By: Carrie Eckles
Human beings are constantly barraged with images and notions of how we should be. Those suggestions come from a variety of places, but the big three scream the loudest: family, friends, and the media. And no human is as susceptible to the preconceived notion of how one should feel, look, and be than the adolescent female.
I was born skinny. My mother ate like a pig throughout her pregnancy, but I still came into the world weighing only 5lbs and 15oz. Throughout my childhood, I was the skinniest one in class. It was just who I was. I was constantly picked on for being a “runt” or looking like a “little rat”. Even teachers would refer to me as “that little beanpole”. I was constantly and incessantly teased. Some people meant well; others truly wanted to be cruel. One girl was convinced my parents didn’t feed me and would watch me eat my school lunch to make sure I was getting proper nutrition.
What she didn’t know was, at home, I ate like a pig. I ate anything I could get my hands on and stayed consistently underweight. What my classmates didn’t realize was my food habits were doing something to my body—just on the inside, instead of the outside. I ate as much food as a teenage boy; my little body couldn’t cope with all that food, so I developed high cholesterol. I ended up switching pepperoni pizza for vegetarian pizza and my high cholesterol went away. But I still weighed the same. I was still the runt. Nothing I did could make me gain weight.
All of that changed when I was eleven. By that point, I had physically matured beyond my classmates, despite being one of the youngest in my grade. My body was more woman than girl’s; I wore junior’s clothing sizes, and I started my sixth grade year with a very good body image. Perhaps even better than normal, considering I was just happy I was no longer the runt—I was the bombshell-in-training.
But somewhere along the way, around November, I started getting where I couldn’t breathe. I was diagnosed with asthma—something I’d never had until that point. And, I had bad asthma. My lips and skin would turn blue. I’d have to go to the hospital—it was horrible. To try to combat these attacks before they happened, I was put on a corticosteroid-containing “maintenance inhaler”. In less than a month, I went from 100lbs to 135lbs. (Keeping in mind, I was 5’2”, and 11, so the difference was very noticeable.) By the end of sixth grade, I weighed 172lbs. Nobody knew the exact number—they probably would’ve never guessed that high; they just knew the runt was now the exact opposite. And instead of trying to force me to eat, classmates were suggesting I join Jenny Craig. I had become the biggest girl in my grade.
When I was 12, I had chronic appendicitis and peritonitis (complicated with septic shock, kidney failure, and other issues that nearly killed me). One thing that ordeal did do for me (aside of giving me Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and instilling a violent urge to live) was get me off of corticosteroids. After all, an eight-inch gaping wound in your abdomen can’t heal or stave off post-operative infection if you’re immune-compromised.
After that, despite exercising for two hours a day every day for years, I only lost about ten pounds per year. High school was very frustrating for me. My sister and my friends were all 00’s. The smallest I ever was in high school was a 13. I was double their size. Yes, they were micro; yes, I was only slightly larger than average. But can you imagine how it felt to be constantly (and instantaneously) brushed aside by boys your own age for these other, slimmer girls.
During that time, I ate less than my thin friends. I thought if I ate less, I’d lose weight. Simple logic, right? It didn’t happen. One day, my so-called friends accused me of sneaking food, claiming that was why I was fat. So, I said to myself “you have to be harder on yourself; you have to go the extra mile and eat even less”. So, I did. And eating less than what I was eating was actually eating virtually nothing.
I wasn’t consciously anorexic. I ate less just because “that’ll show them I don’t sneak food”. That’s all it was. And it was just as dangerous as consciously starving yourself, because the result is the same: I ended up fainting on the street and going to the ER, after which, the pediatrician gave my parents a long talk about how I needed better nutrition, that I was basically starved.
After that, I decided not to let it get to me. I remembered my health had to come above anything else. I learned to accept the fact that I was a slightly larger than average girl (by this point I was 5’4” and 155lbs), and I became pretty much happy with myself. I looked great at my high school graduation, I carried my weight well, and I was healthy; after what I’d been through in my preteen years, being healthy was what mattered the most.
My mom was hospitalized the night of my high school graduation. Once again, I had to be mom. I had to pay the bills, keep the house, and drive my little sister to and fro from her summer job. During this time, I ate the takeaway my aunt would bring home for dinner (fettuccine Alfredo from my sister’s work, more often than not), and the fast food my dad would pick up before and after work. In other words, I ate more food (and less healthy) during that time than I had been for the past three years.
Finally, after my mom was out of the hospital, I stopped long enough to realize: my pants were falling off. Literally.
My dad got me and my sister an appointment at a new doctor. We were big girls; it was time to stop going to the pediatrician. And then I got weighed. In less than a month, without even trying—and doing much to prevent it—I lost 50lbs. Just like that. All of the sudden, I knew why my pants wouldn’t stay up.
And little did I know, my dad thought I had cancer, and he expressed my weight loss—which I was still surprised by—to my doc. So, I was tested for everything. All the tests came back saying I was healthy as a horse. Cholesterol, blood sugar—everything was perfect. There was no rhyme or reason for my weight loss—it just happened. However, weighing 105lbs and being, by that point, 5’5”, my doctor said I was severely underweight, and I was put under doctor’s orders to eat cheese burgers and milkshakes as much as possible.
My weight loss received mixed reviews. My sister was the first to be supportive; she went out and bought me a pair of size 5 skinny jeans—they fit like a glove. It was the happiest jeans experience I’d ever had. (I didn’t have to shop and I fit a healthy size. Two big wins.)
But other people weren’t so kind. My grandmother—who weighed 75lbs in college, the same age I was then—kept bemoaning “somebody feed this child”, her passive-aggressive way of saying I was too skinny. Sometimes, she flat-out said I was too skinny and didn’t look good—like I was doing it all on purpose.
A so-called friend told my sister I was bulimic—which was ridiculous; if you don’t throw up from appendicitis AND peritonitis, you just don’t throw up. This bitchery happened around the time I was having some enamel problems with my teeth. It was the perfect murder. I looked guilty as sin. My sister, with good intentions, told my dentist. In a fatherly way, he tried to convince me to not throw up anymore. When I told him I hadn’t thrown up in ten years, he didn’t believe me. Suddenly, everyone around town knew me as bulimic, and nothing could be further from the truth.
Fortunately, I started hanging around with an old friend of mine who’d recently split up with her fiancé. Like me, she was naturally tiny. She told me there was nothing wrong with being skinny, that I was beautiful the way I was, and that anyone who tried to tell me otherwise was an asshole. For months, I felt like I was walking around with a scarlet B stitched to my sweater for something I hadn’t done, but her kindness gave me the strength to shove all that negativity aside and be myself. And, together, we drank three whole-milk lattés a day, and indulged in a nightly “second dinner” at McDonald’s where we’d each down a double cheeseburger, fries, and a warm chocolate chip cookie. Neither of us gained a pound. And that was okay.
For the next couple of years, I lived my life like that and remained healthy the whole time. I started university. I would climb sometimes upwards of thirty flights of stairs a day, walk a couple of miles, and still have energy to spare. Being thin made me happy, because it was the weight I felt healthiest at. I could do all the things I wanted to do. I could be the person I wanted to be. It was like my life had been given back to me and I lived it for all it was worth (or tried to, anyway).
But when I was about twenty, I had several tragic experiences strike in rapid succession (one being a car accident so severe, it was literally a miracle that I walked away from it). I started getting sick all the time. My body ached, my throat hurt, I could barely walk. My injured shoulder from my car accident wouldn’t heal. I was miserable. Eventually, I was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disorder (like asthma) that can affect literally every part of your body, from your brain to your joints to your skin. And, like asthma, the treatment for lupus flares is corticosteroids. And I was given a lot of them.
By the end of the year, I gained 100lbs. I gained 100lbs eating salad and drinking water. That is the power of corticosteroids. It doesn’t matter who you are. You don’t have to eat extra. The drugs change the way your body metabolizes sugar, and they literally hold onto every calorie you consume. Corticosteroids have saved my life, and many others, but this is the price most of us pay. And it is truly terrifying.
There is nothing more harrowing to the soul than to look in the mirror and not see your own face staring back at you. I developed the “moon face” characteristic of Cushing’s syndrome (what happens when you take steroids for long enough). My face was completely round. Pictures don’t exist from when this was at its peak. I couldn’t bear to let a camera near me.
My body became a terrifying nightmare. I was terrified of the weight I gained. It wasn’t only about looks. It was about the fear of knowing that I got out of breath just by walking to the bathroom. So, I did the only thing I could do. As soon as the doctor said it was safe, I stopped taking the corticosteroids.
It’s been over a year now since I was at my peak weight. I’ve lost over thirty pounds. I’m stronger. And I’m starting to see my face again. Do you know how happy that is? It’s like seeing your best friend after years apart. All you want to do is hug them and ask them never to leave again, and hope they never do. (Except, hugging your face is weird. But I still feel it in my heart.)
Lupus permitting, I fully intend to continue on this new trend of better overall health, including weight loss.
One thing being every size has taught me is that my body is for me. The same men that found me attractive at 105lbs still found me attractive 100lbs later. The same people who loved me at my smallest loved me at my biggest. All the other people—they don’t matter. All that matters is me and my health. Ideally, I’d like to weigh 120lbs, but as you can see from my story, I’ve had very little control in the past. If I get super skinny again, it’s just me. And if I stay my current weight, providing I’m healthy, then that’s me too. I am always me. What I weigh won’t change that.
As women, the biggest demons we face are the ones we see every day: family, friends, the media—even ourselves. My random weight fluctuations have made me feel every emotion from happy, to sad, to angry, to terrified. And if I’m writing this story for any reason whatsoever, it is to beg you—don’t let them dictate how your body should look, and how you should feel about your body. Your health is all that matters. If you’re healthy, you can find happiness. I promise you.
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