Sunday, May 6, 2012

Judge me by my size, do you?

I'm sorry for the title. This has nothing to do with Star Wars or "May the fourth be with you."

Today I'm going to write a little about my experience being over and (at one time) underweight as well as my journey to the middle ground. It may not be enthralling, it may not involve light sabers, but it will hopefully keep you entertained for a couple of minutes.

Turn back the clock to a time before size actually mattered.

How far back have you gone? Middle school? Elementary school? Preschool?

I'm lucky enough to say that the tail end of middle school was when my appearance actually began to have a bearing on my personal experiences and choices.

It wasn't until I was 13 that I started realizing I looked weird, old and a little bit chubby.

Turn back a little further and you arrive a few years before I even learned what fat was. I was in kindergarten, still a twiggy little thing, petite in both stature and width. At this age, my mom was still asking my doctor if I was gaining weight at the proper rate. I remember my family lamenting over the fact that I was so thin. They worried I wasn't growing properly.

Then came the french fries.

I wonder if my mom felt remorse the many times she drove me to McDonald's for breakfast and let me walk into school with a hash brown, overly greased and half-covered by a paper bag which, by the time you'd finished eating, was covered in oil stains and practically leaking onto your hands. I'd like to think she didn't recognize the mistake she made, because in other ways she was a great mother.

Needless to say, though, I became a bit of a fast food junkie. I loved having synthetic sausage patties and yellow discs of egg placed on a Styrofoam plate for my ease of consumption. But it's not my fault either, because I didn't know that my incredibly fast five-year-old metabolism would soon slow down to a snail's pace.

When I was eight, it started to show on my face. I wasn't growing at an abnormal rate, but it was clear I was no longer the svelte little kid I was before.

By nine there was no looking back.

But the strangest consideration for me is not the swift timeline on which my transition from thin to thick occurred. The real interest lies in when I actually figured out I had a problem.

I don't think I ever noticed that I was different from my classmates. Granted, I wasn't obese, but I was arriving pretty close to that level by the time I was 10.

Yet, at the time, halter tops were in style. I wore tight spaghetti straps and tube tops like they were going out of fashion. For me, they really should have gone out of fashion. To this day, I have trouble looking back at photos of me during this time because so often I would expose my waist like it was no big deal, with no awareness that I was accentuating the part of my body that was the least flattering.

The only time I remember ever thinking about my weight was once in P.E. when my classmates and I were talking about our respective weights. They all listed off relatively low quantities of pounds. "I'm 80," or "I think I'm about 78." I sat around feeling embarrassed. What would they say if they found out I was nearly 100?

Other than that single incident, I have very few recollections of questioning my size. It's made me wonder whether the phrase "ignorance is bliss" actually applies to real life. In one way, it was a gift to me to be completely unaware of my size. I lived life happily because I never considered myself abnormal compared to sizes of the kids in my classes. In another way, it was a curse that perpetuated the problem.

The issue wasn't that I was fat per se, but that I wasn't taking care of myself the way I should.

By 11, I had to pick up a lot of the slack in my own life at a time when my mom was no longer present to take care of me. I learned a lot - with the help of my dad - but one thing I never learned was how to properly take care of my health.

A few months after my mom had a stroke and became incapacitated, I was still wearing my sister's hand-me-down clothes. I had outfits at my old house, but it took a long time to transfer things over to my new living quarters and I was still living off a few select t-shirts and wrongly-sized jeans.

And I was still eating my sadness away. I continued to feast on fast food, only taking breaks when my dad or my sister cooked for me. But just a little help from them got me to transition out of the junk food and into a differentiated and healthier diet.

So step forward to 13 years old again. I'm in eighth grade and for the first time I'm experimenting with straightening my hair. I spend 30 minutes in the bathroom staring at myself in the mirror and trying to get each strand on my head to be as flat as a piece of paper.

I was still quite unfortunate looking at this point. No make-up, glasses, an uneven skin tone and braces. The image of preteen perfection. But I was lucky to no longer be overweight.

Under my own nose, I'd managed to become a healthier eater. And I had developed to look like an average-sized preteen.

Sometimes I think, though, that it would have been a greater lesson to have not been ushered into better weight control by my father and my sister. If I'd continued to live with my mom past the age of 11, if I'd persisted in my McDonald's-heavy diet, if I'd never learned that homemade meals were not just a luxury, maybe I'd have grown to develop the will power that would have me not just at an average weight, but living a truly healthy lifestyle.

I envy my friend Diana for her strength and for how well she takes care of herself. She is a vegetarian (like I am), but she also eats mainly organic and whole grain foods, plus she enjoys physical activity. I may have transitioned into a slightly healthier lifestyle when I became a vegetarian, but I never quite grew out of the fast food eating stage because I never had to.

My experiences taught me that there is a gray area between health and indulgence, and I've learned to straddle that line in such a way that I need not worry about becoming a reflection of my 9-year-old self, but that I will also never be quite the size I'd wish.

I think often about how lucky I am to reside in the coveted middle ground between too thin and too overweight.  But what I strive to impress upon myself, and yet what I never learned, is that there is some level of commitment that goes hand-in-hand with becoming the best version of yourself.

I've been lucky to know that I haven't been judged by my size all my life. I've also been lucky that by the time I might have concerned myself with others' judgments, I was no longer in a place where I could be ridiculed. But I also question the effects of my experiences and actions. Maybe remaining unhealthy would have taught me a better lesson - instead of accepting health, I'd pursue it.

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