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Fat to Fit: Chps 1-4

by Barb Dukeman 11 months ago in health
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A Health Journey

This face says, "It's time for a nap now."

Chapter 1: Humble Beginnings

Such a humble beginning.

One would think that my destiny included being ultra-thin since my birth weight was 5.2 lbs, and I was under 5 lbs when we came home from the hospital. Such a tiny thing I was - I mean, hey - this was the decade of Twiggy after all. There’s a simple reason for my low birth weight: back in the mid-60s, smoking during pregnancy wasn’t deemed unhealthy. In fact, many mothers smoked in hopes of having a smaller baby and a less painful delivery. Luckily my mom didn’t have nausea 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. Chinese-looking eyes, puffy cheeks, small mouth. GIRL. My mother was praying for a girl and had such a hard time keeping her pregnancies intact, so I was definitely a little miracle for her. 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” must have been the trendy euphemism for “ginormous” back in the 60s. Back in the 30s when my mom grew up, food was scarce, and everyone was emaciated. Being overweight was seen as being prosperous, wealthy, and “healthy.”

During a doctor’s visit sometime in my early childhood, the family doctor told my mom I was overweight and gave the directive that I needed to go on a diet.




I can say I was fat most of my life. But wait – I can still 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. How did this happen, one may ask. I’ll tell you…my grandmother babysat me when my mother went back to work, and she fully enjoyed spoiling me. An old Italian woman. Much a young 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 (really – dulce de leche cortada). Dinner? Something with pasta or rice. Drink? Orange juice or chocolate milk.

I cannot fully say that she was the only reason I was a chunky kid. She just made sure I never went hungry and satisfied my sweet tooth at every turn. I loved to lick the frosting off the mixing beaters; it was especially nice when she turned the mixer off. 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?

My mom knew that I was getting too chubby. When I was about five, she took me to this ladies’ gym 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. It’s hard to believe that some of those 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!

The other 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 jiggled the fat off my butt and hips. Jiggling fat off was a big thing back then, but so was Jell-O. I also remember doing bizarre exercises in the mommy-and-me fitness class; one of them involved “walking” across the floor on our butts. Oh, what a sight this was. Twenty women sitting on the floor, legs out, back straight, arms held out in front. Then we had to alternate moving our actual butt cheeks to crawl across the floor. So glad we didn’t have Snapchat back then.

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’m brand new to the school. There was this boy, D., who used to call me Shamu. Now, as a child raised in New York, I was quite 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. This continued for months, and I was blissfully unaware of what he was really saying. Until, that is, I saw a Sea World commercial on TV touting “SHAMU, THE TWO-TON KILLER WHALE!” I burst out 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 young girl just trying to survive in a new school, trying to develop an identity, starting to feel the abject cruelty that kids can inflict on one another. 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. Each year I put on more weight, and D. and his crew were in their glory of name-calling.

Now that bullying and body-shaming are considered bad form, hopefully fewer kids will go through what I did. Secretly, though, we know fat people are still targets, big ones at that, and only know 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.

Chapter 2: A Large Woman’s Anxiety

Once I survived childhood, one would think I have left those problems behind. One would be wrong. The dating game is especially a cruel one. I can’t even imagine what the dating scene would have looked like if social media and the internet had existed back in the 80s. I was on Weight Watchers when I met my husband-to-be. I worried about how I looked, of course, and thought I could never measure up because I had extra flab here and there. Going out to eat caused me to panic – “What would he think if I ordered real food?” and so I would say, “I’d like to have a side salad, dressing on the side, please” while ogling his cheeseburger and those beautiful fries.

Ironically, that particular weight is now my goal weight.

Moving along…thank God for seamstresses. Shopping for the wedding dress, and I’d bypass the gorgeous gowns for the size 8-and-under and head toward the “women’s” section (aka cow-gowns). Once I settled on a gown, the seamstress had to ADD a wide panel 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 cow-gown instead. SHUT UP, WOMAN, WE PAID YOU. And thus, my dress was strategically altered for my special day.

Weddings aside, there are other events in a large woman’s life that she worries about. Pregnancy is just one of them. Will being overweight make me less likely to conceive? Will I be healthy enough? Will sex actually happen enough if I look like I’m inflated? Lo and behold, I conceived just three years into the marriage, so yea for me. During an early appointment, it was determined that I was gestationally diabetic. This meant that I was diabetic, but just for the duration of the pregnancy. I had to watch what I ate and keep track of everything that went into my mouth because the fear was that the excess sugar floating around my bloodstream would end up in the baby and produce a 20-pound baby. I had charts where I had to record everything I ate, and it pains me to say that sometimes I had to finish the list on the back. My pregnancy wasn’t too bad – I kept my sugars in check and delivered a healthy 7’11” boy in 1995.

With baby number two, diet alone couldn’t keep my sugars down. I had to take insulin. Medicine by mouth would have affected the baby, so only subcutaneous injections could be used, a total of 120 units. Let me explain something to you, first and foremost. I DON’T LIKE SHOTS. I break out into a cold sweat for vaccinations, Novocaine, or anything else with a sharp pointy tip. The diabetes counselor who taught me about my condition wouldn’t let me go home until I could successfully inject a practice needle into my leg. Oh, the tears I cried! But I did it – aimed for a random freckle above my knee and stabbed it. Four shots a day I endured to make sure my baby was healthy. Surprisingly I actually delivered at a weight that was LESS than when I started before the pregnancy, but the doctor said this would be OK as long as the baby was growing. And this worked – baby was 7’10” and healthy in 1998.

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 front or back, driver or passenger. I use an adapter that fits on the seat belt across the hip so the upper strap fits across my chest. When I ride in someone’s else car, I hold the strap in place, or the strap threatens to strangle me across my neck. Seat belts on planes are another cause of anxiety. I am stuck asking the flight attendant for the “extra wide” belt; it’s an extension that fits into the seat belt buckle that allows a fat person to fit. It’s an embarrassment to even ask for one. I don’t know what would happen if they didn’t have one.

Speaking of embarrassing, I was once humiliated at a Florida theme park. I had waited for more than an hour to get on a popular 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 friends who were with me. She asked me to sit in this facsimile of the ride’s seats to see if I would fit. She had judged from a distance that I might be too fat for the ride. I was annoyed 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. Then we make it to the front of the line and get into our seats. They put me into the seat farthest to the outside where “the seats are bigger.” When the park employee came to push the safety harness 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, but PUSH DOWN with all your weight. Make this happen!” and he did. My lungs squished, my eyes popped open, 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.

And because of this, 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, ya know.

Bullying occurs in different forms. Trolls online. Park ride operators. And even tiny little wee strangers. When my sons were in the after-care program at their elementary school, I would pick them up after I was done with my own long day of teaching high school English. One day I walked into the cafeteria to retrieve my spawn when this random tiny kindergartner 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 frickin’ rude.” My next thought was how quickly would I get fired if I dropkicked her little ass across the lunchroom. I scrambled to come up with something witty, something that would PUT HER IN HER PLACE. All I could come up is, “I like food.” Lame, but that was it. I was defeated by a half-pint.

Something must be done.

Chapter 3: Becoming a Gym Rat

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, grimacing, and grunting. Walking on a treadmill is like the rat on the exercise wheel; pointless, useless expenditures of energy. Being made fun of by my peers while exercising is why I skipped PE in 9th grade.

So why have I had a membership to the 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. But I always feel guilty; I’ve been paying for several years and have gone fewer times than I should. I 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 there.

It’s a nice gym. It has about twenty treadmills, elliptical machines, stair steppers, resistance machines, and free weights. There’s also a room for classes, and a room for isometrics and measuring. I asked for a run-through of what having a personal trainer for my son entailed, and I had a note from my doctor stating that my son was cleared for physical activity. It was a very thorough process, explained by a young, eager trainer with good credentials. And then I saw the price list.





Then I had to make a simple choice. Do I pay what was essentially another CAR PAYMENT, or do I continue to watch my son and myself get fatter and fatter? Hmmmm. DING! We have a winner. Sign us up, Rob. For a whole year. Yes, really. We just bought you. Hope you’re ready.

While Rob was completing the initial measurements and assessments, 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. 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 just a tad over 50.

So I have to work on this. Meanwhile, Rob comes back and tells me how my son did, and we’re done for the day.

That was Day One. Since that day, I have amassed a collection of Dry-fit shirts, workout pants, even gloves to use on the nasty bars of the machines. I have 3 iPods, 13 playlists, and several types of earbuds. Again, this is VERY important in the gym arena. And my gaggle of cute water bottles. Must have one of those. Can’t be so bourgeoisie that I bring an actual bottle of Publix water. I also have super expensive sneakers which I bought in hope that it would keep me going to the gym on a regular basis.

Working out, though, is real work. Hard, sweaty, repetitive work. I guess that's why they call it a work out. If it were a sleep out, I'd do fine.

Chapter 4: Back to the Gym

Since going to the gym is now a given, I’ve come to recognize certain types of people. The first one I noticed was the treadmill abuser. This person uses the treadmill in ways that it was not intended. Including running BACKWARDS on it. Really. That’s a safety hazard in capital letters. What happens when she falls? She gets hit in the lady parts and her face is sanded by the conveyor belt. Not a pretty picture.

I also saw a woman do this sideways thing where she put one foot over and then behind, so she was doing the twist on the treadmill. It looked rather dangerous (and silly), but she was sweating up a storm. Just so long as she cleans up after herself, I’m ok with that.

But this one perplexes me: I was next to a guy, big buff and scary, but he kept hopping onto the sides to take many breaks while the treadmill was still running. Why not pause it? Or was he trying to add miles or time to his daily “run”? He even went off to find the restroom and left the treadmill running. Who’s he trying to impress? FRAUD!

I tried the elliptical. I can do maybe 2 minutes and then my body screams, “GET THE HELL OFF OF THERE. NOW!” so I listen to my body. The stairs? Nah. My knees have told me if I did those, there’d be hell to pay, so I listen to my knees, too. I had to stop listening to those body parts. My liver stayed strangely silent.

I ran into a conundrum at the end of the first month. Doing the same speed of 2.8 mph (with gusts up to 3.1), I couldn’t get my heart rate past 104. What gives? Turns out my heart is getting more efficient, so to get that number up, I must work harder.


I do my job on the treadmill, and I’m rewarded with having to work harder? Que sera, sera. I didn’t want to actually jog (my knees gave me a stern look), so I asked the trainer what I should do. He suggested that I raise the incline. Genius! I’m getting my heart rate up and walking even slower. I feel like that guy in the Depeche Mode video where he’s continually walking up the hill in snow.

Or, more like it, walking on the treadmill feels like being trapped in an endless Escher painting. The point I’m trying to make here is to find something that works for you. You may hate the treadmill but enjoy bicycling. Do it. In the heat of the Florida summer, I simply can’t do anything outdoors. I need the air conditioning and the fan. Sometimes I’ll swim, but I end up doing the jellyfish move where I just hang on to the noodle and float around the pool. Just call me Man O’ War. Not the most productive movement in burning calories, but it'll do.


About the author

Barb Dukeman

Ready for a new direction after 32 years of teaching high school English. I wrote my first poem about green socks in 1977; I hope I've improved since then.

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