“Marge the Large Barge.”
That was one of my nicknames back in high school, and as much as it hurt it rang damningly true. I was very overweight growing up, up until college – a good 10 to 20 kilograms heavier than the average for my age. And it wasn’t genetic, or brought about by an injury or illness. I just ate a lot and never moved.
My intake of pansit canton and yakisoba would have single-handedly kept the instant noodle industry afloat. I would literally eat an entire pound cake with a liter of chocolate milk for a snack. I’d microwave white bread, butter, and Milo powder until it became this gooey pudding-esque mess and eat six of those in one sitting. I’d mix a whole bag of cheesy tortilla chips into a big bowl of white rice and call it dinner. And I would do all of this either in front of the TV, or lying in bed. Exercise was as foreign a concept to me as filing tax returns.
Fugly Girl Problems
Needless to say that I was not a beauteous physical specimen. The quality of the food I ate also made my face a pimply oil slick. But I was used to it. I was used to being fat and undesirable, because there hadn’t been a time that I wasn’t.
I was used to being dead last in PE; to getting clothes in Ls, XLs, or men’s sizes during Christmas; to not entertaining the thought of romance and boyfriends – they were simply concepts I’d accepted as not within my reach. So, I kept on eating and shirking physical exertion at every opportunity. Ice cream was kind to me; the rest of the world was not.
But then, after about two decades of bingeing and gorging, something in me snapped. It had gotten to the point that I refused to look into mirrors, or to have my picture taken. I went to a college party once where they played spin-the-bottle, and the guy who got me actually laughed and said, “No, thanks.” I was “Marge the Large Barge” through and through. That was who I was, unequivocally: floating out in the middle of nowhere, unable to participate in ordinary life because of my size.
So one day, I finally got up, said "Fuck all this," and did something about it.
However, this is far from a tale of triumph, because losing weight ushered me into a whole new ordeal, and one that was much, much more difficult to overcome.
Under the Influence
It started with the way I actually lost all that weight. It was the summer before my third year in college, and my uncle had bought a treadmill for the house. I still remember the first time I got on that thing: I was a hyperventilating lump on the floor after two minutes. But little by little, I got more and more used to it, and I eventually managed to speed walk on it for an hour each night. And I do mean each night: like clockwork, every 9 p.m.
But I knew this wasn’t enough; food was the other half of the hurdle, and here was where things started going awry. I did it cold turkey, like a smoker, or a meth addict. But I didn’t just stop eating like a fat person; I stopped eating like a normal person. I would have just one cheese sandwich a day: nibbling on half in the morning, half in the late afternoon, with just tons of water in between. Maybe a banana if I was getting too weak. It was sheer determination, blind determination, that just powered me through. Pair that with my nightly round on the treadmill and I shrank to a third of my size.
When I got back to school that year, I received either of two reactions: “Oh my god you look amazing,” or “Are you on drugs?” (Seriously, weird rumors about shabu starting going around.) Naturally, I latched onto the first sentiment, and latched onto it tight.
There were so many good firsts for me at that time. For one, words like “pretty,” “ganda,” “beautiful,” and “sexy” were being doled out to me with utmost generosity. And of course it felt good; my ego shot through the sky. I could also fit into nice clothes, notably skinny jeans. (You should have seen my face in the store; I could have cried.) And the biggest first of all: boys actually started liking me. I was actually being rendered as a romantic, sexual prospect. I felt like I’d found the lost city of Atlantis or discovered the cure for the common cold; it had never been a possibility, but then there it was.
Sopping up all this positive feedback, I was suddenly trapped. I couldn’t lose it. I couldn’t let my guard down. I had to make sure I would always be thin (and pretty, and desirable). I couldn’t slip up, let myself go, and put all my efforts to waste. It just couldn’t be an option. It just couldn’t. My life was finally becoming okay.
Thus began my decade in hell, body image-wise.
UP AND DOWN AND UP. I went from one extreme to another before settling on a weight I could embrace.
Stark Raving Thin
While I was through with my one-sandwich policy, the alternative was only a smidgen better. I counted calories like an accountant in a recession. An 80-calorie apple and 250-calorie plain tuna sandwich for breakfast; a 100-calorie non-fat coffee for lunch; and another round of the 330-calorie tuna-apple combo for dinner. 760 calories a day. The treadmill, of course, persisted. From roughly 80 kilograms at my heaviest, I’d become less than 50 kilos in a little over a year.
Eating out with friends was torture. Faced with all the food I would normally avoid, I would definitely take a bite of this, a nibble a bit of that, and be bowled over by all the flavor I was missing. People told me I ate like a bird. And while I seemed fairly okay eating in front of everyone, it was when I was back home alone that I would drown myself in staggering, harrowing guilt. I would literally spend hours naked in front of the mirror, finding fault with myself at varying angles. I would try dozens of clothes over and over again, crying at the slightest bulge, the faintest curve of my thighs. I smoked like a chimney all throughout.
One of my lowest points was when I’d eaten an entire slice of chocolate cake and felt so horrible that I called my friend on the phone in the middle of the night, sobbing hysterically. I sounded like I'd just seen someone get murdered. Suffice it to say that my friend told me, irritably but kindly, that I needed to get my shit together.
The Long Game
The journey out of this hellhole was, expectedly, incredibly slow and tedious. The process started when I finally deigned to go to a psychiatrist. It almost goes without saying that my obsessive behavior with my weight, as well as a general moodiness, irritability, and penchant for drama, was symptomatic of much greater psychological problems. My boyfriend at the time finally convinced me to get help, and I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and began taking medication.
The medication helped numb out my tendency to worry, which included my anxieties over food. Soon enough, I managed to eat more, although I stuck to healthier choices like eggs and oatmeal. Eventually, I could handle having a single scoop of ice cream at the mall from time to time, or taking that second slice of pizza. Over the span of about five years, I would allow myself to eat more – more kinds of food, and more quantities of it – very, very incrementally.
Gaining weight bit by bit during this period definitely drove me crazy, and I would constantly seek reassurance from my partner that I was nowhere near “Marge the Large Barge” territory. I would still panic despite the medication; seeing myself go up a notch on the scale, or having to try the larger size of a top I like would always send me into throes of self-loathing and second guessing. But unlike before, these attacks wouldn’t last as long, and I’d go back to being okay ordering McDonald’s with the rest of the office. It was a rollercoaster ride, but the more times I rode it, the more I got the hang of it.
Because I was getting help, there were a lot of things going on in my life that simply mattered more. I had advocacies to support, stories to write, people to love, bills to pay, a career to finally figure out. The long path towards being okay with my body was just one of many routes I was taking simultaneously, and it wasn’t any more important than another.
I decided to write all this because I feel like I’d finally gotten to a point of normalcy, and am actually okay with it. I have three decent meals a day. I am no longer afraid of merienda or dessert. Rice is not my enemy. I’ll grab a handful of chips if you offer me some. But I stop when I’m full, and won’t eat if I’m not hungry. I do cardio and weights at home three to four times a week, and do a lot of walking in between. My clothes are now M-L (but mostly L for bottoms, because my butt is relentless). All my curves, in fact, are now relentless. And while I will never fit into that particular skimpy bikini from 2008 ever again, I still wear bikinis at the beach – only larger and more forgiving.
Media tend to show weight loss as moments of triumph, but not all cases are safe or wholesome, and even those have their dark moments. Not all these journeys leave people happy and satisfied, especially because losing weight then poses a lot of scary questions: So what now? Now that you’re thin, are you going to stop? Are you going to let yourself get fat again? Can you really manage to maintain yourself?
There were countless times in the past 10 years when I suddenly felt trapped in this physical vessel I wanted no part of. I got on that treadmill that first time because I wanted to be happy, but I can honestly say that it did not, and it has taken me many painful years to reach a sense of calm within myself.
So, if you decide to lose weight, do it the right way and for the right reasons. Consult with a doctor. Eat and exercise within your means. You can only push yourself so far; if you’re throwing up from exhaustion or doubling over with hunger, you’re doing it wrong. If an approach sounds ridiculous, it probably is. And most importantly, when you finally reach a decent weight, stay there and work with it. Don’t panic. Build the kind of life where you get to hover healthily around this body type without stressing over it.
Remember: Snacking on a whole pound cake in bed is just as bad as rationing a single sandwich for 24 hours. Go get healthy, but don’t go crazy.
Marguerite de Leon is a social media producer for Rappler. She received the Mulry Award for Literary Excellence upon graduating from the Ateneo de Manila University in 2007. She writes fiction, and her short stories have seen print in various national publications.
*This story was first published in Rappler.com, a Manila-based social news network where stories inspire community engagement and digitally fuelled actions for social change.