the early years
I cringed as I heard my mother's quick steps heading down the rickety wooden stairs to the basement. I was in for it now. The basement was where we kept the spare freezer. The spare freezer was where mom kept boxes of Ring Dings, Twinkies, Funny Bones, and Sara Lee coffee cakes (as well as the extra staples). I knew what was coming next.
"Kimberly! May I see you please?" I could hear the frustration in her voice. For the past few weeks I had been carefully opening one side of each box and gingerly sliding out several packages _before repositioning the boxes back with the open ends facing _inward. I knew eventually she would run out of treats upstairs and head to the basement, discovering my theft. I was in junior high and couldn't seem to stop eating. Why did I keep doing it? What was the matter with me?
what's wrong with me, anyway?
Back then, I was the only person in my immediate family with a weight problem. Although members of my dad's extended family were obese, my dad was always thin. My mom was never heavy, and she made sure she stayed toned using the _then-_popular Royal Canadian Air Force Exercise Plan.
The plan was simply a slim paperback book, with a few photos and _illustrations. Page after page described in detail what we kids thought were torturous exercises. Mom did these on the floor each morning for twenty minutes after Dad had gone to work. I vividly remember her "walking" across the bedroom floor on her buttocks, _leaning back with her knees bent. Right cheek. Left cheek. None of us could keep up with her and, amusing as she was to watch, we rarely joined in. She never missed a day--and she never had a weight problem.
My brother, David, was just a year and two days older than me and was very athletic. MVP in football, soccer superstar. Baseball, basketball, you name it: David was good at it. He and my ballerina sister, Heather (four and a half years my junior), both had small frames and small appetites to go with them.
While I was growing up, I was always focused on what was for dinner, how it was cooked, how much I got, and who got what was left over.
My earliest realization that food mattered more to me than to the other kids around me was at age eight. There I was, with six of my neighborhood pals, standing in our kitchen on Whittier Street in Andover, Massachusetts. My mom had just picked up some Chocolate eclair ice cream bars, which she doled out to each of us. It was the first time I had ever tried this treat, and I immediately loved the light chocolaty crunch under its cake crumb exterior. When the other kids finished their ice cream, they thanked my mom and headed back outside to play.
Where were they going? There were still more eclairs in the box. I knew! I had counted! I don't know what bothered me more--the fact that I desperately wanted another eclair, or that all the other neighborhood kids had been satisfied with just one. I spent the next several minutes in a losing argument, begging my mother for another one before following my friends outdoors.
Shortly after that incident, I became aware of my actual weight as a number on the scale. I was sitting on a backyard jungle gym chatting with a girlfriend. I had just been to the doctor's office for a checkup and discovered that I weighed _ninety-_nine pounds. Even I knew that that was a lot for a _nine-_year-_old. My friend told me that she weighed a lot less. I felt so embarrassed, and for the first time I didn't want anyone to know what my weight was.
By the time I entered fourth grade, my dad's job as a professional engineer had brought us to Ridgewood, New Jersey, where my mother signed me up for Weight Watchers. Although I was not obese, she knew that my extra weight bothered me. I was nine years old and into Tiger Beat magazine, Donny Osmond, and lip gloss. But my daydreams of Donny singing "Puppy Love" to me didn't mesh with the reality of my chubby physique.
When my mother had asked me if I'd like to give Weight Watchers a try, I jumped at the chance. Get thin? Sure, I'll try anything! Mom did all the figuring out and food preparation. All I had to do was eat the meals she made. The poor woman tried unsuccessfully to get me to eat liver once a week--then a Weight Watchers requirement. She went with me to all the weekly meetings. Even though I felt as if I were the only one there under seventy years old, I enjoyed going. One time, I was sitting in the meeting room with all the other women, who always had so much to share. The leader asked if anyone else had had a moment of triumph over food that week. I raised my hand and told in detail how I spit out
a _chewed-_up chocolate bar in the sink rather than swallow it. I was so proud!
For years I would look back at the memory and cringe that I had actually shared that story. I probably grossed them all out, but they smiled and clapped anyway. Maybe it's age, or a new perspective, but today, as a Weight Watchers leader, I chuckle and think how proud I would be for any youngster to have such success. Still, my overall experience at Weight Watchers that first time was a positive one.
After a few months I'd lost about twelve pounds and stopped going to the meetings. I bought new clothes, and boys started paying more attention to me. I don't remember the weight coming back on, but it must have eventually, because by the time I got to junior high, I was again looking for ways to lose weight. My mom had just gotten a _part-_time job as a typesetter and, for the first time in my life, I was purchasing food at the cafeteria instead of _brown-_bagging it. That was when I discovered buttered hard rolls.
As a preteen, although I wasn't really fat, I also wasn't one of those willowy girls the boys went crazy for. My brother and I were best friends. We did everything together. I ate like the guys, played like the guys, and could throw a football like the guys--I was a true tomboy.
But I was beginning to wish I weren't one.
I joined the cheerleading squad. It was a perfect fit for me. I could be active and feminine and have a _front-_row seat at all my brother's football games. Without even trying, I got into great shape--until winter came and the activity stopped.
In high school I learned the real art of dieting. I lost and gained the same twenty pounds over and over again in a _yo-_yo cycle that would plague me for the next _twenty-_five years of my life. When I was a size 9
I felt wonderful; when I was a size 12 I felt awful. I did what all the girls did--skipped breakfast, pushed food around my plate at dinner. I even learned about making myself throw up from a girlfriend at summer camp. Fortunately, I wasn't very good at it and stopped before it became a _long-_term problem.
By the time I got to high school, my mother began "watching her weight" for the first time. We were living in Shelton, Connecticut, where Mom started her own typesetting business, working out of our home. Several of the women who worked for her also wanted to lose weight, and it seemed that they were trying a new fad diet every week. Each time someone decided to start something new, everyone else would jump on board--including me.
I tried all the hot diets featured in the tabloids: the _apple-_a-_day diet, the grapefruit diet, diets where I fasted for two days in a row, and diets where I ate every three hours. Even though I was only fifteen to twenty pounds overweight, I talked my doctor into a prescription for diet pills, which worked great--until the prescription ran out.
It became a way of life, shifting from one diet to the next as I fasted and choked down some horrible concoctions. There were some really memorable ones. My girlfriend Sissy and I decided to begin a diet and walking program together. But before starting we decided to have one last binge. We headed for the grocery store and bought bags of our favorite cookies, cakes, and candy. By the time we were done eating, we were so sick we could barely move. That was the end of our "diet."
I'll say this for myself, I kept trying--and I tried everything.
Our family started attending Calvary Church in nearby Trumbull, where I found good friends and a strong faith in God. I learned a lot, read the Bible, and memorized some wonderful verses about overcoming temptation and asking God for help. But as much as I wanted to be free from the power that food seemed to have over me, I kept giving in.
Maybe exercise would be the key to losing the weight. Colorful exercise leotards, stretchy leg warmers, and matching sweatbands were all the rage in the late seventies as women began joining gyms in droves. My mom, her good friend and _co-_worker Shirl Jacobsen, and I joined a _Gloria Stevens exercise salon, where aerobic classes and "pound pools" ruled our days. (A pound pool is a contest between dieters who each put some cash into the pot and then try to lose the most weight in order to win.) I knew how to lose quickly and won a lot of money taking off the same fifteen pounds over and over again.
losing weight, getting bigger
My life was defined by a pattern of gains and losses. This went on through my years in college, and eventually the spread of fifteen pounds grew to forty. On a few occasions, I found myself close to two hundred pounds. Unthinkable! But I was good at dieting and I was always able to get down to a somewhat comfortable weight again and again.
I lived the extremes, either consuming only celery sticks and salads or bingeing on Twinkies and fast food. There was no happy medium. I don't think my weight ever stayed the same for more than a week or two. It was either diet or binge, lose or gain, all or nothing, year after year after year.
I made the cheerleading squad again in college, though I joke that I was always at the bottom of the pyramid, never on the top. Being active helped, but the physical exercise I got was constantly offset by poor food choices.
At Houghton College in upstate New York, I met my husband, Mark. At five feet, nine inches, and only 165 pounds, Mark was a trim, _blond-_haired, _blue-_eyed Norwegian with a great sense of humor and a kind, gentle personality.
We were both communications majors and had lots of classes together; many were group projects requiring hours of team research and study. He was my argument and debate partner and my speech "coach." Because we were both blonds, a few of our classmates commented on how much alike we looked.
"Don't you know that we're twins?" was Mark's quick comeback. He didn't even blink an eye. I went along with it, hiding a chuckle. No one even questioned him, so for two semesters everyone thought my last name was Bensen and that Mark was my twin brother.
He was so much fun to be with that I started sitting with him at meals and helping him at the radio station, where he was the program director. In a few months' time, Mark had become my best friend. I didn't want anything to change. I loved the closeness and ease of our relationship and didn't want romance to spoil that.
But my heart had other ideas. As much as I didn't want to, I was falling in love with my best friend and "twin brother." He had given me no indication that he wanted anything more than friendship, and I was content for a while to adore him secretly. But it was getting harder and harder. He got notes from friends at home--from girls. I felt a burning in my stomach that I had never felt before.
Mark was only a few inches taller than I was, so I started buying shoes that had a lower heel. I even lost weight, not wanting his thighs to be smaller than mine. I started wearing clothes with him in mind. Would Mark like this? What would Mark think?
It got to the point where I had to say something. Even though I feared ruining our wonderful friendship, I finally told him how I felt. It took me three hours one afternoon. After I blurted it all out, I couldn't believe it when he told me he felt the same way. He had just been waiting for me to realize that I was ready for more. Imagine the stir we caused on campus when the Bensen twins started dating!
love, marriage, and making a life with mark
Despite my newfound romance, my weight still fluctuated--from college cheerleader to binge eater and back again. One year I went to the spring banquet in a size 16 dress, the next year in a size 10. Through it all, though, Mark loved me.
After college, Mark went home to New Jersey and started working for a small broadcasting company. I joined my mom in her flourishing typesetting and graphic design business back in Shelton, Connecticut. _Long-_distance dating was hard on our pre-cell phone, _pre-_Internet re_la_tion_ship. As a result, Mark and I were engaged twice before we were _married.
I bought my size 8 wedding dress during the first engagement. After a temporary pause in our romance, we got back together and were finally married on August 25, 1984. The second engagement was rather rushed to accommodate family plans. My sister was flying back to college at the end of the summer, so it was either rush a wedding or wait until Christmas vacation. We decided to rush, but that gave us only eight weeks to pull it off.
It was a crazy, busy time, but we had the "advantage" of having been engaged before, so many of the decisions had already been made. Everything else in life got put on hold, including my diet and exercise.
A week before the wedding, I tried on my gown. I couldn't believe it--it didn't fit! I was now a size 12--two sizes larger than the year before. I went to my mother in tears. Seven days later, I walked down the aisle with lace inserts pieced into the sides of my lovely gown. It looked fine and no one knew . . . except the bride and her mom.
life on a diet
After we got married, more than ever my life became a succession of diets, a pattern of losing and gaining weight over and over again. I tried almost everything--Weight Watchers (dozens of times), TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), OA (Overeaters Anonymous), Atkins, _Slim-_Fast, _over-_the-_counter diet pills, prescription diet pills, Diet Center (loved their bran muffins!), the Weigh Down Workshop, hypnosis, even aversion therapy (complete with a staple in my ear--I don't recommend it).
When those didn't work, I purchased food plans and counted calories, bought weeks of packaged meals, and fasted for three months on a medically supervised fast. I worked out at Believersize (aerobics set to Christian music), Curves, and several other local gyms.
The amazing thing was, they all worked! Each one had a plan that, if adhered to, produced weight loss. But with each new diet I followed the same pattern: the excitement of beginning again, with a fresh start and a clean slate--perfection. It almost seems easy. Why didn't I do this before? I can do this! This brought a series of successful _weigh-_ins. Then, the inevitable breakdown. A bite of this, a taste of that. Not measuring, not keeping my food journal. And with that, the honeymoon was over. I did less and less planning and preparation, and the weight loss slowed to a halt. What had been so easy only a few weeks before had become torture to sustain.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Finally Thin! by Kim Bensen. Copyright © 2008 by Kim Bensen. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.