I was born fat. As a baby, my uncle gave me the unfortunate nickname, “gordita,” which is used as a form of endearment in Spanish. It stuck with me through my early life. My brother was about 8 when he realized it literally translated to, “fatty” and stomped the endearment right out of it. Which prompted me to ask my mom, “am I fat?”
My mom was quick to reassure me. “Of course not. It’s just baby fat.”
But what was just baby fat? And how could “it” just be baby fat, if I was already five years old! I hadn’t been a baby for years.
The next year, I found myself standing high on top of the diving board during my guppy-level swimming lessons. I was petrified, tiny feet frozen to the wobbly board, unconvinced that my red life jacket would be able to hold me up once I hit the water. I also wasn’t so sure that my slim swim instructor, waiting for me in the pool, would be able to help me. I was too heavy for her. I pictured my solid mass sinking right down to the bottom of the pool and dragging her down with me. I could see it so clearly. I cried and took the ladder back down. I quit swimming lessons after that.
In 3rd grade, I attended Penelope Stenello’s birthday slumber party. In the basement, we tried to lift Justyna Freeman by putting our fingers under her body and whispering, “light as a feather, stiff as a board.” When it didn’t work, someone suggested, “maybe you’re just too heavy to lift.”
“I am not!” Justyna cried, jumping up. “My cousin said the way to check if you’re fat is if your fingers don’t reach around your wrist! And look!”
Justyna held out her arm, proudly touching her forefinger to her thumb. Beside her, Penelope elegantly wrapped her long fingers around her slim wrists. Her thumb extended well past her finger. She smiled triumphantly. I turned away from the rest of the girls to try it out on my own. My stubby fingers just barely made it all the way around my wrist. I had to squeeze really tight if I wanted them to touch. I didn’t know if that counted as not being fat, so I hurried to the bathroom, hoping they’d have moved on to something else when I came back.
Fast forward to 7th grade, standing in front of the full-length bathroom mirror with my classmate Maisie Vanzuca. It caught me off guard when she sighed, “I hate my thighs.”
“I hate my tummy,” I admitted, not used to voicing my insecurities. I sucked in my belly as far as I could, hoping she would tell me that it was flat.
“Yeah, but at least your stomach you can suck in. Like that,” she said motioning to me in the mirror. I exhaled and inflated. She went on, “thighs you can’t do anything to hide. They’re just there.”
I’d never considered my thighs before, but from then on, I hated them too.
Starting in 9th grade, we had to wear uniforms to school. In August, my mom bought me three pairs of size 12 pants. They were snug, but I couldn’t dare bring myself to buy a size 14. I’d never been a size 14 before, and I wasn’t about to start then.
By October, my mornings were a feverish frenzy of self-loathing. The only way to get my pants zipped and buttoned was by laying flat on my back on my bed. From that position, I was able to concave my tummy, and tug at the zipper and button until they’d clasp. Sometimes I’d pray, sometimes I’d cry. I avoided going to the bathroom during school hours, in fear that I’d never get them done up again. Thank God for the oversized uniform golf shirt I wore to cover the bulge.
One morning, I got on the school bus, plopped down into our regular seat and scooted over for my friend Olivia to sit next to me. As I moved across the sticky brown vinyl, I felt an unprecedented freedom in my right thigh. I felt an unexpected breeze. A quick peak revealed that I’d split the inseam of my school pants, from the crotch to the knee. I spent the entire ride to school trying to work out how I could fake getting my thigh caught on something to explain the rip. I think I blamed the handrail on the bus stairs before calling my mom to bring me another pair.
A few weeks later in the cafeteria, Olivia bought a Diet Coke instead of a regular Coke. I wondered, “eww, why’d you get that?”
“Because I’m starting to gain weight,” Olivia explained. Olivia who wore size 00 jeans. I was literally 12 times her size! 12 Olivias made 1 of me. Never a math whiz, but always a narcissist, I deduced that she was drinking Diet Coke to avoid looking like me. I started drinking Diet Coke too.
I developed a dark hatred toward my proportions. I felt like I was always taking up too much space. That first semester of high school, I had three out of my four classes with this girl, Diana Andrico. She started waiting for me at the end of class so we could walk to the next one together. She was at least two inches shorter than me and petite all around. She was beautiful and so friendly. Naturally, I worried I’d look like an ogre next to her. I started darting out of our classes first, putting a swift end to any potential friendship.
Luckily, Grades 10 and 11 were good to me. My new part-time job required me to be on my feet all night long. Nights when I was working, I’d miss dinner. Since I worked in a restaurant, I’d tell my mom I’d already eaten when I got home. In addition, that was the time when I started to have panic attacks between school and work, and to remedy the newfound anxiety, I started walking the 5.2km going down and then up a really steep valley. The weight just melted off after that.
By grade 12, I was swimming in the pants I’d bought just before 9th grade. The pants I had once had to wrestle on were now so large around my waist, they wouldn’t stay up, not even with a belt. Not that I’ve ever worn a belt. The way my thighs are distributed make belts redundant. I bought size 6 pants that year. When I went to the mall, it felt like everything I tried on fit me perfectly. Life was good. For about a month.
At the end of grade 12, a group of us went to a friend’s dad’s factory late one night. After a few shots of grappa, some beers, and birthday cake we found in the kitchen fridge, my crush Seth Grady started to get really touchy-feely with me. And it would have been my dream come true. Except, when he put his hands up my shirt, he slurred, “you’re skinny, but your stomach’s fat.”
I convinced my friend Chloe to take fitness classes with me during my first year of university. We signed up for Carve Your Core and Pilates courses at the local community center. When we actually attended the classes, it was the two of us 18-year-old girls with a bunch of suburban moms. We’d giggle in the back, messing up all the exercises. More often than not, we’d buy McDonalds after the class and go back to my house to watch 90210.
That year, I read that the star of 90210, Shenae Grimes, gave an interview addressing her size and weight. She argued that she wasn’t underweight, just short. She claimed if she was 5’2 and weighed 120 pounds, she’d be a, “chunky monkey.” I was 5’2 and weighed 120 pounds.
A few years later, when my friend Cynthia asked me to enter a weight loss competition with her, I agreed. It was a good way to get boot camp lessons at a discounted rate. These were no community center fitness classes. The lessons involved merciless circuit training exercises, with yelling! Three minutes of pushups, three minutes of burpees, three minutes of weight lifting, move, move, MOVE. My sweat dripped simultaneously from fear, exertion and humiliation.
On Sundays during the competition, Cynthia would pick me up at 7am for group walks, and we’d drive in sullen silence to the community center. We’d trudge along the route while people four times our size lapped us with vigor. Needless to say, we lost the competition, and we ended up gaining a few pounds each.
From there, we started trying a whole bunch of get-skinny-quick schemes. From fat flushing weight-loss pills, to nonsurgical liposuction, to wiggle gyms, if anything promised results without much action, we tried it. Seth Grady, who had also became a bit of a gym rat around this time, introduced me to taking ephedrine with caffeine pills. At that point, I was willing to do anything to lose weight, except eat less or exercise.
After graduating from university and then college, I landed a job in my field and was able to quit my night job at a restaurant. I moved in with a boyfriend and unwittingly eliminated a lot of my physical activity from my daily routine. I had taken it for granted. Once I let my guard down, my pant size started steadily rising. 8, 10, 12, and after that, I had to stop shopping. My chin grew a twin.
When I moved back home, I had a revived hunger to lose weight. Cynthia and I went extreme and decided to try actually exercising again, experimenting with less intense interval training, belly dancing, self-directed gym visits, freedom swimming, bike riding and cardio-kickboxing. We tried it all. We started seeing results.
Then I decided to take it up a notch. I have an all-or-nothing personality that can be both a blessing and a curse. I started bike riding every day. I attended kickboxing classes every night, and Saturday and Sunday mornings.
I changed my diet. I limited my caloric intake to less than 1000 calories a day. In the staff room one afternoon, I was eating my daily tomato cucumber salad for lunch. A fellow teacher asked me, “have you.. switched?”
She made a weird motion with her fingers. For a second I thought she was asking me if I’d become a lesbian because I’d recently broken up with my boyfriend and my best friend is gay. But that couldn’t be it. I clarified, “switched to what?”
“Become a vegetarian!” She explained. “I never really see you eating anything anymore, and you’ve lost so much weight.”
I hadn’t become a vegetarian. I had become a part-time soupetarian, eating soup exclusively for dinner during the week. Sometimes during my fourth period class, I could swear I smelled mac and cheese in the classroom. As much as my stomach rumbled, I ignored those phantom smells. I’d walk down the aisles of the grocery store muttering threats at the chips as they taunted me on the way to get my broth. But it worked! I lost 40 pounds in 4 months. Painfully. But I was happy. For about a year or so I was able to maintain it. But a kickboxing injury, my love for all foods cheesy and carby, and a new relationship saw a gradual end to that period of my life.
For a long time, I held on to this deep-seated belief that absolutely everything in my life would improve if I could just lose more weight. If I were skinnier, I’d be happier. If I were skinnier, I’d be more confident. If I were skinnier, I’d have more opportunities. If I were skinnier, I’d be a whole different person with a much better life. But once I lost the weight, and gained the happiness, I realized the two weren’t mutually exclusive.
Eventually, my pants climbed back up to a size 10, but I didn’t think too much of it this time. I’m older now, finally more comfortable in my own skin. I understand now that everybody’s body is a different shape, that everyone carries weight differently. I realize most people have their own physical insecurities too. Most importantly, I understand that weight and pant size do not in any way determine happiness.
But a few months ago, the pandemic hit, and we went into lock down. Every morning I’d wake up, walk to the living room, to the kitchen, to the bathroom then back again. I averaged a whopping 52 steps a day. The world around me seemed to be shattering. I ate comfort cookies every night. My secondary chin returned. I spiraled downward into a dark fog of unhappiness.
So in September, I started walking, motivated by a pair of size 10 pants that fit in January, back when I used to wear pants regularly. Old beliefs are hard to kick. I started with a 15 minute walk every day. At first it felt weird to be outside, to be using my body so much. Fresh air and sunlight seemed a bit foreign. The bright fall leaves made my walks more interesting, as I began to explore the different neighborhoods around me. I started to look forward to my daily walks.
I also started doing a 5 minute ab workout every night before bed. The first night, I lay on the floor of my bedroom, put the YouTube video on my phone, and tried doing what the instructor said. I’d known before I started that there was no way I could contort my body like she did at times, but whatever exercises I couldn’t do, I modified to suit my abilities. Some I skipped completely. My cat peered down at me from the comfort of my bed, confused by my bizarre behaviour. I longed to join him, but I persevered. I got through those first five minutes, and I needed an extra five to peel myself off the floor afterwards.
People tend to comment on those videos that the routine gets easier after 3 days or so. Not for me. After 3 days, I’d only worked up the courage to even try some of the moves. I thought I would be able to switch to a 6 minute workout eventually, but I’m not there yet, 43 days in. I still cry out in pain at certain points of the video. But I haven’t given up. I’ve babied myself through every step of this new endeavour, and I’m glad. Those small unintimidating steps have helped me keep going. The crazy thing about exercising properly is that the more you workout, the more you want to workout.
A few weeks ago, I woke up and decided I wanted to start jogging. I’d never run a day in my life. I’ve never even played organized sports that involved running. If I saw my bus coming, and I was halfway down the block, I’d miss it. But when I went for my walk that day, I watched the real joggers float by me with newfound curiosity. Then I glanced around anxiously and waited for the road to be empty of people and cars. I worried that people would think I was running from someone and try to help me. I was an imposter, but I wouldn’t let that stop me. Not dressed for it, without a clue about how to do it, I gave it a shot regardless. One foot forward, then the other, I ran for about five seconds before the wheezing started. And now I can do ten.
My new mantra is to be nice to myself. I’m just trying to make healthier choices, without taking it to the extremes which has made the whole thing so unappealing in the past. What I didn’t anticipate at the start of all this are the mental health benefits that come from working out. I’m feeling better with or without seeing any physical results. And that’s what it’s all about.
I won’t let my weight weigh me down anymore.