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The secret life of an overweight teenager

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    Approximately 16 percent of all U.S. children and teens are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Jessica, 15, is smart, funny and kind-hearted. But the first thing most people notice about her is her size. She tells us how her struggle with weight has forced her to make some big changes in her life.

    As told to Sandy Fertman Ryan

    I guess I’m what you’d call “the fat girl”– the one kids stare at and tease. I wish people could understand that being overweight is a serious problem. Given an option, I definitely wouldn’t choose to be this way.

    SCHOOL IS CRUEL

    When I was 8, I moved with my family from a huge Midwestern city to a small Alabama town, leaving my friends and old school behind. I was chubby before I moved, but soon, I got into the habit of snacking constantly after school.

    Looking back, I’m sure it was an attempt to rid myself of the loneliness I was feeling. But in just a matter of months, I had gained 50 pounds. Although I had a couple of close new friends, it seemed like everyone else teased me for being so fat. I knew that a lot of kids at school probably thought, “Why doesn’t she just stop eating?”

    Boys always said mean things to me, like, “You’re so fat, your meals could feed a whole town!” or, “There’s Shamu – back from Sea World!” I tried to ignore or laugh my way through their remarks, but sometimes it hurt so bad I’d pinch myself to keep from crying.

    My self-esteem hit such a low that I didn’t know what to do – except eat more. That was my secret way of making myself feel better. But, of course, it only made things worse, because I continued to gain more weight.

    PAIN FROM THE GAIN

    I always put on a “happy face” during the school day so no one would know how I really felt. But once I got home, I’d go to my room and cry. Every day, I could feel people staring at me as I ate in the school cafeteria. It’s so weird that a thin person can eat anything and no one cares. But when you’re overweight, people watch because they think it’s disgusting. I don’t think people realize how hard it is to stop eating when you’re doing it to numb the sadness inside. I didn’t eat because I was hungry – I ate because I was depressed.  

    OUT OF CONTROL

    When I topped 365 lbs, my family took me to Weight Watchers. I learned how to eat more healthfully and exercise regularly and, after several months, I’d lost 30 pounds. But weighing out portions each day wasn’t enough. My emotions were still buried underneath all the weight. Pretty soon, I quit the program. By ninth grade, I couldn’t even wear clothes that looked decent, since I can’t fit into anything from a regular store. Sometimes, I overheard girls saying, “Oh, my God! Can you believe what Jessica is wearing today?!” and that crushed me. I could only imagine how cool it must be to actually fit in.

    BIG CHANGES

    Finally, my dad suggested I go to a “fat camp” called Camp Pennbrook in Pennsylvania. I was really uncomfortable with it, but I managed to joke, American Pie-style, with my dad, saying, “I can’t picture myself telling ‘This one time, at fat camp...’ stories!” But I researched the camp on the Internet and it looked amazing, so I agreed to go.

    We did everything at camp – softball, swimming, dancing, kickboxing. But the best were the “rap” sessions, where we’d sit around and talk about our feelings. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel alone. With all the support around me, I finally admitted I had a serious problem– I was eating so much that I was putting my life in danger.

    At camp, I learned my problem has a name – “emotional eating.” Simply put, I was eating to numb my pain. I guess I always knew I was an “emotional eater,” but this was the first time I really understood my problem.

    That summer, I learned to eat and exercise better. I also gained more confidence. I realized I’m not a freak – I’m just a person with a serious issue I can conquer. Even more importantly, I learned that food won’t get rid of my sadness, and that learning to accept and love myself is the real solution.

    When I got back to school in the fall, I was more open. My friends thought I looked great – although, admittedly, I hadn’t lost all the weight I needed to. I went back to camp again the next summer to continue getting in shape. Last fall, I moved away from home to attend a high school in a nearby city.

    My parents are really supportive of my decision. My mom believes that if I am happier, it will be much easier for me to control my weight. Sure, I’m having to work incredibly hard to lose all the pounds I’ve gained, but for the first time in my life, it’s my top priority, and I’m really optimistic about it.

    What is emotional eating?
    Emotional eating is the habit of eating large quantities usually of "comfort" or junk foods—in response to feelings instead of hunger. Experts estimate 75 percent of overeating is spurred by emotions. Depression, boredom, loneliness, anxiety and poor self-esteem can result in emotional eating and weight gain.

    Getting help!
    If you suspect you’re an emotional eater, talk to a parent, counselor, doctor or trusted adult. She can help you put together a team of health experts who will help you learn to manage your emotions and take food out of the equation.

    Think a friend may have a problem? If you believe a bud is using food to stifle emotions, “it’s your duty to talk to her,” says Jessica. “Tell her, delicately, that she may have feelings she’s not dealing with and that, out of love, you want her to get help. Reassure her you’ll be there for her."

    BY GL ON 10/19/2009 7:00:00 AM

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