The Cancer Tankini

It was 2009 or 2010. I don’t remember her name. Maybe I knew it at the time, but what I remember is the First Lutheran Church assembly room full of tables, displaying one woman’s personal effects. Everything was available for purchase: costume jewelry, books, Tupperware, knickknacks, clothing, and shoes. The things a person accumulates over a lifetime, to fill a home and decorate daily life. The church was holding an estate sale following this woman’s death from breast cancer and the proceeds were supposed to benefit a cancer charity, or the church, or both. I hadn’t been working full-time again for long, and my wardrobe was transitioning from stay-at-home-mom of two kids under six years old, to career-mom. I think my purchase included a pantsuit, a dress, and a blazer. The bathing suit wasn’t a necessity for work, but I bought it anyway, with the price tags intact. Even though I knew it hadn’t been worn, I was ashamed to take it to the lady who was acting as a cashier. Who buys a bathing suit from a dead woman’s estate sale? Me, apparently.

A rare moment in just the Cancer Tankini, without the swim shirt. Why am I taking a picture of someone taking a picture of me? God only knows. Even the bird is repelled by the irony.

A rare moment in just the Cancer Tankini, without the swim shirt. Why am I taking a picture of someone taking a picture of me? God only knows. Even the bird is repelled by the irony.

At 220 pounds, finding a bathing suit was torturous, expensive, and nearly impossible. Buying a pre-owned one for pennies on the dollar and waiting until I got home to try it on seemed like a low-risk investment. It was a reddish-orange two-piece halter-top tankini, giving me the illusion of wearing something that wasn’t found in the “Woman’s World” plus-size section of the store. You know it well, readers: a wide ranging assortment of muumuus, elastic-waist pants and floral tops, ranging in sizes from 1X to tent and awning scraps. New plus size bathing suits were rare, expensive and generally unflattering. I wore that used Cancer Tankini for 7 years, gaining nearly 30 pounds as its elasticity gave up the good fight against my increasing size. Usually, I wore a matching swim shirt over it, telling my husband that I was wisely avoiding UV rays, but I knew it was covering up more than just my delicate tan-resistant white skin (if it wasn’t for Jergen’s Natural Glow sunless tanning cream, people would have to wear sunglasses around my neon-whiteness). The swim shirt was like a quick-dry suit of armor, further defending me against judging eyes: “Yes, I know I’m fat, and I am properly repentant, as is evidenced by my shame-induced modesty.” No one was watching. No one was judging me, except for me.

THE TANKINI IN ACTION

I wore the Cancer Tankini at the beach with my family. Ah, family beach trips! If I never have to apply sunscreen to another human being for as long as I live, that’s fine with me. Putting sunscreen on other people grosses me out. Yes, even my own kids. They get sandy, then you have to re-apply, and it makes this gristly sandy paste that induces my gag reflex. I love my family more than life itself, but one day I’m going to the beach all by myself and it will be glorious. Days spent laying by the pool, not worrying about whether anyone is drowning, has eaten lunch, or is swimming too soon after eating. See that lady reclining in the shade with no sandy sunscreen on her hands? She is loving her life.

My 6-year old daughter. I think she's wearing a life vest under a body suit, because you can never be too careful, people. Put on your own sunscreen, kid.

My 6-year old daughter. I think she's wearing a life vest under a body suit, because you can never be too careful, people. Put on your own sunscreen, kid.

I wore the Cancer Tankini to our lovely county swimming pool. Sara Babb Pool is the only public pool in our very rural county. We’re not fancy like neighboring Cobb or Douglas Counties with their multiple indoor and outdoor pools. No, Paulding County only has one outdoor pool, and you better get your tetanus shot before you go. The fact that I was wearing a bathing suit instead of jorts and an airbrushed t-shirt purchased at Six Flags automatically made me appear to be the most glamorous lady at the cement swimming hole, but the Cancer Tankini and I knew better. I didn’t feel glamorous or anything less than conspicuously large. Neither the origin of the swimsuit nor its fit made me happy when I wore it, but it was a means to an end. An answer to a problem. At least I had something to wear.

THE LESSON IN THE TANKINI

Sometimes I thought about the original owner of the Cancer Tankini. She had obviously not lived to enjoy her purchase. I was technically alive, but also not enjoying the bathing suit. While a doctor had given her a hopeless medical prognosis, I had condemned myself to a life of feeding my body junk and feeding my mind daydreams that I was certain would never come true. Losing weight. Feeling attractive. Solving the riddle to mastering my own body. The Cancer Tankini symbolized a compromised existence. I could go to the pool and the beach, but I had to drag along the extra physical weight that protected me from vulnerability and intimacy, while also threatening to drown me. Self-loathing makes one hell of a pool float.

THE TRANSFORMATION

On June 27, 2016, I walked into a Weight Watchers meeting and that compromised existence began a slow death. Day by day, I stopped accepting the fact that my life was just one long string of missed opportunities to be truly happy. I slowly awoke to the knowledge that I desperately wanted to feel loved, and that it would only be possible when I felt worthy of such love. Yes, I know that’s messed up. I might be 93 pounds down today, but I’m far from being healed of my fat girl mindset. I also realize that many people can feel worthy of love at any size or shape, but I could not. As the pounds came off, my confidence and self-worth grew. I began to feel strong and capable. Some days, a glimpse in the mirror would surprise me. Whoa, that waist DOES look a slimmer! When I hold my arms at just the right angle, they look muscular! That weight training is paying off! Just kidding. My arms get tired when I blow dry my hair. If I could find a two-piece that fit me like this high-waisted girdle and double push up bra (the boobs are GONE, people!), then I might be able to pull off a legit bikini! The last time I had worn a bikini was at a youth group pool party in high school. It was white with flesh-colored lining, and when it got wet, it appeared to be see-through. Exactly what I was going for, given my conservative Southern Baptist peer group. I’m pretty sure no photos exist. Please God, let no photos exist.

REPLACING THE TANKINI

In lieu of our usual week-long beach trip, we decided to get the house painted this summer and just spend three nights ocean-side. You know how those days before a family beach trip can be. Doing laundry, buying last minute items, packing, taking the dog to the kennel, and loading the car. During that chaotic flurry, I stopped at Target to get sunscreen and took a detour through the bathing suit section. Months ago, I had already purchased a modest new size 10/12 tankini, but I wondered if I might find something akin to my girdle-bra combo. The girl working the dressing room started to give me funny looks when I asked to try on my third set of swimsuits. The top had to be padded and well structured. The bottom had to give a certain amount of coverage on both the waist and the leg holes. No high cut Flashdance bottoms for me, despite my trip to the deceptively named “Relax and Wax.” There was nothing relaxing about that appointment. Now that I could actually see down past my belly, I knew some attention had to be paid prior to the beach trip. It takes a special kind of smart lady to schedule a waxing appointment the day before completing her first 10K, but hey, that’s ME!

The actual, un-photoshopped selfie from the Target dressing room. My face says "Is this really acceptable for public consumption?" but my levitating body says "24K Magic."

The actual, un-photoshopped selfie from the Target dressing room. My face says "Is this really acceptable for public consumption?" but my levitating body says "24K Magic."

 In the last ladies’ dressing room on the left at the Kennesaw, Georgia Target store, the clouds parted and the angels sang. I finally found a combo that worked. A little voice asked me “Are you seriously going to walk around in public wearing a bikini and let people see your stretch marks and flabby belly?” I told that voice, “Yes, I am. This is the South, and there will most certainly be bigger people on the beach wearing less, with faded, sagging Harley Davidson tattoos, so WHAT HAVE I GOT TO LOSE?” Only my sanity, apparently, given this conversation. Staring at myself in the mirror, these two pieces of lycra and spandex made me feel imperfectly sexy. At 44 years old, I finally knew the answer to the question I had wondered for so long when I’d see other women on the beach who were fit and trim. I’d ask myself, “What does that feel like to walk around in a body like that? To bend over and not feel like the Michelin man reaching for another doughnut? To put your hands on your hips and actually feel your hips?” Now I knew. I might never be hot enough to dance in a Bruno Mars video, but this felt darn good. Scratch that. It felt amazing.

THE DEBUT OF THE BIKINI

Unlike the Cancer Tankini, this new bathing suit was purchased with pride and my head held high. I’m pretty sure that somewhere, the original owner of the Cancer Tankini cheered when I stepped onto the beach wearing nothing but my brand new two-piece and a smile. My 12- and 14-year old kids were thoroughly embarrassed (Double Win!). My husband was thrilled. I was terrified and excited. Was anyone watching or judging me? No, probably not. But maybe, some woman was looking at me and wondering what it felt like. And hopefully, she’s finding the strength to start her own journey toward shedding the smothering security blanket that extra pounds can provide.

The Cancer Tankini took one last dive into a garbage bag of clothes I gathered for donation. I know…gross! Would some other woman really want to wear my stretched out, used bathing suit? Probably not, but the only thing she risked catching from me was a resolve to stop settling.

 

Is This Real Life?

Today the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper published a story on me in their "Weight Loss Success Stories" section. An unscaled photo of my neck/chest area highlights the top of the story, so that obviously makes me proud. I was hoping they would include my quote about how big a role music has played in my weight loss journey, followed by my undignified plea for (free) Music Midtown concert festival tickets. I obviously can't afford to buy them! All of my disposable income is tied up in Halo Top ice cream and Sandwich Brothers egg white turkey sausage breakfast thingies!

Here's a link to the article. Try to not get yourself too worked up over my clavicle. 

My coworker Chris photoshopped this photo from my wedding day. Usually he just distorts my face using the photos I post on Facebook, so this brought tears to my eyes. Because, pizza.

My coworker Chris photoshopped this photo from my wedding day. Usually he just distorts my face using the photos I post on Facebook, so this brought tears to my eyes. Because, pizza.

My Solicited Advice

Over the past few months, I’ve answered one question in various forms, many times over. It usually goes something like this:

Hi Paula! I noticed you’ve lost a lot of weight. Wow, you look great! I hear you’re doing Weight Watchers, is that true? I tried that once (twice/five/ten times), but I could only lose ten pounds before quitting (or) I lost a bunch of weight (for my sister’s wedding/high school reunion/other life event), then gained it back. What’s your secret? Do you have any advice? What do you eat every day?

On my wedding day, thinking about how much I love Bill and pizza

On my wedding day, thinking about how much I love Bill and pizza

You have to be ready. I wish I had been ready in my twenties, before I got married. Or, in my thirties, after I had my kids. It wasn’t until I was 43 years old and had obtained a master’s degree that I believed in myself enough to even step foot inside a Weight Watcher’s meeting. A couple of months into my weight loss journey, my marriage fell apart. We hung on by our fingernails and made it through two near-divorces and our oldest child being hospitalized twice in a month. Strangely, I think those crises helped me stay focused on eating right. The food I chose to put in my mouth was the one thing I could control while everything else in my world was spinning out of control. Sitting here today, I’m certain that the strength I gained from losing weight and surviving those personal problems snowballed with my spiritual faith, making me the super hero who I am today. When will YOU be ready to believe in yourself while also letting go of everything you’ve tried in the past to be healthy? Only you can answer that question.

You have to have support from your family. Even when things were rough between us, my husband supported what I was doing. He bought the new healthy foods I wanted and we agreed that the expense of Weight Watchers was a worthwhile investment. My 12-and 14-year old kids supported me too, encouraging me to choose this-over-that. My parents were my biggest cheerleaders. Dad often bought me new clothes and Mom never failed to ooh and ahh over my changing appearance. One night, our son had friends spending the night for his birthday. We had a smorgasboard spread of 12-year-old-boy-dellicasies: bagel bites, tortilla chips and crock pot queso, barbeque meatballs, Cheetos, etc. I was trying to clean up while they feasted, but I was eating more than the boys were. Finally, I went to my husband and pleaded through tears, “Please go finish cleaning up before I eat everything in the kitchen.” He did. Without that kind of support, I might have made it to goal eventually, but it would have been a much slower process.

You have to track. Since joining Weight Watchers last July, I think there have been less than 10 days that I didn’t track everything I ate. Sometimes I track what I’m going to eat the next day, as a means of self-structuring my eating (“I’ve already tracked these healthy things, so I can’t eat this junk”). It’s a method of self-accountability, too. Even when I’m already -64 points in the hole for my daily or weekly points, I make myself track that last piece of pizza or that piece of candy. Seeing the number jump will often make me get back on the right track. Sometimes I put that last piece of pizza back in the box. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Just kidding, that never happens. Pizza is my forbidden lover.

You have to have accountability. The combined structure of tracking food in the Weight Watchers app, along with the accountability of weighing in every Wednesday at our meeting, has been critical for me. Even at my goal weight, I know that I need to step on the scale in front of Susan or Ellen once a week and answer to someone for the choices I’ve made that week. Many weeks I get a pat on the back, which encourages me to keep going. Other weeks, Susan takes me aside and asks, “What happened? What are you going to do to get back on track?” For me, that face to face check in is priceless.

You have to get moving. I will NEVER be that obnoxious person who gushes about how much they LOVE to exercise. Here’s the honest truth: exercise makes me look better and I like the attention I get when I look good. Sorry, but I’m the youngest child in my family and the only girl, so I’m an attention hog. Also, I LOVE FOOD and exercise lets me enjoy more food. That’s it. That’s the end of my exercise love story. I didn’t “exercise” at all for the first couple of months. I had to lose some of the weight before I even felt like walking,

Before the Peachtree Road Race, praying I don't pull a hammy.

Before the Peachtree Road Race, praying I don't pull a hammy.

and THAT WAS OKAY! Once I lost 20-25 pounds, I DID feel like moving and that good feeling fed on itself. I felt good, so I moved more, and I felt even better. I bought a Fit Bit and joined a walking-steps competition through our work place. By Christmas, I was brave enough to get on the elliptical at home, to offset some of the holiday foods I had let myself enjoy. I created a YouTube playlist that reflected the playlist on my phone, so I could watch my songs as I used the elliptical. I eventually reached a point of feeling strong enough to sign up for the Peachtree Road Race 10K. I wasn’t the fastest or the slowest, but I completed the race! If the old me, pre-Weight Watchers, could have seen the new me crossing that finish line on 10th Street in Midtown Atlanta while scores of gay men cheered me on from their fashionable restaurant patios, the old me would have put down her slice of pizza and slow clapped.

You have to find foods and menus that work for YOU. Don’t be afraid to try foods that you didn’t like in the past. My tastes have changed dramatically, and I truly LIKE many more vegetables than I used to. Someone told me that spaghetti squash tasted like real spaghetti but it only tasted like LIES to me. Yellow summer squash, on the other hand, is delicious! I now like mushrooms and olives on my pizza now because they are zero point “filler” that makes my slice go farther toward making me full. Here’s an overly detailed idea of what I eat in a typical day:

Breakfast: For the first few months, I ate the same thing every morning: a boiled egg sliced up in a bowl with two sliced turkey sausage patties, smothered in medium salsa. SURPRISE! Eating this every single day will WRECK your digestive system! I had the worst gas and hemorrhoids ever known to any human last December. Merry Christmas to ME!

My everything.

My everything.

Then I found an item at Sam’s Club called Sandwich Brother’s Flat Bread Egg White and Turkey Sausage Breakfast Thingy. That may not be the real name, but here’s a picture.

If you know someone who works for Sam’s Club corporate office, please pass a long a message from me:

Hello. If you ever decide to stop carrying Sandwich Brother’s Flat Bread Egg White and Turkey Sausage Breakfast Thingies, I will hunt you down. I’m pretty sure you’re somewhere in Arkansas. You already took away that frozen Archer Farms Chicken Con Queso casserole, which we had to buy 800 ingredients for and try to make from scratch at home. Yes, I’m kind of glad it’s gone now because I probably wouldn’t have lost weight if Chicken Con Queso and Chik Fil A Spicy Chicken Biscuits were still in my life, but DO NOT use that as an excuse. You don’t know me and what I deal with every day. I need my Sandwich Brothers Thingy. Thank you.

Morning snack: About 9 or 10 am, I eat a banana. If I’m starving or bored at 11 am, I’ll eat an apple or some other fruit. If it’s Tuesday or Thursday and Amanda is in the office, I’ll eat her grapes, raspberries, or whatever she brings because she’s the sweetest person alive and cannot say no to me when I ask for some.

Lunch: This varies a lot depending on how busy my day is. If I’m in the car, I’ll grab Chik Fil A grilled nuggets and a side salad with light Italian dressing. My other fast food favorites include Wendy’s 4 piece chicken nuggets, a cup of chili, and a side salad, or Jimmy John’s Turkey Tom Lettuce Wrap with no mayo or cheese, extra turkey, and all of the other “freebies.” If I bring my lunch, it’s often a Weight Watcher’s “Smart Ones” frozen meal with a salad and some kind of fruit. My lean-and-mean lunch when I’m compensating for an indulgence in another meal is a sandwich (6 slices of Oscar Mayer Deli Fresh turkey or chicken, brown spicy mustard, and 2 toasted slices of Nature’s Own Life 100% Whole Grain/Whole Wheat), sliced apple, and my “weird salad” (angel hair shredded cabbage, diced or cherry tomatoes, diced cucumbers, and Ken’s Lite Balsamic Vinaigrette salad dressing). If you see me eating the sandwich-weird salad combo, then you know that it has been preceded or will be followed by some “good eating.” (“good eating” usually = pizza)

Afternoon snack: My favorite snack is fresh-diced pineapple with low fat cottage cheese. I also like no sugar added mandarin orange fruit cups and a piece of skim/low fat mozzarella string cheese. Or, 6 slices of Oscar Mayer Deli Fresh turkey or chicken rolled up around a piece of string cheese. My co-worker Casey asked me one day, “Are you just eating a big wad of meat?” and I told him to mind his own business. He thinks he’s funny so I no longer let him come in our office. He has to stand in the hall to talk to us.

Dinner: My husband cooks dinner most nights, so I eat whatever he cooks in a sensible portion size, using a smaller white bowl. Spaghetti and meat sauce. Meatloaf. Hamburger Helper. Enchilada Casserole. If the kids are at a friend’s house or eating something I don’t want, I’ll steam some broccoli and eat that with a Gorton’s salmon filet. I love hamburger steak with sautéed onions and mushrooms! And some nights, you just have to eat pizza and enjoy life, then make really good choices the next day to compensate. If I have learned one thing over the past year it’s this: one unhealthy meal is not the end of the world, but a string of unhealthy meals means your pants may no longer fit.

Water: I drink at least three large Tervis cups of water over the course of each day. Yes, I always have to pee. No, I never pass up a bathroom, but I blame that on my freakishly large babies, who weighed 8 pounds 15 ounces and 9 pounds 10 ounces. If my husband’s match.com profile had mentioned he was a 10 pound baby, it would have been a hard pass. Swipe left, on the ten-pounders, my child. Usually, I fill my water cup halfway, drink that, then fill it all the way and walk back to my desk. I’m lucky that my office is at the far end of a long hallway, opposite from the bathroom and break room. Casey is lucky if I acknowledge his existence when I pass his office on my pee/water walks.

Me and my favorite 10-pounder. We're still leaning how to selfie.

Me and my favorite 10-pounder. We're still leaning how to selfie.

The last bit of advice I can offer anyone is this: you have to believe that the impossible is possible. You have to close your eyes and visualize yourself living a new life full of things that inspire and excite you. You have to enjoy the benefits of losing weight as much as, or more than, you enjoy the taste of unhealthy foods. You have to be able to let go of the uncomfortable, sometimes painful, inner hug that you get from stuffing yourself with food. External things like people’s positive words and looser clothes have to overcome the internal things that are keeping you trapped in fear and loneliness.

I believe in you.

The Soundtrack of Loss

It's impossible to overstate how important music has been to me over the past year of my weight loss. I think I could give up pizza forever more easily than I could go a day without music. And I really, really love pizza. In fact, music has always been a major part of my life. My brothers were both horn players, so I grew up going to their marching band shows and jazz band concerts. Church choir, school chorus, trumpet lessons, piano lessons, school orchestra and band, and show choir filled my days as a kid. As a teenager and college student, I went to an endless string of concerts, usually with my best friend Pat. We camped out for tickets in the days before Ticketmaster and saw amazing shows like Eric Clapton, dc Talk, the Monkees, and Amy Grant.

Not long after I joined Weight Watchers and began losing weight, I started compiling a playlist of songs that I would listen to in the car, on my way to and from work. The lyrics and the music itself inspired me to dream that this new way of eating might just work. I'd visualize what it would feel like to be at my goal, and how people would respond to me. I would brainstorm all of the things I would be able to do, like wear a non-plus size bathing suit or walk into my next high school reunion feeling proud and confident.

Before (November 2015) and After (On the day I made "Goal," May 24, 2017).

Before (November 2015) and After (On the day I made "Goal," May 24, 2017).

Once I had lost about 25 pounds, I started intentionally increasing my activity throughout the day. I took the long way around campus while walking back to my office from a meeting. I took the stairs instead of the elevator. I parked on the side of the building near my office, but walked around to the front entrance. Those small changes made it easier to begin exercising for real in the evenings when I got home. I walked the length of our street for a few days, then half the neighborhood. Eventually, I could walk the entire neighborhood (about 4 miles). I always had my phone and earbuds, which kept me going when I was tempted to stop. Wanting to finish a song, or get to the next song that I loved extended what would have been short workouts. The walking was just an excuse to get to listen to the music!


During our two-week Christmas break in 2016, I got on our home elliptical machine for the first time. It faces the TV in our bedroom, so I re-created my music playlist on YouTube, allowing me to actually watch and listen to the music. As The Struts sang, “I bet your body’s so sweet,” I would think “Not yet, guys, BUT I’M WORKING ON IT!” I knew I would never be hired as a bikini-clad back up dancer in Bruno Mars music video, but when he sang “Don’t look too hard, might hurt yourself, known to give the color red the blues,” my steps turned into a swagger. James Brown told me to “Get Up Offa That Thing,” and I obeyed. How do you say no to the Godfather of Soul? And when George Michael sang, “I think there’s something you should know, I think it’s time I told you so, There’s something deep inside of me, There’s someone else I’ve got to be,” I knew that I was becoming someone new. Someone stronger. Someone who believed in the impossible being possible.

With my kid, CJ, at the Green Day concert, March 10, 2017.

With my kid, CJ, at the Green Day concert, March 10, 2017.

About two months before I reached my goal weight, I took my daughter and her two friends to the Green Day concert in Duluth. I let them think that the tickets were for them and I was just the cool mom who was willing to drive them there. In reality, I had been a fan of Green Day since my college years when I would drive around in my Chevy Cavalier listening to a cassette-single (ca-single?) of “When I Come Around.” After the opening act played and a short intermission, the lights went down and the familiar opening thump of “Know Your Enemy” filled the arena. Remember that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps out of the black and white interior of her witch-killing house, into the Technicolor Land of Oz? My world turned Technicolor for the three hours that Green Day played. I danced and sang, jumped and screamed, celebrating the fact that not only was the finish line within sight (16 pounds away), but I had found a new way of living where I could still enjoy the things I loved to eat while also feeling strong, fit, and in control of my body. The things I had dreamed of and visualized were now reality. This was my life. The knowledge and skills I had learned over the previous months in Weight Watchers, along with the dozens of failures and fixes to get back on the right path, made me strong. Those mental keys jingled in my pocket as I danced, and I smiled, knowing they were mine to keep.


I hope that this blog can inspire someone else to take that first terrifying step towards a better life. If music is what inspires you, then build your own playlist and let it motivate you to move.

Here’s a link to mine: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLDm5vzHiWydjwpx-7my2jjq-unzHGNA2v