What It's Like to Weigh 400 Pounds
When I was growing up in Kentucky, I always thought of myself as big, ugly, and gross. It didn't help that I had a petite and adorable little sister. There was no one I envied more than Lauren. In grade school I watched her fling herself into cartwheels and fly across the monkey bars with ease while I hid on the sidelines. She was graceful and skinny. I was awkward and chunky. And growing.
We mirrored our parents -- Lauren got my dad's slender frame and Asian features. I was all Mom: tall and heavyset. At 10, when I already weighed 150 pounds, we visited my dad's side of the family in Hong Kong. I stood by as everyone fawned over Lauren. I know most kids go through an awkward phase, but standing next to her made me feel like a grizzly bear. I could tell my mom felt as uncomfortable as I did. From that trip on, she and I were like two peas in an oversized pod. I didn't fit in with the Chinese side of my family, so I embraced my mother's deep Southern roots, including her weakness for sweet tea and pecan pie. We shared our body hang-ups, did aerobics, and tried the cabbage soup diet together.
Despite our efforts, by high school I weighed 250 pounds. While other girls wore cute clothes, I wore long, flowery skirts and sweater sets that were more age-appropriate for my mom. You can only take being called "Big Bertha" so many times before you go searching for something, anything, to make you lose weight. I found it in the back pages of Seventeen: fat camp in California. "Come lose the weight and be with people just like you!" the ad promised. Fat camp was my safe place. I felt like I could breathe around those kids, who were my size or even bigger. We all had to stick to a strict diet and exercise program and I lost 40 pounds that summer. But when I got back to school I regained all the weight. It became a predictable cycle: lose pounds over the summer at fat camp, gain it back during the school year, return to fat camp and repeat.Piling On the Pounds
My life got more complicated when I started college at the University of Kentucky. My mother was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at the age of 41; at the same time, my parents' marriage started falling apart. It was painful watching my family crumble, and I dealt with it by going to town on fried chicken and ice cream. I gained 50 pounds.
I moved into my own place off campus the next year and while the other kids were out partying, I was home alone, eating. I would mindlessly stuff myself with cheese fries or frozen pizzas and eat until my stomach felt like it was going to explode. At the time I didn't realize I had a binge-eating disorder. All I knew was that food could make my worries about school, arguing parents, and Mom's illness go away for a while.
I gained another 50 pounds my sophomore year, and 50 or more my junior year. Most of my classes were in a three-story building on the far side of campus. I was always early, and not just because I was a good student. I knew that if I arrived late, I'd have to walk in red-faced, sweating, and ashamed. Getting there early gave me time to linger in the hallway and catch my breath. I feared the stairs most of all. This was an old building, and the service elevators were for the handicapped or the janitors, not for "lazy" 350-pound people like me.
As for dating, well, it wasn't easy for someone my size, but I was lucky to find a guy who could see past my weight to the real me. I met David, who's now my husband, online, and we were instantly attracted to each other. I felt so at ease with him. He just doesn't have a judgmental bone in his body. Maybe that made it easier for me to keep gaining weight, but really, I was just in denial. I swear that the pace at which I was destroying myself didn't register until I graduated from college and weighed almost 400 pounds.
The first time it really hit me was when I couldn't find a suit to wear to a job interview. I cobbled together an outfit of size 32 polyester pants, a wrap top, and a too-tight jacket that hid the fact that my shirt didn't actually fasten in the back. Then I arrived for the interview and sat in the waiting room. Big mistake. I realized that when my name was called, I might not be able to get up without the chair coming with me. I spent the next few minutes discreetly trying to extract my bruised thighs from the armrests.
I was surprised when I got the job, as a marketing coordinator for an IT company, but even with that boost of confidence I continued to use food as a crutch. I was doing great work, yet I felt like an outsider at the office. My coworkers were nice enough, but I couldn't escape the feeling that I didn't belong there. I didn't belong anywhere. I hated everything about my body, so I guess I didn't expect other people to look beyond it. The only thing that made me feel better was food. I often turned down lunches with my friends to binge in my car. I'd hit the drive-through for a triple burger with cheese fries. If it was a bad day, I'd get two orders.