I was 17. My cousin was getting married in a BIG Catholic ceremony and had asked me to be a bridesmaid. My prima was very stylish and instead of the usual frumpy, taffeta nightmare she had chosen a slim black sheath from a swanky boutique for her bridesmaid’s dresses. I was so excited to be in the wedding and to have such a chic dress! My mom and I went to the boutique and I practically squealed when I spotted THE DRESS. The salesgirl gave me a slow up-and-down and, with the slightest smirk, said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. This dress is only made up to size 10.” I was a 14. I waited for my mother to let her have it, to loudly complain that it was ludicrous to stock such a simple dress in such limited sizes since the average American woman was (in those days) a size 12. Instead I saw Mom wince, then steel her determination and, looking the salesgirl straight in the eye, she said “Give us the 10.” Uh-oh, I thought. Here we go again.

Arturo Porras, age 2.

I wasn’t the only gordita (little fatty) in my family. There are several of us who, for no understandable reason, just seem to carry more weight than the rest of the family. And we all seem to have been born this way. My father’s birthweight? TWELVE pounds. He was the youngest and nobody minded much that he was a little gordito. Like my mother, he was the child of migrant farmworkers who had very little formal education, worked very hard and had to eat like, well, farmworkers. They simply didn’t know about nutrition or metabolism, hardly anyone did in those days. As a high school athlete, Dad slimmed down for a while but never learned sensible eating habits. By the time I came along he was a young designer who was still eating like a farmworker. At home my mom cooked delicious, rich meals, which wouldn’t have been such a threat to Dad’s waistline if he weren’t eating so poorly away from home. At work he indulged in doughnuts, cheeseburgers and deli food. And on days we spent together, I ate right along with him.

Then, one day when I was 7, I woke up before dawn to discover that my parents were gone. Both of them had seemingly disappeared and their bed had been stripped down to the mattress. It was such a scary feeling. Fortunately we had a family member staying with us who explained, cautiously, that my father was very sick. My mother had taken him to the hospital and would be back later, but my father wouldn’t. Even though he was only in his early 30s, his poor eating habits had caused his gallbladder (so diseased that gangrene had set in) to explode all over his internal organs. He was rushed into surgery, where doctors had to scrape his insides like a seagull after an oil spill. It was a miracle he survived.

Margo and Arturo Porras with her daughter in 2003.

After that, my parents looked at me…differently. I remember always feeling scrutinized, like I had toilet paper stuck to my shoe.  As an adult, I now understand that they were terrified I would suffer my dad’s fate, since I had the “girl version” of his shape. Maybe they felt a little guilty for having a gordita. All of a sudden, I was eating different food from the rest of the family. Smaller, more boring food. My hand would be slapped away if I reached for what my naturally-thin sister was eating and I would overhear my mother explaining to relatives that I was on something called a “diet.”  I endured countless incarnations of my “diet” through the rest of my childhood. Mostly they were versions of diets that my dad was trying, “modified” by my parents for me. There was the Beverly Hills diet, the icky cottage-cheese diet, liquid diets and food replacement plans. After the bridesmaid dress incident, my parents took me to Jenny Craig. It was excruciating, but a few weeks later (and with the aid of a steel-belted girdle) I did squeeze into that size 10 for the wedding. By the reception, it was cutting off my circulation.

Read Related: Paleo Diet, 5 Reasons to Love and Hate it

I remember feeling like I was always being interrogated. “When was the last time you exercised? You’re not planning to eat that are you? You’ve been on this diet for a month, why haven’t you lost THE WEIGHT?” People talked about THE WEIGHT like it was a bad boyfriend I couldn’t break up with. I didn’t understand what was suddenly so wrong with me, since everyone had thought I was so special before they thought I was fat. I always tried to stick to my “diet” but it was impossible to resist all the tempting treats that everyone else got to freely enjoy. Ultimately, my rebellious nature always won out and I would “cheat” whenever I could (sometimes my sympathetic grandparents would even sneak me treats when my parents weren’t looking). And because it was forced on me, I developed a deep and abiding hatred of exercise.

After the whole Jenny Craig debacle, I decided that maybe I was simply born to be gordita. I stopped worrying about my weight and told people that I didn’t “do” exercise. Eventually I met my husband, who always tells me I’m beautiful no matter what I look like (note to self: get the man’s eyes checked one of these days…maybe). Even though I dieted a little to fit into my size 12 wedding dress, I’d accepted my inner and outer gordita. But I still hadn’t learned a thing about proper nutrition. My eating habits and portion sizes were (I know now) extremely out of whack. They got progressively worse over those first few years of our marriage. Even though I wouldn’t have gotten on a scale at gunpoint in those days, I’m pretty sure I was well over 200 lbs (I’m just under 5’2”).  And I was so tired all the time. I remember trying to explain to my athletic husband that I was simply “too tired to exercise.” All my friends and family always seemed to have so much more energy and stamina than I did. I had trouble keeping up with people 30 years my senior. Finally I realized I needed to do something. It wasn’t really about looks, it was just that I knew I was too young to feel as old as I did.

I remembered seeing infomercials for Richard Simmons’ FoodMover. I had always loved Richard since I was a little girl and watched his show with my Mama Lola, so I ordered one. My husband would be working out of town for 2 months, so it was the perfect time for me to start! It is a very simple plan, very easy to follow. There are little windows for all the kinds of foods you should be eating to be healthy, one for each serving of fruits, vegetables, protein, etc. It was a real eye-opener for me! “THAT’S a serving? I should be having THAT many vegetables a day? OH!” After a few weeks I had lost about 15 pounds. I couldn’t wait for my husband to see how well I was doing! Then my parents came for a short visit right before my husband came home. I gained 8 pounds in 3 days. When my husband walked through the door after two months, instead of showing off my progress, I collapsed into his arms in tears.  He hugged me for a long time before gently saying, “Maybe you don’t have to do this alone. Have you thought about Weight Watchers?”

We had a couple of family members who were following the Weight Watchers plan and really loved it, so I knew it couldn’t be that bad. Still, it took me 2 weeks to get up the courage (and starve myself to lose as much as I could on my own) to walk into that first meeting. I registered, weighed in and was surprised to see some of my neighbors, who smiled and waved for me to sit with them while we listened to the group’s leader explain the plan. All Weight Watchers staff are people who have lost weight on the plan themselves and I remember feeling so much at home as I listened to a roomful of people share stories that were just like mine. I went home after that first meeting and told my husband, “I think I can do this!” I was actually excited about a “diet”!

But Weight Watchers is not a “diet.” Like the FoodMover, the plan uses real food and you are encouraged to eat healthy foods but nothing is “forbidden” or “illegal”. With nothing forbidden there’s nothing to rebel against! It was, and is, a very freeing feeling.  I’ve been a Weight Watchers member for over 10 years now, with my weight going up and down (but mostly down) through 2 pregnancies and many personal challenges, including the 9/11 attacks (I was in NYC that day) and my father’s death from prostate cancer (possibly resulting from diseased cells that were missed during that emergency surgery so many years before). I am a HUGE fan of the newest version of the Weight Watchers plan and am determined to make 2012 the year I finally reach my goal. I’m not really so concerned about the number on the scale as I am about what it symbolizes. More than the smaller clothes and happier doctor visits, what I love most is how much I’ve learned about myself along the way. I am stronger than I thought I was. I have more control than I thought I did.  I’m happier, healthier and have more energy now than I ever thought I could. I’ve even grown to love exercise! I never think of old photos of myself as my “before” photos. After all, when you graduate high school do you show people your kindergarten photo and say, “This was me BEFORE!”?  We are all works in progress, and life always has more lessons for us. The important thing is to stay in the game, even after the setbacks. If you don’t quit, you can’t fail. So, whenever I feel like I am losing control (and I still do, sometimes), I remind myself of the words of Jean Nidetch, the New York housewife gordita who created Weight Watchers, “It’s choice, not chance that determines our destiny.”

For information about the FoodMover visit www.RichardSimmons.com and to learn more about Weight Watchers, visit www.WeightWatchers.com.

Wishing you love with extra cheese—
Nacho Mama