In 1988, Oprah Winfrey, dressed in tight Calvin Klein jeans, wheeled out a small red wagon containing 67 pounds of animal fat — the amount of weight she’d lost.
“I’m gonna live on broccoli now!” Oprah bellowed as the audience erupted into thunderous applause.
The wagon episode, titled “Diet Dreams Come True,” earned “The Oprah Show” its highest ratings ever. (Years later, Oprah would reveal that she "starved" herself to fit into those size 10 pants.)
At school the next day, my third grade teacher pulled me aside. She wanted to know if I’d seen Oprah's transformation.
“She looks wonderful, doesn’t she?” my teacher asked.
I nodded and gazed down at the floor, uncomfortable.
“Being fat is very bad,” she said. “Do you know why?”
“It’s not healthy,” I said, quietly.
“And it’s not attractive,” she added.
I nodded again. I was 9 years old and already programmed to believe that fat people were unhappy and couldn’t find love. Fat women never had pretty clothes or important jobs.
My teacher cupped my face with her hands.
“You need to go on a diet," she told me.
It was around that time that I stopped wearing a bathing suit in public.
I was a fat child and an obese adult. When I lost weight, people would compliment my willpower and physical appearance. They’d tell me that I looked so happy, that I was glowing.
Diet culture praises you for losing weight, and demonizes fatness.
I contributed to the problem. For more than 10 years, I worked for a celebrity magazine that celebrated skinny stars.
In 2009, we ran a cover that featured two photos of Jessica Simpson. In one image, which was labeled “Then,” she was wearing a string bikini; the “Now” picture showed her in a pair of high-waisted mom jeans. The headline: “Jessica’s Agony: Bullied for Her Weight.”
Simpson recently spoke to TODAY's Hoda Kotb about the photo.
“This picture that circulated and went worldwide broke my heart. Not the picture necessarily, but the caption. Like, all the captions,” Simpson said.
I interviewed a stylist for the article, who explained that denim is tricky for curvy women to pull off.
It would be a decade until I wore jeans again.
A better world
I had bariatric surgery in December 2019. I did it for for my health — but also because I was convinced I'd only become the person I was meant to be if I lost weight. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how many positive affirmations I recited, I just couldn't unlearn diet culture. It was ingrained in my head.
My daughters are growing up in a different world, a better world — one with Lizzo and Ashley Graham and #bodypositivity, a movement that celebrates self-love in all shapes, sizes, skin colors and genders. My girls scroll through my phone and see Rochelle Johnson, aka. IamBeauticurve, a size 18/20 fashion influencer with nearly 400,000 Instagram followers.
Johnson radiates joy.
I want every single item in her closet.
“I’m here to show you that you can be successful at any size, you can be happy at any size,” she told TODAY Health.
Johnson’s motto is “Don’t wait to lose weight." I've started repeating the phrase in fitting rooms.
“Wear the clothes you want to wear,” she said. “Embrace who you are right now as you are right now.”
Size-inclusivity activist Katie Sturino preaches the same message to her more than 660,000 Instagram fans, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Blake Lively.
Sturino, like myself, spent most of her life feeling like if she just lost weight, everything would somehow be better.
“I believed that if had a different body, then I would be more successful, that I would be happier," Sturino told TODAY. "I blamed all my issues on my body."
In wasn’t until her 30s, that Sturino realized that her size didn’t determine her worth. She's since built an empire out of that epiphany.
I asked Sturino if she thought her childhood would have been different if she’d grown up with body-positive influencers.
“God, I would have wasted much less time hating myself,” she said. “I accepted a lot of bad treatment quite often from men because I was like, ‘This is who you get when you’re big.’ It was so dumb and so wrong.”
Today, Sturino is happily married. She hosts the "BoobSweat” podcast and founded MegaBabe, a beloved personal care company that sells products to deal with perspiration and chafing. In May, she released her first book, “Body Talk,” which is both a memoir and a manual on body acceptance.
Sturino and Johnson both receive hundreds of messages of gratitude every day.
“The ones from teenagers make me emotional. Reaching teens is my dream,” Sturino said. “Can you imagine going to college feeling secure about your body?”
I tell her no but I’m hopeful for my daughters. Sturino smiles and says she is, too.