I came to Croatia this year 12 pounds overweight.
Some family members noticed, commenting on it with light-heartedness. Others didn’t say anything outright but danced around it politely. Some actually thought I had lost weight compared to last year (nope, sorry—other way around, fam!). And still the majority didn’t notice at all—or didn’t care.
The couple comments I received didn’t bother me that much because (1) they were made in that “I’m-family-so-I’m gonna-tell-it-to-you-straight” kinda way that’s still wrapped love, and (2) I already knew I was overweight and I reminded myself of it every day.
My reminders were far from the lightness of my family’s. In fact, I was mean. Mean as a sawed-off shotgun.
Hearing the News
I learned I was 12 pounds overweight about a month before David and I were set to leave on our grand Croatia road trip adventure. I learned it at the doctor’s office when I stepped onto the scale and the numbers keep inching up, flickering until they reached numbers I hadn’t seen since high school.
I exclaimed in exasperation, “What?!” I turned to the nurse and asked, “How is that possible?”
She flashed a half-smile and looked down at her clipboard, clearly uncomfortable and unsure of what to say. As she penciled my numbers in, she finally said, “Well, sometimes clothes add a little extra.”
I knew she was just trying to be polite.
For the rest of the day, I kept shaking my head. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. Because really, I couldn’t. My mind felt like eggs whipped up in a baker’s frenzy. Scrambled. Cloudy. Confounded.
I wasn’t so shocked by the 12 pounds per say. I knew 12 pounds would not be the end of me. But what I was shocked by was how I had let myself get there. I felt like a bird who had slammed herself into a window because she couldn’t see it.
Because I hadn’t seen it. For an entire year, I had gone about my busy life—going to school full-time, cooking, cleaning, taking care of two cats, working three part-time jobs, and doing everything in-between—and had barely noticed that I had put on an extra 12 pounds.
I thought I had remained pretty much the same as I’d been over the last few years—active and healthy. Sure as hell, I was wrong and clearly blinded by some sort of cupid’s arrow that tuned me into a completely unrealistic version of reality.
What I hadn’t noticed in all of my crazy busyness was that I had become quite unhealthy.
I stopped exercising regularly. (Actually, I couldn’t remember the last time I had exercised before that come-to-Jesus doctor’s appointment.) And I had stopped eating healthy meals, swapping quinoa, beans, and veggies for three-times-a-week mac and cheese and queso and chips as a late-night snack.
I had consciously made these decisions. At some point, I had decided to stop exercising and to pick up the queso jar and pour it all out into a small bowl that made it seem like I was eating less of it than I actually was.
I knew what I was doing wasn’t good for me, but I did it anyways. I had told myself that it’s okay because after that jar I wouldn’t buy another. But then I did. And I finished off the left-over pasta, too.
A Lifelong Struggle
I’ve struggled with weight most of my life. I still remember a time when I was in the third grade walking across the playground. I was wearing my new capris—with a pink-purple 90s sheen that I couldn’t get enough of. And I was smiling, happy in my new pair of pants.
Out of nowhere, a boy who I couldn’t see well (since the third grade also happened to be the time my eyes started to give) called out to me from the top of a nearby hill, “Hey! Move it, fat girl!”
I turned my head just slightly his way and then focused real hard on the grass in front of me, as I took one step and then another, trying to pretend that I didn’t hear him at all.
But I had heard him, and I remember it stinging way worse than that one time I had stepped on an actual bee.
I went off to play with my friends that day and many days afterwards. And I continued on with third grade, eating mac and cheese whenever I pleased. But I never wore those pink-purple sheen capris again. They were banished to the back of my closet.
A year or two later, I remember coming upon them and holding a capri leg in my hand. As I turned it over, marveling as the the pink color ebbed into the purple, I was immediately transported back to that time on the playground.
After that, the capris went straight to the donation bin. But they—and the playground moment they came to represent—took up permanent residence in my head.
Making Things Happen
By high school, I was lifting weights and running regularly, and I saw that I could use my sturdy, bulkier frame for good. I picked up a discus and went on to make the varsity track and field team my freshman year and the following three years after that.
As I entered my twenties, I developed a better understanding of what a healthy lifestyle looked like and continued exercising with some frequency, dipping here and there but circling back around to it when I went too far in a direction that didn’t suit me.
Throughout these years, my weight always fluctuated. I didn’t have a desire to eat salads for meals all the time, and I liked my bagels and pasta too much to bid them adieu for good. But I did learn what weight range indicated that I was maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
I didn’t weigh myself often (I was never number-obsessed) but I would check-in every now and again to make sure what I was doing to be healthy in real life added up to something reasonable on the numbers-end. I know when my body feels good and truly healthy. And I know what number range matches that.
Is it necessary to match with a certain number? No. But when I’m in my healthy range, I know that my blood work comes back stellar rather than elevated in all the wrong places (as it has when I’ve fallen out of range. For me, falling out of range usually means unhealthy habits have taken hold, not that I’m packing on muscle.).
And so that’s why I was completely shocked when I entered my doctor’s office this past April to be told by the scale that I was no longer measuring up. Because I thought I had been.
In reality, I kept pushing the truth further from my mind, busying myself with everything else under the sun rather than taking care of myself.
Traveling to Croatia with Extra Weight
When it came time to pack for our trip, it was a pain. Packing is always a pain, but it was an extra kick in my ass since most of my clothes were too tight in places where they had hung effortlessly before. I ended up choosing clothes that hid my extra weight, shoving my old favorites to the side because I no longer felt good in them.
We left for Croatia on April 29. On April 29, I was still 12 pounds over my normal weight range and had barely made much effort to exercise beyond keeping up with a 10-minute daily fitness challenge I was doing with a friend. I think I threw in a run or two before we left. An improvement, yes, but I was dragging my feet, saying to myself, “Tomorrow, tomorrow.”
When we arrived in Croatia and I got around to unpacking, I saw I had filled my suitcase with clothes that matched how I felt—bland. I threw the clothes about our bedroom and marched off to the bathroom.
I looked at myself in the mirror and I said the meanest things, things I would never imagine even thinking of saying to someone else. I yelled at myself—in my head, that is. And I poked and prodded my fat—on my stomach, on my arm, on my thigh. I was disgusted with myself. And angry.
This self-talk pattern continued for the first three weeks of our trip. Anytime I saw a mirror, I’d look at myself and the cruel words would bounce around in my head as if it was a trampoline, a playground.
A Walk and a Click
By the time we made it to my uncle’s rental apartment on Pag island in week three, I didn’t know how I would manage to put on a bathing suit and enjoy the beach. My self-loathing volume was on high and it was telling me that a swimsuit would look horrendous on, exposing all the pieces I didn’t want anyone to see.
The first few days we were there, the early May weather was still a bit too chilly for a swim and so I was saved.
But then the wind died down and the weather warmed. I hadn’t been on Pag for seven years and I knew I wanted to beach it up at the same spot I had enjoyed with my family as I was growing up.
I was at a crossroads—to suit up or not?
On a walk into town mid-week, I was still mulling that decision. Walks have a way of making something click for me, and this one was no exception.
As I walked, I reflected. I looked back on my life—my weight-filled life.
I remembered my pink-purple sheen capris. I remembered that boy and the playground. I remembered all the mac and cheese I’ve enjoyed over the years.
I remembered my best fitness moments, like how I could once do a series of suicide burpees and make it through no problem.
And I remembered that I got to those awesome moments by starting with the hard ones, like going red in the face as I barely made a single push-up during my first Krav Maga class.
Then, I dug deeper. I replayed the tape of cruel words that had been stuck in my head since my doctor’s office visit. And then I popped in another mental tape of the words I said to myself when I was at my physical peak.
And you know what? They were the same. The. Same. Damn. Tape.
It didn’t matter what weight range I fell into—good or not-so-good. The mean words remained unchanged, and what they kept telling me most of all was that I was never good enough.
I stopped mid-walk.
I pivoted to look at the Adriatic Sea to my right. I blinked. And I listened to the waves ebbing in, stroking the beach’s small stones with a quick swish, then ebbing out, pulling away from the stones with a swash.
I considered the conclusion I had just come to, weighing its validity.
My eyes darted left and right, squinted, then re-rest back on the blue sea in front of me. I took a deep breath and unclenched my hand that I had apparently balled up into a fist during my anger-tinged walk.
For the first time in weeks, I felt as light as the waves reaching out to greet the shoreline. I turned and walked back to our apartment.
When I arrived, I undressed and looked in the mirror. But this time I silently nodded, knowing that I had packed up my dagger-words and drowned them in the sea.
I also knew that the word war wasn’t over; what’s thrown out to sea washes ashore somewhere down the line. But for now, as I looked into the mirror, I noticed a spark of power I hadn’t ever felt—of liberation.
I left the bathroom, and I slathered on some sunscreen. After it soaked in, I put on my black fringe two-piece suit that I almost didn’t bring. Then I headed to the beach.
All photos: Kristina Pepelko
If you’d like to read more stories like this, keep in touch through The Croatia Chronicles Newsletter, where you’ll get new posts sent straight to your inbox.