Q: What do Oprah Winfrey and I have in common? A: We're both still fat.

How Oprah's public struggle with her weight affected me.
Publish date:
May 25, 2011
fat, health, TV, body, Oprah

In 1988, Oprah Winfrey lost a bit of weight.

Sure, you can say this about lots of years spanning the past couple decades, but her 1988 loss is the one I remember best. Oprah showcased the event on her show by dragging a red wagon filled with 67 pounds of "lost" fat onstage, and by wearing a pair of jeans she hadn't been able to fit for years. And her stomach looked really, really flat.

I was 11 in 1988, already a veteran of the diet scene, of visits to nutritionists and dieticians, of keeping food journals and counting calories and weighing everything on a tiny kitchen-counter scale. I was also cultivating an obsessive hatred for my unmanageable body, and hanging out on the edge of a full-blown eating disorder, peering curiously into the abyss.

I stared at Oprah’s impressively-flat denim-clad stomach on my TV screen and felt a cold sinking in my own protruding gut: Why couldn’t I look like that too? My jeans had always came from the boys’ department, a fact I found shameful and humiliating, but girls’ jeans just didn’t fit. I longed to have jeans that looked like Oprah’s, with a flat stomach and a belt and a shirt tucked-in because I didn’t have to hide. My 11-year-old self looked at jeans-wearin’ Skinny Oprah and thought I just wasn’t trying hard enough to be thin.

Oprah’s stomach didn’t stay flat, of course. In the 23 years since, Oprah’s weight has fluctuated dramatically. Man, we loved to see Oprah gain and lose weight. When she lost, we got inspired! When she gained, Oh, what a relief, she’s just like us! It’s never stopped, even as Oprah has recently quit dieting in favor of Geneen Roth’s (author of "Women, Food, and God") eating-as-spiritual-expression method. Hey, whatever makes Oprah happy, I guess? We’ve all got to follow our bliss.

Oprah’s influence on culture has been dramatic, no doubt. Over her long career, she has been named amongst the most powerful and wealthy people in the world by numerous publications (she has only recently been toppled from Forbes’ list by Lady Gaga), and she pulled in just shy of $300 million in 2009 alone. This is a woman who enjoys a tremendous degree of clout over the cultural zeitgeist, and arguably over millions of women’s lives. But for me, the thing I associate most with Oprah’s reign as daytime-TV's Everywoman is her continual struggle to be thin, to meet an ideal that she could never quite reach, her money and influence be damned.

When Oprah tries something new, millions of women will follow, diets included. And yet, if Oprah can’t manage to make herself permanently thin, with all her resources, then what the hell kind of chance do the rest of us have? In 2008 Oprah said she was “embarrassed” by her recent weight gain, and yeah, that’s understandable. This is a woman who can afford to employ a whole bloody team of nutritionists and cooks and trainers and coaches. If anyone can buy self-discipline and success, Oprah can. If anyone can overcome biology or behavior or whatever we think is responsible for making us fat this week, Oprah ought to be the one.

But maybe, for Oprah as for many others, it’s not as simple as eating the right things, or doing the right exercises or otherwise following the right set of magical thin-making rules. Maybe it’s actually really complicated.

I’ve run across the Skinny Oprah in Jeans photos several times over the past few weeks. Though I’ve long since discarded any of my own misguided aspirations to slenderness, it still guts me to see that picture, because it reminds me of the sad 11-year-old I once was, falling so desperately in hate with my own body.

I know I’ll never look like Skinny Oprah, but today I am cool with that, and I’ve realized that focusing on being thin was far more of a detriment to my health than being fat ever was. I’m in a place now where I choose to emphasize feeling good in my own skin and letting the fat cards fall where they may, instead of searching for imaginary happiness in a smaller pants size. I’m not about to tell Oprah how to take care of herself, but she can't be happy with her constant up-and-down routine, and my diet-free approach sure has worked out well for me.

I just think it’d be swell if she gave it a try.