I Thought Losing 85 Pounds Would Make Me Feel Beautiful — It Didn’t


Writer and performer Elna Baker. (Photo: Mindy Tucker)

I always wanted to be beautiful. As a kid I would stare at a picture of my grandmother, the most beautiful woman I knew and daydream about it.  She was 25 at the time, tall and elegant like Grace Kelly, and she was wearing the sacred dress. I knew this dress was sacred because it was the only one we weren’t allowed to play with during dress up.

My grandfather had bought back this silk brocade fabric from the Korean War, black with tiny red blossoms. For two years she worked on her dress, it had cap sleeves, went into a V at the neck and flowed out into a wide bell. It was breathtaking. I would stare at that picture and have the same daydream every time. I was all grown up. I was finally beautiful, I was wearing the dress and I was on a date with Brian Egbert, the most popular boy in first grade.

One day I couldn’t take it anymore. I snuck the dress out of my grandma’s closet, stood in front of the mirror and pulled it over my head. I went to zip it up, and it didn’t fit. I was seven years old, and I was too fat to fit in my grandma’s dress.

It didn’t help that my older sister was gorgeous. We took this family trip to Morocco when I was 12 and we were walking down the street and this man saw my older sister and stopped my parents and said, “Your daughter’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen. I will give you 1,000 camels for her.”

And my parents were like “No, thank you.” And then he looked at me and he said, “Hmmm. I’ll give you 100 camels for that one.” And I thought, “What?” 900 camels? There’s a 900 camel difference between my sister and me?” And I can honestly say the rest of my life has been this pursuit to be worth more camels.

I tried not to let it get to me, but it did. The only place I felt good about myself was at my grandmas. I’d go there after school and she’d make me cinnamon toast, or homemade jam. It was like spending time with Snow White. Everything she touched magically grew, and all the animals in the neighborhood would come to her door to be fed. She’d listen to me. She’d pamper me. She made me feel so special that I actually started to believe it. And I thought, It doesn’t matter that I don’t like my body, I’ll just make my personality so bright no one notices it. So that’s what I did, for the next decade I made it through by actively telling myself: I am not my body. But then when I was 22 I was given an assignment to write a story that began with the line, “My body finally speaks.” At the time I weighed 240 lbs, down from my heaviest weight of 265 lbs. This was the last thing I wanted to do.

But I let my body speak, and it wrote, “I’m made up of skin and muscles and fat, and I have a heart that pumps blood and a foundation of bones, and all of this is as vulnerable as paper, because eventually it can became ash, and yet I can feel, and I can jump, and I can dance, and I can do all of these incredible things, but you don’t love me. And when are you going to realize this is your only chance?”

And I read that and was like, whoa, body doesn’t hold back when you let it speak. So came up with a new mantra – “I am what I am,” and I would say it over and over again, “I am what I am, I am…”

And gradually I began to love myself just as I was. And as a result, I became interested in the foods I was putting into my body. So I went to a nutritionist, and I started exercising. And in 5 ½ months – which is practically overnight – I lost 85 lbs. And I looked at myself in the mirror with my new body and I thought, okay, it doesn’t make a difference, I am what I am.

But it made a huge difference. The first thing I noticed is I was walking down the street, and attractive men and women would do something to me they’d never done before. They would look me up and down and then they would nod. And I thought, whoa, there’s like a beautiful people club, and the nod is their secret handshake, and they’re giving me like a week free trial. And I was surprised how happy this made me. And suddenly I was a size 6, so I could shop everywhere, and I was surprised how exciting that was. I stopped writing and I stopped performing. All I did was shop and try to meet people who’d nod at me.

And then I went to visit my grandparents, and they hadn’t seen me since I’d lost weight, and they were so excited and I was like, get to me to that closet. I took out the sacred dress, pulled it over my head, and zipped it up. It fit like a glove. And I looked in the same mirror I had as a little girl, and I couldn’t believe this was me.


Author Elna Baker wearing her grandmother’s dress. (Photo: Jenica Heintzelman)

My grandfather started to cry because I reminded him of my grandmother in it, and my grandmother said she was so proud of me that she wanted to me to have her sacred dress. And on my flight back to New York I thought, I’m all grown up, I have the dress, where’s Brian Egbert, the most popular boy in first grade?

It turned out he was married and lived in Washington State, so where do you find popular in New York City? Well, among my new group friends, at the beautiful people club, there was one guy all the women wanted. Doug, he was a Ken doll with darker hair. Women would wait in line to talk to him. And that’s when it clicked; Doug is the prom king, and if I get him to like me, I’m the prom queen. But I couldn’t compete, I’d never even had a boyfriend before. So I bought every manual ever written on how to get a guy and applied myself like my life depended on it. When Doug finally made his first move, it was like all of us girls were lined up against a wall holding our breath, and he picked me. He asked me out. And I did something I’ve never done before. I turned around, and I looked at those women, and in a look I said, “I win.”

And next thing I knew, I was sitting across from Doug at a fancy restaurant.  I’d exfoliated, I’d moisturized, and I’d worn the one thing I knew would make me look beautiful, my grandmother’s dress. And it was all going according to plan, and then Doug asked me if I wanted to get dessert, and I was like, Dessert? I don’t eat dessert. But I didn’t want the date to end, so I took him to the only place I allowed myself to indulge, Tasty Delite. And we’re having our fro-yo when Doug turns to me and he says, “I don’t get why women like this. It’s not as good as ice cream.”

So I said, “Well, probably because ice cream has 350 calories and 28% of your daily fat, and Tasty Delight only has 40 calories and no fat.” And that’s when Doug said, “This will probably sound mean, but I just cannot tolerate fat people.”

And I think, What? Of all the things he could have said to me! And that word, tolerate.  A person cannot tolerate lactose, but they can tolerate someone who’s fat.

There are so many things I wanted to say to him, but then I remember the manuals, “Never try to change a man. Gentle prodding is the way.”

So instead I say, “You know, Doug, it’s hard for overweight people because their challenge in life is a visual one and in general, I think fat people are very nice. Not that I know anything about it.” And Doug says, “You’re right. They’re either nice or they’re bitter.”

Then he reaches across the table, and takes my hand in his. I thought, okay, this is it. This is what it is like being worth 1,000 camels. But it was such a disappointment. Because I knew, if this were a year earlier, he wouldn’t be speaking to me.

I’d built this night up thinking if I could just make it happen I’d finally be beautiful. Instead I felt like a fraud. And that’s when I realized it wasn’t the dress that made my grandmother beautiful. It was her. Her kindness, her compassion, everything about her was real beauty. And in pursuit of my daydream I was losing these very qualities. And so I looked up at Doug’s and taking courage — I finally let go of his hand.


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