How Overeaters Anonymous Saved Me From Myself

By Ariel Pinsk 07/18/13

Once I was a world-traveling hottie, hating the constant attention. Then I gained weight to feel better. Now I have OA, and a happier, more comfortable version of me.

Pretty on the inside? Photo via

I don’t want to lose these last 20 pounds, because I'm scared of the attention, but I learned in Overeaters Anonymous that what other people think of me is none of my business. God made me this way, and so I embrace being tall, fit and head-turning. I know from experience that beauty privilege is just that. Not unlike white-skin privilege, hotness can bring opportunities. It can bring love and boyfriends. But on the downside, you get non-stop sexualization, harassment, female-on-female hating and, always, the attempt to bring you down from your perceived perch.

I struggled with feeling like my sexuality was my only worth. When I stated this to a male therapist at 19, he propositioned me. That, and a later incident in Japan, were my darkest examples of society's response to attractive women. And so I did something about it: I gained 40 pounds. The drastic change in the way the world perceived me felt so good, I gained another 20.

I went through 30 countries and everywhere I went my weight went up or down depending on the whims of my eating disorder.

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, where local guys would hiss, whistle and catcall me from the age of 14. I never got used to it. Five years later, working as a waitress, the chef would talk about my bum, and ask me about my sex life every day. Nobody thought this was inappropriate; it was just men reacting to feminine charms.

Here's what they used to see—long legs, high cheekbones, blonde hair, a Kardashian behind and a dazed, perpetually lost look on my face. I wore overalls to that restaurant to hide the mini skirt underneath. The "hey baby's" still followed me every day. The catcalls followed me as I left the US and traveled the world. 

I went through 30 countries and everywhere I went my weight went up or down depending on the whims of my eating disorder. The absurdity of relative beauty changed from nation to nation. Italians flattered my chubbiness. In India I acted in Bollywood movies. In Paris I sashayed down boulevards in red lipstick. No one told me I was a snob, and no one told me I was fat until I landed in Japan and Switzerland, two countries identical in their rigidity.

I started to really commit to binge eating when I moved to Japan at 23. I had run away from a fiancé to teach English in Tokyo, and I still had that beauty privilege—no matter what I said, excessive smiling was the main response from my bosses. At nightclubs women would grab my breasts and tell me they envied my curves. Then one day a chikan or “subway molester,” did just that on the last train home. While trying to be a demure Japanese schoolteacher, my fanny was flirting behind my back all day. I was the sexualized other, the “American woman.” Like my African-American friends in Japan, I was a fetish object.

I started shoving anything I could into my face. I no longer had my identity from just a year before. I missed my fiancé, my friends in Philly. I wanted the outside to match the inside. I gained pound after pound. It was a sub-conscious cry for help.

My new friends in Tokyo didn’t understand that I used to be thin like them. “Well, I only know you this way,” they would say. One day I told them that I was thinking about suicide. They offered me Jesus. Then a therapist in Japan suggested Overeaters Anonymous. I felt insulted and ashamed. I thought she was calling me fat. So I never went, unable to accept that I was overweight.

I pulled another geographic and moved to India for six months, where I met a guru who told me I needed to “let go.” I earned my yoga certificate while chubby but fit. I was in love and making a living modeling and acting in Bollywood. I lost 15 pounds in ashrams through my old methods: over-exercise, purging (an Ayurvedic procedure called panchakarma); and replacing food with alcohol, cigarettes and sex (not recommended by my gurus). My guru told me to give up alcohol, sugar and toxic men. I blamed my leaky second chakra and carried on.

I moved to right-wing Switzerland, where I was trying to be a demure school-teacher at work, while my fanny continued to flirt behind my back. It was too much flesh. I felt sloppy and unattractive, but men still responded to me. I was dating even at 200 pounds, and I did a burlesque shoot in Zurich which I still use as my headshot.

My problem wasn't my weight, it was that my appearance summed up my worth. And that it had been that way since childhood.

British colleagues would point out when my Spanx were showing. I was 60 pounds heavier than I had been in high school, but still very fit from jogging and yoga. As a friend told me, “You have the kind of body that says you enjoy life.” But I wasn’t enjoying that kind of life, not anymore. I was miserable. I felt bloated and I didn’t recognize myself in photos. My problem wasn't my weight, it was that my appearance summed up my worth. And that it had been that way since childhood.

I’d gone back to the binging, this time on chocolate and cheese. I finally joined OA and surrendered. I let go of willful thinking, compulsive exercise and overthinking. With a lot of help, I let go of equating my weight with my worth, and instead began to think of my abstinence as my marker of growth. I learned that eating disorders can manifest in the underweight, overweight and "normal" weight, often regulated by compulsive exercise. I was happily surprised to find that abstinent OA members can be any weight as well, that the program isn't about weight loss—it’s about putting down the foods that will never be enough and the behaviors that squash those feelings. Sugar had to go, and I learned that the food was a symptom.

Unfortunately, I did the old substance-abuse shuffle, and I now have found two other fellowships to treat those symptoms. All those secondary symptoms stem from the same issues. After 15 years of therapy (minus that one inappropriate schmuck) I know that it is the childhood and adolescent wounds that still need to be healed.

I currently have a Body Mass Index for “normal,” but am 20 pounds away from my high school weight and 10 pounds from my college weight. I'm beginning to feel like me for the first time, a woman in between that pouty, skinny teenager and the unhappy woman I was in my 20s. Recently I had a slip, I gained some weight and lost my abstinence. This led me to work the program all the more and to seek a new sponsor. I’m almost ready to sponsor others, though I still feel like a “baby.” As I used to do with my appearance, I now struggle with a slip, or gain in weight, defining my value as a person.

People outside of OA have not been supportive. Though they all saw me binge and transform physically (one friend even said he would only date me if I lost 20 pounds), they're unsure of my commitment. Hip artist friends have compared OA to a cult and they hate that I stopped drinking, an accessory behavior that causes me to overeat and act out in other ways. My mother asked why was I aligning myself with a tribal identity instead of thinking for myself. Interestingly, none of these people have even noticed that I lost 40 pounds—they say I look the same.

I’m still doing the recovery work and the more I realize it has nothing to do with the scale, the better I get. I don’t need the attention I dreaded in my teens and 20s. It takes courage to be beautiful because being beautiful is a choice, regardless of size. It takes courage to shine, and that glow now comes from the program, from serenity.

It’s easier in New York City or Paris to sashay around than to strut in small-town Asia, but it doesn’t matter what anyone in the world thinks. I know it's not my fault if men react inappropriately. That gives me the courage to square my shoulders and try to lose these last 20 pounds because I am still not how God made me to be—the “baby fat” is still there.

Ten years after losing my beauty card, I know that if I hadn’t gotten heavy and discovered OA, I would have continued to be what society saw me as—a skinny, arrogant, entitled bitch. In fact I was a sensitive, traumatized girl in deep denial. Today I am a 34-year-old woman with the confidence to try modeling again. It's the fear of shining that holds me back today, rather than the fear of my weight.

Or, as my sponsor repeatedly tells me, "What other people think of you is none of your business."

Ariel Pinsk is a pseudonym for a writer based in New York. She has contributed to BUST, New York Magazine and the NY Press.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix