With Open Arms

by Alex F.

My grandma wraps me in a warm hug, and time stops a little. To some people this might be an insignificant greeting, but I appreciate every second.

Until recently, hugging was something I dreaded. All my senses would go numb as I focused solely on not messing up. Every small movement that I made seemed awkward and clumsy. And as soon as it was over, I would reflexively touch my back to see how gross it must have felt. Hugs are the worst when you are a fat teenager.

Ever since I was old enough to be self-conscious, I hated the way I looked. I brushed my teeth in my bedroom so that I would not have to look in the bathroom mirror. When sports came around in ninth grade, it got even worse. Slower than everyone else on the lacrosse team and out of breath all the time, I made excuses like, “I am supposed to be slow; I am playing defense,” or “I am really muscular; it just does not show.” Eventually, I became too embarrassed to be seen in t-shirts and started wearing sweaters year-round. The day I decided to break this rule ended in disaster. At a water park with a friend, I showed up in the darkest swimming shirt I could find. In line for our first ride, I tried to relax. Twenty minutes went by, then 30, 40…finally, we got to the end of the line. My heart dropped. It wasn’t the scary ride that made me panic; it was the sign next to it: “NO SHIRTS.” Welp, I remember thinking, this is how I die. The only way out of there was to walk back through the whole line. So I did my awkward shuffle of shame through what had to be the entire population of the United States, certain that they all knew I didn’t want to take my shirt off.

It was a turning point: I did not want to live in the life I had. Desperate to change, I started looking into dieting, even though I had always believed that the way I looked was predetermined by my genetics. I began my research. The scientific elegance of calorie counting appealed to me, so I calculated how many calories I should eat each day given my activity level and target weight. A week into my new routine, I felt great. After a couple months, I started brushing my teeth in the bathroom again. Within a year, I had lost 60 pounds.

Today I feel like a whole new person. Managing my diet has spread to almost every aspect of my life. Whether it’s starting a new job in construction or meticulously organizing our family vacation, I no longer think, “Oh, that seems too hard.” Instead, my mindset is, “I’ll just need to try, and I’ve got that.” Most of all, my self-confidence has grown. Prior to my weight loss, I had trouble looking people in the eyes, and I always felt on guard while talking, afraid the topic would turn to food, clothes, or fitness. Now, I go out of my way to strike up conversations and to meet new people, especially when someone seems nervous or shy. As the engineering club’s head of orientation, my job is to make sure all the new freshmen feel welcome, and I love it.

I would not be as hardworking, outgoing, and sympathetic to others if it weren’t for those difficult years. I am glad to be healthy and fit, but the best part is finally feeling free to show the people in my life that I care about them. You’d be surprised how easy it is to take a hug for granted. But I never will.