I Was Obsessed With My Weight Until I Did This
It's been one of the great blessings of my life.
My sister-in-law the psychologist once observed, not unkindly, that I had a restrained eating disorder. I was grateful she called it “restrained.” I was raised by a mother who joked it would be OK to be anorexic for a week and a grandmother who was always trying to lose five pounds, despite a pocketbook filled with coffee candies and a Brooklyn kitchen stocked with Waldbaum’s chocolate chip cookies.
In our family, weight loss was cause for celebration, not fear. My mother and grandmother loved clothes and excelled at sewing and altering them. A cold, gray Saturday afternoon often yielded a trip to Loehmann’s, where we stripped down to our underwear in a communal dressing room and tried on designer clothes that had been dramatically marked down. There was no question that clothes looked better on bodies that were smaller. I was the first grandchild and only granddaughter; what I looked like mattered, and there was only one way to look: thin.
There was no arguing this point. Better to close my mouth (literally and figuratively) and hew to the strict party line: Diet or die trying.
Away at a New England women’s college, I ate donuts for breakfast, cracked my teeth on sucking candies, chain-smoked Marlboro Lights, guzzled coffee and Tab, popped NoDoz and wrote for the college newspaper.
My weight yo-yoed — up, down, all around. By the end of freshman year, I was pushing 140 pounds. Eventually, I started to run and kept smoking; eventually, I stopped smoking and kept running. Running stabilized my weight to the point where I no longer had to think about it too much. I graduated college weighing 116.
After college, I worked for an investment bank, then for Bloomberg Business Week. The female gaze was replaced by the male one. I was judged for my work and for my appearance. Fortunately this was before social media, and though I sometimes appeared on TV to promote a story, my weight didn’t matter as much as my words did.
Still, I cared. Before my wedding, I lost seven pounds; when I became pregnant with my first son, I gained 35. After my father attempted suicide, I lost it all and more. It was thrilling to get married and have a baby; it was devastating to watch my father try to end his life. By the time I had my second son, I knew that my weight didn’t reflect anything particularly right or wrong with my life.
And yet, I weighed myself every day on a scale ludicrously called “Thinner.” In high school, I had sneaky ways of shedding weight: Shave my underarms and legs, sweat in the sauna at our tennis club, then step on the scale. Later, deep into motherhood, I weighed myself after I’d exercised and before showering (wet hair adds weight). The scale had me in its grip. Did knowing my weight make me happy or sad? Sad.
Still, all was not lost. In high school, I learned to meditate, which took the edge off the weight obsession. Sophomore year, we were offered a course in meditation as an alternative to PE. Why our conservative New Jersey prep school allowed us to choose meditation over exercise, I’m not sure, but learning to meditate was the singular blessing of high school life.
Our meditation instructor (who was also our English teacher and JV soccer coach) instructed us to use a kitchen timer and meditate 10 minutes a day. He assigned us a mantra — mine was “ima,” the Hebrew word for “mother,” which was also the name of the visiting AFS student that year. This was the early ’80s, and there were no meditation apps. I began meditating sporadically and then, in earnest, every day. In 2011, the summer that Amy Winehouse passed away (I was meditating outside when I heard the news), I increased the time to 15 minutes. Now I meditate every morning for 25 minutes, a trusty Oxo Good Grips digital timer at my side. I sit on one of my grandmother's old flowered pillows, close my eyes and soothe my central nervous system by repeating the mantra “ima” in my head.
We have all manner of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicidal ideation and pretty much every other maladaptive coping mechanism you can think of in my family. Blame it on our faulty wiring; I’ve learned that there is no mastering these disorders. There is only managing them. Meditation does this. Now, of course, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and everyone’s anxiety is amplified. Trust me: If you meditate every morning for 25 minutes, you’ll be able to ride almost any wave of anxiety life hurls at you.
The kitchen timer and the bathroom scale. These two inanimate objects kept me tethered to reality for four-plus decades. And then they disappeared.
Last summer, my husband and I decided to get the house where we had raised our children ready for sale. We hired a stager. She did her magic and made everything look neater and better than it ever had. Part of her magic included hiding garbage cans, bath mats, toothbrushes and kitchen appliances (only my mother’s ancient KitchenAid 6-Quart Bowl Stand Mixer and our Nespresso machine were allowed to remain). This included the kitchen timer and bathroom scale.
We went to the beach while the house was being staged. When we came home, I scanned the house. Where were the timer and the scale? My stomach seized with anxiety; my palms began to sweat. I opened a kitchen drawer and found the timer, but where was the scale? I texted the stager; she said the scale was in the basement. I hurried downstairs. No, it wasn’t.
Deep breaths. It’s just a scale! They sell them at Bed Bath & Beyond! You can get one overnight from Amazon! But that specific scale had been my everything; my lover, my mother, my shrink. It told me the truth, like it or not. The scale was sort of like Facebook: It had the ability to make me feel better or worse, instantaneously.
I tried to think of other ways of measuring my weight. Who can you trust when you have a restrained eating disorder? Mirrors are deceiving. Some magically make you look thinner or fatter than you are. Reflections in store windows can’t be trusted. Clothes are not necessarily reliable indicators: Pants emerge from the dryer too tight, then loosen and stretch. I thought about asking my 20-something nephew, Jonah (who had noticed I’d lost weight after getting COVID-19), what he thought — “Did I look thinner? Fatter?” But seeking validation from a millennial seemed pathetic. Then I decided to ask his mother, my sister- in-law the therapist, what she thought.
Before I had a chance to drag them both down that rabbit hole, my book group met. Three of the women are therapists. I told them about the missing scale. They looked concerned. “How do you feel about that?” one asked. “Do you feel liberated?”
“No,” I said. “I feel unhinged.”
They nodded their heads consolingly.
Around this time, I was trying to learn crow pose (Bakasana) in yoga. In crow pose, you lean forward, place your hands flat on the floor, and try to balance on your hands by bending and lifting your legs, pointing your feet and jamming your knees into your arm pits. It’s not easy — in fact, I was finding it almost impossible. Then one morning Mariko, the yoga instructor, came up behind me. Mariko is beautiful, thoughtful and has her own meditation practice. She lifted up my butt to help me lean forward and said, “You’re so light.”
It was as if God had spoken.
I would like to write that there is a holistic, healthy end to this story. But old habits die hard. At the gym where I practice yoga, there is a Health-o-Meter digital scale in the basement. I step on it, maybe once a week. Then I go upstairs to the yoga studio and wait to be filled with light.