This day is going to suck.
It's Tuesday, December 20, 2011, a cold, dark winter morning. Having given up on a good night's sleep, I make my way into the shower. Today, I am meeting with Barbara Fedida, senior vice president for talent and business at ABC News. She is the highest-ranking woman in the news division, and I'm a contributor on Good Morning America. It's my first time having a one-on-one with Barbara, and I am fairly confident that there is only one item on the agenda: my weight. I think she plans to tell me that I am too fat to be on TV and that I must slim down. I am panicked because I don't just like my job, I love it and want to keep it for a long time.
With a towel perched on my wet head, I take in the quiet of the early morning. This is my safe haven: a three-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, a storied New York neighborhood that has been featured in movies ranging from Annie Hall to Spider-Man. Each room is filled with the people (and the dog) I love. My husband, Peter, is asleep in our bed. Friends say that he's a cross between George Clooney and Russell Crowe. I can see that, but he also has a wit and warmth that is all his own. He is my champion and best friend. If he were awake, he'd be giving me the pep talk of the century. He's always telling me how beautiful I am, and I am so grateful. But I know that no matter what he sees or says, this meeting is about my weight and I've got to steel myself for what lies ahead.
My family has supported me in my ongoing battle of the bulge, but I am the only fighter on this field. Gaining a few pounds in his forties hasn't hurt Peter's looks at all. Men are lucky that way. Down the hall, my fourteen-year-old twins, Jake and Emma, are sleeping. No weight problems there, and yet I worry that if I can't get my act together and overhaul my diet and my body, I will pass along my legacy of being overweight and the mental burden that comes with constantly struggling with your size.
I stare in my closet, frantically pulling pieces off the rack, wondering what outfit will give me the best illusion of thinness for this meeting. My closet has two bars. The eye-level shelf is for the things that fit no matter what size I am: shoes and bags in all the designer labels that I have worked so hard to afford. The other rack holds the black clothes that fit—Gap, Banana Republic, Talbots, Eileen Fisher. They don't make high-end designer stuff in my size.
I want a superhero costume, something bulletproof to protect me from the blow that I know is coming. Instead, what I grab is uninspiring at best: black wool pants and a black silk shirt, and I put them on with all the courage and hope that I can muster, which is not much right now. I'm so tired of this, of never really being happy with the way I look, no matter where I shop or how much I spend on clothing. I'm sick of the mind games I play, trying to convince myself that I'm not really that fat, that plenty of people weigh a lot more than I do, that America is in the midst of an obesity epidemic, that I am in good company.
My office is just fourteen blocks from my home, and when I get there I find the first of several emails from Barbara's assistant. With each one, the venue for our meeting becomes more depressing. First, it's Le Pain Quotidien, the French bistro nearby that specializes in coffee and buttery croissants for breakfast. Then it's Barbara's office at ABC News near Lincoln Center: she is so busy but really wants to meet today. Finally, it's the ABC cafeteria. Oh, great. I'm to be humiliated over a Styrofoam cup of coffee as GMA colleagues stroll by and guess exactly why Barbara has summoned me.
I have survived not one but three anchor teams at GMA: Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer, Diane and Robin Roberts, and now Robin and George Stephanopoulos. Not one of them has ever said a word to me about my weight. In fact, the bosses routinely praise my work, which enables me to think that a job well done means they're willing to overlook the obvious. But I'm not naive: I have been around television news long enough to know that thinness rules. My fit colleagues underscore that truth.
I arrive a few minutes early to scope out the scene. Barbara walks in on time wearing a fitted brown sweater that complements her bouncy brown hair. If she's wearing any makeup, it's very little. There is an effortless beauty to her, a trait she shares with many women in TV news.
We pass through the breakfast display—breads and muffins, cold cereal, eggs, bacon.
"What would you like?" Barbara asks.
Clearly, she's testing me to see if I'll bite—literally.
I opt for only a bottle of water. She grabs coffee. We find a table.
I deliberate: Take off my coat or leave it on? It adds bulk but also hides bulges. I remove it but keep it on my lap, thinking I'll fool her.
I keep watching the clock. We spend fifty minutes catching up, talking about everything but the matter at hand: our kids, New York City schools, husbands, and GMA's ratings surge. We talk about how some women lack assertiveness in their careers. Barbara is funny and smart, like a character in a Nora Ephron movie. I marvel at her confidence. It could be just another great conversation with one of the many savvy women I've met over the years in network news, except I am aware of the fact that Barbara is not here to bond with me. She is warm, but she is also extremely direct. I know I am about to get it. Then I do.
"You don't look as good as you could," she says, smoothly changing the topic. "I don't think your clothing does you any favors."
In an instant, the blood rushes to my head. I feel slightly faint. My palms become sweaty and I start to twist my wedding ring, a nervous tic I've never once experienced before now. My mouth is dry. I try to remain composed even though I'm freaking out.
I'm wondering if anyone is watching us. It doesn't matter that no one I know is around. I'm certain that Barbara is starting out slowly and will soon move in for the kill: How could you expect to be on TV when you've let yourself go? Don't you have any self-respect? You knew this day would come, right?
But she says none of that. Instead, Barbara offers to connect me with Sandy, a stylist who helps women make smart wardrobe choices.
I'm staring blankly at her on purpose. I'm not going to make her job easy by giving her even a hint that I know my weight is a problem, that although I can easily and happily talk to millions of viewers on TV, dressing for my segment is an ongoing challenge. Finally, I crack a smile and say as cheerfully as I can, "Sure, that sounds great. I'd be happy to meet Sandy. I'd love her help."
This is a lie. Unless Sandy has a magic wand that will whisk away the pounds, I doubt she can do any good.
But Barbara is not done. "I always feel better when I work out. Exercise gives me so much energy," she presses, mildly, neither asking if I exercise nor ordering me to.
I could tell her the whole sordid story about how much I hate breaking a sweat and how I haven't taken a gym class since elementary school, about how in junior high a kid named Brian called me a fat cow when I corrected his answer and how the whole class, even the teacher, erupted in laughter. But that would go against rule number one: I do not discuss my weight with anyone except Peter. I would never share the anxiety I have about my size with people I work with, let alone someone who has the power to fire me.
Barbara continues talking as if she and I are old friends and as if everything she brings up, from her favorite spin class to the flattering effect of V-neck sweaters, is just girlish chitchat. I stare at her BlackBerry, praying for it to ping and summon her back to her office upstairs. Please, God, give her a crisis. Please, God, let this be over. But there is no such relief. At exactly the one-hour mark, Barbara wraps up our meeting. Numbly, I thank her for caring enough to have this chat and tell her that I look forward to meeting Sandy, which I do not. At all. We hug good-bye and wish each other a happy holiday. It is five days before Christmas. After six happy years on TV, I feel like somebody just put a lump of coal in my stocking.
As I walk quickly down the escalator and out the door onto West Sixty-Sixth Street, I try to assess the damage. I did not cry. Advantage Tory. She didn't put me on the spot, humiliate me, or embarrass me. Three points for Barbara. I marvel at how slick she was. She did not threaten me. Not once did she call me fat, say I had to lose weight, or even hint that my job was in jeopardy. The words "fat," "overweight," or "obese" never came up. But I also take her words for the clear warning shot they are meant to be: lose weight or else.
What the F am I going to do?
A New Kind of Wow
As the cab zips up Central Park West, I hear Barbara's words over and over again in my head. The reality is still sinking in on how precariously close I am to losing all of this, the well-paying TV gig at a place where I have worked so hard to be successful. If my waistline doesn't physically shrink—and fast—that's exactly what will happen. And what's worse, everyone who knows me will know why. Because I am fat. Period. And if I get dumped by ABC News, I will not only be full of shame, but my weight will surely make it all but impossible to get another job in television. It's a small, insular world. They all talk and compare notes. "Yeah, she's good but ... fat."
I roll down the window, gasping for air. It occurs to me that it feels like I have been holding my breath, during and since the entire meeting. You know how on planes they say to secure your oxygen mask before your child's or anyone else who might need assistance? Talking to Barbara about my physical appearance was like being on a plane with no available oxygen. Every time I flash back to our meeting, it was like Barbara was this beautiful, calm flight attendant and I was on a plane that was losing pressure. I can see her—pretty, capable, reassuring—telling me to please secure my mask. But I am so panicked that I can barely move in my chair. All I can think is, There's no air. I cannot breathe. There's no air.
For years, an inner voice convinced me that I didn't take care of myself because I was too busy taking care of everyone else. But now a switch has been flipped. It wasn't just that I had to lose weight for cosmetic reasons. It was deeper, truer, and more powerful than that. I had to take care of myself because there was no way I could continue to take care of my family until I got rid of what was literally and metaphorically weighing me down.
Too many of us care for others while we neglect ourselves. It's as if we're on a plane with no air and we forget to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first. Good food is oxygen. Exercise is oxygen. Self-care is oxygen. But we deny ourselves these essentials because we don't believe we have the time. Plus, the needs of everyone else are so demanding. So the pounds pile on or the scale stays stuck on a number that is bothersome. For most of us, when we hit a certain weight, it doesn't mean we are sloths or we lack willpower, it means that we are running on empty. In the first few hours after my conversation with Barbara, I didn't have a fully articulated vision of how I would change my body or how changing my body would change my life. But I felt that she had pointed out to me that I was running around without an oxygen mask, even though oxygen was readily available. Even before I lose a single pound, the very first Shift I make is to pause and just breathe.
As the taxi bobbed and weaved through traffic, I couldn't believe that my public career was about to end because of what I had always imagined was my private battle with the scale. It had always been my dream to work in network news, and I was so focused and so determined that I landed a summer internship at ABC News the summer after my freshman year of college, despite the fact that most spots went to juniors and seniors.
The next summer, when a full-time assistant left ABC's newsmagazine 20/20, I dropped out of Emerson College and took her place. For more than a year I helped promote Barbara Walters and her newsmaker specials, and I got to know the correspondents: Stone Phillips, Lynn Sherr, and John Stossel. NBC News recruited me, and I jumped to the rival network. I worked hard and fell in love with everything about the news industry: the pace, the urgency, the immediacy, just being in the know and among the first to hear what's happening in the world.
When I left network news a few years later—truth be told, I was fired when the new boss at NBC cleaned house—I knew I had to get back in the news game someday, somehow. By then it was in my blood. But it took me years to do it. After detours into cable and publishing, I made my first major shift from employee to entrepreneur by launching my own business hosting career fairs for women. That led me to pitch my first idea to Good Morning America—a job search segment on how to make extra money during the holidays. It was a hit, and I was asked to come back again and again until I became the official workplace contributor. Almost two years ago, I segued into my current gig at GMA, a fun "Deals & Steals" segment where every week I secure exclusive deals on cool products for the show's viewers to save big bucks. I love it, my bosses love it, and viewers love it too. Most important, it's my spot in a field I'm so passionate about: network news. I thought it had been going so well that my talent trumped my weight. But suddenly everything was in jeopardy.
Despite the fact that I am a go-to problem solver for friends, family, and colleagues, now that my own career was on the line, I didn't know where to turn for advice or how I was going to fix this. I had always struggled with my weight. I thought that a lifetime of plus-sized pants was simply my destiny. Now someone had suggested that things, my body, could be different. It felt like a threat, but somewhere underneath all the panic and the shame, it also felt like an opportunity.
I had to lose a lot of weight. And let's just say, for argument's sake, that I could do it. How much was enough? My breath caught again as I thought about the daunting task ahead. I didn't need to drop ten or twenty or even thirty pounds. Just to fall into "normal" range on those maddening body mass index charts, I needed to shed at least fifty. But to look good on TV, it was probably even more than that. I hadn't lost more than eighteen pounds in the last thirty years. How would I lose eighty? The thought sent me into another tailspin. My heart was beating fast and I felt slightly faint. Maybe a little nauseated too. The cab really couldn't get home fast enough. By the time the driver turned left onto West Eighty-Sixth Street, I was desperate to get into my third-floor apartment, close the bathroom door, and cry. And that's just what I did.
It takes a lot to make me weep. I have to feel like I'm at my wits' end, totally helpless and lost. I don't allow myself to feel that way very often, but when I do, the floodgates open. This was one of those rare moments. After the meeting I didn't even have the strength or composure to go back to my office. I spent the day sobbing in peace.
Later, after I'd shed enough tears, Peter tried to comfort me. He's good at that, zeroing in on what's bothering me, then working on a plan to address it. I do the same for him.
I met Peter when I was the publicist for Dateline and he was USA Today's TV columnist. One of my primary duties was to convince media writers to promote Dateline stories and profile the show's anchors and correspondents, so I made it my mission to win him over and get ink in his newspaper. We got to know each other over the phone and spent many hours talking—him in Arlington, Virginia, me in New York. Our conversations quickly moved from work to personal stuff. He was sixteen years older than me—a real man!—and his marriage was ending. I was instantly taken by his sharp sense of humor. Nobody could make me laugh more than Peter. We'd met only a handful of times in person in New York and once at a TV conference in Pasadena, California. So I was flabbergasted when one day Peter announced he was in love with me. I wondered if it was some cruel joke: What could this "normal" man possibly see in me, a fat girl? It never occurred to me that I was more than my body type. It's one of the things that Peter taught me early on.
Excerpted from The Shift by Tory Johnson. Copyright © 2013 Tory Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion.
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