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by Carole Carson, AARP, November 21, 2008
Courage is being scared to death—but saddling up anyway.
I stepped out of the shower. Unwilling to put on underwear because it might add an extra ounce or two, I stood naked on the bathroom scale. Sucking in my stomach and holding my breath, I waited for the number that would determine my outlook for the day.
Yesterday, my 5'1" frame registered 179 pounds. Size-16 clothes were tight. A few size-18 tops had sneaked into my closet.
What would today bring? No number appeared on the scale. I stepped on and off the scale several times before realizing the scale was broken. Was there a message here?
Disheartened, I looked up, half expecting God's voice to break through the ceiling. The bathroom was quiet; I heard only my own voice, filled with self-loathing.
"How could you have gotten this fat?"
The next morning I went through the same ritual with a new and more accurate scale. Now I weighed 182—three pounds more!
"That's it!" I said, more in desperation than conviction. "If you don’t change, you'll die fat. You have to do something before it's too late!"
Even though I didn't know where to begin and had failed hundreds of times in the past, I allowed myself the tiniest ray of hope. As tough as making changes would be, nothing could be worse than the verbal beatings I was giving myself.
Every day the voice incessantly nagged at me: "How could you let yourself get this fat?" "Why are you so weak-willed?" If self-loathing and shame were measurable, I had soared to the 99th percentile.
Shopping for clothes was a nightmare. I'd leave the changing room so determined to lose weight that I'd skip lunch, only to rebound and overeat that night.
Repeated failures had taught me one important lesson—wanting to change and actually changing are two different things. No question that I wanted to change, but would I? Could I?
Looking back, I realized my problem: I had tried to do it alone. For the first time, I admitted that I needed help.
Over breakfast I noticed a newspaper article suggesting fitness coaches weren't just for rich people. Maybe I could start there, I thought.
I began calling gyms to interview trainers. Since I was sporting a hamstring badly torn from trying to play tennis while out of shape, my near-term ability to exercise was limited. Maybe a little walking in the lap pool or some upper-body exercises? Since I'd never worked out in a gym with weights and resistance machines, I had no idea where to begin. For sure, though, I didn't want to reinjure my leg.
After several phone interviews, one trainer's style particularly appealed to me. Gayle Lossman laughed even more than I did. Her voice also sounded seasoned and mature. In talking with her, I realized I didn't want to work with an anorexic bimbette who had yet to bear the stretch marks of motherhood. When I told her how much I weighed and how out of shape I was, Gayle wasn't judgmental. Just the opposite—she seemed genuinely enthusiastic about my makeover project.
Later, when we met at a local gym, I discovered she was my age. One look at her stunning figure, and I blurted out, "Whatever you're doing, I want to do that too!"
Gayle insisted we set a specific goal for a certain amount of time. Since my 60th birthday was four months away, I said I wanted to lose 40 pounds in four months. I had no idea if that was reasonable or not, but the numbers sounded symmetrical.
Two weeks into my new lifestyle and reasonably confident I'd follow through, I contacted the local newspaper and asked the assignment editor if an article on a senior citizen getting fit might be useful.
I'd already written a couple of travel articles for our small-town newspaper, The Union, which covered events in our section of the Sierra foothills. With fewer than 20,000 residents in our two adjacent towns, Grass Valley and Nevada City, Calif., and 80,000 people scattered throughout the rest of the county, The Union was the main source of local news.
Somehow the paper managed to bridge the various elements in our community, reaching descendents of the Cornish miners who came looking for gold, aging San Francisco hippies who later became artists and business owners, and newly retired professionals from Los Angeles and the Bay Area, like me. Given the rural nature of the county, the newspaper also reported on topics of interest to ranchers and farmers. Even criminals had their section where their daily activities—mostly petty crimes and vandalism—were reported in detail.
Thinking there might be other seniors who needed to shape up, I e-mailed the editor with an offer to write a one-time piece on the theme of "you're never too old to get fit." If accepted, the article would appear in the Wednesday senior section. The back of the newspaper suited me just fine.
To my delight, the editor wanted the piece and arranged for an accompanying photograph to be taken at the gym where I worked out.
With the photographer snapping away, Gayle took my measurements. Although the photograph revealed my girth, she and I conspired to make sure the numbers on the scale were hidden. We also tried unsuccessfully to hide the numbers on the measuring tape around my waist—44 inches.
On Monday night I received an unexpected phone call from the assignment editor.
"Would you mind," she asked, "if we ran the article Tuesday instead of Wednesday? Tuesdays are usually slow news days."
Then, as if an afterthought, she added, "Oh, and by the way, we might want to make this a series, maybe show some photographs and get some comments from you along the way."
I couldn't think of any reason to object, so I agreed. The request struck me as odd, though, because the senior section only ran on Wednesdays. Where else might they place the article? I wondered. As for a future article, I'd wait and see.
Crawling into bed that night, I couldn't help asking, What was the connection between Tuesday being a slow news day and my article? Then the terrible thought occurred, What if the article appeared on the front page with my weight and measurements for everyone in town to see? An involuntary shudder passed through my body. I was sick to my stomach. Suddenly I was struck by the worst anxiety attack of my life.
I tried reassuring myself that a fat person going on a diet was hardly front-page news, even for a small-town newspaper. The logic was unassailable, but the anxiety wouldn't go away. I slept fitfully.
At 5 a.m., the sound of a phone rudely awakened me. It was Gayle. "Have you seen the morning paper?" she asked laughingly.
I felt the pit in the bottom of my stomach grow.
"Go get it," she barked. "We're on the front page."
With dread mounting by the second, I didn't take time to get dressed. Instead I threw on my bathrobe and drove the half mile to our mailbox.
Not until I was safely home and inside the house did I carefully unfold the newspaper. My worst fears materialized! A huge color picture, front and center, revealed my obesity for the whole world to see. At 182 pounds, I looked like a large, yellow, overstuffed canary with a 44-inch waist.
I tried to grasp the implications. Everyone—my neighbors, my friends downtown, everyone!—would know my measurements and weight. Oh, my God—even my husband! I'd always hidden my weight from him. Not that he cared—he loved me however I looked. For years, though, I hadn't been honest with the Department of Motor Vehicles. If someone in their office saw the newspaper, would I lose my driver's license?
There was only one solution.
Impatiently I waited for my husband to come downstairs and join me for breakfast. Pushing the paper across the table, I hit him with the decision.
"We have to move," I said. And I meant it.
Later in the day, errands took me to town. I dreaded seeing anyone—especially anyone I knew—certain that contact would result in further humiliation.
To my surprise, the opposite occurred. "Go for it, Carole," I heard from the grocery clerk who checked my groceries and the receptionist at my doctor's office.
Everywhere I went, people came forward and shared their misery, confessing how they were struggling with the same problem. When I protested that I wouldn't have written the article if I had known it would appear on the front page, they still commended my courage.
When I stopped by to visit friends during their regularly scheduled tennis clinic, our coach teased me about the publicity.
"Carole goes on a diet, and it's front-page news," he said laughingly.
My feelings weren't hurt. I knew that despite the teasing, he was pleased at my overdue commitment to shape up. Both of us knew that I wouldn't have fallen and torn my hamstring if I hadn't been carrying around so much extra weight.
Even so, I had to admit it did seem odd to have the article appear on the front page right next to important news stories. Was there a larger purpose to be served?
With all the comments from strangers and good-humored ribbing from tennis friends, I came home in a state of exhilaration. By publicly admitting my lack of fitness, I'd accidentally broken a taboo that evidently haunted others as much as me. Coming out of the closet as I did gave them the freedom to tell me about their shame and embarrassment. Equally important, I had inadvertently solicited support—something I'd never even thought of asking for before.
Having gone this far, I would stay the course. Each week, for the next 16 weeks, I would expose my ups and downs, my progress and lapses, my measurements and weight, and even my thoughts as I reinvented myself. I'd experiment with different forms of exercise and address a new eating style to help me reach my ideal weight.
Chronicling my own experience might be useful to others. Plus, it would give me perspective on this life-altering experience. One thing for sure: it would keep me honest.
Almost magically, fear and loathing disappeared, replaced by a sense of adventure. That night, still mulling over what I'd said at breakfast, my husband asked me where I wanted to move.
"Move?" I indignantly responded. "We can't move. I have a newspaper series to write!"
Next: Carole starts to "just undo it!"
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