I was scrolling through pictures from an incredible writers’ conference I attended last year. As I went through them, I had a happy, light feeling in my heart. This was one of those events that feel like they’re changing something in your life, and I enjoyed seeing the faces of new friends.
And then I came across this one.
That’s me. I had an experience, seeing this photograph that I haven’t had in a while.
I’m willing to bet you know the one.
In every other photograph, I saw whole people. I had zero negative reaction.
But this one? I saw saggy boobs and a belly roll. I saw weird hair that isn’t used to Nashville humidity. I saw a funky chicken neck that hasn’t quite gotten used to being less full.
It took a while for that all to come together until I was looking at a candid picture that was just me. Just a middle-aged lady with a genuine smile on her face. And then I realized that it’s probably time for me to talk about this.
Let’s start with how I got fat.
It’s pretty simple really: I ate a lot.
The people I love, the people I share my DNA with — most of them turned to alcohol to manage things like anxiety and depression and the thousand, thousand things that everyone, everyone has to deal with.
I am sober, but I ate a lot.
I got drunk on chocolate chip cookies and grilled bratwurst.
Here’s how I got fat.
I managed the hard years, when my dad was in prison, when I was left alone with a gaggle of brothers and a step-mother who hated me, when my kids were babies and so was I, when my husband left me alone to raise them while he found another love of his life, I managed those years with food.
I ate because sometimes nothing else felt good, and I desperately needed to feel something good.
I ate because I was lonely and scared and exhausted.
I ate because I had a three-year-old who was still ten years away from being diagnosed with autism and he only slept three hours a night. Ever. Since birth. (He’s 24 now — and still. Three hours a night.)
I ate because for ten years I never once paid all of my bills every month.
I ate and I survived.
And I got fat.
Nearly 400-pounds fat.
So fat that it hurt to move. So fat that I had to wear a machine to keep breathing in my sleep. So fat I built a huge gap between the things I wanted to do and the things I was capable of.
A gap so wide that I couldn’t see a way to bridge it.
I got so fat that I started to hate myself.
I used to lay awake at night with a belly full of whatever had made me feel better and think about using a knife to carve off my round belly. I used to avoid looking at myself in the mirror because all I saw was an immense body, less human than Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float. Expandable. Expendable. Unloveable. Taking up so much space. Too much space.
There were whole decades when I would have emailed Sionnie, who took the above picture of me, and begged her to take it down.
I got to a point where I was so sick, I couldn’t function. A 100 Day Experiment changed my life. I set a simple goal (eat enough, instead of an insane cycle of starving and binge eating, and exercising for 10 minutes a day) and stuck with it until I felt better.
And then one day, when I caught my reflection, I made myself keep looking.
It wasn’t a mirror, that day. Or a candid photograph.
It was my reflection in a glass door in the freezer section of the grocery store. It was while I was reaching for Cherry Garcia. I caught a glimpse of myself and, for some reason, I didn’t let myself turn away.
I stood there in the freezer section, holding a pint of Cherry Garcia, and I looked until I wasn’t parade-float sized anymore. Until I was just me. Three-hundred-and-sixty-eight pounds, not three-million-and-sixty-eight pounds.
I looked until I could be as kind to myself as I would be to any other human being on the planet.
That was the first day.
The first day that I understood that the way I talked about myself didn’t stay inside of me. That self-hatred wasn’t only about me. My daughters heard. Other women heard. Women I didn’t know, that I didn’t even notice, heard.
I was still fat. I stayed fat for a long time after that day in the freezer aisle with the Cherry Garcia and my reflection in the glass door.
I was still fat, but I stopped hating myself.
Not over night. It took some time. A lot of time, actually. But it worked.
I kept looking at myself. I stopped talking about how much I hated my squishy belly. I worked hard to heal my relationship with food and with my body.
And then one day, I realized that it would be okay if I was less fat.
That it would be okay to do something that would make it easier for me to move and to breathe. I wasn’t betraying myself or this new found non-hatred if I did something to start to build a bridge across that gap.
I could love myself and appreciate my body and still do something that would take away the physical pain that came with weighing 368 pounds.
I wasn’t required to live forever with the physical consequences of what I did to survive those mean years.
So I paid a doctor to remove eighty percent of my stomach. Those violent thoughts about taking a knife to my fat kind of happened. I just paid someone else a lot of money to do it for me.
And I kept looking at myself when the parade-floaties came back. I kept reminding myself that self-hatred isn’t something that comes standard in women. It didn’t come standard in me. It was learned and I had worked hard to unlearn it. I still work hard to unlearn it.
Two years later, I can breathe when I sleep again. I can move again. I don’t hurt anymore. I’m still fat. I’m just less fat. I’m more comfortably fat. More acceptably fat.
The kind of fat that can buy jeans straight out of an Old Navy store instead of ordering extended sizes through the mail and hoping or the best.
The kind of fat that is closer to the realm of normal.
But I still have to make myself look until I normalize in my own eyes. Until I’m just me again. Until I can be as kind to myself as I would be to any other human being. Until I don’t want to cut away parts of myself anymore.
I can’t manage the bad things with food anymore, so I have to feel them and move through them and face them. I can’t try to stop-up loneliness and shyness and frustration with tacos and Cherry Garcia any more. There isn’t room in my little stomach. And I don’t want to, anyway.
I eat Cherry Garcia because it feels perfect on my tongue. A spoonful now, or two, not a pint. Or two. I eat normal, normally, non-disordered. And it is wonderful.
I do not eat like its my drug anymore. I don’t eat to hide or numb or in a blind panic of someday going back to a place where I have to try to feed five brothers and a sister and me with four frozen burritos and a can of chicken noodle soup.
It was a long time coming, but it was worth the ride, this road to knowing how to respond when I flinch at my own reflection, this trip toward love and peace and self-acceptance and trust that really didn’t have a whole lot to do with being some less fat after all.
The self-acceptance work was important. I felt, when I had surgery, like I was cutting away that part of me, too. All of that work. But, it wasn’t true. The self-acceptance stuck, through the surgery and the recovery and the rapid-fire weight loss that made me lose my hair and scared me, even as it made me feel better in so many ways.
I got fat because I needed to. I got less fat because I needed to.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.