More Than a Number

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“There is nothing more rare, nor more beautiful, than a woman being unapologetically herself; comfortable in her perfect imperfection. To me, that is the true essence of beauty.” ~ Steve Maraboli

A_Claire-I didn’t become aware of my body until around the age of ten. My friend Caroline was visiting for the day and insisted on weighing herself several times on our bathroom scale.

She told me she shouldn’t weigh as much as she did and asked me how much I weighed.

I think I had a vague number in mind. But at that point it was just a number. Caroline was the first person to really connect body size with the number on the scale for me.

After that day I began weighing myself more regularly. There was a scale in every bathroom so it wasn’t difficult. I started to examine my body in the mirror, to notice the prepubescent curves and the extra layer of fat that until now had never really bothered me.

But then other kids at school began noticing that extra layer too.

And by the age of eleven my body image had undergone a huge shift. I saw my lumps and bumps the way my classmates seemed to see them: dumpy, chubby. Plain old fat.

Of course it was around that time I also began to develop breasts and hips. And as my body shape changed, I blamed myself for eating too much.

The bigger I became the more I hid myself away from the world. I felt myself growing apart from other girls whose lithe, sporty bodies weren’t yet developing and whose long lean legs looked so much more appealing than my own.

Boys seemed to like those bodies.

By twelve I could stand it no longer. I broke down in front of my mother, telling her how big and uncomfortable I felt, how I hated my body and wanted to lose weight.

“You’re fine the way you are,” she said.’

Fine?

To me the word fine may as well have been “fat.” Fine is neutral. Fine is a lie. Fine meant, “you don’t look good honey, but I’m not going to tell you so.”

I needed to hear words like “Beautiful.” Perfect. Slim…

My mother’s confirmation of my burgeoning waistline left me all the more anxious about my weight. I comforted myself by stopping at the corner store every day after school to buy one packet of Rolos and a bag of cheese and onion crisps. I sneaked them into the house in my school bag, quietly transferring them to the underside of my pillow to be savored later.

And when I was sure that my mother wasn’t going to check on me, I retreated to my bedroom with a copy of the latest issue of tween magazine, My Guy. I lay on my bed, eyes feasting on the unfurling romance between teenage boy and girl in the magazine’s photo strip, tongue delighting in the taste of melting chocolate and caramel.

Bliss.

For twenty minutes.

As I neared the end of the magazine, savoring the last Rolo or chip, tears would collect in my eyes.

I had done it again.

Removed myself still further from the lean body I dreamed of.

This continued for months until finally I went back to my mother and shared once more my misery over my weight.

And she put me on my first diet.

Looking back I know she only wanted to help. I know that seeing her little girl in pain, a mother’s natural response is to fix it, to help me fit in with the other girls.

But I wonder. I wonder if she had told me I was enough, told me I was beautiful, told me that beauty comes from within, would I have spent the next 25 years losing and regaining the same 20 pounds?

I remember that first diet well. Vegetable curry on Mondays, fish fingers and beans Tuesdays, liver and green beans on Thursdays, a chicken breast with rice and peas on Fridays.

Every week the meals would repeat themselves and every day cucumber sandwiches at school would accompany them.

I learned to count the calorie content of every single food I consumed. I’m still a walking calorie calculator.

And as my weight dropped I felt the excitement and empowerment that came with controlling my food intake.

I lost a respectable amount of weight that first time around—at least fifteen pounds. And as the pounds dropped my confidence at school increased.

Until I broke the diet.

There was only so long I could last on a thousand calories a day. Excitement, empowerment and control took me a long way, but when ravenous hunger finally screamed louder than the desire to be slim, it was game over.

That first bite of chocolate. The first taste of a favorite ‘forbidden” food. It was heaven and hell rolled into one, the prevue to the storm.

When “the crash” came I loathed myself. How could I give up now after doing so well for so long? How could I choose the weight gain train once more after having tasted the sweetness of a newly defined me?

My despair was so great I went to the one familiar place for comfort: the fridge.

I binged on cereal, cookies, chocolate, chips…anything I could get my hands on. I intensified feelings of shame with every morsel of food that passed by my lips. I couldn’t seem to stop. No amount of food could fill the void.

You would think that after this initial experience I would have learned–done something different the next time around, or realized that this way of eating wasn’t normal. Instead, I blamed myself for “doing it wrong” and embarked on another diet. I felt sure number two would go perfectly, but instead of greater success I found myself repeating the same behavior and this time after fewer weeks on the diet.

My sense of failure doubled.

Now I look back and see a string of diets behind me: one hundred, two hundred, maybe more.

Am I slimmer? No. In fact I’m probably carrying about the same amount of excess weight as on the day I began my first diet at the age of twelve.

Have I learned anything? I’ve learned that diets don’t work. Each weight loss experience drained me of more confidence, until looking in the mirror became an exercise in picking apart the radiant softness and femininity that God created, turning it into something repellent and ugly.

And now as I walk the path of trying to undo years of shame-inducing behavior, I long to go back to that day as a twelve year-old and change the story. I long to replace the negative images with truth—to see my body every day the way God sees it, even the way my husband sees it.

I long to line up every woman in the mirror and show her she is more than a number. And how truly amazing she really is.

___________________

Image credit: Yana Lyandres

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Claire De Boer
Hi, I’m Claire and though you may only see my words here once a month I’m part of the wonderful sisterhood of women who edit, upload and brainstorm behind the scenes of SheLoves. I was born and raised in England but pretty much see myself as a fully fledged Canadian. I spend just about all of my spare time blogging, editing and creating stories. I’ve also ventured into the world of teaching and mentor students in using writing as a tool for personal growth. My passion is to help others find the value and beauty in their stories and to find healing or self-awareness via journaling, memoir, or just "soul writing", as I like to call it. To learn more about my journey and the work I'm doing visit The Gift of Writing
Claire De Boer
Claire De Boer

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Claire De Boer
  • Anne-Marie

    Claire this makes me ache! I remember a magazine that gave a number for the ‘perfect’ proportion between my waist and thighs. I wish then I’d known what I know now. That those muscular thighs can power up mountains. I wish someone had said ‘you’d be great in sports!’ and directed all that energy out, instead of in, to criticize and bully my quite respectable body. I think we all have a moment when we lose the innocent joy in our beauty as creatures, in the joy of movement and muscle and air on our skin. Boys feel it too. my older son told me he was ‘fat’ in 3rd grade. He was slim as a beanpole and so handsome. 🙁

    • cjdeboer

      HI Anne-Marie – yes I think boys are becoming more concerned about their body image with every generation. There’s so much more awareness and pushback now, and yet the magazines continue to promote the diets and the tiny bodies. I think we need a diet revolution!

  • So proud of you, love. This post is needed and vulnerable and powerful. Thank you for being brave.

    • cjdeboer

      Thank you, friend, for encouraging me!

  • Oh, this part of you story? So vulnerable and real and tender. As I was reading, I realized your voice, and your story are so needed for the young ones in this world. You are such a beauty, all together, every bit.

    • cjdeboer

      Thank you so much, Lovely! yes I would love to work with young people in this area – what a blessing that would be.

  • My mum taught me to diet when I was about 12 and she decided she was going on one. When I look back, I don’t think either of us needed to lose weight really and I don’t know why she decided we should do it. I think maybe she thought it was a mother-daughter bonding experience. All I know is that I learned that I hate cottage cheese and that my mum didn’t think I looked good the way I was. The number on the scale is always too big for my liking, so I don’t weigh myself very often. And I’ve never ‘gone on a diet’ as an adult – that first experience convinced me that it wasn’t for me.

    • cjdeboer

      Hi Morag – I’m so glad you didn’t begin that cycle of dieting – it’s one that brings with it a lot of heartache. I think back then our mothers didn’t know the damage it would cause. I’m just glad we know differently now and can try to write a different story with our own kids.

  • Dina Ferreira Stoddard

    Claire your raw words moved me. Your words brought me back to my teen years and the many struggles I went through. Thank you for being open and real…you will move mountains my friend. xo

    • cjdeboer

      Thank you so much Dina – love you! xo

  • Carrie

    You must, must, must read the book Intuitive Eating, and so must all you women whose stories echo this one, as so many do, including mine. I am in no way connected with it or profit from it, it’s just one of those rare things in life that really, really works the way it says it will. It changed my life and freed me from the food/guilt/fast/feast cycle that I was enslaved by. Just ask my husband. He loves not having to hear my guilty food feelings or worry about my kneejerks to a restaurant he wants to go to, but he especially loves how comfortable in my own skin I am now. Due entirely, totally, fully to that book.

    • cjdeboer

      Hi Carrie – I have the book and I’m also a big fan of Geneen Roth’s work. In fact I will be using both books as the basis to teach my journaling course for the chronic dieter later this year. I’m glad the intuitive process is working well for you. It’s a journey for me after 25 years but I’m getting there!

  • Anna Cooper

    If you haven’t already you should really read the following two books. They changed the game for me completely:

    Lessons from the Fat-o-sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body (Kirby and Harding)
    Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight (Bacon)

    • cjdeboer

      Thank you Anna – I’ll check them out!

  • Bev Murrill

    I have been down the innumerable diets path for most of my adult life; I hate it! But I love what you’ve said and your willingness to put yourself out there, Claire. You have such a gift of writing in a way that touches the deep places and the truth is, we are infinitely than the number on the scale, and how frustrating that even we ourselves find it so hard to believe that. You’re post is transforming.

    • cjdeboer

      Thank you, Bev. It is beyond frustrating that so many of us live with obsessions about weight, but the more we speak the truth about it the less it can keep a hold on us. So here I am in all my (non) diet glory!!!!! xo

  • Megan Gahan

    Goodness, there’s just so much here Claire. I wanted to sob when I read the specific recount of your first diet – I cannot believe you remember all the meals. That just wrung my heart out. And I concur that the word ‘fine’ is the absolute worst! So proud of you for pouring more of yourself and your story out into this space. A painful but necessary reminder for us grown up girls, as we attempt to model health for the next generation. Good good words. Love you

    • cjdeboer

      Thank you dear friend – I know you understand and that this issue is close to your heart. I officially hate the word ‘fine’!

  • pastordt

    I know this story all too well. Except it was my mother who put me on my first diet – I never asked for it at all. And when I look at old pictures, I want to cry. I was just fine. (And to me, that would have been a great word to hear!) Truly, I was. And my battle has involved many more pounds than 20 over this long life. Learning to love this body, no matter what the scale says is ongoing and terribly difficult. Thank you for writing about this so well, for pinpointing the insidiousness of this particular western virus – it’s just plain ugly. And so very sad.

    • cjdeboer

      So so sad, Diana. I’m sorry you have dealt with this issue for so long also. It is an ongoing battle but one I believe we can win 🙂