I was at Barnes and Noble when two high school girls scurried past me toward the nutrition section, giggling. "Look up Pepperidge Farms!" My heart sank as I watched them. If only I'd known - if they knew - what I know now. One thing's for sure: once you buy your first calorie counter, it's generally downhill from there...
I've been doing makeovers since I was 16. From my meager beginnings as a "kitchen cosmetologist," making up my mother and friends, to the world of high fashion, where I've shared my techniques with talk show hosts and celebrity clients, I have witnessed what I believed to be the height of physical transformation. But even though I'd chosen beauty for a career and always put a good face forward while putting a good "face" on my subjects, for much of that time I waged a lonely and secretive war against my own beauty, my body, and myself. Nine years ago, however, I began to undergo a transformation of my own, beyond my wildest dreams...
The youngest of five with a working mother, I grew up in a competitive, fend-for-yourself environment. Trying not to get lost, I distinguished myself as the very outgoing "brat" (the youngest is always the brat). I got into my mother's makeup collection at the tender age of five, and wowed 'em with my flawlessly applied face at the annual ballet recital. "Whose mother did your makeup?!", was the recurrent question. And so it was the birth of a passion that would one day become my career. Some other passions arose in my early teens singing, boys, and if you could call it a passion, food.
In retrospect I know that I felt a profound sense of shame before I really started "eating" or putting on weight at fourteen. I wondered Who are these types who seem content the cheerleaders and girls who enjoy femininity, cute clothes, life. My view of the life ahead of me at sixteen was not joyful. My mother and sister both struggled with their weight -- though neither of them ever developed quite the problem I did -- and the three of us carried almost all of the excess on our hips (I always envied people who gained weight evenly.) My three brothers were all slender overachievers. I soon developed a secret contempt for thin people. They were the "they". My mother, my sister and I were the "us". "They" must be shallow, lucky, stupid.
The Chicken or the Egg?
I'm not sure what came first: the actual eating problem or the paranoia of becoming heavy. I remember how my best friend and I would scribble on our Levi's tags so no one would know we'd exceeded a twenty-seven inch waist. A year later, I would have "killed" for twenty-nine. With each passing month, it seemed everything I ate went directly "south." I was becoming more and more pear-shaped. I became adept at hiding my lower body and stealing focus with a well made up face, but by high school, I had more respect for the kids who whispered and sometimes barked cruel remarks in the hallways than I did for myself. Most of the other kids didn't understand what it was like to be sensitive to a chuckle at the back of a room, or a whisper. They just hear it as background noise.
My mom also worked. My dad was never home. The five of us kids fended for ourselves. The shelves at home were stocked with "just add water" things we could easily make. After school I used to buy every form of junk food at once and display it on the dining room table, or on the coffee table in front of the TV. Combos, brownies, doughnuts, chips 'n' dip, candy bars all at once! I'd invite my best friend and we'd chow until we were sick. My capacity blew her mind, and I could tell it made her uncomfortable at times. The mere speed with which I could consume large amounts of food would put most high school jocks to shame. Once I got my driver's license, drive-through windows were fair game before as well as after school. Most Friday night games were followed by the dance, then by a Whopper, large fries and onion rings by myself in my car.
Creative Calorie Accounting
Perhaps to gain a sense of control, I kept a scrap paper pile designated for my daily tally of calories -- borrowing and taking credit from one day to the next. When I'd accumulated days worth of calorie surplus, I'd just start over. But every time I started over was like a shame deposit on the debit side of my subconscious.
Cruel, Cruel Summer
Summer wasn't easy. I never wore shorts. On one occasion, I remember daring to wear a one-piece bathing suit in the presence of my best friend's little sister and her friend, attempting as I sometimes did to fool myself into thinking I could "get away with it." After all, I wasn't obese, I only felt obese, right? I'll never forget the way their whispers and giggles made me feel. I wanted to disappear, but it was the walking away that I dreaded most. I remember lying on my bed in the middle of a summer day, watching the dust dance, "sunbathing" in the privacy of my bedroom. I grew up on beautiful Lake Michigan, where summer meant beach, tan, bikinis, etc. For that very reason, I hated summer.
In spite of the weight, I continued to pursue dancing and singing, and excelled at both. I taught as many as eight or nine torturous ballet and modern jazz classes a week. This probably kept me from becoming obese, and was a sorely needed source of self-confidence. But it didn't shake the power of my addiction to food, and the self loathing that comes with it. I was a very good teacher, and my students really respected me. But I knew even they were thinking "why can't she just lose the weight?" Still, I was a star at dancing school. Not only did I win the scholarship, but I'd earned much of the money myself by selling the most chocolate bars and M&M's for the annual fund-raiser... because I had to buy what I ate.
I shyly brought up my problem at a doctors appointment when I was about fifteen. The doctor said gruffly, "Stop eating bread." That's all he said. I went to a diet clinic soon after that.. I had good willpower for a while. It was also the first time I had an objective person who seemed to care and whom I could cry to. I couldn't help crying to the weigh-in counselor when the scale showed no loss, or if I'd cheated.
By measuring portions, eating iceberg lettuce salads, lean meats, tasteless crackers and doing weigh-ins I had lost 18 pounds in a couple of months with the diet plan, when my sister held an engagement party for a friend at our house. I made homemade chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches. In a way, I can't believe my family let me do that. On the other hand, I'm sure that having someone tell me what to cook or eat would have backfired. Maybe they knew that even better than I did. I don't remember how many of those sandwiches I ate. I do remember that my mind was on them constantly during the party, and that my obsession with them was more powerful than my desire to socialize. But even I was shocked by the scale reading when the weekend was over (and the cookies were gone) I'd gained ten pounds that weekend. Doctors might say it was all "water weight", but I think many doctors cannot fathom the quantities a sick young lady can eat. Sensations of stomach capacity just don't exist. After submitting to a weigh-in, crushed, I quit the program feeling more guilty and like more of a failure than ever. Soon after, I broke the one hundred and seventy pound mark. At 5'6' it was the mark I'd vowed I'd never reach.
Enter: Magic Bullets
I danced with a passion that was seemingly beyond my years and was quite accomplished, technically, though my sophisticatedly choreographed auditions for high school variety show solos never came to any fruition until my senior year, when I managed to lose around 30 pounds with the help of some new tricks.
The summer after my junior year in high school, I noticed when I binged that I'd get so full that if I moved around, I could feel the food right at the back of my throat. Fullness was a disappointment, because there were often things I'd planned to eat that would have to wait an hour or so before I could fit them in. Then I figured out how to make myself throw up. The more I ate, the easier it was. I could even do it without using my finger. I remember making myself two low-calorie strawberry shakes as a first course, "getting rid of" that, then moving on to something hard-core like "spray cheese", chocolate, or even frosting out of the can. Sometimes I'd have some "real food" like macaroni and cheese, peanut butter sandwiches, instant noodles and sauce or perhaps a mountain of white rice. If I didn't have doughnuts for breakfast, or some kind of salty thing at lunch, I'd pick them up on the way home and have it after my "first course" and my first purge. Then I'd throw up again. It wasn't anything like I'd imagined. It was almost a clean experience. I did not think of myself as bulimic.
I had also begun to experiment with some pills that were floating around my high school. I loved how they made me feel constantly excited, like I was up for any challenge and too impatient to stay in one place (and even to eat sometimes.) This must be what it's like to be normal, I thought. Everyone commented on my weight loss.
Throughout high school I never got the leading roles I thought I deserved; I always got the mother roles, the grandmother roles or the character roles. They even changed one male role to a female role to utilize my talent without requiring a dainty ingenue type. But once my new weight loss tricks worked their magic, I landed the leading role in the school play, a dance solo in the variety show, shocking the skinny cheesecake-style dancer that always "held court", the choir scholarship I always deserved, shocking the chicken-voiced prom queen I'd lost out to the year before, and a musical theater scholarship to a large University. All in that one year. I also fell in love and took some fierce senior pictures.
My suspicions about thin people having it easy were all but confirmed... Don't let anyone tell you thin isn't what it's cracked up to be at least when you're a teenager who wants to sing, dance and be "loved."
Eventually, the school cracked down on whatever kid was supplying my little speckled "friends," and not a moment too soon, since certain folks were suspecting what I was doing. The heart-pounding fun was over. In the meantime, I continued to make myself throw up, which wasn't really that gross, since what came up was barely digested. Seemed harmless enough. I didn't really lose weight, especially after I stopped the pills, but it kept me from gaining. Then my mom discovered what I was doing, maybe I didn't clean up well enough. I never saw her so serious. She put the fear of God in me if I continued. I never did it again.
My mom never said or did anything else about my problem. But I can't blame her. I didn't look awful, although the general comment was "it's such a shame..." I held a steady after-school job teaching dancing and I was a creative standout in school. What good would digging up psychological stuff do??? She raised us in the strict Catholic tradition. Once when I suggested that both she and I get therapy, she commented that psychologists were evil, atheists. Though it took me years to begin to understand any of the dynamic we shared, I sensed it only as kind of a black cloud until years later, when I was able to get some distance from it.
It wasn't easy to watch the weight pile back on. After a few weeks, the strutting turned back into struggling. It was just me again, alone against my obsession. The taste of glory I'd had my senior year made the years to follow all the more painful...
By my freshman year in college I'd pretty much adapted to my problem covering up, distracting, compensating. I was a well-painted, high-haired, padded-shouldered, costume-bejeweled tunic queen. My weight yo-yoed drastically over the next few years, with a few twenty to thirty pound losses (and one forty pound loss) during which times I starved myself with epic willpower. But, even through the "svelte" phases when the handsome guys would take notice, food won out as my primary obsession, my true love. And I pledged my allegiance to the scale.
Another Tease of Glory
The hard-won scholarships and impressive showings in operatic competitions in college did ease a lot of the frustration and resentment I'd had over losing out to the mildly talented cheerleader-types in high school. I was lucky enough to study with accomplished performers, who me pushed forward.
One amazing summer after my sophomore year in college, I auditioned and landed my first job as a performer in spite of my weight (it was a matronly role), with my very own show at a popular amusement park. That summer, from March to August, the wardrobe mistress took in my costumes three times to accommodate a forty pound loss. I had been doing five shows a day, eating tuna sandwiches in between. I was on top of the world, and men were crawling out of the woodwork. I did notice, though, that even though I looked great, I was still always thinking about food. I remember wanting to end a date, so I could go home and eat in bed. I was sort of nuts about the guy... But it was cheese popcorn I secretly craved one night as he talked of marriage and the future.
I returned to school as a junior, slim. Where did you go? An old friend asked, looking me up and down. I was hyped and ready to audition for the big production A Chorus Line. I'd been thinking about it all summer. Every performer at the university must have auditioned. Three days. Two callbacks. Two of us left for the role of Cassie, the lead. Finally I was going to nail it. An ingenue lead. This was a real dancers role that needed a singer. I was both. My competition was not. This was an opportunity I'd fantasized about having "if only I were thin" - and now I was!
Failure Without an Excuse: The Pain that Sent Me Packing
Maybe it was my cocky reaction to the choreographer who used to get on my case about my weight when she commented on my weight loss in the ladies' room before my audition, but apparently I was not bound for glory in this lifetime!! I lost the role. Of course I was cheated. Or... what if I really wasn't good enough? It was a painful time. Failure without an excuse. As consolation, I was cast in the role of Maggie, the girl who sings "At the Ballet." I was certainly accurately cast in this depressive part. Over the course of rehearsals, during which they brought in a dance master from New York, I started to put the weight back on. By the time the show opened, I started to resemble a sausage in my leotards. My humiliation was indescribable. The experience sent me packing packing on the weight, and packing my bags.
My two and a half years as a Musical Theater major at Western Michigan University were coming to an end. I could no longer reconcile the idea of pursuing a performing career if I had no control over my appearance. My face always flawlessly made up could not compensate for my body in the competitive theater world. I was pursuing the wrong career. I finished out the first semester of my junior year barely. I didn't get out of bed for some of my finals, even though my music professors called me personally, pleading for me to continue, offering ways to help me pass. But I didn't care about anything at that point, except staying in bed. I had no desire to join my family, or anyone else for Thanksgiving break, so I stayed on campus alone in my apartment. I slept for days and listened to New age music. I cooked a lot. When classes reconvened, I skipped my usual forty-five minute morning makeup application and showed up barefaced, shocking my roommates and classmates. I didn't care any more.
Much to my mothers dismay and that of the Dean, I dropped out. Even worse, in all of their eyes--I enrolled in beauty school "What a waste! You'll never make any money as a hairdresser," one drama professor said (and that sounded ironic to me even then.) But I was ashamed. I took a waitressing job and did beauty school part time. My sister, who was a physical therapist at the time and living in New York City, thought it was a practical thing for me to do. Then I could join her in the city and do hair and makeup professionally. I'd been doing dorm room makeovers for extra cash in college, and I knew I had a knack. Still, it was two of the most depressing years of my life.
Coming in December: Part II:
Braving the Front lines of Fashion, My Double Life, Dreams, and Revelation #1