In her memoir, the first female “Biggest Loser” winner reveals her intimate story of personal and physical transformation. Facing problems with food, family, stress and self-esteem, Vincent retraces the path that led to her unhealthy habits and a damaging relationship with food. An excerpt.Where change begins
Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, I lost my way. I lost my dreams, my hopes, my goals, my happiness, my sense of self. It even felt as though I lost my family and my friends. I didn’t want to go out, didn’t want to see any of the people I loved — because I was afraid they would be able to see how bad I felt about myself. I didn’t like myself, and I didn’t have the courage to admit that to myself, much less admit it to my friends. I was living a life of complacency. Checked out. Shut down.
One thing I wasn’t losing was weight. In fact, by the time I hit my early thirties, I was up to about 234 pounds on a 5-foot-5 frame. At one point in my life, I had been a world-class athlete, a nationally ranked synchronized swimmer. I had been athletic and popular in high school, a “trophy” girlfriend, a cheerleader. I’d had dreams of doing something big, of making a difference, especially in the lives of women. From the age of 6 or 7, I distinctly remember telling my mom that I was going to help women when I grew up. I always felt that women didn’t get the same breaks that men did, that life was handed to them differently. But now I couldn’t even help myself.
This is the story of my journey back to myself. Back to the Ali who had dreams of making a difference in the lives of others and living life on a larger scale. And what a journey it has turned out to be. It’s taken me to places I never imagined I would go, including a reality weight-loss TV show called “The Biggest Loser,” where I struggled, sweated, and cried in front of millions of viewers while wearing a sports bra and bike shorts. Oh, and I did this with my mom, the unforgettable Bette-Sue, who the entire nation learned was never shy about expressing an opinion. Mom would end up being my partner in weight loss, and we would cover some painful emotional history between us — all on camera, no less.
I grew up in a family of beautiful women, all of whom made a huge impression on me and all of whom struggled with their weight. As a kid, I wouldn’t even have known my mom was heavy, except that she said she was fat. She tried everything she could think of to lose weight — she took diet pills and went on every weird diet in the world, all with the blessing of my grandmother, Florence Alison (after whom I’m named). Grandma grew up in New Zealand and came to the United States at the age of 20. My mom’s sister, my aunt Judi, died of obesity-related cancer. Weight was a major topic of discussion when I was growing up, for all of us except my sister, Amber. She never had a weight problem — a huge source of frustration for me when I started to pile on the pounds in my late teens.
Even though my story was watched by millions of viewers as a weight-loss journey — gaining it, losing it, trying to keep it off — my journey is a lot bigger than what you saw on TV. Because behind weight gain are the larger hurts and questions that have to be explored, probed, and understood before weight loss and maintenance is a possibility. It’s a bigger issue than just calories in, calories out. There’s something fundamental you have to understand about yourself before you can change your life for good. The trick is, it’s different for every person. You have to figure out your stuff, just like I did mine. But maybe by sharing my story, I can help you understand yours. I certainly know the pain, deprivation, and insecurity that come with a life of obesity. But I also know there’s a much richer, fuller life waiting for all of us.
“Because I’m fat,” I answered.
Jillian took it a step further and responded, “Why are you fat?”
I knew what she was getting at. I’d been just kind of letting life happen to me — I didn’t feel worthy of wanting anything more for myself. And I’d had those feelings for a long time. When we started out at the ranch, Jillian asked everyone to write down a list of reasons why we were there. My first one was “I have always felt alone.” My fat protected me and gave me a reason for people leaving me. Because, otherwise, why would they go? What was so bad about me? The fat gave me a reason — it justified my feelings of loneliness.
Growing up Mormon
I weighed more than 9 pounds when I was born. My mom had big babies. By the time I was 4 months old, I was so fat I looked plastic. I looked as if I was going to pop. I had a pretty dramatic childhood. I don’t blame anybody — when I look back on it, I think everyone was doing the best they could to raise me and my older sister, Amber. She and I never wanted for anything, other than a stable, ordered family life. And, unfortunately, the fact that we didn’t have one was made even more obvious by the fact that everyone else around us did. I grew up in Mesa, Arizona, in a community with a strict moral code based on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — Mormonism. I can’t emphasize enough how important a role the church played in how I felt I was supposed to be and act and what kind of family I thought I was supposed to have. I grew up thinking that you were supposed to have both a mom and dad who raised their kids at home, your mom and dad weren’t supposed to drink or smoke, no one was supposed to have sex before marriage, and you weren’t supposed to associate with anyone who did those things. That’s what I learned in Sunday school. But here’s what I had: divorced parents; a dad who was Catholic, Mexican, and rarely around; and a mom who smoked, drank, partied, had lots of boyfriends, and wasn’t exactly your typical stay-at-home mom. It was all very confusing for a little Mormon girl.
My parents had divorced by the time I was 2. I have no memories of my dad living with us. Mom was a cheerleader in high school and hung out with a non-Mormon crowd. My dad, John Vincent, wasn’t exactly what a couple of Mormon parents would have chosen for their daughter, but after she got pregnant with Amber, they married.
My grandparents did the daily work of raising us. My mom, Amber, and I lived with them most of the time. Sometimes my mom would find an apartment and we’d move out for a little while, but we always ended up back with Grandma and Grandpa. Our grandparents got us to school, drove us to all of our activities. They made sure we had everything we needed. But I still knew I wasn’t like everyone else. I knew I didn’t fit in. I felt like I wore a scarlet letter that separated me from all the other kids. I remember going on a school camping trip in fifth grade. I was so excited because my mom had volunteered to be a chaperone, something her work schedule rarely allowed her to do. Some of the kids wanted to play a prank on her by putting a dead fish in her purse. But when they opened it, they found a pack of cigarettes.
That was a pretty serious offense to a bunch of Mormon kids, and I was so embarrassed. They taunted me and told me that I was going to be drinking and smoking by the time I was in junior high. I felt so shamed by that kind of talk. But as I got older, it would fuel my own rebellions. I would give them something to talk about, all right. My grandparents were active members of the Mormon church and didn’t approve of Mom’s lifestyle, but they couldn’t do much to stop her. I always felt conflicted about my mom. I loved that she was pretty, that she was the life of the party, but I didn’t love being pulled out of my bunk bed at night when she came home drunk and got into a fight with my grandparents. Amber and I were the pawns in that relationship. If Mom got mad enough, she’d threaten to take us away from them.
Some of those boyfriends weren’t exactly the best picks. One had been in prison. One stole from us. Another guy, a big biker guy, used to visit in the middle of the night. Sometimes I would run into him in the hallway, and I was terrified — he was enormous.
It never occurred to me — or Mom — that he was married until we saw him years later with his wife. I think that’s just how disconnected Mom was from her actions at that time. She was struggling with her own demons and worthiness when it came to dating. But even amid all this chaos, I still knew my mom loved me. When Mom got us ready for school, she always gave our ponytails curls and ribbons and dressed us in matching outfits. She would cut our hair and perm it and braid it so tightly and perfectly, it would change the way our faces looked. One Christmas she worked an extra job as a waitress just to buy bikes for my sister and me. I don’t think she was such a good waitress — she spilled things, didn’t get orders right — but all the customers loved her.
Everyone always loved my mom, though she didn’t love herself. I think everyone in our family tried hard to make up for the fact that we were two little girls with no dad at home. If anything, we were given too much. Amber and I caught on at an early age: If one adult wouldn’t give us what we wanted, we’d just move to the next. We weren’t taught to save money. We didn’t have chores. I don’t remember having to clean my room or make my bed. We learned very little about personal responsibility.
When my dad remarried and had his own family, my mom hated the idea of sharing Amber and me with them. It made it hard for me to form relationships with my stepfamily. I was also sad that all of my half-siblings had a mom and my dad. Why did they get to have a family and I didn’t?
But my mom brought out the protector in me. I wanted to defend her. She could be loud and outspoken, and she could make me cringe, but I also knew she was gossiped about in our community, that her actions attracted the judgment of others — and I hated that. When she went to church with us on occasion, she would pass up the sacrament because even though she lived life her way, she was Mormon enough not to take the sacrament when her body was not a temple.
As I hit my teen years, I started acting out. I drank, I hung out with a faster crowd, and I lost my virginity in a public park when I was 13. I felt like people thought I was a bad kid anyway, so I might as well become one. I was definitely not living the Mormon life. In fact, I was turning into my mother, and though I loved her, I didn’t want her life. I was becoming a woman who didn’t value her body.
Move on or dream big
When you feel so lost, it’s hard to see that there is potential to have a better life one day, let alone understand that everything you need to create that life is already right inside of you.
In order to have any chance of success, I’ve learned that you have to accept yourself and let go of the past failures or weaknesses that have been holding you back. It’s important to look forward, not backward — to get really clear on your future and what you want it to be. It’s not written in stone. Once you know what you want your life to look like, you can figure out how to make it happen. Every season on “The Biggest Loser,” we see contestants open themselves up, heart and soul, for the world to see and judge — all because they want a chance to change their lives. Many of them, like me, lost touch with themselves somewhere along the way as they gained the weight. Others have been spending so much time and energy taking care of others that they haven’t been taking care of themselves. And then there are those who have been overweight all their lives and simply don’t know how to get healthy. Everyone has a story.
Each season, “The Biggest Loser” allows a few lucky contestants to take a break from their day-to-day lives so that they can focus on themselves and learn how to end their self-destructive habits.
But you don’t have to be on the show to experience a change — I think all of us who watch the show and allow these people into our living rooms can relate to their struggles, and we all exult in their successes. “The Biggest Loser” ranch is a place where people reinvent themselves. As contestants, some of us start to remember who we used to be, and some of us get the opportunity for the first time in our lives to show the world who we have always known we could be. In either case, we are never the same afterward.
Excerpted from “Believe It, Be It” by Ali Vincent. Copyright (c) 2009. Reprinted with the permission of Rodale Books.