Zibby Owens on the weight of it all

Zibby Owens on the weight of it all


In quarantine, all my old body insecurities came roaring back.

By Zibby Owens

The only reason I bought a scale recently was for my younger childrens’ telemedicine check-ups with their pediatrician. Before I could prop the kids up on my desk and have them “open wide” into my desktop’s camera, I would need to record their height and weight to have on hand for the appointments. It seemed simple enough. I ordered the same type of old-fashioned, floor-model scale that looked exactly like the one I had in high school and that followed me for 20 years afterwards.

The scale and I have had a fraught relationship since I was nine years old. That was when, according to my mother, I told her I was upset about how much larger my thighs were than all the other girls’ at school with their string bean legs. Sitting at the breakfast table in her bathrobe, smoking a Vantage Ultra and eating half a grapefruit before heading off to Gilda’s exercise class, this 5’ 2”, petite, toned woman sprung into action. She knew just how to fix this problem.

She bestowed upon me her treasured, dog-eared copy of the book Calories and Carbohydrates and taught me how to scan the tiny number lines for each food. I diligently measured half a cup of orange juice over the kitchen sink in my uniform jumper each morning before writing down the calories and then heading off to fourth grade. I remember rushing into my little brother’s room one night when my mom was tucking him in and proudly announcing that I had two pieces of great news: I had swallowed my first pill (something for my allergies) and I had successfully stayed under 1,200 calories for the day.

The real test, of course, was seeing if the scale had gone down. I would stand in my mother’s bathroom once a week, which smelled like Pond’s cold cream and Nivea lotion, and step on her doctor’s scale. I’d nudge the black markers right or left until the pendulum balanced and stopped wavering up and down. I always wanted to push it farther and father left. Nevermind that I was still growing. I wanted to fit in with my waif-like friends. I wanted my body to look like theirs; perhaps then I would be completely accepted.

For the next 30 years, I tried every diet and exercise fad imaginable while ricocheting up and down 5, 10, 15, or 20 pounds, all within a tight range like a ping-pong ball going back and forth over the net of a faded table. Atkins. Step aerobics. Carbohydrate Addicts. Tae bo. A clinic on 63rd Street that gave me “vitamins.” HIIT. It was never enough. If only I could lose a few pounds, I could remove the shackle of shame I felt was constantly wrapped around my neck like a Parisian woman’s scarf. I was embarrassed by the outward display of my inner mess. I wanted to at least look like I had it all together when inside I was worried, anxious, and trying to find my place in the world.

After business school in 2003, I became a Weight Watchers addict and adhered so strictly to the program that I lost 30 pounds and even became a Leader, running meetings all over New York City to spread the gospel. I counted points and wrote down every food I ate for almost ten years, through three pregnancies and four kids. I couldn’t get over the joy I felt that there actually was a solution! Something that worked. I couldn’t control the chaos of having twins. I couldn’t absorb the shock of going from being an overachiever to spending my days on the playroom floor, longing for the time when I could just get to sleep again. But losing weight gave me a quantifiable goal. Something for me. Something to aspire to when grades and salary and all other external measures of success suddenly evaporated.

Yet losing all that weight wasn’t good for me physically; my hair started falling out, I stopped getting my period, and I was always cold. One doctor I consulted even said, “Your body just isn’t made to be this skinny, and that’s okay.” In retrospect, trying to control my intake and keep my body looking its best was the way I tried to cope as my first marriage fell apart and I felt powerless to save it. The inner turmoil was on full display. I ate my feelings. I structured my diet because I could control that more than I could control my life. I ate in secret to cope with the things that went on in my home that I didn’t discuss.

At some point during the last five years, after my divorce and in my new relationship with Kyle, who became my husband, I made a delicate peace with my body and started focusing on work instead. I stopped weighing myself unless my zippers strained as I yanked them up and I knew I had to regroup. I accepted that to eat the way I wanted without expending an inordinate amount of energy “watching it,” I would be three or four sizes larger than my goal weight.

And then the pandemic hit. I felt enormously lucky to be healthy and financially secure when so many others were suffering from the start. My first thoughts were more about food scarcity and the nation’s food supply system than my jeans. I was so scared and nervous as we hunkered down that I couldn’t eat that much. I was in survival mode. I threw my energy into helping buoy the literary community when I wasn’t taking care of my four kids and cleaning the house. For exercise, my teen daughter asked me to do a YouTube “summer shred” workout program with her. I’ll do anything for her, even crunches and burpees, so we did it daily.

And then the scale arrived.

I took it out of the box and placed it on my cold bathroom floor. My little guy hopped right on.

“Mom, get on with me!” he said excitedly. “Come on!”

I hadn’t been on a scale in months, but I had a number in mind (the high end of my ping-pong range) that I fully expected to see.

I got on the scale with my son and quickly did the math. Wait, that couldn’t be right.

“Honey, let me try this alone for a second, okay?”

I gasped.

I stared down at a number that was ten pounds higher than I expected. A number I’d only seen while pregnant. And here I thought I’d lost weight!

All the old demons came racing out, taunting me. You’re fat! You’re lazy! You’re pathetic! You’re out of control! How could you! The number was far above my “before” weight when I started Weight Watchers almost 20 years ago.

I backed away from the scale and ushered my son out of the suddenly toxic bathroom.

That night, I began aggressively stuffing my face with food, perversely punishing myself with the same weapon that had gotten me into this mess. I started obsessing about my weight, the foods I was eating, what I “should” and “shouldn’t” consume, scarfing down cookie after cookie at night when everyone else in the house was finally sleeping.

Naturally, several days later, my clothes felt tight for the first time in months.

I was falling back into my self-punishing habits, like an armchair sliding back into the well-worn depressions in the carpet after being temporarily pushed aside. I almost couldn’t believe it: after all these years, the same feelings were still there, ever-present.

I can see now that I was reaching for my telltale crutch, the one I routinely steadied myself with in times of stress and uncertainty. And what is a pandemic if not a time of extreme stress and uncertainty? I was trying to find that elusive sense of control, that hook to tether myself to, and then punishing myself when I couldn’t pull it off.

It was a sobering reminder that achieving balance is a lifelong journey with plenty of backslides along the way.

Soon after, the craziness, busyness, and fear of day-to-day Covid life overtook me again. (What about camp?! A new disease affecting children?!? Should we move?) But this time, I handled things a bit differently.

My food rumination waned: I started to plan. I got caught up in life again, in helping my kids and my community, in looking outward.

Zibby Owens on the weight of it all