BY LAUREN MAULDIN
Fat is a tricky word. The dictionary defines it as:
noun: a natural oily or greasy substance occurring in animal bodies, especially when deposited as a layer under the skin or around certain organs.
adjective: (of a person or animal) having a large amount of excess flesh.
Neither description is damning, but the word gives a more visceral reaction than most.
I’m not sure at what point in my life the word “fat” became associated with guilt and shame. Not sure when taking up more space made me feel like I was worth less. I just know that since I can remember, “fat” was one of the worst things things you could be.
Before I rode horses, I was a competitive figure skater. That was the sport where I first felt lesser than because of the size of my thighs. For young skaters training for big competition, the program meant two to three hours a day of practice (quite the aerobic exercise if you’re not aware), ballet classes, stretch classes, and… this will date me a bit… jazzercise. I was in the best shape of my life, but felt huge compared to the other, shorter girls built like tiny fairies. On top of feeling larger, and therefore not as good, my coach also dropped not-so-subtle hints to me and my parents that I should slim down when I “stocked up.” I was nine years old.
By the time I started riding horses a few years later, the idea that all athletes were thin was well engrained. And it echoed as I became a horse girl. I didn’t show much as a junior, but college lead to IHSA—my formal introduction to the hunter/jumper world. Real riders had equitation bodies. I figured then that I may never be a real rider, but I would try my best.
Decades have passed since I sat my first trot in an equitation class, and like all equestrians I’ve had many struggles. Finances stretched thin, lame horses, colic, heartbreak—all of the normal rights of passages our sport requires. Through all of this, I struggled with my body. In 2018, I restricted myself to an extreme diet and lost 50 lbs. Finally, all of my weight problems were solved. Finally, I could be a “real” rider.
That weight loss coincided with a span of time in my equestrian life where everything seemed to click. I loved my trainer and barn program. My horse went better than ever before. We started winning. And I, seamlessly like society had prepped me to do, attributed this to my smaller body.
I even got cocky about it, writing about my weight loss like I had just won some giant class. I thought that all the other times I tried to lose weight before failed because I simply picked the wrong diet. I figured if I weighed myself every day, there was no way I’d ever gain the weight back.
Spoiler alert—I gained the weight back.
I gained all of it back, and maybe then some. I gained it back because eliminating entire groups of foods from my diet wasn’t sustainable. I gained it back because getting a graduate degree involved a lot of time crunching and meals on the go. I gained it back because my heart horse died. And then my loyal, ride-or-die dog died young and unexpectedly. And then we hit a global pandemic. But mostly, I gained it back because my body rebelled against the extreme diet. It tried to self-correct.
Many people who have a body like mine have been stuck in a cycle of yo-yo dieting, medically referred to as weight cycling. For various reasons, we decide to lose weight, and adopt some level of restrictive eating to lose weight. For a time, it feels like all of our hopes and dreams have been fulfilled, but the reality is that a staggering 97% of dieters regain weight within three years of the initial weightless (Source). And if you’re anything like me, that gain comes with more guilt, blame, and complicated feelings surrounding body image and food. So we try to diet again, and end up repeating the pattern.
Weight cycling is highly prevalent in both genders, and is common for individuals in all BMI ranges. The scientific community is studying whether weight cycling is more physically damaging to the body than sustaining a higher weight, with studies showing results on both sides of the argument. Psychologically though, things are different. A research paper abstract from Arch Internal medicine states, “Weight cycling may also have negative psychological and behavioral consequences; studies have reported increased risk for psychopathology, life dissatisfaction, and binge eating” (Source).
Though I can’t cite you my own scientific paper, I can share that I am done valuing my life on the size of my belt. I cannot continue to be stuck in a holding pattern between congratulating myself for “healthy” choices and feeling guilty for “being bad.” I’ve been doing it for my entire life. I will not anymore.
When I think back on the magical time in my equestrian life where I was winning and thin and so happy at the barn, I realize how many factors had nothing to do with weight. My horse was older, seasoned, and a true partner. I had a trainer who gave private lessons exclusively, and tons of feedback. I won classes because the lead changes came more consistently. If I’m being honest, I won a lot because I simply got lucky or made fewer mistakes than anyone else. The same way any of us win or lose. The weight loss was not a magical beacon of light that made it all come together.
It is exhausting to wake up every day, look at yourself in the mirror and think, Maybe if I eat less today, things will look different tomorrow… and then things will be better. It permeates every part of your life. Some are obvious, like clothes shopping (aka my never-ending struggle finding tall boots that fit) but some are deeper, and more troubling. There have been times in my life when I met someone new at the barn and thought, They won’t want to be my friend, because I’m not thin and cool enough to hang out with them. Just typing that back now feels insane, as if my weight has anything to do with my character, but it’s an honest feeling from a life of this struggle.
So, I’m done.
Of course, I’m not done with being fat… as if that’s as easy as snapping your fingers. But I am done with punishing myself for it. I am done with counting calories, labeling foods “good” or “bad.” Done waiting for my life to improve, to really begin, in a distant future where I imagine myself skinnier. Because having lost weight, gained it back, lost it again, all around in circles, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that this happiness and self-worth has to start within me. At any size.
Being done with dieting does not mean being done with health. Instead, it’s about eating intuitively and learning to listen to my body. I’m working with a nutritionist to adjust to a healthier overall way of life for me. When I’m not in the mental gymnastics of feast or famine, I find that I enjoy vegetables, lean meats, and home-cooked meals. Exercise isn’t about weight loss or “achieving a flatter tummy,” but the enjoyment of moving my body. Milestones are not focused on a number on the scale, but rather feeling stronger mentally and physically.
But I’d be lying if I said riding didn’t make things complicated. Body positivity at any size is a great and powerful thing. I’m striving to improve my own relationship with my body and food. But unlike the plus size influencers I follow on instagram that are champions to women with body issues everywhere, I have to think about my horse.
Because I ride, it’s not just about me. I have to accept that there is a limit of weight that many horses can comfortably carry. Writing this now, I already know the comments on social media will be flooded by “concerned for my health” and worried about my horse carrying my thicc/plus/fat/curvy/whatever-adjective-you-want body. Even though I am roughly the size of many famous male, western reining champions that have won on horses much smaller than my own, the court of public opinion loves to criminalize a fat girl on any horse but a Clydesdale.
But, they have a point. I could not gain a significant amount of weight and feel good riding my current horse. I have to stay on top of saddle fit more than thin riders. I know that there are some horses in the barn that I should not ride. I know that I need a horse that doesn’t crack its back over jumps, because my larger body can be harder to balance. I know my showing aspirations may need to stick to smaller fences, and that I need to work hard to improve my overall fitness for my horse’s sake. I promise that there is not a mean or “concerned” comment anyone could write to me that I have not already thought of myself.
And that’s where I circle back to my declaration about this fat that I carry. This fat that I have looked at countless times while feeling a desperate yearning to do anything to get rid of it. Fat that has fooled me into not appreciating my body for all the amazing things it’s done for me—trained horses, fox hunted, won medal finals, curried until a horse shines like a copper penny, stuffed hay nets, braided hundreds of perfect little braids, gone trail riding, jumped big oxers and accomplished so many of my equestrian dreams. I will never be the best rider in the barn. But I am a real rider, even with my big breeches.
The real shame is not my weight nor my thick thighs. The real shame is holding onto the belief that I am not worthy of our sport unless I am skinny. And I’m, finally, letting it go.
About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.
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