Just Right

January 2004

In my father’s extended family, friendly competition was as much a part of the culture as love. Although we spent vacations and holidays together, shared long-standing jokes, and truly enjoyed each other’s company, we breathed in the comparisons between the families with the air around us. Success was measured and weighed, especially in terms of how we looked. We were each supposed to be slim and perfect. And nothing was more impossible, it seemed to me, because we were all as obsessed with food as we were with weight.

My grandmother, the family matriarch, was not shy about publicly proclaiming how one of us was either fat or too thin. Never mind that she was fairly well upholstered herself: no one was safe. Each time I was pregnant, she would eye me and announce the verdict: Susan has gained weight. But to her, that was good. We knew that if she ever said you were “just right,” then you were probably overweight. Most of the time, I was “just right.” She would do the same thing to my cousin Karyn, to whom I was the closest. We would laugh nervously when Grandma judged us, wondering to ourselves how much was really true. My cousin Karyn and I had always been known to never be satisfied with our weight, which probably had nothing to do with reality and everything to do with our upbringing.

And so I must admit that there was more on my mind at my aunt’s birthday celebration two years ago than just the joy of that occasion. The big news that day was Karyn. My cousin had slimmed down to her wedding weight, after having had two children. She looked marvelous. And I couldn’t stand it. This was not the deal. Whatever happened to the struggle, the dissatisfaction with ourselves that we had shared? Karyn had broken from our battle – and won. Choking on acid green jealousy I told myself that the effort Karyn had undergone suited her, a hip young mother living in New York. And surely I had better things to do with my life than try that hard to lose twenty pounds! I wasn’t about to spend all my waking hours on my diet as I silently accused Karyn of doing. Karyn could go around looking twenty years younger; that was not for me. Right?

Wrong. About a year and a half later, I woke up one morning and realized that I had had enough. Enough of pants only of a certain cut and color. Enough of black. Enough of being jealous of Karyn. I let myself wonder what it would be like to do what she had done; not to feel my waistband constrict me anymore. To walk into a clothing store and try on anything. To be so thin that Grandma would have been worried! I had to admit to myself that I really did want to lose weight once and for all.

But how? I was not about to go to Karyn for a weight loss plan, of course. That would be openly admitting defeat. Besides, I remembered her talking about it, a lot of stuff about getting used to carrying carrots around. Any diet that revolved around carrot baggies in your pocket was bound to fail for me.

Why? Why did so many of my weight loss schemes fail? I exercised; four times a week, 40 minutes a shot. I did the weight training, the cardio, the glasses of water. I counted calories. I weighed only once a week. Yet I could not lose weight.

I thought about Karyn and the carrots, and the truth flashed before me: it was too much of a sacrifice. Carrots left me hungry. Carrots were not me. I knew then with absolute certainty that whatever I did, it would have to become my own. It would have to be something that also did not leave me hungry. But I also faced facts: I would have to give up something in order to lose weight. You just can’t have it all. But you can choose which thing you give up.

I chose to give up a type of food, rather than a quantity. I gave up carbohydrates. I decided that protein boredom was a better option than hunger. But I figured I was ready for some hardship because I was ready to be thinner. If Karyn could suffer through carrots, I could suffer through no more bread and pasta. And I would not be hungry.

I lost five pounds in the first two weeks, which was all I needed to continue. I lost steadily because I followed my rules and I was never hungry, even with the same exercise regime. As predicted, the diet was boring, so I read more – especially fashion magazines.

For six months I followed my plan. I lost 22 pounds. In September I began shopping for fall clothes, and I felt like a kid with a new, coveted toy. Never in my life had I tried on small tops, slim-cut pants. Everything looked good. I went on a spree, God help me, and I’m still paying off the debt. But even my husband understands.

Then came my big moment. I went home for a visit and arranged to see cousin. My heart was racing as I knocked on the door. I did not know what to expect. The game had never been played so blatantly before. How would they respond? Would they be cool, maybe a little miffed at what I’d done? Would they pretend they didn’t notice? Would they find something still lacking in me?

“Wow! You look amazing!” Karyn exclaimed. Not a trace of anything else in her eyes.

“I’m doing low carb,” I explained.

“I switched to that!” She said, with almost delirious excitement, which I instantly shared.

“And so did I,” said my aunt, from the other room.

That afternoon we spent hours talking in my aunt’s kitchen, comparing cheats, exchanging low-carb recipes, commiserating with the boredom and what we miss eating. No competition, no jealousy. Just two cousins – two thin cousins – hanging out together. It was the most fun I’d had with her in a long time.

I can only imagine what Grandma would have said. Probably, “You’re both too skinny!” I think we are just right.