By Sherry Amatenstein
Growing up on a farm in Peculiar, Missouri, located 40 miles southwest of Kansas City, Jan Welborn-Nichols got used to classmates taunting her with the word “Fatso.” The adults were worse. Now a 60-year-old marketing entrepreneur living in Bloomington, Illinois, Jan recalls, “They’d tower over me and say, ‘My, you’re so big, aren’t you?’”
Even her mother, who also struggled with weight issues, delivered mixed messages, sometimes cajoling her daughter to eat everything on the plate (meals were huge and fried) and on other occasions telling the girl she’d had enough.
The result: “I got overweight and stayed overweight.” By the time Jan reached middle school, the scale tipped at 175 pounds. Making things worse was severe acne that lasted from age 13 to 21, and nearsightedness condemning her to wear “the world’s ugliest glasses.” Adding more fuel to this bonfire of adolescent angst: “Not being athletically gifted, I was always the last kid chosen for the volleyball team.”
Happily, she had a good singing voice so joined the chorus and glee club. But “it was the only thing I felt good at.”
For decades she alternated between trying every fad weight loss method – Stillman, Metrical Shakes, eating only protein, eating nothing and drinking only diet juice – and eating everything in the house. “If there was a diet book out there with a crazy new approach, I tried it,” she says.
Like many women who feel self-conscious about their weight, the emotional baggage Jan hauled around was worse than the excess pounds. “I often tried to diminish my presence by listening to others rather than talking,” she recalls.
One person did support Jan, though – her high school sweetheart, now her husband of 25 years. “I’d ask, ‘Why are you with me?’ and he’d respond, ‘Get over it. You’re wonderful and interesting!”
Jan developed careers first in music (remember the talent for singing), then marketing. Life was good – unless she looked in the mirror.
However it was the view from one particular three-way mirror in a Chicago hotel room during a business trip that led to a life-altering revelation. She was 47, exhausted and grief-stricken after the recent death of her mother from colon cancer. That day, she stared at her reflection and thought as she had hundreds of times, "I just don’t like myself this way." The difference on this occasion, in the wake of her recent loss, was feeling in her bones that she no longer wanted to defer happiness until she reached X amount of pounds. “I knew in a different way that life was too short to be so unhappy.”
Having toyed for years with giving up meat, she joined Weight Watchers, the vegetarian plan. This taught her about portion control: “What, 1 oz. of cheese is a portion?” “What, you shouldn’t eat peanut butter out of a jar but just have one tablespoon?”
She also raised her awareness (up from zero percent) of the fat, fiber, sugar ,and salt content of foods that went into her mouth and began stocking her pantry accordingly.
Within six months Jan had morphed from a size 18 to 8. “I’d never been a single digit dress size in my life!”
Her proudest moment came at Ann Taylor when the sales clerk said, “Honey, why are you looking at the large sizes?”
In the 13 years since then, she’s stayed within a 7-pound range. Her exercise regimen includes running, Pilates, and martial arts. She’s recently launched a third career, writing an e-book, Henrietta Sharp and the Magic Lunch Box (www.henriettasharp.com) about a chubby 12-year-old embarking on a cool food adventure.
At age 60 she looks better than she did at 20. “While friends are lamenting crow’s feet under their eyes or their upper arms flapping when they wave goodbye, I am in the best shape of my life. Aging is not a diminishment of who I used to be but a continuation.”
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW is a NYC-based therapist, speaker and author of 3 books, including "The Complete Marriage Counselor: Relationship-Saving Advice from America’s Top 50-Plus Couples Therapists” (Adams, 2010). Her website is www.marriedfaq.com.