When Marie Stephen resolved to lose 40 pounds last summer, she thought that would be the end of her struggles with self-esteem. But after exercising and dieting her way to a slimmer figure, she has found her confidence much slower to improve.
MARIE: So, how's school?
MARIE: My little cousin Christopher is the biggest kid in his class.
TUNASIA: Yeah sometimes they be botherin' Christopher, sometime calling him fat.
MARIE: Does anybody bother you at school?
CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, sometimes.
MARIE: What do they do?
CHRISTOPHER: Call me fatty, and fat, whatever.
MARIE: Hanging out at my aunt's house, I asked Christopher and my cousins Brianna and Tunasia who they want to look like.
BRIANNA: I want to look like Fergie because she pretty, and she's so pretty and I like her album and she's sexy.
MARIE: Christopher, who do you want to look like?
CHRISTOPHER: Nobody. I just want to kill myself
MARIE: Christopher's answer surprised me.
MARIE: Why you say that?
CHRISTOPHER: Because I hate myself and I don't love myself.
MARIE: It's crazy to hear a six year old say that. But it reminded me of how miserable I was at Christopher's age. I was fat too. I hated everything about myself. I remember a time in the lunchroom when kids stacked their chicken patties on my tray, cheering me on to eat all of themâ€” and I did. I was laughing with them. But then I realized that I was the big joke. In 11th grade, I finally got tired of my weight being something that entertained people. So I sweated my perm out on the elliptical machine, ate dry, nasty, Melba toast for a year and lost 40 lbs.
Yo, I just came off this crazy climbing machine, for real I feel like I'm about to pass out. I'll holla' back.
Now, when I'm crossing the street, boys honk at me. Everybody thinks I should be confident, out going and love myself completely. But it's not like that. I don't feel how I thought I would.
MARIE: That's my mom, dead asleep, snoring like a moose. She works a lot and stays up late studying for nursing school. I hate bothering her with my confused emotions. But I got her up this one day to talk.
MARIE: Do you know what low self-esteem is?
MOM: Low self-esteem is when you are not confident about the way you look, about yourself.
MARIE: Do you think I have low self-esteem?
MOM: Of course not.
MARIE: Yes I do!
MOM: No you don't for me you don't and you're not supposed to.
MARIE: I know I'm not supposed to feel ugly, fat, nastyâ€”all these names people used to call me. But when someoneâ€”like my cousin Joleenâ€”decides to pull out an old picture and make fun of my jigglely arms, I go right back to feeling like a hippopotamus.
JOLEEN: You know when used to lift your arms.
MARIE: But everybody has that!
JOLEEN: I know! But yours moved.
MARIE: When somebody laughs at me, I'm fat Marie all over again.
MARIE: What did you think of me when I was bigger?
GRANDPA: I don't like it, because I don't like big girl.
MARIE: My grandpa's from Haiti. He's never weighed more than 150 lbs, his entire life.
GRANDPA: In my mind, I never like big girls. MARIE: But Grandma is big
GRANDPA: No. Before your Grandma was a sexy girl, it was my wife, but now, I don't know!
MARIE: That's mean!
GRANDPA: Too big for me! But fat is no good
MARIE: Wow- fat is no good? If I gained weight back, would that mean I was no good? I don't feel sure that I'll always keep this weight off. So I get scared that gaining it back could change everything. That my family's proud of me, my friends accept me, and that my boyfriend loves me. My grandma wasn't always fat.
GRANDMA: I'm walking, hmmm hmmmm, accident!
MARIE: She says that when she was my age, back in Haiti, she would cause car accidents walking down the street because she was so beautiful.
GRANDMA: Accident, I told you.
MARIE: And if guys didn't stop and look at her, they were sick. But then she got really big. My grandparents aren't together anymore. And I know there are a lot of reasons for this, but I still wonder if my grandma getting fat was part of it.
GRANDMA: I got a big body.
MARIE: She says doesn't care what people say. I wish I had that attitude. My dad says â€œyou care too much about people! Why do you care? â€
DAD: You care too much about people, why do you care?
MARIE: Because people used to make fun of me all the time when I was little.
DAD: Ignore them.
MARIE: How am I supposed to ignore it?
DAD: Live your life, because it's good for you..for your mendal health.
MARIE: Mental health.
MARIE: My dad's right. But can anybody really do that? I decided to go ask people on the Staten Island ferry how they got over things that make them feel insecure.
MARIE: Can I ask you a question?
MARIE: It was hard, but people told me all kinds of deep, personal experiences.
MARIE: What are you insecure about?
WOMAN 1: I was from the south and I the country accent. I was insecure on public assistance and my friends used to make fun of you when you was on welfare.
MAN 1: I was the only black kid in most of my early classes.
WOMAN 2: You know I don't have the best clothing, my hairstyle is not right.
WOMAN 1: Then sometimes when I talk I got a very deep voice. So people always say â€œthank you sir.â€ I want to tell them â€œma'am!â€ but I don't even say anything anymore, cuz' I know I'm not a man.
MARIE: I also asked people what helped them get over feeling bad. I was hoping for a step-by-step plan.
MARIE: Is there anything that you experienced that made you stronger as a teenager?
MARIE: One woman said having kids made her stop stressing about her body. Another guy said moving to the Middle East made him more independent. And the woman with the deep voice told me how helping her family changed her.
WOMAN 1: My mother had got sick and I had to be responsible for my younger siblings, making sure that we had food. That made me feel stronger, that I know I could do things in crisis.
MARIE: That's great, but I'm not having a kid, I'm not moving to a foreign country, and my family is not in crisis. And when I put a magnifying glass to it, I realize I'm scared to stop feeling bad about my weight. I want this little devil on my shoulder who says: â€œgo ahead and eat that cheeseburger if you want to look like fat Albert's twin sister again.â€ That little devil is mean, but she's the voice that keeps me skinny. And when she's not saying enough, I even ask other people to criticize me, to keep me in check. I ask my friends, my cousins, my brother, my boyfriend.
DAMION: Why do you ask me questions like that anyway?
MARIE: My boyfriend Damion gets really mad when I ask him I look fat or ugly.
MARIE: I don't ask you everyday!
DAMION: Yes you do! Every day, every five minutes.
MARIE: Cuz I think you're lying.
DAMION: You, you're okay.
MARIE: I don't want to be okay.
DAMION: Well you're perfect.
MARIE: No I'm not you just said that because I said that.
DAMION: Marie you're ok, man.
MARIE: What does okay mean?
MARIE: I know you probably think I'm weird. Maybe surrounding myself with criticism isn't the right way to stay thin. But if I ask to be criticized, it's like I'm ready for it, and it works for me in some kind of crazy way. I hope my little cousin Christopher will find a better way to lose weight. I doubt my way will help him love himself. It doesn't help me love myself either. For WNYC, I'm Rookie Reporter Marie Stephen.