I loved to dance when I was little, but at a certain point I stopped taking lessons because I was so tired of always being the biggest one, needing the biggest costume or uniform, holding my breath and sucking in my stomach, hoping there would be one that fit me.
I wanted to look like my mother and her mother—small, dark-haired, fine-boned, like blackbirds or Russian princesses. Instead, I looked like I belonged in a Breughel painting, a Dutch peasant in a field. I looked like I could be cast in “Beef: it’s what’s for dinner” commercials, and all I wanted to be was a fine black-winged bird.
Some of my most horrifying memories involve trying to find something to wear to an event my parents were taking me to, when I was chubby and adolescent and somehow chronically between sizes. I always ended up in some cobbled together, safety-pinned thing, feeling like an impostor. Getting dressed was always a blistering, painful affair, exacerbated by the fact that the primary person helping me through this ordeal was my size-two mother, who had a knack for saying things like, “Hmmm … is that a little tight?” Is it a little tight, Mom? Yes. Yes, it’s a little tight. Everything I’ve ever tried on has been a little tight. My whole life feels a little tight.
Being too big was a vulnerability for me, a liability, something that made me an outsider. And being too big certainly did not help my dating life. There was the fateful phrase I’ve heard a thousand times: You’re just like a sister. Or slightly better, I guess: You’re not the kind of girl you date—you’re the kind of girl you marry. Which, now that I am married, is a compliment, but when you’re fifteen and all you want to do is get asked to homecoming, being marriage material is as cool as having a good personality. Who wants a good personality when you could have a cute butt?
Birthdays have always been especially hard for me because I’ve always believed that by this one, okay, now by this one, I’ll be my new self, and I never am, and there is a moment when I’m alone at my own party, in the ladies room or in the kitchen, where I am blinded by a flash of sadness for what I will drag into the next year, poisoning it and weighing it down. And then I dredge up the hope again and tell myself that this is the year, this one. By my next birthday, it will be different. That’s what I say every year, and every year I believe it, and every year it is a lie.
I spent lots of time shopping and planning so that I would always have the right things to hide behind. I watched my friends shop for fun, and it was as foreign as breathing underwater. I shopped as defense. I had pages and pages torn out of the J.Crew catalog of the clothes I would buy once I was thin. And as I shopped, I planned and dreamed for what I thought my life would be like when I was thin. I knew that it would be better, easier. But that life never came.
In high school, I tried to control myself like the anorexics I knew, but I always gave in. After a day or two days or a week of being good, of being precise and measured and powerful, I always lost control and ate cake that I had to put in the freezer so that I wouldn’t eat it, or pounds and pounds of peanut butter cups, until I was numb and hysterical and angry at my body all over again.
I knew the magic of bulimia was that you could eat and eat and then just throw up to get rid of it. instead of getting up at five in the morning to stairmaster for an hour, which was getting harder and harder for me. For a while, there was a little voice inside me that said making myself throw up was really over the line, and that a little dieting was one thing, but bulimia was another. At that point, I had already put myself on an entirely liquid diet and had been living on broth, black coffee, and sugar-free lime Jell-O. I’m not sure why throwing up seemed all that extreme.
The summer I was fifteen, I was at our cottage alone one day and had an idea. Summer was always particularly hard for me because of all the time at the beach and at camp, and because I always felt the expectation, the ticking clock, that soon I would go back to school and this would be the year that I would finally be skinny, and that I would finally be happy.
I learned in health class that if you drink poison, you should drink Syrup of Ipecac to get the poison out of your stomach. So I rode my bike to the drugstore in town and bought a tiny bottle of it and a gallon of ice cream. I figured for my first time, I wanted to throw up something soft and melty, like ice cream, instead of, for example, steak or Chex Mix. I ate a whole bunch of the ice cream, and then I took a bit of the syrup, the recommended dosage. I waited ten minutes or so, and was worried that maybe I took the infant amount, so I swallowed another little bit. And within another ten minutes, something totally beyond description happened in that cottage and in my body. Throwing up is horrible, but if regular throwing up is like putting a car into reverse, this was like putting a car into reverse and hitting a hundred miles an hour backward. It was otherworldly and scary.
I threw up for hours, and it was like my body was a fire hose, and the force of what was coming out tossed me around like a doll. It was gross and painful, and I had to clean up the cottage for hours, because I kept thinking I was finally finished, and then without notice, would throw up some more. When it was finally over, I laid on the ground, my throat raw and totally exhausted.
And I did it again. You would think that I learned my lesson, that the horror of it put me off, and I saw the error in the sickness of my ways. No. I did it a few more times, with similar superhuman results, and each time I did it, it felt like some sort of cosmic battle, like I might vomit out my soul, but I also felt powerful and in control, which is something I never felt about my body. After a few times, though, I started to get scared and went back to tamer ways of abusing my body, like only eating at night, or only eating fat-free Cool Whip and mandarin orange Diet Rite.
It didn’t occur to me then that there was a way to live in my body, my too-big body, without shame and abuse. It seemed like it was my responsibility to punish it, and that if I had been kind to it, that would have been permitting or sanctioning its disobedience. I believed, literally and figuratively, that if I released my hold on it, released the hatred and the pressure by an inch, it would expand, I would expand, like rising dough, like cupcake batter puffing up and spilling over the pan.
What I wanted more than anything was to not have a body. This body that I dragged around had been my enemy for so long and had betrayed me so deeply, over and over, by having the audacity to be fat. I hated, the particular and venomous way you hate someone you used to love, someone who was supposed to be on your side and wasn’t, and who was in fact, fighting against you.
I was a spirit and a mind unfortunately trapped in rather bad packaging, like a bad ad campaign for a genuinely good product. I felt strongly misrepresented by my body, like when you put a silver ring in a toaster-oven box and wrap it, and then the person thinks they’re getting an appliance, but they’re really getting a ring. I felt like my body was inaccurate in its representation of me, and that made me furious with it.
After two decades of frustration and shame, these days, owing to several small and large miracles, for the fist time in my life, I am less than hateful toward my body, and in shining moments, even quite kind to it. Month by month, I work hard to see it less and less as this other thing, this distant distinct shell, and more like a nice person that I might like to be friends with. The last few years have felt like traveling back a cosmic distance to rejoin these two entirely separate entities, my spirit and my body.
I don’t know if it was the sum of several things coming together, or if it was my age, or God’s graciousness and that all my prayers over two decades finally landed in the right inbox, or that I lost my baby fat later than all the other babies, but at a certain point, I lost weight. After a year of hard work and gradual, incremental change, all of a sudden, there I was, there at the place I had imagined all my life. I shopped for fun and even started assuming things would fit. I shared clothes with my girlfriends and my mom, and felt like I finally joined a sorority I’d been barred from. I stopped having panic attacks in dressing rooms. I ordered things online, and they fit, with no alterations. In the course of a year or so, I became a person who can get dressed without a boatload of self talk.
I thought a lot of things would get easier instantly. And some have. But many haven’t. I thought, of course, that this was the key that would turn all the locks inside me, that would set in motion all the parts of my life that seemed stuck and stalled. I thought seeing that magic, fabled, dreamt-of number on the scale would turn me into a person who revels in her own skin, who dances in her underwear, who walks into every room fearlessly and shamelessly. I thought that number on the scale would protect me from the vulnerability I had always felt, that it would secure me, once and for all, a place at the cool kids’ table at lunch, my very own place in the world of successful, happy, confident people.
What I found, though, is that if you’re not chasing one fantasy, you’re chasing another. If it’s not your body, it’s your bank account, and if it’s not your bank account, it’s your résumé, or your nose or your boobs or your car or the perfect marriage or the perfect vacation or the perfect child. For two decades, I believed that if I could just get this one thing under control, then the whole of my life would magically bloom like a perfect, lush flower. But to my great dismay, I realized that my life was still my life, and I was still myself, just in smaller pants.
Certainly, there was a particular joy I felt in those smaller pants. For a person who had routinely cried in dressing rooms, those new sizes made me childishly, inexplicably happy. But what I found is that there is no such thing as ‘skinny enough.’ There is no magic number that can make you feel safe or protected or confident. That, I found, was an entirely different thing—a belief, a decision, something—but not a number.
I became confident the cheap way, at first, by Zone-dieting myself down to a cuter butt and into smaller pants. But after a while, I found that the cheap stuff wasn’t going to do it anymore, and I needed the real thing, the ever-elusive thing: peace. Peace with they way I was made, with the self I was given, with the way life is unfolding around me, but more specifically, with the way it is unfolding in my arms and my legs and my mouth and my eyes.
And that required an entirely different language and set of practices. Yoga is one. It’s helped to connect the inside me to the outside me, to bind my breath and my thoughts and my arms and legs into one whole, as opposed to bright spirit and faulty shell. I know it’s so five years ago to discover yoga. But when yoga was new and cool, I was still hating my body with such venom, that all that kind, empathetic thankful yoga business was downright offensive to me.
I’ve had to rethink and relearn a thousand things about food and silence and judgment and walking. In the words of the Indigo Girls, whom I love and feel I am close personal friends with, psychically, it’s about learning to “starve the emptiness and feed the hunger.”
The biggest change, though, to my surprise, isn’t in my body, but in my eyes—the cruel, appraising, critical eyes that have been measuring and accusing my body for decades. And in my mind. I couldn’t forget if I tried what my life was like before that, feeling like a linebacker in a world of Tinkerbells, the pinching feeling of a too-tight waistband making my stomach feel fleshy and soft, like scrambled eggs spilling over the top of my pants.
I carry with me the very heavy shame of being ten and too big, and fifteen and too big, and twenty and too big, and twenty-five and too big. And it’s a lot to carry, but I can’t leave it behind. I don’t want to. In some ways, everything has changed, and at the same time, when I look into my own eyes in the mirror, we both know that only so much has, and that we all carry our own weight in very different ways.
**This excerpt originally appeared in Shauna Niequist’s best-selling book, Cold Tangerines.