Where do I begin? I could get all Freudian on you and start with my parents — but that would be too easy. I could also start in the summer of 2000, when I was a cohost on “The View” and the first media stories about my weight started to surface, but that, too, would be too easy. So why don’t I start on the day that changed how I would physically appear to the world and would force me to face the reasons such drastic steps needed to be taken — August 19, 2003.
This is the day I lay in a pre-op room of a hospital, staring at the brightly lit ceiling, being prepped for gastric bypass surgery. I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before. I was so angry: How had I allowed myself to get to 307 pounds? I could clearly remember the days when I’d considered myself fly and curvaceous. Funny — or sad — how we “thick” girls can justify being excessively overweight. It was something I’d been doing all my life.
I grew up in public housing, so money was tight, but there was always plenty of good food on the table. My mother was from the South; her running commentary was that Julia Child didn’t use enough butter. She loved to make Grandma’s biscuits, Aunt Lib’s fried cabbage and her famous banana puddin’. Although we were on the cusp of poverty, my mother was a phenomenal woman who never let her girls go without. Sunday dinner seemed to take place every night, and no one ever said, “Stop — you’ve had enough.” In my home, exercise was not discouraged, but it wasn’t emphasized, either. I was a great student, but I almost failed physical education because I hated the very thought of exercise. I had never thrown a ball, run for a ball or caught a ball in my life, and I wasn’t interested in trying. By the age of 15 I was up to a size 14, but I thought, So what? A lot of my friends were the same size. And the man I loved most — my father — thought his girls were the most fabulous creatures on the planet. While I thank my parents for the confidence they managed to instill in me, in hindsight I wish someone had shouted: “Put that fork down and get active!”
In 1991, I left my career as a senior assistant district attorney in Brooklyn to start a new one on television as legal correspondent for NBC News. On day one, it was clear they had never seen anything like me before: I was big, bold and outspoken and I looked nothing like your typical television correspondent (blond, blue-eyed and Twiggy-esque). But I was determined to fit in. With the new job came a new social life. Every other weekend I would throw a party just to be in the mix. Even though I claimed to be just fine with my weight, I saw how other women were treated like the girlfriend, while I was treated like the good friend. To compensate for my insecurities, I spoke louder and ate more: Whenever I felt lonely, a Double Whopper with cheese became my friend. If I felt sad, six strips of bacon made me feel better. Soon I was up to 225 pounds, which, when you are 5'5" and lazy and sedentary, is neither fly nor curvaceous, but I convinced myself I was phat, not fat.
I’ve tried to track where the real out-of-control behavior began; it seemed to be around my 40th birthday, March 24, 2002. I gained 75 pounds over the course of the next 17 months. (In college I started to take notice of my weight and pretended to set 25-pound limits.) Eventually I just gave up. By then, I had been on “The View” a few years and had all the material trappings of success, but I still felt a void inside. Many of my girlfriends were getting married and starting their own families. I refuse to say I got fatter because I didn’t have a man; that does a disservice to single and satisfied women everywhere. But I wasn’t just alone — I was lonely. I, too, wanted someone to share my life with, but deep down I didn’t feel worthy. In truth, I didn’t meet half of the requirements that were on my list for a mate.
I began to surround myself with yes-people and spent my private time eating and shopping. My weight gain began to take a physical toll: I couldn’t breathe without sounding winded; walk without getting tired; sleep without snoring; or take a flight without using a seat belt extender. I pretended not to see how big I was getting — but not only did I see it, I was disgusted by it. I also pretended not to see the side looks and smirks from friends and strangers, or to comprehend the backhanded compliments I often received, such as, “You have such a pretty face” (I knew they really wanted to add, “for a woman of your size”). Each mean-spirited comment hurt, but I reacted as I was trained to do as a prosecutor standing before a hostile judge: “Square your shoulders, Star; speak louder, Star; show them they can’t hurt you.” Through it all, food was there to comfort me. Food never judged me — even when I judged myself.
We African American women are taught to be proud of our curves, full breasts and shapely hips. I used to look in the mirror and take pride in my figure, but that was when I was legitimately a full-figured woman. I’d gradually gone from full-figured to morbidly obese. Finally, one of my dearest friends sat me down, looked me in the eye and said, “So, what are we going to do about your weight?” She knew my weight was a subject no one dared mention, but she didn’t care — she loved me too much, she said, to allow me to continue killing myself. While it was easy to deny the little voice inside my head, I found it impossible to deny my friend’s. I knew in my heart that her love and respect for me were pure. I cried; I got angry — but eventually I took the first step and walked into a doctor’s office.
The night before the surgery, I convinced myself that afterward everything would be fine and I could get on with the rest of my life. I had no idea that before I could move on, I would have to face the present and the past as they were, not as I wished them to be.