Last week I introduced Fat Debbie.
Today I’d like you to meet Hot Debbie, the second face I’ve worn in my life.
The other night I watched that Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson movie Something’s Gotta Give. The opening credits unspool over a montage of beauties in body-conscious outfits strutting around town, proudly daring hungry men—and jealous women—to make eye contact. I know exactly how that feels. For a while I walked like that, hips swinging, chin raised, lips curled in a knowing smile. It was incredible.
I joined Weight Watchers for the thousandth and last time on New Year’s Eve—December 31, 1994. Everyone in the room marveled at my timing. Who in their right mind would choose to start a diet the day before the new year? Everyone knows that resolutions aren’t supposed to start until January 1. December 31 is reserved for getting in your last licks. But I’d had enough—enough of last licks, enough of physical discomfort, enough of being fat. For the first time, I joined WW without squeezing in a week of indulgences beforehand.
Every Saturday morning for three years, I sat in a second-floor meeting room on bustling Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens. My only excuses for missing a meeting: being out of town, or being too sick to get out of bed. In the past, I’d often skip meetings when I feared a gain for the week. This time, I went to the meeting. When the scale didn’t budge for nine full months, I told myself I’d already lost 75 pounds and the last 25 was coming off no matter what. I went to the meeting. The other women (there were very few men) in the room were always supportive, whether I was jubilant at a 1-pound loss or dejected at a ½-pound gain. And when I became the meeting’s top loser, our leader, Judy, turned to me for help with struggling dieters. I was an Inspiration. I felt fantastic—powerful and self-assured and most of all, strong.
In late December, 1997, I officially hit my goal. It took me three full years of absolute focus and dedication, hundreds of hours in the gym and thousands of pounds of steamed vegetables, but I did it. I lost 100 pounds. Now, as a Lifetime Member of Weight Watchers, I will never have to join again.
After I lost most of the weight, I noticed that people outside of WW were treating me differently. There was more respect right off the bat, more eye contact, more generosity from strangers. At first it pissed me off—my mom was right! There is a Bias Against Fat People!—but when I stopped to look at my own behavior it became more of a chicken/egg equation. Were people treating me differently because I was treating them differently? I’d lost a lot of anger along with that weight, and gained a lot of confidence. As a fat person I’d always thought of myself as outgoing, gregarious even, but Hot Debbie made Fat Debbie look like a shrinking violet. Smiling at strangers was so easy! Why hadn’t I done it before? Was gaining respect and admiration really as simple as being the first to smile? It appeared so.
Once the weight was gone, everything I did became an opportunity to make new human contact. And usually, that meant Men. I flirted at the gym. I flirted at the convenience store. I’d arrive half an hour early for dinner with the girls, so I could sit at the bar and flirt with a stranger over a glass of wine. Oh, it was fun. I became the daring one in my little circle, the one who could get any man to cross the room with a sly smile and an eyebrow raise.
And the clothes! Shopping became an exhilarating habit. Nothing felt better than walking into a store—a normal-size store—and knowing that not only would they have something that fit me, it would likely look great on. Sexy. I blew my entire $1500 tax refund on a fabulous Dolce & Gabbana velvet coat-dress, and afterwards went out for champagne to celebrate. Strength training left my arms beautifully cut, so as often as possible I’d go sleeveless—there must’ve been twenty different camis in my drawer, and a dozen little slip dresses in the closet. Half the time I’d buy things just because I liked the size—the thrill I’d get from simply owning something in a small!
I’d gone from a size 24 to a 10, and sometimes an 8, on a low fat/high fiber regimen. While that’s not a particularly small size, my friends and family were getting anxious, asking me if it wasn’t time for me to stop losing. I could see what they were talking about—my head was starting to look a little too big for my body. I did want to stop, but I was too scared to eat. Most days I still ate no more than 15 grams of fat, total. When even my therapist became concerned, she suggested I consult a doctor she often worked with, to help me reintroduce things like olives and nuts to my life. It surprised me, how hard it was to make myself eat foods I’d always enjoyed. I was afraid that once I started, I’d never stop. Pictured my body popping back out to its previous dimensions like an inflatable raft…It’s so easy to gain weight, and so many hundreds of times harder to lose it. But gradually, I did begin to eat just a little of most things. Everything in moderation was my motto in those days. Except alcohol—while I was losing weight I’d have a glass of wine or none at all, but when Hot Debbie went out, it was much more fun to drink my dinner than to actually eat something. Tequila and orange juice, please.
So, dating. I made up for almost thirty years of loneliness in a hurry, but Hot Debbie wasn’t exactly interested in a boyfriend. I had many, many first dates, and an awful lot of them happened the same night we met. Yes, I mean I picked men up. It was such a thrill to me while it was happening, knowing that I had this power over men, but such a queasy feeling the next day. I never gave out my phone number—I wanted control, and I didn’t want to wonder if I’d hear from them, so I took theirs. Usually, I didn’t call. I was a superheroine, paying back all these louses for what they’d done to Fat Debbie, what they’d done to other women.
In the midst of all this was R, a man I’d worked with until recently and always had a crush on. R was one of the best-looking men I’d ever known, in a blond-hair-blue-eyed kind of way. Not my usual type, but oh he got to me. Even when I was fat, we’d flirt and spar with crackling vitriol—me with all my Jewish angst, him a died-in-the-wool, rational Yankee protestant. His intellect killed me. I never won an argument with him, and I found that really sexy. One night we met for a drink, and to say he was stunned by Hot Debbie is no exaggeration. Once some booze had loosened our reserve we made a spectacle at the bar; so began three years of on-again-off-again liquored-up anxiety. Never once did he act like my boyfriend; our off periods would usually begin with a fight over the nature of our relationship. But the fact that this man, who I’d worshiped for all those years, wanted me at all…that was enough to keep me interested. I convinced myself that we would end up together at some point, that he was the big prize I would win by losing weight.
It was hard work, all that exercising and shopping and socializing, plus a high-level job in publishing, but for quite some time I felt great. I couldn’t believe what an exciting place the world had become, all because I’d lost 100 pounds. Everything was possible, but it was difficult to fit it all in. Six, and sometimes seven, days a week in the gym. Work-related parties or dinners several nights a week. Dates. This went on for the better part of a year. I had tons of energy, but eventually the strain began to show. I felt brittle, superheated like the top of a crème brulee, ready to shatter at the tap of a spoon. Carpal tunnel symptoms surfaced, and a persistent tightness in my neck and shoulders. When I confessed to M, my trainer, that I was having trouble keeping my head above water, he told me to ease up on the gym regimen. Exercise was supposed to be a release, a healthy thing, not an additional pressure. He was absolutely right, but I was terrified. Apparently I’d traded an unhealthy relationship with food for an unhealthy addiction to working out. At one point I’d actually fallen and broken my wrist in a step class, and sat on the gleaming hardwood floor crying as much from pain as from the knowledge that I’d have to miss the rest of the class. Why this hadn’t struck me as a tad obsessive at the time I don’t know (in fact I was strangely proud), but when M gently ordered me to take an extra day off it registered as a mixed blessing: Just as I’d been afraid to eat an olive, I was afraid to “only” go to the gym five days a week.
To be continued, in The Three Faces of Me: Debbie