to limit my joy in life by telling me that I must lose weight. I’ve heard this all before – I’ve been hearing this all my life: “You have to lose weight,” “this weight is unhealthy for you,” “you’re a cow,” etc. My doctor didn’t really call me a cow, but you get the point. He actually said, “you’re bovine.”

Even my gynecologist would chime in during my well-woman visits. All this extra weight will mess with my hormones and make it more likely to get cancers and whatnot. What? There’s a link between obesity and cancer? There’s a link between obesity and everything these days: cardiovascular problems, cancer, diabetes, increased taxes, etc. Thanks, Obama. Each year I dread my well-woman check-up; the pink paper gowns don’t fit, leaving a lot of me chillingly exposed. She can’t palpate my ovaries through the flab and goes poking around my abdomen trying to find them, as if they were hiding. Worst of all – I can’t get back up off the table on my own. I have to be hauled up because I have no core strength. BRING IN THE WINCH, GIRLS. At least mammograms aren’t that bad for women my size because the tech has something to work with.

Diabetes brings me to the endocrinologist, who specializes in all things endocrine including hormones. Back in the nineties when I was pregnant with my boys, I was gestationally diabetic; the added stress from HCG and a brand-new organ (the placenta) messed with my insulin. Diabetes is a wicked disease that can have many dire consequences, such as gangrene, blindness, nerve pain, and death. Being obese greatly increases the chance of becoming diabetic, especially if it runs anywhere in your family history. It’s not a disease to ignore. My aunt had both her legs amputated because of this disease because, she said, “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die happy.” That meant she didn’t change her eating habits at all. I once tried to test her blood sugar with my test kit, and it kept giving me ERROR. Turns out that what happens with numbers over 15. That’s really bad.

All these doctors told me I need to lose weight (including the colonoscopy guy). It wasn’t until I was faced with wearing a blood sugar monitor for week that made me finally want to change. I couldn’t bear the thought of having something with a tube inserted into my abdomen to measure my sugars on a constant level. The A1C wasn’t giving him enough of the data he would like to see. I’m a finicky sleeper as it is; I have the princess and the pea syndrome. I toss and turn a lot as it is. An electronic leech attached to my side would keep me awake, and after five days of no sleep, I’d make the FBI’s most wanted list. That wouldn’t be good; I’d have my students and family running for the hills.

If the blood work and that A1C isn’t enough to worry about, my cholesterol levels had become too high. I had big blobs of lipids floating around in my veins, and that, combined with extra sugar molecules in there, doesn’t leave much space for free flowing. Blood should flow. All my numbers were off, and that was a huge problem along with the added burden of extra fat enveloping my organs. I pictured my organs being cuddled by fat; instead, it was a full-on struggle for survival in there.

I’ve had a love affair with food all my life. I remember licking the spoon when icing was being made from scratch. GIMME MORE SUGAR! I loved sweets and still do. Fat was just that blobby stuff around the edge of a steak; that can’t possibly be an ingredient in ice cream. What are serving sizes? Usually the whole container. A box of Stauffer’s Lasagna says it serves ten. Our family? Barely four. I loved every carbohydrate ever created; and they loved me back. They’ve been hanging around ever since.

I was supposed to be following a diabetic diet all along, but carbs are flavor points. How can I live without them? Carbs are everywhere, sometimes hidden. This was certainly going to be tricky task. My husband and son didn’t need to diet at all, and they still wanted access to their carbs. For them, breakfast could be a row of Chips Ahoy or Reese’s Cups. Where do I start?

I tried to eliminate the bad stuff in my cupboard and discovered many things in my pantry and freezer were well beyond the expiration date so those were easy to purge. What do I do with the big offenders? Can I keep some of them? No. Basically, I need to focus on “twigs and berries” as my brother liked to call it. Rabbit food. Grazing fodder. Tasteless cardboard.

Labels must be read. I look especially for the serving size and how many servings per container. A serving size of pasta is about one cup. Look at a cup. Now look at the gargantuan bowl you’ve always put your pasta in. Look at the label again – 41 carbs for one cup. A carb serving for a diabetic is usually 15 carbs, two servings per meal. That means if I want to have some spaghetti, I should be having less than a cup.

Less than a cup.

Less than a CUP.

For this Cuban-Italian, that’s insane. But that’s serving size for you. Once I boxed up the felonious foods, I gave it away to people who didn’t need to watch their weight, so it was a win-win situation. I brought some of the snacky carbs into my classroom and my students ate them. I offered them leftover holiday candy as well. That’s the easiest way to make food disappear. Now that there was all this space in the pantry, I could fill it (in theory) with healthier choices. In retrospect, eating healthier means there should be fewer things in the pantry and more in the fridge; healthy foods shouldn’t have preservatives and chemicals that affect hormonal and metabolic processes. Home-cooked meals are a much better choice for healthy eating than boxes and cans. Those should be kept in the hurricane box and eaten only in emergencies. After hurricane season, somebody better hide that food, or I’m coming after the Pop-tarts with a vengeance.

Holidays are another minefield for me. Specialty foods and delectable treats accompany traditions, and we wouldn’t want to skip them now, would we? No. So Christmas brings marzipan, chocolate with liquor in them, soft plantains, butter-braid danishes for breakfast, mmmmmm. Santa puts more Ghirardelli in my stocking. And if it’s cold outside, hot cocoa is called for. One time, I rationalize, just this time of the year I’ll indulge, and then I’ll go back to being good. Holidays are special because it’s spent with family. When Aunt Bethany brings the Jell-O mold, you have some. Even if it’s made with cat food.

In case you never noticed, healthy food costs more than processed food, and healthy food doesn’t last as long in the fridge (or on the shelf), which means food shopping more often and spending more money. This is so unfair. According to US News, roughly 40% of all Americans are obese, and WebMD says that more than 70% of women are overweight or obese. With these numbers, wouldn’t it make sense to regulate the price of healthier foods and stop making Ramen a dollar for 6 packages? We’ve become addicted to quick and easy, and throwing together a last-minute meal with our hectic schedules means getting food out of a can or a box. Add to that the conundrum that sometimes the other people in the house don’t want to eat what I prepare because it’s…healthy.

But I was on a mission, and I’m still learning to make it work. I started by trying out vegetables I never had before, like spaghetti squash, and different cooking techniques, like roasting. Vegetables aren’t that bad if you have a variety. I tried making the well-loved vegetables like carrots and green beans and added more choices to the menu. I experimented with different products to determine what texture and flavors I can enjoy rather than just tolerate. I paid for healthy foods as I would for gold and diamonds no matter where I shopped. Either way, my wallet will cry.

A salad can be done up in ways so that I don’t feel like a ruminant chewing its cud. (I know – cow references are becoming tiresome. Moo to you.) Protein is very important as well. Lean cuts like chicken and turkey can be cooked in a variety of different ways. I tried new recipes because I can eat poultry only so many ways before I start growing feathers and clucking in public. The challenge was making dishes that everyone could enjoy. And then I decided – heck – if it’s healthy, then why shouldn’t EVERYONE in the house eat it? I’m not going to cook healthy and “unhealthy” meals and keep them in the fridge. It’s become an ”eat it or starve” attitude for me. I shouldn’t have to make dishes I can’t eat; why add more temptation? Cooking healthy meals daily is a daunting task.

There are many diets out there, both good and bad, and I’ve tried most of them. The first one my mom got me on was the Scarsdale diet, popular in the 70s. This was a strictly calorie-counting method, and we had those little calorie-counting books wherever we dined to determine what we could and could not eat. It didn’t matter where the calories came from; many foods were marketed as “diet” to appeal to these consumers. Tab and Fresca were purchased to go along with our celery sticks and broccoli florets. We weren’t fooled - 1,000 calories a day was making us mean and unhappy. Strict calorie counting wasn’t working. We can see why the creator of this diet was murdered by his lover.

Atkins became the rage when I was in middle school, and this diet had practitioners pee on a KetoStix to make sure there were no carbohydrates anywhere in the urinary system. In the first stage of ketoacidosis, the stick would turn purple. Snacks for me during this time included pork rinds with Wispride cheese. I remember around Girl Scout cookie time I had relapsed due to the easy availability of Samoas and Thin Mints, and I knew the stick would not be purple but rather a bright shade of beige. My mom would make me test every morning to make sure I was staying on the diet. At this point my stick was completely beige, which is not the color it should’ve been. That was the color of failure. Desperate, I resorted to using regular water paint to paint purple over the area of the stick that needed to be purple. This worked for a while, and then my mom caught on. Wrong shade, I guess.

I tried the Cambridge Diet during my senior year in high school. It was basically powdered everything that was reconstituted into “food.” The powder came in cardboard canisters, and I think the cardboard would have been tastier. The powder was scooped into lidded drink cups and then shaken violently. The food tasted like death warmed over. Everything looked like soup. I lost some weight, but I was miserable. During band camp that year I’d hide in my dorm room eating my unappetizing slurpy dinner while the rest of the band ate at the mess hall. It might have been college cafeteria food, but it was way better than the meal-in-a-can space food I was consuming.

I’ve tried Weight Watchers (“Nothing tastes as good as thin feels”) three times; each time I was successful, and each time I fell off the wagon and put the weight back on. I had to get weighed in front of people and log it into my little book. The group sessions were grueling; they’re like Alcoholic Anonymous meetings (“Hi, I’m Barb, and I gained three pounds this week.” “Hi, Barb.”) Talking about losing weight and food struggles with complete strangers can be off-putting. Today there’s better technology for these programs with apps and interactive websites, but none of that was present when I was growing up.

Atkins came around again, with new and improved eating plans and choices. Still didn’t work. The strict limit on carbs made the diet unappetizing and unrealistic. Life occurs, and carbs were meant to be enjoyed. Authors and publishers just wanted to sell more books and cardboard food. The South Beach Diet grew out of this concept and allowed more carbs into the mix; books and recipes galore! Lists of what could and could not be consumed were the new rage; while everyone must have looked fabulous in Miami, it wasn’t working for me in mid Florida. I donated those books to the thrift store.

In the early 90s I tried Gwen Shamblin’s WeighDown Workshop, a Christian-based approach to weight lost. Her photo on the DVD cover of her standing on a mountain with a flowing gauzy scarf around her head made us feel that thinness and serenity were synonymous. There were four teachers at school who were doing it. I liked the camaraderie, the prayers, the sharing and baring of our souls. We first had to learn what hunger was (“like the Israelites in the wilderness”) and that meant fasting until we recognized hunger to differentiate it from eating from habit. We’re supposed to eat when we’re hungry, but it’s hard to tell the different between hunger and boredom. That group soon dissolved, and the weight came back. Her WDW empire is still growing, with TV and online components instead of the DVDs and paper journals we had to fill out. Everything’s online nowadays.

Weight loss programs are flourishing on the internet. Health coaches constantly bombard our social media with pitches for their meal-prep or special diets. It’s the same old advertising in a fresh new format. It’s also harder to escape. If I look up something “diet-y” on Amazon, a bevy of ads for weight-loss programs and products infests my FaceBook feed. And least back in the day we had Richard Simmons and his “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” exercise sessions. We danced and pranced those pounds off. Those were fun; his “Dial-a-Meal” plan was not. Weight came right back.

Two current diets in fashion right now are the Paleo diet and the Keto diet. Paleo meant eating like a caveman (“Ungh, fire heat food. Good!”) and banning all grain products and items that were grown or harvested on purpose. It supposed we were designed to be hunters, and so we should have plenty of meat but no beans or grains. The Keto diet craze is (surprise!) nothing more than the Atkins diet wrapped up in a bow. It’s not practical, and I feel sorry for the people losing a lot of weight on Keto because I have a sinking feeling it will all come back – plus three pounds. They swear by it, telling me I don’t understand.

Me.

They think I don’t understand.

I want to scream at them, “No, YOU don’t frickin’ understand!” I’ve been on every diet and weight loss regimen in the last 55 years. Life occurs, opportunities change or disappear, and then your Keto isn’t affordable or convenient; there’s a lot of food prepping and avoiding restaurants. Try going to a party or a celebration at a restaurant and ask for the Keto menu. You’ll be waiting forever. Even salads can be tricky because of the stuff they put into it. Cold salads, extra dressing, croutons, chocolate bars – you never know where those extra carbs are coming from.

So don’t tell me about frickin’ diets. I’ve suffered through all of them. Then came the addition exercise.

If you’d asked me how I learned to love exercise, I would have laughed hysterically and, after wiping the tears away, I’d have slapped you upside your head. Me? EXERCISE? Surely you must be joking. Exercise is for those other people who are already more fit than humanly possible and look good in spandex. Exercise is for those who don’t mind sweating like a pig, grimacing like they’re giving birth, and grunting like a Neanderthal. Walking on a treadmill is like the rat on the exercise wheel; pointless, useless expenditures of energy. I'm not a rat; I'm more gerbil-shaped.

My dad thought it would be a great way to make friends if I were part of a softball team in my 5th grade year. He decided to coach, so he had me running bases. I despised every Saturday morning I spent out there on the field; I should have been home watching the Pink Panther and Bugs Bunny. Instead, I was wearing a maroon uniform, including those demon stirrup socks that were irritating. A baseball cap that made my hair sweat and never kept the sun out of my eyes. Squinting I’d go up to bat; the other team would move in and chatter, and I’d strike out every time. No hand-eye coordination. Maybe it was from my older brother throwing things at me that caused me to hide my face and duck whenever something was pelted at me. And then I’d go to right field, the side where no one ever hit. I’d focus on a dandelion patch or an anthill each time I’d go out until it was our turn to bat. It was hot, muggy, and itchy with that polyester. I hated every moment of it and never understood what people saw in organized sports.

I grew up watching Jack LaLanne with my parents, and barely missed Jane Fonda craze and her Jazzercise routines. In the early 90s Susan Powter came out with a book called Stop the Insanity! about ending yo-yo dieting for good and learning to move. It was basically a low-fat, low-calorie approach, but I remember admiring in her videos how she accommodated exercises for morbidly obese people, and older folks who had physical limitations. If they could do it, even the basics, I could surely jump into the game. The key was making it fun. I had a membership at that time at the local ladies’ gym in the 80s and 90s. No men; no intimidation. They even made announcements over the speaker system to warn us whenever there was a maintenance man there. They had various classes, and one caught my eye: belly-dancing. I signed up. I had plenty of belly to dance with.

All good things come to an end. The belly dance teacher moved to Oregon, and the gym never replaced her. I love to dance, but I do that now at home, alone, music cranked up, and mentally visualizing I’m J-Lo, but knowing I’m more like Elaine from Seinfeld. Dancing is probably the only fitness thing I seriously enjoy doing. Back in high school, I discovered dancing after the home football games – we had a dance each time. I danced until my heels were bloody, and I had a great time doing it.

Then a full-time job, marriage, and kids happened. My weight loss attempts took a dive. The last time I was on a fitness kick back in 2013 I started a scrapbook with motivational sayings, newspaper and magazine clips, and proof that I entered 1-mile and 5k fun runs (basically walking really fast). I was so proud when I got my first medal and number pinned to the front of my shirt. The rain didn’t even dampen my spirits that day. I have a string of safety pins hanging behind my door from those numbers.

So why have I had a membership to a local gym for so many years that my number has only two digits when current members are being assigned four-digit numbers? Automatic payments, that’s why. Every month whoosh there goes another automatic payment. I stopped noticing. I always felt guilty; I’ve been paying for several years and have gone fewer times than I should. I first signed up when my PCP mentioned that a gym was opening in my area; I thought it would make him happy that I joined. I didn’t realize I had to, you know, actually go work out. I might have gone more often if some compassionate trainer or desk attendant called me personally and said, “Hey, we haven’t seen you this week. Is everything ok? We’d love to have you back. We have free appetizers today.”

That gym opened with about twenty treadmills, elliptical machines, stair steppers, resistance machines, and free weights. Now there’s so many more machines and torture devices. I figured a good trainer would also help. And then I saw the price list.

Oh.

My.

God.

HOW MUCH?

Then I had to make a simple choice. Do I pay what was essentially another CAR PAYMENT, or do I continue to watch myself get fatter and fatter? Hmmmm. DING! We have a winner. Sign me up. For a whole year. Yes, really. Hope you have patience. I just bought you. Hope you’re ready because I don’t like to follow directions.

Here we go. To warm up, I just moseyed on over to the treadmill. Seems painless enough. I got on, plugged in my headphones, and spent the better part of five minutes trying to figure out how to change the channel on the TV attached to the machine. Once I got THAT figured out (that is very important, you know), I pressed the button, and started walking. Very slowly at first, maybe 2.0 mph. Whew! Twenty minutes went by, and I was done for the day. I felt quite successful in keeping my heart rate up. Then I noticed the little chart on the treadmill that tells me what my heart rate should be for my age. I’m doing wonderfully for a woman of 90.

But I’m not 90.

I wasn’t even 50 yet.

That was warmup on Day One. Since that day, I have amassed an impressive collection of Dry-fit shirts, workout pants, and even gloves. I created 45 playlists on Spotify to play through my Beats. Again, all of this is VERY important in the gym routine because some days the music is simply awful. I invested in super expensive sneakers which I bought in hopes that it would keep me going to the gym on a regular basis. I had to walk the walk.

The people at the gym that scare me the most are the grunters. These are the bodybuilders (and wannabes) who spend most of their time with the barbells and free weights and then make such god-awful sounds when they dramatically drop their weights like an exclamation point. These animal noises are so loud it sounds like 911 should be called. It’s off-putting, to say the least, when I’m just starting out, horribly unfit, and there are these noises coming out of people. These men would not be able to deal with labor. Sometimes I’m on a machine with more weight than I’m used to; I’m internally ranting and mouth a word for each rep. “You,” “guys,” “couldn’t,” “freakin,’” “handle,” “a,” “baby,” “coming,” “out,” “of,” “you.”

That brings me back to the consistency of using the gym. It's in a terrible place. I’d like for someone to move our gym if possible. It has the unfortunate luck of being downwind of a Japanese steakhouse, an Italian restaurant, and a barbecue joint. I’ve worked out, sweat, drank water inside the gym– whew! – terrific workout. I walked outside, and I’m instantly assaulted by the mélange of smells, heady aromas of food being cooked nearby. My mind told my stomach, “Hey, there’s food in the air. Fetch.” I told both of them to shut the hell up; no food until we go home. They cried, saying, “But it smells SOOO good! One meal won’t hurt.” And I attempted to drive home quickly before the smell of beautiful things permeated my car interior, and I blindly pulled into the barbecue place. My trainer would have cried.

Carrie the Torturer had me focus on how much I can handle at one time rather than counted sets and reps. This is a different concept for me; I like the safety and comfort of a countdown. This way tests me on a different level: it’s now me against myself. Can I do two more? Yes, I can (hum “Bob the Builder” while reading that). I must realize, though, that sometimes I don’t know how much I can truly handle. She usually waits until I get very quiet, or I make a high-pitched squeaky noise, which is my version of grunting. Sometimes a plain cuss word flies out, and I’m done.

I still have soggy self-esteem and an even worse self-image. I see myself in the mirror as nothing more a fat blob like Evelyn Couch in the earlier part of my favorite movie Fried Green Tomatoes. It should be noted that Evelyn, who has better insurance, undergoes a similar transformation throughout the movie, and I’m following that same path. It’s nice to have fictional role models; they never let you down no matter how many times I watch the movie.

When I bend down or over, however, I absolutely despise the woman in the mirror. My shirt tightens over my blobby belly, underscoring it, italicizing it, bolding it so its emphasis is available to everyone’s eyes. I should believe that no one else cares, but I’ve seen enough YouTube fails where the goal is to humiliate people like me who are trying desperately to change. At the gym I can’t tell if someone’s replying to a friend or Snapchatting a photo of me in my Scooby-Doo shirt looking like Danny Devito’s Penguin with “lol” written over my body.

The biggest demotivator for me was seeing the numbers on the scale at home. I could work out every day and follow the perfect diet only to discover I gained weight. I KNOW muscle weighs more than fat. That’s been beaten into my head by all the skinny people. I broke a scale at home once because I jumped up and down on it. There’s even a disgusting plastic model at the gym of what a pound of fat looks like. But remind the MDs I have; what’s the very first thing they do in the doctor’s office? PUT YOU ON THE SCALE. Then write down the number or (heaven forbid) say it out loud, and now I’m defensive. I’m angry. I’m upset. How did I gain weight if I’ve been doing everything right? They don’t ask if I’ve been exercising or eating healthier. The damn number just gets recorded and put by the other numbers. Then they use calculus and the dark arts to tell me my weight went up. This is definitely one of my triggers.

Despite this, I’m still doing it. I’ve started to notice my clothes are getting baggier, waistlines are looser. I noticed that I could wear items that I’d stashed farther in the closet. Those of us with life-time weight issues have several sets of clothing just waiting for the day they’ll fit again. Maybe one day color blocks and paisley/flower combos will be in vogue again. Last Spring, I bought 2 different-sized dresses for a wedding: cow-sized, and calf-sized. For the wedding I felt I looked better in the cow-sized dress. The other was too clingy. Fast forward 8 months; I pulled the dress out for a brunch and tried it on. I took the dress off and looked at the label: it was the calf-sized frock. I looked better in the smaller version that day than I did in the larger one in the spring. THOSE are the results I believe. Those are the payoffs for the sacrifice and work I’m doing. Not random weights or BMIs.

Another trainer said something to me that made a lot of sense when I started. It’s not him, the owner, or Carrie the Torturer that I’m disappointing; it’s me. I should be doing all this just for me because I know it’s the right thing to do. He told me I needed to be fully committed (insane asylum, anyone?). No one else should count; just me and the battle in my brain. My brain usually wins; I see myself as a hideous being with an “abdominal apron” or apron belly, stretch marks, FUPA (ask a teen to define that for you), jiggly arms, extraneous breast tissue sneaking out into my armpits, a fat neck, and double chin. You can wager I have some low self-image issues; a lifetime of being this size will make you feel this way. A very long time ago I punched my stomach several times because I hated it and wanted it to go away. The only result was a bunch of bruises and empty vows to lose weight.

In my mind’s mind I’m taller, weight-proportionate, and somewhat stunning. I see my reflection in a glass window or full-size mirror, and I’m short, dumpy, misshapen, and repulsive. I’m the one who talked with the three Billy Goats Gruff. “Oh, stop, you’re overdramatizing.” Gee, thanks for that invalidating comment. This is what I see, who I am, who I’ve always been. I hate walking by storefronts with giant reflective windows; it’s a ginormous mirror, and I despise what I see. I’m trying to change, but the strikes are against me. I’m older, female, and diabetic. I’m not surrounded by full family support and understanding. It’s harder at this age to lose weight.

But not impossible.

In a local Wal-Mart, I went looking for a pair of leggings to wear to the gym during the few days of winter we have in Florida. I traipsed over to the plus size section and noted the selection: a single rack of black and navy, and one wildly colored one made from scratchy material. Nothing there appealed to me. I continued through the store, taking a short cut through the junior section, and there along the wall were at least 30 different pairs of insanely soft leggings, solids and prints. XS. S. M. L. 2X (19). Now I’m not a size 19; I don’t remember a time I was not in the 20s. But it was their largest size. I shrugged my shoulders and said what the hell - they’re cheap enough. I bought one; I’ll keep the receipt to return it later.

Ladies and gentlemen, hold on to your hats –

-it fit.

I wore an item intended for juniors. And it was glorious.

This journey has made me realize that redefining success is a must. It cannot be numbers recorded on a piece of paper that defines me; there’s much more complexity to me than just predictable numbers and graphs, as indicated by this sign ironically above my doctor’s scale. “Weight is only a number; it’s not who you are.”

I can’t stop now. There’s so much to win as I lose.

ChildhoodWorkplaceTeenage yearsSecretsSchoolHumanityEmbarrassmentCONTENT WARNINGBad habits
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About the Creator

Barb Dukeman

After 32 years of teaching high school English, I've started writing again and loving every minute of it. I enjoy bringing ideas to life and the concept of leaving behind a legacy.

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