I wrote this post last fall when I was expecting a more precise diagnosis of my alleged thyroid problem. The doctor never called back after sending me for more blood tests, and I still have no health insurance that pays more than $25 for a doctor visit, never mind an endocrinologist or ultrasound. But last week someone said the wrong thing at the wrong time, convincing me that it’s time to post.
It’s not cancer.
But the furor over my thyroid has been a nearly as traumatic. Not just because of the malfunctioning thyroid itself, but because of what it regulates: weight. If you’re female in America, your weight determines your life. In this culture, thin is beauty; thin is health.
Last fall, Elle magazine provoked a media storm with one of the six covers on its November issue. The one in question featured the actress Melissa McCarthy, who has made a career of being fat and sassy. On this cover, though, McCarthy look slimmed and glamorous in a coat that covered her from shoulders to knees. The outcry wasn’t about putting a fat woman on the cover; it was about a photo that concealed what were euphemistically called her “curves.”
On women who don’t happen to be on magazine covers, those are not curves. They’re fat. I was fat for nearly 50 years and soon may be again, so I know.
Hard as it is to believe, I was a thin, sickly child — a result of the Asian flu of 1958, which poisoned my tonsils, probably compromised my immune system, and left me vulnerable to colds and infections every time I got my feet wet for five long winters. The tonsils were finally removed when I was 8. As an adult I asked my mother, “Why did it take so long?” The doctors said I might be too weak to survive a tonsillectomy, she told me, but I’ve long suspected that my parents had neither the health insurance nor the money.
As soon as the tonsils came out, the weight came on. For the first time, I was eating — the tonsils had also poisoned my taste buds — and at our house food was what we got instead of love. From a diet of hamburgers, chicken noodle soup, chocolate cake and milk, I started eating everything. I had once told the school cafeteria workers I was allergic to pizza; what I couldn’t stand was the cheese. Tonsillectomy fixed that, and many other dislikes.
By summer I couldn’t wait for my first summer out of the kiddie pool and into the big one. When I put on my swimsuit, I had developed a pot belly. “Everybody’s going to think you’re pregnant,” said my mother, from whom I inherited my tact. I didn’t know what “pregnant” meant, but I could tell it wasn’t a good thing to be.
From that moment until she died, a month short of my 40th birthday, my mother never let up about my weight. I could understand her motivation: her own mother had died at 56, severely diabetic and, judging from the pictures I’ve seen, twice my size at my heaviest. She was Pennsylvania Dutch, and that meant a steady diet of home-slaughtered meat, potatoes and gravy, with cakes and pies for dessert and nary a green salad in sight. I am now three years older than my grandmother — but then, I doubt she ever walked eight miles in a day, or regularly swam eight-tenths of a mile. Even at my heaviest, I was the thinnest member of my generation.
When I left home, I carried with me, as we all do, my mother’s voice inside my head. It came to be echoed by my boyfriend of college and beyond, who had once been fat but now felt most comfortable at 116 pounds. (That alone should have told me something.) We stayed together for nine years, and he, too, never stopped monitoring my weight “P.S.: Don’t drink that Coke!” he ended a love letter; when I made light of my weight, he hissed, “You are fat!”
At 23, in part to please him and to get everyone off my back, I went on a diet and joined what was then called a ladies’ figure salon. (Back then we didn’t go the gym.) I exercised five mornings a week and cut back to one hefty meal a day. My goal was to lose 30 pounds, to 124; in 18 months I made it as far as 125, from which the needle refused to budge. But I bought new clothes, and the boyfriend seemed happy. A few years later, he left me for his officemate, who was thin; maybe my weight had inched up a bit. Decades later, when I run into people from that period of my life, what they remember about me is that I was obsessed with my weight.
A couple of years passed. I met the love of my life, who stood 6 foot 1, weighed 250 and had a belly like a Buddha. I know he loved me, in part because he once said when we were out sailing: “Hey, why don’t you get a bikini? You’d look great in a bikini!” Mine was not a bikini body, I gently explained, but it’s the thought that counts.
Then there was the time he said, “Why don’t you lose a few pounds? You’d be stunning.” Instead, I was stung. My looks are Gibson Girl, and if I’d been born 75 years earlier I would have been a raving beauty. But they will never be stunning by turn-of-the-21st-century standards. There was no mention of his losing a few pounds. He already looked stunning in his concert tux.
He died; I made mistakes. By my mid-30s, with no one to please, I was tired of worrying about my weight and decided I’d eat what I wanted. Guess what? I gained weight.
“When are you due?” a delighted poll worker asked when I wore a big sweater to vote. “I’m not pregnant, “ I snapped, “just fat.”
“What can you do?” said the young man in the elevator to the gym on a fall evening when I was on my way to dancercise class, wearing a swing coat. “Uh . . . everything,” I answered. And then the slow burn: he, too, thought I was pregnant. So, I’m sure, did the people who offered me seats on the subway until I stopped coloring my hair. (Now it’s because I’m graying, if they offer at all.)
The years passed; I waddled around, relatively unconcerned about my weight. Oh, I puffed a little when going up stairs, but I still walked, still swam, occasionally biked. “Are you exercising?” my doctors would ask after a weigh-in.
“How do you feel?”
“Then don’t worry about it.” Probably the most sensible words I’ve heard.
In 2010 I taught a semester in China and effortlessly dropped 15 pounds, which I chronicled in China Daily USA as “the China Diet.” In 2012, I taught a semester in Vancouver and dropped another 15, attributed to different foods and lots of walking. I came back to New York, and the weight continued to fall off through a stressful year. By last summer I weighed in at 126. I went to Poland for a month and lived on pierogy and frytki and pork and ice cream. When I came back, I was down to 124 — the figure so elusive 35 years ago.
I had lost a third of my body with no effort, and everyone said I looked fabulous. But a lyric from William Finn’s “Elegies” kept running through my head: “Monica’s losing too much weight too fast.” It was time for a checkup.
“I suspect you’re perfectly healthy,” a new doctor said. “You could be mildly diabetic, but from what I’m hearing, it doesn’t sound like thyroid.” He sent me to have blood drawn, and a few weeks later, he called with the results: “You have thyroid disease.”
For 50 years, I was healthy, and fat. Now I may or may not be healthy, but at least I’m thin. As everyone tells me, I look great, and I’m enjoying that. At least three longtime colleagues from The New York Times have failed to recognize me in public. Thanks to a thyroid in overdrive, I have more energy than I’ve had in years, though as of this writing, I’m up to around 132.
I’ve finally managed to please the people who badgered me about my weight all those years, and it’s because I’m sick. Is everybody happy?
I do not care to hear another word about my weight, ever again.