I was around 19 when I lost 40lbs for the first time. All my old shirts swallowed me up and I needed to get something that would fit my smaller frame.
Even though I looked better than I had in over 5 years, I still felt the pangs of insecurity tap at my spine when I saw all the pretty tanned people walking by with their paper shopping bags in one hand and their partner’s hand in the other. I was still big. And it was at that moment I realized the weight had gone away but the worry hadn’t. I still felt gross, ugly, fat.
And now, nearly 10 years later, having lost and gained those same 40lbs, I know the worry is still there and will never go away. Even at my thinnest, thinner than I was at 19, I hated the way I looked.
It’s hard to look at yourself in the mirror and know between the ages of 11-13, you ruined your body for good. To be so young and so damaging and so unaware is absolutely frightening. From the first stretch mark, you have damaged yourself beyond repair. When the skin doesn’t bounce back the way it used to, when you do hundreds of crunches and the back fat just won’t go away, you know you are ruined.
But at the time I just needed to dress myself.
I found a couple of shirts and some jeans that didn’t need a belt to keep around my waist. But nothing called out to me. I just found good sales and ordinary pieces.
I walked into one store and rummaged through the clearance bin, a cardboard box that all the clearance shirts had been haphazardly thrown into without regard for size or fold. Or maybe it was just the previous customers who disheveled the display but either way, I sorted through the messy stacks until I found a shirt I really liked.
It was a navy blue shirt that was so dark it was almost black. The profile of a golden yellow bird was boldly branded across the chest. It was different, eye-catching. But it was a medium. And it was thin. It would cling to my muffin top. I was worried but it was also incredibly soft. I decided to try it on anyway.
And it fit.
I can’t even explain the exuberance I felt as I pulled the fabric over my not-as-fat-but-still-fat stomach and realized the fabric didn’t cling at all. It actually covered everything up nicely. I stood in the dressing room with the harsh florescent lights and thumping music beating through the thin walls and saw the light in my eyes dance.
It actually fit.
I hadn’t worn a medium shirt in years and I couldn’t believe I finally could. I was a medium? I had lost weight at a fast and steady pace and although my body had changed, my mind hadn’t yet caught up with it. I still felt bigger than I actually was. When you occupy a space for so long, you get used to it. You live in a giant box for years on end and you don’t even notice the walls closing in on you until you stand up and stretch out your arms and suddenly your fingers are scraping at the sides.
I stroked the arms of the shirt and smiled at the softness. It was a cool design that fit me and it was on clearance. It was the perfect shirt.
And I wore the hell out of that shirt. The once questionable color (was it really navy or was it a faded black?) turned decidedly blue after several washings. The bird started to slightly crack and chip away slightly at the feet and tail feathers. But all these things only added to the character of the shirt, giving it a well worn broken in feel. And the shirt remained soft and despite the thin material and repeated washings, it retained its structure, never sticking to the grooves of my body.
For some reason that shirt stuck out to me more than any other. I suppose it was because it was one of the first shirts I really liked that really fit after my initial weight loss. It became more than a shirt. It was symbolic. It told me and the world that I had gained control over my body and my mind. I had defeated the fat.
Or so I thought.
Years later, I gained all the weight I lost, plus about an extra 20lbs. And one day I put the shirt on and it no longer fit. The sides bulged as my stomach pushed against the material. The bird that used to lie flat on my chest now protruded at the beak and tail because of my expanded man boobs. I looked in the mirror again but instead of a feeling of euphoria, defeat crept in and muddied all the light that once danced in my eyes.
The shirt used to represent victory over my food addiction, a mark of a new way of thinking and living. But all that representation was made void. I took the shirt off and laid it on my bed. All the hard work, all the years of sacrifice and dieting all fused into the very fabric of the navy blue bird shirt. And it was all undone.
I put the shirt away in storage until I lost the weight again. And then I took the shirt out and put it on and it fit the way it did when I was 19. I was back on track, feeling good again. It was another victory, reliving the moment of feeling rewarded for a job well done.
But in less than a year, I put the weight back on and the shirt no longer fits once again. But despite shoving my fat stomach through the opening, it’s tried its best to remain the same soft, structured shirt I bought back when I was 19. Its seen me through thinner years and fatter years and always tried to cover up what it could. But it’s just a shirt. It’s not a miracle worker. I’ve stretched it and worn it and sent it through the crappy washers and dryers from my college dorm and tried to take care of it the best I could because it always meant so much to me but now I can’t wear it anymore. The bird gets more chipped and cracked with each use just as my confidence does, just as the hopes of staying thin enough to wear the shirt gets more chipped and cracked with each subsequent weight gain.
There’s only so many times you can lose and gain before your body and metabolism give up entirely and I think I’m reaching that point. And I realize that more than my body or the bird shirt being stretched to the limit, my mind has been pulled like putty to the point of paralysis. How much more can the skin stretch before breaking? How much more weight can the mind hold before busting?
I’ve put the shirt away with the intention of being able to wear it again someday. I’ve done it before so I know I can do it again. I don’t fear I won’t lose the weight. I fear how long I’ll keep it off. Will it be several years or just several weeks? Every time I put it in storage, I get sad because I know it’s just another setback. Nearly 10 years of setbacks. I can’t help but wonder where I could be now had I never gained the weight back, had I stayed where I was or even lost more weight. Maybe the shirt would be worn out by now from more frequent use. But it’s not. The only thing worn out is my will.
Weight loss and weight loss maintenance is a struggle, a hard journey that takes concentration and dedication and steadfast determination, all sewn together to create the perfect plan for a healthier lifestyle. Pop one of those seams and the whole process unravels.
It’s exhausting to keep up the calorie counting and exercising, to create energy where there is none to move my body until it exudes sweat and hope it was enough to burn off the Lean Cuisine. It’s maddening to skip the dessert and pass by the candy bars without grabbing one. It’s painful to work so hard and achieve so many great results just to undo it all with each 3-month-long eating binge.
And it never goes away. Food is the pimple in the middle of my forehead, the splinter in my thumb, the stuffy nose, the tickle in the back of my throat, forever making itself known, forever calling my name and pulling me under.
I’ve put the shirt away again. And I’m tired again. And disappointed. And all the motivation I had, all the drive to do better has been whittled away until all that is left of me is threadbare.