As a child, I was unusually large. Doctors predicted I would be 6’1 based on the size of my hands and feet (er, rather my “paddles” as my mother would jokingly refer to them). I was also quite the athlete, relishing being tall and strong and sturdy. I excelled at basketball and soccer, and my impressive size allowed me to dominate most girls my age. It was not uncommon for my parents to pack my birth certificate with us to tournaments in case of Chelsea Birthers — other parents who just couldn’t believe I qualified for my age group. More than once, a parent or coach demanded to see documentation of my age, as though 11-and-under-soccer was serious enough business to warrant going through the trouble of defrauding the system. In truth, their skepticism at my prowess gave me great amusement and pride.
But somewhere along the line, things changed. I can’t remember the exact moment when it became painfully clear to me that being larger than the other girls was no longer to my advantage, but eventually, cultural messaging, bullies, and my own family urging me to watch my weight kicked in. I learned that a new currency was worth more than athleticism, strength, skill, or even intelligence. The new currency was thinness.
Something I do distinctly remember: being twelve, sitting in my best friend’s room, covering for her while she hung out her window to smoke a cigarette. Her walls were adorned with posters of the Backstreet Boys and silly pictures of our friends. That’s when I noticed something new that I’d never seen before — a note tacked onto the wall, signed by our other best friend. In part, it read “Chelc is annoying, too fat, and needs 2 learn 2 wear makeup.”
With my heart in my throat, I made a quick excuse of why I needed to go home. I spent the rest of the day drowning in tears and self-loathing. If my very best friends were calling me fat, what were the others saying?
That day, I vowed that I would lose weight, no matter the cost.
“Just eat 1,200 calories a day, and exercise,” they told me. “Calories in, calories out — it really is that simple!” I was already exercising a minimum of 15 hours a week with my rigorous basketball training schedule, which at times included two practices a day. So, the only real option was to eat less. Way less.
And so it began.
The first diet I remember being on was Slim Fast, during my Freshman year of high school. I would skip the cafeteria and sneak into my mother’s classroom during lunch to drink my shake in secret, so that nobody knew I was trying to lose weight. That would have been like an admission that I knew I was fat, and my pride would not let me view myself that way, even if others did (example: somebody in my high school created the super complimentary AIM screen name chelcisafatass to harass me). It also helped to hide in my mom’s office so that I wouldn’t cave and order more food because I was SO fucking hungry all the time. How could I not be hungry subsisting on a 200 calorie shake that was supposed to get me through 7 hours of learning and 2 hours of basketball practice?
The rest of high school and college were a blur of low-calorie/low-fat yo-yo dieting. I continued to train hard for basketball, and then rugby, and vacillated between starving myself and eating everything I could get my massive paws on. Throughout it all, there was a constant — the floating number in my head: 1,200 calories.
If I couldn’t live on 1,200 calories a day, I feared I would be fat, unhealthy and unhappy. Nobody would ever love me, and I’d never achieve any of my goals. Why couldn’t I have more self control?!
I did everything that the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry wanted me to do — I subscribed to magazines that shamed me about my body and encouraged me to disappear, rather than to get stronger. I ate horrifying diet foods like egg substitute and “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” SPRAY (hilariously, I was afraid that the solid version of this fake butter would be way too many calories). Most disturbingly, I spent far too much of my precious energy and brain power obsessively tracking every morsel of food that entered my mouth and debating things like, is this brand of unsweetened almond milk worth purchasing, with a whopping 40 calories per serving, rather than the brand I normally buy, which they’re out of, that only has 35 calories a serving?!
I bought the first two Hungry Girl cookbooks, and made myself
close barely recognizable approximations of the salty and fatty foods I had grown to love and turn to for comfort. But I never felt satisfied.
I was a hungry girl, all right. I was hungry, depressed, and I was becoming increasingly more sickly and injury-prone. With every crash diet that took 10 or 20 lbs. off my frame, I gained back nearly twice as much.
I was in an endless cycle — practiced insanity — where I honestly thought, and said out loud, “calorie counting is the only thing that works for me.”
I’ve got news for you, Past Chelsea: If calorie counting was working for you, you’d be thin by now. You’d be maintaining your weight, rather than fighting an endless battle to lose it. You would be thriving, rather than breaking your body to reach an unattainable ideal that promises to give you worth. If calorie counting was working for you, Past Chelsea, then you would be able to sustain the habit long-term. Please take my advice — calorie counting isn’t working for you. Oh, and your beloved Hungry Girl? She must call herself that because, honestly, who could ever feel satisfied while barely filling their stomach?! And with imitation food, no less!
Well, Past Chelsea is no more. Today, I’m happy to say that I’ve given up calorie counting once and for all. Through years of food education, I’ve learned to eat (and love!) real, wholesome foods, and to cook healthful meals for myself from scratch, without fake food substitutes. I’ve learned that it’s ok to eat full eggs with yolks and avocados and yes, even butter — that the calories and fat will not in fact kill me. I’ve learned that a half cup of full-fat Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked is a hell of a lot more satisfying than an entire box of Skinny Cow ice cream bars.
Admittedly, I am heavier than I was in my calorie counting days. Part of my weight gain can be credited to the trauma of losing my mother in 2013. Another part can be attributed to a few chronic injuries that keep cropping up as a result of taking poor care of myself throughout my youth. And I think that the rest is probably my body adjusting to getting more food — a result of my steadfast commitment to finding balance after years of yo-yoing between deprivation and binging.
Though I’ve gained weight, I’ve never been healthier or happier with myself. Sure, I would love to lose some inches, but my weight does not define my health or my worth. According to my most recent bloodwork, and the fact that I haven’t been seriously sick in nearly two years (Fun Fact: I used to call myself the Pokemon trainer of flu viruses — had to catch ’em all!), I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, by a long shot. I look younger, my skin is softer, and my hair is longer and healthier-looking than it’s ever been in my entire life. So suck it, health trollers! I’M DOING JUST FINE.
But I’m also a wee bit vain, so I’m currently trying to lose a few inches and build some muscle (I do live at the Jersey Shore now, so I really have no choice in the matter!) for summer, and just generally for health/life/being comfortable in my jeans and whatnot. I even entered a weight loss challenge at my new (hopefully forever!) all-lady gym. Last night, I went for my first training session, and had an absolute blast pushing myself. I explained to my trainer that my goal is to lose the weight the right way (for me): no calorie counting, eating mostly clean, and working out with both consistency and variation.
As I was leaving the gym, a member of the front desk staff stopped me; “you get this book as part of your training package.” She handed me a copy of 1994’s “The 1200-Calorie-a-Day Menu Cookbook,” replete with low-fat recipes, including “ingredients” such as light margarine, reduced fat cheese, fat free mayonnaise, and my old frienemy, butter flavored spray product. I wanted to tell her no thanks, that I would not be partaking in the 1200-Calorie-A-Day lifestyle which almost ruined me, and that the low-fat “health” advice offered in this book is so antiquated that even the U.S. Government has updated their dietary guidelines and evolved beyond using it. But then I thought, better not. And hey, to each their own.
Besides, sometimes, realizing just how far you’ve come really is enough.