Her Body: Interview With a Former Fat Girl

Losing weight is hard enough, but keeping it off is even tougher. Most dieters regain pounds within a year and may end up even heavier than when they started. That's why Barbara was so impressed by magazine editor Lisa Delaney when she met her at a conference in the mid-1990s. When Delaney was in her mid-20s, she transformed her life by dropping 70 pounds and becoming an avid runner. This dramatic change—maintained now for two decades—involved a lot more than just food and fitness. Delaney learned to see herself as someone who could achieve this difficult goal. Her story was so inspiring that Barbara (among others) urged her to write a book about her journey. Ten years later—after getting married and having a son—Delaney has done just that. It's called "Secrets of a Former Fat Girl." She has also created a Web site http://www.formerfatgirl.com/index.html where dieters can exchange tips. We talked to her about her success story. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why do you think it was so difficult for you to lose weight for the first 25 years of your life?
It was a combination of things—some of them pretty typical. First, I was the least adventurous eater you could imagine. The only vegetables I liked were white potatoes and corn; I loved bread and butter, pasta and burgers, and anything sweet. Plus, in my family, food was love, it was comfort, it was companionship, even. I was a pretty sensitive, shy, creative kid—something I think is common among "fat girls"—and began to use food and my weight as a way of hiding, of being invisible. I was afraid of being teased, of not being perfect, so I kind of nested in my weight and snuggled up with my food. And as I got older, I just got comfortable being that way. It became part of my identity. I was really too afraid to try to change, because as much as I disliked living as a fat girl, it was all I knew.

It sounds like you hit rock bottom after polishing off some ice cream. Tell me about that moment.
It was mint-chocolate chip. I couldn't eat that stuff for years afterward. It had taken me only two days to go through a half gallon. I was in my old duplex in Austin, standing in the kitchen, probably with the fridge door open, intending to only have a bite or two before shoving the rest of the carton back in the freezer. I had just finished the last spoonful when a wave of nausea went over me and I ran for the tiny half bath in the hall and lost it. At one point, mid-retch, I glanced in the mirror and saw how pitiful and out of control I was. I decided, right then, that things had to change.

You say that Jazzercise was your "gateway drug." What do you mean by that?
Not long after the ice-cream incident, a friend asked me to a Jazzercise class. That's where I first started feeling like I really could be the kind of person who exercises—and likes it, even. I was moving, sweating, and I didn't hate it. I got hooked on Jazzercise and did it for about a year. That class prepared me—physically and mentally—for the "hard stuff": running.

Most would-be dieters start by cutting back on their food intake. You started by increasing your physical activity. How did that contribute to your ultimate success?
When you think about it, controlling what you eat is all about no, I can't, I shouldn't. You're denying your appetite, something that is physically and emotionally difficult to do. You could say exercise is as difficult, but when you take the leap and make a commitment to move, you experience positive messages. Exercise is all about "I can," about proving to yourself that you have abilities and talents you never dreamed you had. I'm not the only one who has experienced that. And starting your whole journey that way puts you in a powerful position.... So when you do tackle your diet, you have more willpower, you have more practice setting goals and meeting them, and you are in a positive frame of mind.

Why do you advise readers not to tell people they have started a weight-loss program? 
Becoming a Former Fat Girl is all about changing the image you have of yourself. But others have a particular image of you, too: as the good-time girl who loves to eat and drink, as the "giver" who puts everyone else's needs ahead of her own, of the woman whose proper place is in front of the TV or at the stove, not at a health club. As hard as you try to break out of that role you've been playing and create a new identity, other people's expectations of you can unintentionally—or sometimes intentionally—sabotage your efforts. For instance, pushing seconds on you when you've finally found the strength to put your fork down and say "no." And going public with your plan also invites "helpful" advice, which often seems like nagging, meddling and doubt in your ability to succeed on your own.

How do you handle family members or friends who appear to be sabotaging your weight-loss efforts?
A lot of people show their love with food, and measure how much you love them by how much you eat. When you reject their attempts to pile the gooey macaroni and cheese on your plate, they feel like you're rejecting them. Remembering where they're coming from can help keep you from getting angry and resentful. The other thing to do is to try some things that will reassure them that you're not leaving them behind. So you might ask them to go on a walk with you, invite them to try the low-fat veggie lasagna you made, etc. Even if they say no, you're earning points. But be careful not to get preachy in your excitement about what you're learning or brag about your progress: that might just make them push harder. You might find that, however careful you are, some people take your attempt to lose weight as a comment on their own diet—almost as a personal affront. If that's the case, I would be as unobtrusive as possible and if it gets really bad, you might have to avoid being around them, at least in food-focused situations.

Was there a particular point when you began to accept that you were slim and a former fat girl?
Physically, I really got it when I bought a pair of size 5 jeans. I think a great-fitting pair of jeans in a single-digit size is kind of the Holy Grail for overweight women. I actually still have that same pair. I don't wear them anymore because they're horribly out of fashion, but they're like a trophy. That might sound really superficial, but I didn't feel like a Former Fat Girl emotionally until later. I had spotted an ad for a magazine-editor job that would require me to move across the country, way out of my comfort zone, and, although I was tempted not to send in my résumé, I did it. That proved to me that I had worked through the fear that was keeping me stuck emotionally as well as physically.

You say that staying slender means changing body and spirit. Can you explain that?
I think the main reason women fail to keep weight off is that they're still "fat girls" inside. I mean, if all we needed to do was eat less and exercise more, we'd all be slim and trim, right? Losing weight is all about you. It's about saying no to other people's needs and desires and putting yourself—your exercise, your diet, your emotional well-being—first. If you don't do that, if you're stressed out and struggling to meet the demands of everyone else, it's hard to find the energy and time to exercise, and it's easy to take refuge in food.

These days, everything from bagels to burgers seems to be supersized. How do you maintain portion control?
Yes, it's crazy when you pick up a "low-fat" muffin, and the label says it contains 465 calories! But there are lots of things you can do. When you eat out, order an appetizer and a salad, and skip the entree; appetizers are the new entrees! Or get a salad and split an entree with your dining partner. I always eat just half the bread on the sandwich I order. If it's a grilled-chicken sandwich, I eat half the sandwich as is, and finish off the remaining chicken breast with knife and fork.

Describe your typical daily (or weekly) exercise routine.
Monday, Wednesday and Friday I meet friends at 5 a.m. to run six miles. Saturdays, we meet at 6 a.m. and run eight to 10 miles. That makes me sound like some fitness freak, but I'm not. I'm actually pretty grumpy about getting up so early. But with a full-time job and a 5-year-old, it's really the only time I can do it—and the only time I see my friends! Tuesdays, I may do a quick run or jump rope; Thursdays and Sundays are usually days off. I also try to lift weights a couple times a week and do yoga. It's hard to squeeze all that in. I do the best I can!

What did you eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner today?
For breakfast, I had [a] big bowl of oatmeal made with skim milk, topped with a tiny box of raisins. Lunch was a salad (vinaigrette dressing, chopped eggs for protein—mostly whites—and just a bit of white cheddar on top), a small bag of Baked Lays potato chips and a Diet Sprite. For dinner, I had a black-bean burger on a sesame-seed bun, with a coleslaw made with balsamic vinaigrette dressing and a sprinkling of feta cheese, and a glass of red wine. Dessert was three York Peppermint Patties. I guess I'm over my aversion to the mint-chocolate combination!

Childhood obesity is a major health crisis in this country. You have a 5-year-old son. How are you raising him to be a healthy eater?
I got some great advice from my pediatrician when my son was just about to start eating solid food. I was telling her about some unsolicited advice I'd gotten from a woman who told me she fed her son mashed potatoes with butter and cheese when he transitioned from breast feeding. And I know the boy now, and that's the only thing he eats! My pediatrician reminded me that my son's palate was, at that point, a blank slate and that I shouldn't assume he wouldn't like the same kind of stuff that I eat. So I have made it a point to expose him to lots of different kinds of foods. I also have him cook with me (he has his own whisk!). I try not to demonize foods, so instead of saying "bad" foods, I talk in terms of treats. A burger and fries is a treat, and we only have treats once in a while. He has become very interested in food (he now watches the Food Network with me, and wants to have his own cooking show!). Most of all, I try to be a good role model for him, to show him that it's all a balance, that enjoying your favorite foods on occasion is as much a part of a healthy life as taking your vitamins and exercising.

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