I make mistakes all the time. Sometimes I still eat the wrong stuff. I’m still overweight. I am clearly a work in progress. The good news? I am progressing, and I want you to come with me. We will make great strides. We will work ourselves into shape. We will change each other’s lives for the better. We will make mistakes along the way. And we will laugh them off and keep going.
Many of you here know me as a novelist, author of the bestselling book The Dirty Girls Social Club and a bunch of others. What you might not know about me is that before I became an author I was a journalist, and before that, I was a fitness professional.
FIT AND NO FLAB
I taught my first “aerobics” class when I was 16 years old. It was a great part-time job for a high school girl, and I was able to make three times what most of my friends were making cashiering in fast food joints. I loved teaching, and it came naturally to me. I was a dancer, and an athlete, on the track and field team and the swimming team at school. I also raced 12-speed bikes on the weekends, for fun. By my senior year of high school, I was the same height I am now—five foot six—and weighed 118 pounds. When our Health teacher needed a student to demonstrate how “a perfect body mass index” looked, he had me stand in front of the class and roll up my sleeve to show that his calipers couldn’t pinch anything on my upper arm but skin.
I went to college in Boston, and kept teaching classes. I got work at the top gyms in town, and learned to teach weight training and Step, funk and Latin aerobics. By the time I was 20 years old I was one of the most in-demand instructors in New England and was working for the Aerobics and Fitness Association as a Continuing Education Credit provider; I wasn’t just certified, I was helping to certify others.
My first published article as a writer was for MetroSports magazine in Boston, about New Year’s Resolutions. I got fitter and fitter, and soon began to compete in dance exercise contests, the kind you see on ESPN now and then that are part gymnastics, part dance. I got the silver medal for all of New England one year, in the TONE Aerobics Challenge.
I graduated from college, and went on to graduate school in New York City, scoring jobs teaching dance exercise classes for the top gyms and studios in the nation. CRUNCH, Molly Fox, Jeff Martin, NY Sports Clubs. I had more classes than I could want, and was making excellent money for part time work. I was a size six.
I graduated from Columbia with a master’s in journalism and took a job as a staff writer for the Boston Globe. I kept teaching aerobics on the side. I especially loved and excelled at Step and Funk and Latin. I was still a size six, sometimes even a four. I remained a size six until I was 30 years old.
UNHAPPINESS AND WEIGHT GAIN
Around that time, I’d been married for two years and the marriage was going badly. I was in over my head, emotionally. Without going into too much detail I will tell you that I turned to food for comfort in the face of some extremely difficult situations. I gained weight. I went from 128 to 140. Then to 155. Then to 165. I suddenly wore double-digit sizes. I was a size 12.
Then I got pregnant, and all hell broke loose.
I stopped working out. I ate. And I ate. I was excited to have this baby, but I knew he would be born into a dysfunctional and painful household. I ate to comfort myself. During my pregnancy, my weight skyrocketed, from 165 to 220 pounds. I didn’t want to be noticed, or touched, or seen. I wanted to die, and my hands and mouth did everything they could to facilitate that goal.
I had the baby, and only dropped down to 198 pounds. I wore a size 18. This is about the time when my first novel came out. There I was, a new mom, on The Today Show, a bestseller at last, with adoring fans. I should have been happy. But things at home were terrible. My marriage zapped almost all of my energy as I tried desperately to hold things together. One day, I found receipts in my husband’s pockets as I did the laundry, for strip clubs. He’d been using our shared money to pay for lap dances. He didn’t have a job. He was waiting until I was asleep, and sneaking out to go to these places. When I asked him why, he blamed me. “If you weren’t so disgusting and fat I wouldn’t have to,” he said.
SELF-LOATHING AND PURGING
I spiraled lower into self-hatred. I wasn’t someone who gave up. I fixed things. I couldn’t give up on this marriage. I had to fix it, for my son’s sake. Or so I thought. To numb the pain of my daily life, I ate. And ate. And ate. I got in the habit of eating too much, and soon began to eat even more than that. I hated myself so much, I began to force myself to purge. I developed bulimia. It only took a little of the weight off, because I could never purge enough to make up for the massive quantities of food I was eating.
For nearly ten years I hovered around 190 pounds, and forced myself into a size 16 when I probably should have worn an 18 but just couldn’t deal with the truth of that number. And then one day I got divorced. That was even harder than the marriage had been, for a time. I worked hard, wrote lots of books, and ate. And ate. I pretended I wasn’t fat. Then Facebook came along and every fan I had started posting photos of my readings to their walls. I couldn’t avoid seeing myself anymore. There I was. Huge. My doctor told me I was flirting with diabetes. I knew I was not feeling well. I knew I looked awful.
Then, one day, I realized that it was time to stop feeling sorry for myself. I sought professional help from a therapist, and learned a lot about myself and the ways I was coping, and I learned new techniques to deal with emotions. I will talk about these as this year rolls on, and share them with you.
DEALING WITH THE PAIN
The weight began to come off again. I began to work out again. I began to make better choices with food. Most of all, I learned to be happy, to have faith in God, to trust people, and to love myself. Weight loss, for me, is not just about calories in and calories out. It is about emotions, pain, expectations, and how I deal with life. As a younger woman, I’d been happy and free, and I’d loved myself and exercise had been fun. I hadn’t eaten too much because I never felt empty. But life had a way of turning things around for me, and I dealt with it all very badly.
In the past six months, I have gone from 198 pounds to where I am now, 162 pounds. I have gone from a size 18 to where I am now, a size 10. My goal is still a ways off, but it’s in sight. I’m getting there. My goal is to be able to write this column this time next year, and tell you that I weigh 130 pounds and wear a size 6. I have a plan to get there, and I know that the most important part of that plan is already in place: I am happy again.
I will write a column each week here about fitness and health. Week one of the month will be a check-in where I tell you about where I’m at with weight and size. Week two will feature a heart-healthy makeover recipe of a classic but traditionally fattening Latino dish. Week three will be exercises you can do at home, and a plan for working out for the month. Week four will feature other success stories and the psychology and energy that made them possible.
Let’s do this together, mamis. Let’s take control of our lives—of our hearts, minds, souls and bodies. Let’s get fit and feel fab. We can do this.