How I became fat: "It's tough to be a bad-ass girl in a dainty world"

I'm no longer forgivably chubby or husky. I've crossed the border into obese, and that is too much for me to bear

Published March 28, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>RStollner</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(RStollner via Shutterstock)

Our laundry bag's seams are busting open, stitches visibly straining. My husband, Jeff, staggers as he heaves the immense load onto his shoulder. We walk together to the laundromat, where Jeff releases the bag onto the scale with a resounding thud. The needle rockets to 55 pounds. While my skinny husband, panting with exertion, waits for the receipt, I try not to pass out.

"What's wrong?" he asks, concerned by my ashen expression.

I can't tell him that the unwieldy, overstuffed laundry bag is a visual representation of my failure. I am 55 pounds overweight. Having recently hit 221.2 on the scale, I'm no longer forgivably chubby or husky, zaftig or big-boned. I'm not even fat. I've crossed the border into obese, and that is too much for me to bear.

I've been in denial about the number. I argue that, inside, I'm the same person I've always been. But the reality is that I can no longer easily do the things I love. The old, adventurous, unstoppable me decided to run the New York City marathon after one disciplined year of training -- and finished in under five hours. When I met Jeff, I was a fit size 12, going daily to power yoga class. Lately, though, I'm always the biggest person in the studio. Where I used to stand proud and tall at the front, I now hug the wall or lurk behind a pole, hoping to escape notice. It requires courage to take my place in a room packed with bendy bodies in booty shorts; many days, I'm just not brave enough.

It's tough to be a bad-ass girl in a dainty world. In a pole dancing class, I tried to conquer my fear of a tricky move called "the snake," which involves flinging feet over head, gripping the pole between your thighs, dropping your hands and slithering into a coil of turgid sexpot on the floor. But when it came my turn, the teacher -- a vegan ballerina -- blurted, "I can't lift you. I'll break my back," then walked away. In true fat girl form, I bit back my tears and gave up the pole for good.

It hasn't always been this way. I was a fat kid until the eighth grade, when I went on a diet to get the part of Liesl in a local production of "The Sound of Music." I lost the weight, got the part and more or less kept my figure in check for two decades. I never stopped looking at myself through fat eyes, though. Eventually, the weight started to creep up on me. I went from a plush hourglass to a brick doorstop. My thighs began to rub together. I began to sweat more. I noticed fat rolls. Actual fat rolls.

I ignored them, and hoped other people would, too. Bad plan. Not long ago, I stopped by my favorite downtown boutique, where the designer, a curvy blond goddess, tie-dyes vintage lingerie, transforming it into one-of-a-kind cocktail attire. It had been a while, and when I walked in, she met me with an ebullient, "Oh my God, when are you due?"

My heart dropped. I didn't want to embarrass her. So I lied.

"Uh, you know ... in the fall," I stuttered.

She looked at me funny. When I grabbed an irresistible sky blue top, she winked at me.

"That won't fit you much longer," she said.

"That's OK. It's for after the -- you know, for inspiration." I managed a fake, shame-tinged glow as I left, knowing it was the last time. How can I go back without a baby?

Being fat colors every moment of my existence -- even sleep because, according to Jeff, I snore like a jet engine. Unable to handle the racket, he built himself a bed in another room. When we make love, I undress as fast as I can. If he touches my stomach, I flinch. I worry that his eyes are closed so he won't see me. After all, I don't look at myself if I don't have to.

There is no excuse for how I got like this. I don't have a thyroid condition. It's not raining Goobers in New York City. Every ounce of padding came in through my mouth, via my hand. Nobody did this to me. I did it to myself -- one bad decision at a time. So how did it happen?

In 1999, I briefly played Erica Kane's prison guard on the soap opera, "All My Children" and wrote a one-woman show, "Guarding Erica," about my experience. Writing and performing my own work was the most challenging and fulfilling thing I've ever done. As a result, I was offered a job writing for soaps. I wasn't crazy about the genre, but I needed the money (substantial), not to mention the health insurance (excellent), so I signed on, promising myself to work on my own writing between soap scripts. But there was little time and less creative energy left after turning in my hundred- (or 200-) page assignment each week. I spent most of my time sitting at my desk in pajamas, or watching TV ("research"), drained and depressed. I was making a six-figure salary. Shouldn't I be happy, I wondered? Instead, I felt stalled, stuck, guilty and fuzzy-headed. In order to muster the energy and mental clarity to work, I used food, jacking myself up on coffee rich with whole milk, sucking down chocolate "energy bars" and Gatorade when I felt overwhelmed -- which was most of the time. My doctor prescribed antidepressants, which made me hungrier, then fatter, thus more depressed, so she upped my dosage, which made me hungrier, fatter and bluer, still.

Then "As the World Turns," the last show I wrote for, was abruptly canceled. There were goodbye parties ... with plenty of photographs. When I saw myself plastered all over Facebook, I was shocked at how puffy, frumpy and uncomfortable I looked. As I untagged myself in picture after picture, I wept with embarrassment for the artificially jolly, fat, middle-aged schlub I'd become. It was a life or death moment. Either I had to stop the shame spiral, or permanently lose my way -- and possibly my life. 
 That's when I said, "Hell no." I want more time with my husband, my nieces. And there are stories I need to tell. So I made a choice, walked away from soaps and got to work on own writing. No more excuses. Now, it's time to take off the force field of fat I created for protection, so the world can see me, and I can fall back in love with myself.

Alone at my desk, paging through fitness and fashion magazines, it seems an impossible distance from here to there. But I've been at my goal weight before. That trip began with one choice. Then another. And one more after that. No bacon. One extra push-up. Walk instead of ride. Love myself, if only for a minute. Tomorrow, maybe two. In my mind, I know I am more than the number on the scale. More than a bag of dirty laundry. Now, I just have to believe it.

On the day I ran the New York City marathon, the sun was so bright, the sky so azure that it gave a Technicolor feel to Central Park. I rounded the bottom west corner of Park Drive and saw the finish line up ahead. Because of my steady training, I still had gas in the tank, and I wanted to leave it all out there on the asphalt. With 26 miles behind me, I started to sprint. I passed dozens of runners, and as I did, I felt my smile open up, unbidden. Strangers on the sidelines began to shout my name (which I had written proudly on my shirt for exactly that purpose). I soared across the finish line, arms raised in victory. I had run 26.2 miles alongside 25,000 other dreamers, powered only by my heart, my will, and my determination not to quit. When it got tough, I told myself to run to the next landmark, the next mile marker, the next corner.

I try to imagine the romance of waking up every morning on equal terms with the world. My heart lifts at the thought. A smile slides across my face. No more fat girl. One landmark at a time.

To mark Salon’s 20th anniversary, we’re republishing memorable pieces from our archives; this piece originally appeared in summer 2011.

By Leslie Nipkow

Leslie Nipkow has been published in O Magazine, the New York Times City section, poemmemoirstory, the New York Post, Written By and, among others. Her one-woman show, "Guarding Erica," is anthologized in Vintage Books' "Talk to Me: Monologue Plays." She is now working on a memoir-in-essays titled "How to Kiss Like a Movie Star."

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