Even though it has never been far outside the norm -- in fact, the average American woman wears a size 14, and 14 is my own average -- I've always been ashamed of my size. This could be for a number of reasons: I grew up with a gorgeous mother who, despite her gorgeousness, always worried about her weight; I attended a series of fancy private schools populated by the sort of thoroughbred humans who rode thoroughbred horses; I fell in love with fashion at a very young age, coveting the lithe forms which showed it off best and knew that my own round shape could never measure up unless I whittled it down.
In ballet class at age 5, I noticed that my belly stuck out farther than the other girls', so I hiked up my tutu for camouflage. Fastening the waistband of my old-fashioned plaid uniform in second grade, I was careful to suck in my gut so it wouldn't spill over. And if I was wearing a bathing suit, you can bet I was also wearing a t-shirt to "protect my delicate skin from sunburn," even when the pool was indoors.
As a child and teenager, I distinctly remember experiencing my fatness as a secret -- something I felt that I had to be vigilant about hiding. Never mind that anyone could see what size I was just by looking at me; I cut the labels out of my clothes whenever I could.
As someone who really knows, let me tell you something: It's a waste of time to go through life constantly freaking out about how fat other people must think you are. No matter what your size, I promise you: The only person who truly gives a whatever about how fat you are is you.
There are people who always seem to daydream about their "thin days," the good-old-years back when they thought they were fat, but before they had any idea how fat they were really going to get. I am not one of those people.
While I have never been fat-fat, I have also never been thin-thin. I have traveled through life in the netherworld of size ambiguity, fat enough to have a "weight issue," thin enough never to be ostracized because of it. Luckily, I am conventionally pretty, fairly well proportioned and smart, with a freakishly high -- some might say bordering on narcissistic -- level of self-esteem. It's rare that I don't find myself to be one of the smartest, kindest, best-bone-structured people in any given room. OK, the smartest, kindest, best-bone-structured person. (In order to compensate for fat-girl low self-esteem, a gal has to learn to think highly of herself in other ways.)
Still, my weight has almost always been the thing I think of as holding me back. It's my albatross, the excuse I use to explain all life's failures, injustices and cruel twists of fate.
In fact, until pretty recently, I believed that my "weight problem" would keep me from ever finding the kind of person worth spending my life with. Or maybe it wouldn't keep me from finding him, but it would certainly keep me from winning him and keeping him. I believed that by failing to lose weight, I was sentencing myself to a lifetime of solitary confinement as punishment for my pathetic lack of willpower.
Then, at 35, I fell in love. And all the fears I'd had about being undesirable because of my weight -- that I was physically unattractive, that I lacked inner strength, that any self-respecting, successful man believed he deserved to have a skinny wife, which meant he believed he deserved better than me -- all those fears disappeared overnight, just like everyone had always said they would when I met the right person. Did I all of a sudden feel happy with my body? Of course not. But I no longer believed that my physical body would stand between me and the life I had always wanted.
You might think that all these mind-blowing realizations would enable me to lose weight, once and for all. That's what always happens in movies and cheerful chick-lit books, right? Fat chick identifies her core issue, shoots it down like a Space Invader, jogs sloppily around a track in a big sweatsuit, drinks gallons of smoothies, then sheds her terry cloth cocoon to emerge a skinny, self-confident butterfly in Spandex.
Nope, not my story. In fact, in the time that my boyfriend and I have been together, I have put on a solid fifteen pounds (thanks entirely to his mother's ridiculous lemon bars). My boyfriend swears he doesn't care that I've gained weight, and I believe him -- when it comes to his being attracted to me, anyway. But I know that my being frustrated with myself affects both of us, and that in order to feel my best, my prettiest, my most confident, I need to get back to being as active as I used to be. So despite having found happiness in so many ways, my struggle with my body continues on.
Dream boyfriend or not, though, I've never let my weight issue hold me back outside the arenas of dating and self-esteem. This doesn't mean that I'm some sort of fat activist, just that I've never doubted my intellect, potential or abilities the way I doubted my body. I can probably thank my parents for this strong -- if somewhat delusional -- belief in the contents of my own skull.
I've been an editor at a top women's magazine in New York. I've set up house in the most happening 'hood in Hollywood (right underneath the freaking sign!). I've survived working for a singer who offered me (unsolicited) Adderall and diet pills on our second day together, explaining that she knew how hard it was to carry around extra weight in the entertainment business, and that these magic pills had helped her to conquer her own weight problem and ascend the ladder of success.
Weirdly, though, no amount of shame or peer pressure has ever been enough to make me get thin. The skinny girls at the magazine? So dumb and shallow! There's something wrong with somebody who thinks it's OK to spend her entire two-week paycheck on a pair of stripper shoes. The waifish starlets walking their dogs around my block in Hollywood? They probably moonlight at suburban Friday's restaurants, covered in "flair." I couldn't survive one day of hauling around trays of half-eaten crab dip and guacamole -- gross. And when that malnourished "artist" offered me those pills, as she huddled in her garage, sucking on a secret cigarette, I felt sorry for her. So successful, so pretty, such a perfect body -- and still so insecure!
I used to think that my inability to jump on the skinny bandwagon simply meant that I had no willpower. Now I see, though, that maybe I don't hate my body as much as I always thought I did.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because I want to help you not-hate your body, too. But not in a precious, touchy-feely, rub-aromatherapy-lotion- on-your-skin-and-give-yourself-the-care-you-deserve way. I want to help you stop hating your body by no longer allowing it to be the thing that stands between you and your happiness. My goal is to prove to you that you are not the elephant in the room.
Now just because I don't hate my body doesn't mean that society doesn't hate it. There's no question that as obesity rates skyrocket, our culture puts a higher and higher premium on skinniness. But, I promise, you can make western society's unfortunate bias work for you.
One of the reasons skinny people make life so difficult for fat people is that they're jealous. Jealous that fat people eat what they want. Jealous that fat people don't derive their self-esteem from the labels sewn into the clothes on their backs. Jealous of the psychic freedom that comes from refusing to live by everybody else's rules. Instead of telling you not to be envious of skinny people, I am going to tell you to use their secret envy of you to your advantage.
No, I am not delusional. (At least I don't think I am?) I'm not trying to encourage a bunch of 200-pound chicks to pursue careers as fashion models. (I mean, If you're a 200-pound chick who wants to be a fashion model, Godspeed, but you'd better be ridiculously pretty. Like, Helen-of-Troy-level pretty. And start your career off on the right foot. In Samoa.)
But I'm sick of hearing 200-pound chicks -- even 140-pound chicks! -- say they can't succeed at their careers, get a cool boyfriend, hike to the top of a mountain, insert whatever mundane-yet-seemingly-unattainable goal here just because they don't look like fashion models. Listen up, people: Do you realize how absurd it is to let your physical body affect your success in the non-superficial arenas of your life? Is one required to possess a law degree from Harvard in order to be qualified to host the Miss America pageant? No? Then why do you think you need to look like Miss America in order to pursue your law degree at Harvard?
If you don't yet have the life you want -- the life you feel you deserve -- you're going to have to change. But I'm not talking about losing weight. Maybe you'll have to be a little more assertive sometimes, a little less self-righteous other times. You'll have to forgive stupid assholes for being reductive and judgmental, and you'll have to acknowledge that sometimes you're a bit reductive and judgmental yourself. You're going to have to accept that being fat is not an excuse to disengage from the aesthetic side of our culture, or, even worse, to disengage from our culture entirely.
Being fat comes with a host of responsibilities, not only to yourself, but to other fat people. Represent! You can be both fat and pretty. Both fat and handsome. Both fat and self-confident. Both fat and rich. Both fat and wildly attractive. Both fat and -- yes, it's true -- happy.
Rebecca DiLiberto is the executive editor at "The Ricki Lake Show." For an upcoming schedule of episodes, visit Ricki's site.