A fat child
For the illumination of those who didn’t bear the sting of the taunt that inspired my title, let me quote:
Fatty, fatty, two by four,
Couldn’t get through the bathroom door,
So she did it on the floor,
Licked it up and did some more.
Six decades of introspection have led me to the firm conclusion that the entire course of my life has been determined by being the brunt of those words–and others that cut just as deep. In high school band, a trombone player called me a “pregnant gazelle” when I tripped and fell on one of the risers in the band hall. (Yes, I remember his name: Gary Ellsworth. These tidbits one does not forget easily.) I once overheard a beloved aunt from Oklahoma tell my mother, “You must get tired of having people tell you all the time, ‘Your girls are so FAT.'” At some point in my adolescence, my own father said I was “a fat sow who does nothing but lay [sic] around and read all day.” Sadly, my memory of one of the other fat girls in my class was recently stirred when I read her obituary in the online version of our hometown newspaper, the Arizona Silver Belt. Virginia Garcia is the first girl in the first row in the picture above. Her family nickname, which spilled over to the playground, was Porky.
Throughout school, I always vied with Debbie Michael (likewise a Brownie, two to the left of me above) for the dubious title of fattest girl in our class. I remember the humiliation of being weighed every month by the school nurse; specifically I remember weighing 139 pounds when everyone else seemed to be under 100. I was trying to lose weight as early as the fourth grade, using Ayds Reducing Plan Candy. And by high school, I was crash dieting. I reduced from 180 t0 about 145 in time for my senior pictures but had already gained back about half the weight before I made my graduation speech as valedictorian.
But best in class
I may have been in close competition for fattest, but there was never any question that I was smartest in my class. Nor do I see those facts as unrelated. I was natively curious and a quick study. My mother’s childrearing techniques ensured that I had a large vocabulary. good grammar, and a passion for reading; and both my parents’ histories in Depression-era poverty gave me a firm sense of responsibility and duty. However, I am convinced that all those tendencies of nature and nurture became an obsession to be the best in everything because of the lifelong stigma of my weight. Fortunately for me, that obsession led to success. I was almost always in the first seat in Mr. Scarborough’s eighth-grade science class, where we were ranked according to our grades every six weeks. I won the town spelling bee three times and the county contest twice; in 1967, I was the Arizona state spelling champion and competed in the National Spelling Bee that June. I won a prize in the state math contest, superior ratings for my bassoon solos in the state solo and ensemble festival, and several prestigious scholarships when I graduated. I was both eighth-grade and high school valedictorian. And when I made that fated valedictory address at the head of the Globe High School class of 1971, I bemoaned the deterioration of an education system focused on teaching “Joe Average” and ended by quoting Captain James Cook: “Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.” Like Lancelot Dulac in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, who had to be the best and purest knight because he was always making up for being ugly, I had to be the best and most accomplished speller and musician and all-around student because I was always making up for being fat.
Never been kissed
While my intellectual life flourished as a result of my weight and girth, my social life, of course, was doomed. I cried at the sixth-grade dance, the annual rite of passage for those 12-year-olds from the three elementary schools who would become classmates the following year at Globe Junior High School, because my mother tried to force me to dance with boys who clearly had no desire to do so. I never had a boyfriend, never went to the prom, was never kissed, never even had a date in high school. Dwight Corriveau, my best friend and the object of my deeper affections from the beginning of freshman year, once told me that we had to stop doing so many things together because “someone might think we’re dating.” Bill Bishop and Calvin Thompson, two high-school classmates, asked me to go with them to Mexico when we were freshmen in college, but I declined because I thought they asked only so they could laugh at me for taking them seriously if I accepted. I made a first bad marriage to the first man who wanted to have sex with me and a second to the second. By the time I was out of college, I never wanted to dance or swim because I was afraid that someone would look at me.
In reality, the achievements inspired by feelings of weight-based inferiority actually exacerbated the negative effects on my social life. The aforementioned Dwight actually told me that he couldn’t be my boyfriend because I was too smart. According to his best friend Jack Roper, Joe Herzenberg, a brilliant Chapel Hillian (who later became the first openly gay elected official in North Carolina) wanted to date me but was intimidated because of my intelligence. And the second bad marriage resulted in part because not only was Phillip Jones not cowed by my intelligence; as an unregenerate redneck, he was somewhat antagonistic to advanced learning–once even told me he would never marry a woman who went back to school, an intention he disavowed in 1989 when I returned to graduate school for a master’s degree in English.
Loss and gain . . . and then again
Several times in my life, I followed my early inclinations toward crash dieting and lost large percentages of my body weight–most memorably, around 1981 and 1989, when I became what any observer would call skinny. These diets resulted in brief periods of skinny nirvana followed by rapid weight gain to even greater poundage as the years went on.
Then, in 2004, I had my first introduction to fitness as opposed to simple weight loss. The State Health Plan offered employees over 50 a drastically reduced price on a year’s membership to a local wellness center if we completed an intensive 8-week class of nutrition and fitness called The Healthy Way. I learned and followed both lifestyle changes in eating habits and a strict regimen of cardio and weight training at least three times per week. I committed myself to the program fully and managed to get well and fit for the first time in my life. My blood pressure, which had been controlled only with medication for at least a decade, improved to the extent that I was able to stop the medicine altogether. I twice competed in (and finished!) the Susan G. Komen 5K Race for the Cure. But by five years later, I had lapsed again.
For nearly a decade, as my circle of friends narrowed, my mood darkened, and my hopes for the future dimmed, I ate family-sized bags of corn chips, multiple servings of chili (the best kind–made with lard!), and even on a few occasions 5 ounces of brie cheese at one sitting. Thick-sliced bacon, sausages of all kinds, Marie Callender’s pot pies, and frozen burritos (topped with butter AND cheese) were main dishes of choice, and other flavor enhancers included lots of mayonnaise, Marmite, and fish sauce; garlic salt topped everything I ate. I joined a gym at one point, went about twice, and subsequently paid the couple’s membership fee for more than five years without ever setting foot in the place. I stayed indoors as much as possible, often even failing to get out of my nightgown for entire weekends. Despite the knowledge that my lifestyle was unhealthy, my well-rehearsed ability to avoid mirrors, and my refusal to don a swimsuit even though I love to swim and the beach is my favorite day trip, I had no motivation to change. It would not be hyperbole to say that overeating and undermoving expressed more death wish than pleasure principle.
Painful photo ops
During these years, I had some wonderful and memorable reunions with friends from high school whom I hadn’t seen in at least four decades. Even though I proudly shared these experiences on Facebook, in the back of my mind (or the front), I was always ashamed of the way I looked in these precious photos.
Despite the ubiquity of food photos on social media, though, I NEVER posted one of myself eating or drinking.
Even our wedding photos made me wince. And did you notice that I’m wearing the same dress and cardigan in which I got married in three of the photos above? Wardrobe choices become extremely limited when one tips that scales at over 300 pounds, and that was my go-to outfit as recently as November of last year.
I could no longer drive the Mazda Miata because I couldn’t fit behind the steering wheel, and we had to buy me a seatbelt extender for the Dodge Durango. My belly prevented me from sitting in booths at restaurants, and I had to remain partially seated on the pew when using the kneeler at church (we Episcopalians practice pew aerobics and kneel at least three times during the liturgy of Holy Eucharist). I wore only maxi-dresses with long-sleeved cardigans to cover as much of my body as possible. To maintain a modicum of good taste, let me just add that normal practices of hygiene and grooming became increasingly difficult, with unpleasant odors as only the most revolting result. During this period, while serving as a marshal for the annual college graduation, I overheard one of my colleagues laughing with a few others about the “heifers” racing to get the two seats reserved for them in certain classrooms where the seats were too small for the obese to sit without having our bellies hang uncomfortably over the built-in desks. Yes, even retired Special Forces officers in their mid-60s still have their fun at the expense of the avoirdupois-challenged.
And I was always on the futile quest for a presentable selfie to use as my avatar.
Now or never
On June 5, 2017, I saw my long-time family physician, Jodi M. Winkel. My weight was 318 pounds–and 12.8 ounces, to be exact–and my BMI was 49.92. With medication, my blood pressure was 124/80, and my pulse was 94. Both LDL and HDL cholesterol levels were out of bounds. Fasting glucose was 113.4, and hemoglobin A1c was 5.9. I had also been diagnosed with severe sleep apnea and had to don a CPAP mask before going to bed each night. A year later on June 11, 2018, my weight and labs were fairly consistent, but significantly, hemoglobin A1c was 6.6. Dr. Winkel told me that that I had become officially diabetic, but that I could probably reverse the diagnosis through diet and exercise.
A healthful diet
That’s when my lifelong training in responsibility and duty and sticktoitiveness kicked in. I visited the nutritionist to whom Dr. Winkel referred me and began following her advice with precision. I began eating many more whole grains and fruits and vegetables (especially green ones) and much less meat and salt and fat. I stopped drinking whole milk and diet sodas, my beverages of choice, and devoted myself to drinking water, something I have never liked. I eliminated all the favorite things in my diet (the items so longingly listed three paragraphs ago). I laughingly told a friend that I was on a low-carb, low-fat, low-salt, and low-taste diet. The nutritionist released me from her care after two visits because I had made so much progress by the second one.
For six months, I managed my weight with diet alone. By November, when I hosted a campus-wide commemoration of the centennial of the World War I Armistice, I had begun buying new clothes–including the first pants I had worn for at least five years. By Christmas break, I had lost over 100 pounds, and I felt good enough about myself to begin thinking about exercise.
On December 29, I went walking at Raven Rock State Park in nearby Lillington. What then seemed an arduous 2.6-mile hike with 250 steps down to the Cape Fear River–and then UP again!–was the beginning of my current quest for fitness. On January 1, my husband gave me his hand-me-down Apple Watch (Series 2), and I was in for the long haul. The following day, I returned to work and walked 2.13 miles on my lunch hour, and I haven’t stopped walking since then. March 18-May 12, I entered a campus contest called 10K-a-Day, which challenged the competitors to walk at least 10,000 steps per day. We had to weigh in each Monday and received weekly prizes if we lost or maintained our weight. Not only did I get all eight weekly prizes; I actually won the entire contest with 1,160,867 steps, for a total of 478.13 miles in eight weeks.
Instructors at the college have the opportunity to take one class per semester free of charge, and in January, I enrolled in an aerobics class that met twice a week at 8:00 in the morning (before teaching a 9:00 class, I might add). I was more than four decades older than any of my classmates, but I was the only one to have perfect attendance, and I worked as hard as I ever have to keep up with those twenty-years-olds–and succeeded!
Gym rat . . .
In February, taking advantage of a discounted membership fee for faculty members, I joined the YMCA that abuts our campus and began working out seriously four or five days a week. And then my husband and I actually joined another gym in the town where we live. I am generally at the gym every day for at least two hours. I do at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise on the treadmill, the elliptical machine, and sometimes the stationary bicycle. I am also using a program called ActivTrax, which provides a strength-training regimen that I can actually follow on my iPhone.
I have taken a torturous cycling class a few times, along with two back-to-back morning classes called “Rise and Tone” and “Super Sizzle.” And I have found the perfect class for me–“Cardio Swimming.” Swimming was previously the only physical exercise I enjoyed; I had learned to swim at the beginning of elementary school and had become a fairly competent swimmer by the age of 13 in Girl Scout swimming. I had already been swimming laps two to three times a week, but since I discovering the class, I have already made drastic improvements in technique. I have bought myself specialized gear including a fitness swimsuit, training fins, and hand paddles, and I have actually begun to think that I might become what I would call a “serious swimmer.”
The Health and Fitness Science department at our college has a BodPod, a state-of-the-art machine that measures the percent of body fat by an air displacement method. I took the test in February and scored 39%. When I retook the test in May, my aerobics instructor performed the test, and she actually teared up when she gave me the results; my score was 25.1%, so I qualified as (drum roll) moderately lean! My resting heart rate is between 52 and 55, which I am told is remarkable for someone of my age and former lack of fitness. My blood pressure runs around 110/65. The only negative health finding is that I tend to get dehydrated, so my blood creatinine level is high, and I have danger of kidney damage; I am working hard at drinking as many glasses of water as I can each day.
. . . and beyond
One of the goals on my Employee Performance Appraisal for the 2019-2020 school year is to take another PE class each semester, to continue my overall fitness training, and to present a workshop for my fellow employees in which I outline my own diet and fitness plans and encourage others to plan their own. I have signed up for the Trojan Fit 5K Color Run–apparently not a race, but a 5K walk/run event for the whole family, in which spectators throw multicolored powders on the participants at several stations on the race course. Prizes are awarded for the best costume, the most color, and the oldest participant. (I think I have a good chance at the last one!).
This morning, I weighed 161 pounds, so I have lost almost exactly half my body weight. My BMI is 25.21, so I still qualify as overweight, but that should change soon. My original goal was 150 pounds, but I am now aiming for 140-145. I bought a NutriBullet and have been eating protein shakes and kale smoothies for breakfast. I eat fruits and (green) vegetables every day and stick to good carbs, low fat, and low sodium. Knowing my addictive tendencies, I stay away from the old favorites such as corn chips and whole milk and chicken pot pies, but I do allow myself cheese and nuts almost every day. If I go to restaurants, I usually get a salad, but I will eat the more healthful options at Indian, Korean, and Mexican restaurants.
Before and after . . . and a new selfie!
This spring, I was struck by the coincidence of photos from campus events before and after my decision to diet and exercise. The annual spring choral concert and graduation ceremony provided unique opportunities to track my progress. Two trips to a state park six months apart did the same.
And I finally came up with some new selfies with which to emblazon Facebook, Twitter, my Outlook email account, and even Blackboard (the online platform for the English classes I teach).
In addition to these obvious benefits of my new lifestyle, however, I have also discovered several added bonuses that delight me almost as much. The first is that thanks to another Apple product, my AirPods, I have experienced a renewed pleasure in listening to music. I have listened to Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Mozart’s bassoon concerto; Brahms’s second and Beethoven’s ninth symphonies (I was singing the “Ode to Joy” with the Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra), and Claude Bolling’s Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano. I have sung along with both albums of Ella Fitzgerald’s renditions of Cole Porter standards. I have heard all of Simon and Garfunkel’s records (sadly, this feat can take place in one long walk). And I revisited two favorite musicals, Camelot and Man of La Mancha; sybarite that I am, I listened to both the Broadway and the movie version of each.
But then I discovered that I could also listen to books while walking and doing other forms of exercise (not swimming, though!). I never thought I would be interested in audio books because of my penchant for heavy annotation. However, exercising between two and three hours every day has seriously cut into my reading time. I first listened to Middlemarch by George Eliot, one of my must-reads since I read The Mill on the Floss during college. Those 32 hours hours fled by, and I cried when the book ended with its moving tribute to the unsung Dorothea Brookes of the world. I have long planned to reread Absalom, Absalom!, my favorite of Faulkner’s works, which I first discovered in graduate school. So I eagerly began that compelling story of the South in the form of the larger-than-life Thomas Sutpen–and finished it much too quickly. Now I am listening to one of Faulkner’s novels that I haven’t read, As I Lay Dying. I thought that the stream of consciousness telling by multiple narrative voices might be confusing without the opportunity to read and reread. but it has actually been easy to settle into the rhythms of this narrative of Addie Bundren’s death and burial. I might turn to Dostoyevsky next. I started reading (as opposed to listening to) Notre Dame de Paris right after the traffic fire of April 15, 2019, and still haven’t finished, but I won’t listen to it because I find the many layers of Hugo’s prose, even in translation, too delightful to be taken so ephemerally.
The most satisfying of the serendipitous benefits arising from obsessive exercise, however, is that for the first time in my life, I actually enjoy the outdoors. A large majority of those one million steps I mentioned earlier were taken during outdoor walks, as the additional ones continue to be, despite the steamy Carolina summer. I have spent many hours on the city streets, but not a few in public parks and on wilderness trails, some paved, some more rugged. I have watched the cycle of buds and leaves and flowers and seeds. I have smelled wisteria and gardenia, eaten wild mulberries off the tree, and heard chirping birds and croaking frogs, buzzing locusts, and chattering squirrels. I have walked at sunrise and sunset and in rural nights so dark that I couldn’t see my hands before my face, when every sound is magnified and even the silence speaks. This awakening to the joys of Nature has been the sweetest revelation of the last year, an experience I hope to continue as I make health and fitness my lifetime mantra.
I didn’t even think of this related story until I saw a comment on Facebook from a high school friend, Lee Sherwood French, whose brother happened to be a close friend of my first husband, Ray Lewis. Ray, too, was overweight during all the time we were together. He worked for Household Finance Corporation after we graduated from college, and the company transferred him from Arizona to North Carolina when I was in graduate school here. Soon thereafter, he was fired because of his weight; his manager told him that he didn’t fit the company’s image. Ray and I are now friends on Facebook, and I am happy to report that he, too, has managed to lose a great deal of weight recently and is now healthy and fit.