HOW I WAS DISCOVERED...AND HOW I FINALLY DISCOVERED MYSELF
I grew up hiding two major secrets. These secrets were the keys to my personality, and they controlled my every move. They are also responsible for why I decided to write this book.
The first secret: I was (and continue to be) absolutely boy crazy. Why was that a secret? Because -- early on, at least -- I found it worked better for me. My parents were both forty-something when I was born, and though I've always been close to my mom, we are from different generations, and boys and sex were subjects we didn't discuss much. As for my father, bless his heart, I think he believes that I am a thirty-two-year-old virgin. I am the youngest of six children -- and the only girl -- and all of my big brothers had friends. And since we lived right across the street from a park, and our house was always stocked with sodas, chips, and other goodies from my dad's restaurant supply business, our house in San Clemente, a southern California beach town, was the place to hang. I have been surrounded by men since the day I was born.
Ironically, though, that's what made me hide my boy craziness. It started with my first crush at the age of five. Paul was a teenager who lived across the street, and I thought he looked like Elvis Presley. I had a little record player and a 45 of "Love Me Tender." I used to play that record over and over, imagining that it was Paul singing the song to me. My brothers teased me mercilessly about this, and eventually one of them broke my 45. That was the last time I shared my feelings about boys with my brothers.
But my brothers weren't the only males whose behavior convinced me to stay mum. As I grew up, I saw what happened whenever a similarly boy-obsessed friend of mine (and I had several such friends) let a guy know she had a crush on him. He would make fun of her or, worse, avoid her completely. What I learned to do instead was to become pals with whomever I had a crush on and keep my fantasies about him to myself.
And I had plenty of other crushes in high school. Few knew the real reason I changed my class schedule so much -- I wanted to be where the boys were! I even took Algebra 2 a year early -- which meant I had to slog through both geometry and algebra at the same time -- simply so I could get into a class with a lot of older guys.
And, boy, did I make my dad and my brothers -- all of whom were jocks -- happy when I signed on to take statistics at football and basketball games. I couldn't have cared less about the sports, but by doing stats I got to stand on the sidelines with the football players and ride the bus with the basketball team. Just me and the boys -- the way I like it! I became buddies with dozens of guys, and I continue to have a lot of male friends today. These male friendships have given me a deep insight into what makes men tick, insight that I will share with you in this book.
But there was a flaw to my keep-your-fantasies-to-yourself strategy. Becoming buddies with a guy first, in hopes that the guy's interest in me would eventually turn romantic, didn't work any better than my friends' aggressive I-love-you-I-love-you-I-love-you-forever behavior. Sure, I became "one of the guys," but that's the way it stayed: I was one of the guys instead of WITH one of the guys.
I now know that often it's up to us to make our interest known. I'm not suggesting we revert to the panting "I've got a MAJOR crush on you" notes that never worked for my girlfriends in high school. I'm suggesting an intense but brief-as-a-spark come-hither look in your eyes or a touch on his arm that's just a split second longer than "friendly." In Chapter 5, "The Approach," I go into detail about why my new strategy works and how to pull it off.
I probably would have figured this out years ago -- even in high school -- but there was a big obstacle (literally) that crushed the kind of confidence a girl must have to go after a guy. And that obstacle was secret number two: I loathed myself because I was fat.
I have always been big. I was a chubby baby, the biggest girl in school, and I continue to weigh more than what society has deemed acceptable. I can't remember a time when I didn't think about my size, and some of my earliest memories have to do with people's reaction to it. The neighborhood kids could be cruel. "Katie, waity, two by four, couldn't fit through the bathroom door," they sang.
In my immediate family we have always survived by way of affectionate teasing, and very rarely did that teasing go somewhere that really hurt. Though my parents have always been big, my brothers were thin and I was the only child with a weight problem. I have no memories of my brothers ever really being cruel about my weight. Their teasing was more along the lines of "Katie's hungry again!" if I happened to point out a Dairy Queen when we were on the road. (Nowadays, I'm the only one in the family who does not battle weight gain.)
Other relatives, however, weren't always so gentle. My Great Aunt Chrissy, for example, used to constantly comment about what I ate or how much I weighed, and my gram would argue with her in my defense. Sometimes these arguments upset me so much that it almost hurt to breathe. And they left their mark on my developing sense of self.
One of my most painful experiences occurred in high school, after a couple of close friends and I got into a fight. I don't remember what the fight was about; what I do remember is the letter they wrote me when we were in the midst of it. It said something to the effect that I was disgusting because I was fat and that I had no self-respect since I was allowing myself to stay fat. These girls knew I battled my weight, they knew I tried diet after diet. They knew I cared about how I dressed, how tan I was...how I looked. How could they say I had no self-respect?
Through all of the years of teasing and mean remarks, I stayed strong on the outside. I always put on a happy face. I was outgoing and active. I didn't hide out. I rarely let people know how deeply they were hurting me. Instead, I'd go quietly to my room and cry, sobbing "Why me?" over and over again into my pillow.
My weight affected my every move. It was always my excuse. If a guy didn't like me, it was because I was big. If I didn't make a sports team or a play I'd tried out for, it was because I was big. If someone near me laughed, they were laughing at me because I was big.
Still, I kept up the strong front, and if you do that long enough you actually do become strong. It's that strength that has enabled me to travel the world and to get where I am today. But for years there was one thing I did not have the strength to battle, and that was the contempt I had for my own body. I starved it, subjected it to every fad diet that came along, took it to a variety of so-called weight-management experts, and even appealed on its behalf to the biggest expert of all: "Please, oh please, God," I used to say at the end of my nightly prayer, "please help me lose weight."
I don't do any of that anymore. Today, I am happy with who I am. I love my body just the way it is. I take care of myself and live my life. But the recovery of my self-esteem took years...and it started with just one sentence.
In 1991 I had been modeling for a year and was living in Manhattan. My roommate at the time, Kelly Repassy, was one of the top plus-size models in the industry. She worked all the time and was always jaunting off to exotic locations for photo shoots. I was still considered a new model. And while I had managed to work a lot in Los Angeles and Miami and was now playing in the big league..., I wasn't working much at all. My self-esteem was at rock bottom because I'd been in the city for five months and not only was I broke, I was gaining weight. In those five months despite all my dieting efforts, and my lack of money, I'd still managed to grow from a size 16 to a size 18. I was miserable. This California beach girl wasn't cutting it in the Big Apple.
Then BBW came to town for a shoot. BBW, the magazine for big, beautiful women that has since suspended publication, was based in Los Angeles and had helped give me my start as a model. They booked me for a day of the shoot and booked my roommate for three days. I was excited because here was my chance to work with a model of her level. This was an important shoot for the magazine, so both the editor and the publication director were on the set. My self-esteem shrunk even smaller: I felt like the proverbial small fish in a big pond.
It was during the lunch break in the studio of a famous photographer that I heard the sentence. The publication director, a stern, stocky woman with long black hair, leaned over to me and said, "You know, Katie, we love you at BBW. You are one of the prettiest models we've ever used. But there is something in your eyes that says you don't like yourself. Katie, you have a choice: You can either learn to accept yourself the way you are, or do something about it."
I had a choice! I did not have to be thin. No one had ever pointed that out to me before...and it had never occurred to me on my own.
I couldn't get her words out of my head. I'm a Libra -- the scales, you know -- and I tend to weigh out my options via "plus and minus" lists whenever I have a tough decision to make. That night I sat down and made the most important plus and minus list of my life. I wrote "size 14" on one piece of paper. That was the smallest I had ever been as an adult, and it had lasted only six months. I labeled another sheet of paper with my size at the time, the size I am to this day -- size 18. Then I divided each paper into "positive" and "negative" columns and evaluated the most important aspects of my life -- basically, men, health, activities, clothes, and career. I worked on these lists until I fell asleep.
The next morning, I got up and read over my work from the night before. It was an amazing thing, but the size 18 column listed one more positive than the size 14 column. I could maintain a size 18 with little effort; I could eat like a normal person. As a size 14, on the other hand, I would have to diet for the rest of my life. I would have to strictly limit my calories and work out five days a week. And even with all that effort, I would still be considered big by society's standards.
I spent the rest of that day walking around Manhattan. I strolled through Central Park, window shopped on the Upper West Side, braved the teeming sidewalks along Broadway and around Times Square. As I walked along in the city I'd hoped to conquer, I took a long hard look back at my crazy seesaw life as a dieter.
My mother had been a lifelong member of TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), and I had joined at the ripe old age of nine. In the TOPS program, you could diet any way you wanted to. I went on the Dr. Atkins diet, which was the most popular diet in the seventies. At that time, most people didn't know as much about nutrition as they do now. Members were counting either calories or carbohydrate grams, not fat grams. And no one ever talked about the importance of exercise. The Dr. Atkins diet was a high-protein, high-fat, no carbohydrate diet. You couldn't eat any fruits or vegetables, but you could eat unlimited amounts of food that didn't contain carbs, such as steak, pork, and cheese. The diet worked for me. That summer I lost twenty-three pounds and was named a state princess for the TOPS organization.
Before school started that year, my mother took me to the doctor for a checkup. He felt the Dr. Atkins diet was too extreme for a child my age, so he put me on thyroid medication and a low-calorie diet. He also recommended that we buy my first food scale. It wasn't long before I started gaining weight. I don't know if my body was reacting to the radical differences between the diets or if I was under-weighing my Puffed Rice. I just know that a new precedent was born: Once I started gaining weight on a diet, I would quit the diet.
Over the next few years, I tried Weight Watchers and the grapefruit diet, breaking out the old food scale on a daily basis. But I never seemed to lose any weight. The summer between seventh and eighth grades, I went back to the Dr. Atkins plan and again lost about twenty-five pounds eating cheese and pork rind nachos. That summer, I also grew three inches. I was feeling pretty good about myself. How well I remember the thrill of finally being able to wear a two-piece bathing suit and of shopping for an outfit at the hippest boutique in town. I now felt not only that I fit in, but that I had a good chance of becoming a part of the popular crowd at school. At my school, we called this cool group the "Soshies," and all of my carefully concealed crushes were on Soshie guys. I must have been pretty full of myself as I attempted to worm my way into that crowd, because my old non-Soshie friends didn't want to hang out with me anymore. The real blow, however, was that my weight loss didn't impress the Soshies -- they were still too cool for me. My bubble really burst on one of the first days back at school when I got on the bus and one of the Soshie guys yelled to me, "Hey, Katie! You're looking pretty good. What do you have -- just another fifteen pounds to go?" I look back at pictures of myself then and see that I was thin! The thinnest I'd be in my entire life! And yet that wasn't good enough. I slumped in my seat and felt like the fattest girl in the world.
The weight kept creeping back on. I couldn't tell you how much I weighed when I started high school because when I wasn't on a diet, I refused to get on a scale. I judged my body by the size number on the labels in my clothes. I was a size 14 as I entered high school. By the end of my sophomore year, I had ballooned up to a size 22. That's when I started my first liquid diet. Under a doctor's supervision -- which included weekly blood tests -- I ate no food, except for a protein powder that became a shake when it was mixed with ice and water in a blender, a soup when mixed with hot water, and a muffin when baked.
I lost more than thirty-five pounds in a couple of months...and then started cheating. At first, I would simply dab one of the regulation muffins with butter -- "to vary the flavor," was my rationale. Then I ditched the muffins and put the butter on bread. Finally, I replaced the butter with peanut butter. The cheating caused me to feel immensely guilty, and with the guilt came bulimia. No one ever suspects a fat girl of being bulimic. After all, if you're throwing up food, how can you remain fat? The fact was that once I started cheating on the diet even the bulimia didn't help. I stopped losing weight. So I went off the protein powder diet.
Unfortunately, though, the bulimia stayed with me. My mother couldn't figure out where all of her food was going. A whole loaf of bread, for example, would disappear overnight. She suspected that my cousin, who was living with us while he went to college, was the culprit. I let him take the heat. I didn't confess until years later.
One of my friends was anorexic, and everybody knew it. When our parents were gone, we'd get together for bingeing sessions. We'd stuff our faces, then go to separate bathrooms to vomit, then come back for more food. It was a vicious cycle. During those days, I was more obsessed with food than I'd ever been in my life. When I binged I felt disgusted with myself -- I was eating the way a real fat girl would. But then I would purge and feel better about myself. Purging was easy, really easy.
Nevertheless, the weight slowly crept back on, and the glory of purging wore off. It also became less of a private thing; soon, many of my friends knew what I was doing. What finally made me stop purging for good was a warning from a good friend. She told me about the health dangers, including the fact that purging eventually ruined one's teeth. My bright white smile had always been my favorite attribute -- I didn't want to risk losing it. When I quit purging, I stopped bingeing as well.
I went back to eating normally, just like my friends. But the weight I'd lost on the protein powder diet came right back plus more and more. I had pretty much given up on the actuality of ever being thin, yet I continued to dream and pray. Occasionally, I made new efforts -- such as trying Slim-Fast or visiting a hypnotist for help. I would lose a few pounds, but they would always come back -- bringing a few of their friends along with them. By graduation, I was so big that we had to combine two graduation gowns to fit me. I walked up to get my diploma with an obvious foot of material added to the seams of the gown. I held my head high and smiled, but inside I was distraught. Though my tactful friends had assured me that they couldn't tell the gown had been altered, I was convinced everyone had noticed and was talking about it.
In my early adulthood I discovered that my weight varied as my lifestyle did. When I lived with five surfers in Hawaii, I lost weight. This was partially because I was following the guys' example: They ate healthily, they didn't eat much, and fast food wasn't easily available. Also, I earned my keep by running a "surfing taxi." I was the only person who had a car, so it was up to me to drive the guys to find the best surf breaks. This entailed hiking through cane fields to "secret spots" and spending the day playing in the ocean. In other words, I was active. In the four months I lived with the surfers, I shrank from a size 24 to a size 20 without dieting. I didn't even know I had lost the weight until one of the guys pointed it out to me.
The reverse happened when I returned to the mainland. I moved to San Diego to attend a travel agent school. I had no friends in San Diego -- all I ever did was go to school and then come home to watch TV. I was so bored and miserable that soon the bulimia came back. Since I lived alone, it was easy to binge and purge. And once again, the weight returned.
I stayed big for the next few years. No matter what my lifestyle was, I didn't lose weight. In those years, I lived with the surfer guys again in Waikiki and did a lot of "adventure traveling" through the South Pacific, but I remained big.
Then came the day I saw an ad in the newspaper: "Are you fat?" it read. "It's not your fault." I called right away. That's how I met Dr. Lynch, an endocrinologist (a gland specialist) who explained to me that I was big not because of what I ate but because that's the way I was born. He said that on top of being genetically big, all my years of radical dieting -- especially when I was still growing -- had screwed up my system. My body didn't know how to react. Lynch's analogy was that my body didn't know the proper way to get its fuel to the engine. He got my system back in synch by prescribing amino acids and vitamins. My parents thought he was a wacko because he determined my needs with the aid of an allergy testing machine and kinetics. An example of the latter: He would have me push on my chest with one hand and he'd place a particular vitamin in the other hand. Then he would attempt to push the vitamin hand down. If he could do it, my body didn't need that particular vitamin. Sure, it sounds wacky, but this guy's methods worked for me. I lost more than twenty pounds without changing my lifestyle at all. And after he got my body chemistry in synch, diets started to work for me again.
That was right around the time the Optifast liquid diet was all the rage. Oprah Winfrey had just lost sixty pounds on it and had let the nation in on her secret. Today, both she and I know that a quick-weight-loss liquid diet is by no means the healthiest or safest way to lose weight. Like Oprah, most people who embark on such a program gain their weight back -- and then some -- once they return to eating regular food. But I had made the decision to change my life and my lifestyle. I made a commitment to myself to not only complete the Optifast program but to keep the weight off once I had finished it. In six months, I lost more than sixty-five pounds and got down to a size 14. I left the program only five pounds above my goal weight. And I maintained that weight, that size, for six months -- those were the months I mentioned previously in which I was the thinnest I'd ever been as an adult.
Optifast benefited me in other ways, as well. It was a hospital-run program and I was assigned a personal trainer, who educated me about exercise and my strengths, and a nutritionist, who taught me all about food and how it affected my body. At one point, I was put underwater in a tank so that the team could determine how much of my weight was made up of fat. It was then that I learned that the smallest my body would ever be was just under 200 pounds -- a far cry from those ideal height/weight charts that insurance companies publish.
But the most important thing that Optifast taught me was that I did, in fact, have willpower. Willpower! All of my life I was told that since I was fat, I had no willpower. If I had the will to be thin, why wasn't I? The Optifast experience convinced me that I was strong-willed, stronger than most. How many people can go without eating a bite of solid food for three months? Well, I did. I went through the Optifast program with fifteen other people. Half dropped out, and of the remaining half, I was the ONLY one who didn't cheat. Even Oprah had admitted to cheating on the program.
Soon after Optifast, I moved to Miami, simply to check out that part of the world. I got a job at the Park Central Hotel in Miami Beach, worked out regularly, and paid strict attention to what I was eating. Yet the pounds slowly crept back on. I was close to a size 16 when...I got discovered!
It was 1990, and Miami Beach was the hottest place in the country for fashion photography. Many of the photo teams stayed at the Park Central. I worked at the front desk and met many famous and important people. And I got the same backhanded praise I'd heard all my life. "You have such a pretty face. If only..." -- you know the rest. Here I was, once again feeling thin but being told that I was not thin enough.
Then one day, Cory Bautista, one of the guys who had been paying me that sort of compliment, came to the front desk to tell me that he'd just been hired by Ford Models as an agent...and he wanted me to be a model.
I laughed. "You don't understand," I told him. "I can't get down to model size. I simply cannot get that thin."
Then he laughed and told me about the plus-size model market. "You can be a model," he said, "just the way you are!"
The memory of his words, plus "the sentence" from the BBW publication director and those lists I'd made the night before are all responsible for the decision I made as I finally returned to my apartment on that autumn day in 1991. I was going to do what I had to do to learn to accept myself the way I was. And the first step? I was never going to diet again.
I'd like to tell you that I became the Queen of Self-Esteem that day. But let's be real. I had a lot of hard work in front of me. Suffice it to say that if you'd known that sullen non-New-Yorker-in-New-York of the early 1990s and then met up with me again in L.A. today, you'd be amazed. You'd be convinced that I'd undergone major attitude transplant surgery.
In fact, not too long ago, I ran into my "New York mom" and modeling mentor, the Ford Agency's Mary Duffy, for the first time in four years. We were attending a three-day Ms. Plus U.S.A. convention. Six times that weekend, Mary approached me, nodding her head with approval, and saying, "Katie, I like your new look. I like the woman you've grown into." I thanked her again and again, and the last time she said it, I told her, "I know who I am, I know where I'm going, and I'm doing it myself."
That attitude, I found, was a key factor in finding my sexiness and in revving up my love life. I learned about other vital ingredients, as well, and I'll share them throughout this book. But, first, let's hear why men are ready and willing to rev up your love life.
Copyright © 1999 by Katie Arons and Jacqueline Shannon