Disrupting my longest-running relationship was unimaginable. But by the time the scale reached that 218-pound mark, something had changed. What had once kept me fulfilled now left me feeling empty and in constant pain.
This is part of a series of essays called “Being [Blank] in Philly,” about what it’s like to be you in Philadelphia. In an attempt to discuss the issues that make us different from each other in a respectful and productive way, all readers are invited to submit an essay to email@example.com to contribute to the series.
Three months after I graduated from college, I hit 218 pounds, my all-time heaviest. Looking for work with a degree in filmmaking was proving more difficult than I had anticipated, so I turned to Snapple iced tea, Ellio’s frozen pizza, and whatever sweets were lying around to drown my sorrows.
I had steadily gained weight since the fifth grade. Food had always been there for me, through victory and defeat. When I scored 100 on a test, Pica’s pizza was there to congratulate me. When I had a fight with a friend, Tastykakes were there to soften the blow.
Food was an escape from the way others saw me, too. Whether a SEPTA bus passenger told me to “move your fat ass” or a manager at a job interview offered to get me a bigger chair, I could easily dismiss the comments of skinny people with the bite of a Milky Way bar.
Disrupting my longest-running relationship was unimaginable. But by the time the scale reached that 218-pound mark, something had changed. What had once kept me fulfilled now left me feeling empty and in constant pain. And with the birth of my nephew in 2004, I had two little eyes watching and repeating my every action. I had to change for his sake and mine.
From size 16 to 6
Change came gradually. I started with 15 minutes a day on a stationary bike. Then I started lifting 5-pound dumbbells while watching TV. Every week, I increased my time on the bike by a minute, until I reached 60 minutes a day.
Positive reinforcement came in the form of compliments from relatives and friends:
“Have you lost weight?”
“You’ve changed. Did you get a haircut?”
“You look great. What have you been doing with yourself?”
Their flattery fed my growing obsession — more bike time, more dumbbell lifting. Then came the calorie counting. I lost 78 pounds over the course of three years, and went from a size 16 to a 6 in the process. I measured success by my dress size.
The tide turns
With the loss of one identity came the emergence of another. I felt more confident. Complaints about my fat ass on public transportation made way for catcalls from men on the street and a shallow interest from my male co-workers.
The compliments changed, too.
“Wow, Marta. You’re just wasting away, aren’t you?”
“You’ve gotten too skinny. Why aren’t you eating more?”
“What happened to your boobs? They’re, like, super tiny now.”
I joined 12th Street Gym, embraced in-door cycling classes, and lifted weights. My body became more muscular. My asthma disappeared. I applied for Peace Corps service and was accepted. I was more than a number on a scale, but it didn’t stop the comments or the inappropriate attention.
Through it all, there was my nephew. Whether I was fat or skinny, his love remained and his admiration intensified. When I lifted my dumbbells, he would lift his (a small, 1-pound set; no pumping iron just yet). Whenever I did Pilates mat exercises, he would spread a blanket on the floor next to me and mimic my movements. When I went for walks, he would come with me. After I left for Peace Corps service in West Africa, my mother told me he continued to use my Pilates mat and lift his dumbbells.
A relationship renewed
When I began Peace Corps service in the Republic of the Gambia, other volunteers warned me that I would gain weight, because Gambian cuisine is basically rice with smaller portions of vegetables, meat or fish. I shrugged it off and resolved to make my own meals, healthy and full of nutrients.
However, in Gambia, all activities are communal. The radical concept of making my own food, let alone being by myself in my home, only obstructed my ability to assimilate.
I also didn’t anticipate that Gambian food would become the greatest food I had ever tasted. I found it harder and harder to retreat into my house when my host sisters were making delicious meals outside my front door — from domoda (rice covered with a thick, spicy peanut sauce) to benechin (a one-pot dish of chicken, beef, or goat meat and vegetables with fried rice).
Meals were cultural experiences. While eating hot, mouth-watering benechin with my hands, I had conversations about Gambian history with my host brothers. My neighbors invited me to social events. I fell in love with food again, but this time food was a means to forge connections with other people, not a replacement for relationships with them.
A thin line between love and cake
When I returned to America after my service, I was 20 pounds heavier, but I was endowed with a greater appreciation for another culture and for myself. I still worked out and watched what I ate, but I stopped counting calories and minutes in the gym. I paid more attention to my interactions with the world and found greater happiness in sharing good food with good friends than in eating it alone.
It’s not always easy to limit how much I eat — I still can’t step away from a Pica’s pizza without eating several square slices. And even now I’m bothered by the way people treated me seven years ago, when I was ‘that fat girl.’ But I took a journey motivated by a desire to kick my dependence on food and to be a better role model for my nephew.
In the end, I found a balance between responsible eating and happy living. Weight is just a number, and being thin does not always equate to being healthy. And if indulging in chocolate from time to time is wrong, I sure as hell don’t want to be right.
This story originally ran on March 12, 2014.