Warning: If you were intrigued by the title, thinking perhaps this were some comment on my lack of morals, you may want to peruse the adult section of your nearest bookstore, as this particular essay may seriously disappoint. But, if you are like me, and have ever had to lie back on your bed, suck in your gut and struggle so hard to button the fly of your jeans that you nearly wore off your fingerprints, read on and commiserate with me.
The last bell had rung, signaling the end of another long day at school and I was sitting at my desk, shuffling through the mounds of paper that seem to continually cover any horizontal surface in my classroom. My back hurt; my knees hurt; my shoulders hurt. I tried convincing myself it was my age. There was a gnawing thought in the back of my head that knew the real truth. Healthy 39-year-old women do not have aches in every joint. My weight was making me miserable. The physical discomfort was one thing but the emotional pain was worse.
I hated having to shop at Lane Bryant for dresses made with voluminous amounts of fabric that would cover my bulging body like a Coleman tent. Heaven forbid that any of the material would get caught in one of my fat rolls! I've never liked wearing dresses, but they were comfortable. A short, no-fuss hairstyle, flat shoes and large pink-tinted glasses completed any ensemble.
There was a time when I felt comfortable in nearly anything. . Growing up in the south, I wore Levi's 501 button-fly jeans like the other high school kids in the late seventies. How I missed wearing 501s and a simple t-shirt. This old school teacher was so far away from the school girl she used to be.
I suppose I saw myself as the frumpy teacher in fifth grade. Allow me to introduce you to our team. I'm the oldest, a middle-aged mother of three. And then there are Mike and Rhet. They're younger and athletic; they are coaches at the high school. On Sesame Street there is a song that they sing that goes, "Which one of these is not like the other? Which one of these does not belong?" That would be me. It's not just that I'm a woman. Those two are physically fit. Let's be honest; they look hot. Can I say that? I must. It's true. I envy the ease with which they maneuver themselves on the playground, playing football and basketball with our kids. The testosterone just flows at our end of the building. There is a constant, good-natured competition between those two.
As I guzzled the last of my Diet Coke at my desk, I could hear my teammates talking in the hallway. This day's conversation seemed to have an unusual, almost sympathetic, flavor to it.
"I need to take off a few pounds; I'm up to about 210."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. I'm at my heaviest...almost 205."
I squirmed uncomfortably in my chair. For once, I was glad not to be included in their conversation. Women generally don't volunteer a lot of information about their weight, especially not in mixed company, not when the topic carries with it so much shame and embarrassment. It didn't take me long to do the math. I was now, officially, the heaviest member of the fifth grade team, and quite possibly, the school. At 224 pounds, I could have wrestled on Mike's team as the heavy weight.
That overheard conversation haunted me for days. How could I change? I went to the doctor to see if there were another magical pill like phen/fen on the market to help me on my way back to the land of good health. Dr. Chappell chided, "You don't need a pill, Denise. You know what to do: eat less and exercise more." Mustering up a little more determination, I set out to shed my unwanted pounds.
A serious walking regimen got me on my way. I would wake up early, tug on my too tight sweats and laboriously plod one mile up and one mile back down Sierra Vista Lane. After a couple of months, I was down to 208...good progress, but still uncomfortably close to the weights of my male teaching companions.
One weekend, while visiting my health-conscious brother during the summer of 2000, I noticed a new book on his dining table: Body for Life by Bill Phillips. "What's this, Eric?"
He explained briefly that it was a way of life that incorporated a balanced diet with weight-lifting and cardio. "Look at these amazing 'before and after' pictures." The book showcased hundreds of people who had taken the challenge to transform their bodies with Phillips' 12 week program. The grand prize winner, the person who made the most improvement, took home a million dollars.
Every "before" picture showed a tired, washed-out pudgy competitor and every "after" picture showed a glowing tanned athlete with some definite muscle tone. "Is there something in the diet that turns your skin brown?" I asked sarcastically.
"No, but you have to admit, the tan shows off their new physiques better," Eric laughed. I noticed they all wore bikinis or posing briefs, even in their beginning photos. That took some guts, I thought.
By the end of the weekend, I had devoured the book and had formulated a plan. If all of those formerly fat, non-athletes could do it, so could I. I didn't have any grand notions of winning a million dollars, but I believed that seeing myself in photographs would help me become more accountable and help me achieve my goals.
I stood before my closet and considered my wardrobe options. I could wear a bathing suit or workout clothes. A bikini was out of the question. Who in their right mind pays perfectly good money for a size 18 two piece swimsuit that you hope never to be big enough to wear after the picture is taken? Not me, that's for sure. I stuffed myself into my matronly swimsuit and lumbered into the kitchen where my teenage son Dylan looked doubtfully at me. "Just take the picture," I sighed, as I pushed my camera toward him. "I need a front shot and a back shot." I smiled weakly into the camera lens. "Take it!" I hissed through clenched teeth.
Now I had the humiliating task of taking the pictures into town to have them developed. Who could I trust with these photographs? I decided fewer people could access them if I went to the one-hour photo shop. My heart fell and my anxiety level rivaled that of a tone-deaf singer at karaoke night as I noticed one of the district employees, a MAN, was moonlighting at the store. With great bravado, I marched in, handed him my roll of film and winced as I strode out the door. I comforted myself with the thought that the employees probably don't have time to really look at everyone's pictures anyway. And if that's not true, I don't want to know about it.
I was horrified when I got the pictures back. I was in worse shape than I thought. Nothing like a glossy photo to shoot down any romantic notions you had of simply having a body Rubens would have liked to paint.
My husband had a hard time getting excited about my new plan. He suggested I lift common, everyday objects rather than go to the expense of buying weightlifting equipment. It was obvious to me he didn't believe we'd need any more exercise equipment to trip over once the novelty of this latest diet wore off. I was not going to let his lack of enthusiasm dampen my spirits.
So...some people pump iron. This chubby mama was reduced to "pumping tin." Tin cans filled with 16 ounces of cherry pie filling, to be exact. When those became too easy, I moved up to boxes containing .22 bullets. After a month or so of faithfully lifting "weights" three days a week, I convinced DelMar that I was serious. We headed out to a neighbor's yard sale and bought a bench, some dumbbells and ankle weights. I had graduated to real weights!
By the time school started at the end of that summer, I had officially entered my first body for Life Challenge. I was required to take photos (again) and fill out a questionnaire to document my progress. I found myself mixing protein drinks in the blender, reading Muscle Media magazine and actually becoming excited about this new found world of fitness.
The teachers noticed the changes that had taken place over the summer. They encouraged me to continue my efforts by applauding my progress and complimenting my physical changes. Rhet and Mike became my cheerleaders, asking about my workouts and noticing when I wore new, smaller clothes. Mike even showed me around the high school weight room and coached my friend Margie and me on proper lifting techniques.
The first 12 weeks came and went, and I still had a long way to go. One thing I'm glad I didn't know when starting Body for Life was how long my transformation would take. We all know that "slow and steady wins the race" but it was difficult not to get discouraged when my results were not as dramatic as the previous winners of the challenge.
I recall Mr. Winn's teasing in the faculty room one day. "Denise, if you win the Body for Life competition, promise me you'll tell people it takes longer than three months to get those results!" I laughed because I knew it would take me MUCH longer to get to where I wanted to be.
I officially competed in three challenges over five years. Did I ever honestly think I'd WIN the challenge? Well, no. But the way I see it, anyone who improves their health and well-being is a winner. My prizes were confidence, an increase in self-esteem and a healthier body. Each challenge found me another 10 pounds closer to my goal. All told, I lost over 70 pounds.
On this day, I'm going to wear my 501s because they take me back to another place and time, the south in the seventies.
At 44, it gives me that high school feeling again to know that not only will I be able to wear them with confidence, I'll be able to button them while standing up.