‘How I exist’: One woman’s experience with obesity and identity

By Emily Siegmund

For 15 years, Faith Newsome had no control over her body.

She had no say, no way to show the world how hard she was working and no comfort in her own skin. What she did have was a lot of guilt. Before she could even learn to drive, she was told she was clinically obese. It was said like an irrevocable fact, one she couldn’t change but should be ashamed of regardless.

Every exercise plan, every diet, every change she could possibly make — none of it changed the fact that every time she stepped on the scale, that number inched closer and closer to 300 pounds.

The day she and her parents, Shannon and Jonathan, went to support her brother in Science Olympiad should have been like any other day. They finally found three seats together in the wood-paneled gymnasium of Campbell University, filed in and sat down. Except Faith couldn’t sit down — she couldn’t fit.

She fought her body, squeezing and maneuvering to contain the space she was taking up. She begged the armrests to become just an inch wider, for the plastic to become just a little softer. But nothing worked — all she could do was fold in on herself, hope no one noticed and try not to cry.

She couldn’t rationalize away the relentless, self-degrading thoughts this time, not with the incessant reminder of hard, neon orange plastic digging into her hips, directing her attention back to her body, back to her weight.

That was the moment she took back control, the moment she decided to have the surgery.

Forced to grow up early

In second grade, the nurse at Faith’s school lined up all the students in her class and made them step on a scale. Afterwards, as all the other kids went back to their blissfully unconcerned second-grade lives, Faith was pulled aside and forced to grow up.

The nurse told her she was obese, and that she should know she was at risk for diabetes, heart disease and death. She was 7.

After that, every other kid’s favorite day at school became Faith’s worst nightmare. She pretended not to see them roll their eyes when she got assigned to a team on field day or in gym class, but 7-year-olds aren’t known for their tact. Eventually one would slip.

“She’s too big to run.”

She would duck her head and do her best to stay out of everyone’s way, learning to apologize for the body she lived in before she even understood what it meant. She was conditioned to think she should do better, be better than who she was.

Faith had a riot of curly brown hair, a face that was meant to break into a smile and a nose that was perpetually tucked in a book. She was a straight-A student, a rule-follower and a sweet kid. But she was also fat, and that trumped it all.

A strong support system

“There was a day I picked her up and put her down for the last time, and it was a lot earlier than other kids,” Shannon used to say.

Growing up on 14 acres of land in the middle of Sanford, North Carolina, Faith was one of the lucky ones. In the rural, low-income and predominately white Lee County, her parents both had jobs and a close-knit family. Faith lived in one of four trailers on their property, with her grandmother in a house at the bottom of the hill and her dad’s siblings filling the other space. Until ninth grade, that is, when her family moved to a neighborhood so Faith could switch schools and escape the unrelenting bullying.

Faith grew up loved, protected and encouraged. Her family was always well-intentioned and well-informed regarding her weight management. Most of all, she went home to people who understood her. Four of the 12 adults that showed up to Thanksgiving were obese. Her uncle weighed 600 pounds and both of her parents had weight-loss surgery before she hit high school.

When she was 15, Shannon sat her down.

“I found a program at Duke,” she said.

At that time, there were only four pediatric bariatric surgery clinics in the country — not nearly enough to address the 14 million children and adolescents diagnosed with childhood obesity in the United States. The surgery was controversial and relatively new.

“I kind of thought weight loss surgery was something I would always pursue,” Faith said. “But I thought I’d wait until I was at least 18.”

Her parents never pushed, never wanted to pressure her into a surgery she didn’t want. Shannon, who had successfully maintained a U.S. size 6 since her operation nearly a decade earlier, knew that obesity went beyond weight — it was about perception.

“My dad kind of let my mom act as a conduit for those conversations,” Faith said.

And eventually, it worked. Faith didn’t have her license, hadn’t been to prom yet and was staring down a decision she thought she had three more years to make. Finally, they drove to Duke.

Taking back control

More than five years later, Faith has maintained a consistent 80-pound weight loss, is training for a 4-mile race and just got accepted to her dream doctorate program at the University of Florida’s obesity research lab.

She no longer looks anything like the girl who would answer her house phone in middle school, only to hear the snickering of little boys and the taunts of “whale” echo back at her.

But instead of choosing to forget the most painful time in her life, Faith has decided to make obesity her whole identity. She’s been featured in The New York Times, spoken at conferences and started her own nonprofit to raise awareness for the childhood obesity epidemic.

After Faith was interviewed for a local news station, commenters attacked Shannon and Jonathan, saying they committed child abuse by raising their daughter to be obese. That if they had just fed her different food, encouraged her to go outside and loved her more, it wouldn’t have been that way.

“People just don’t understand,” Shannon would say, crying on the phone to Faith.

“I know, that’s why I wake up and get out of bed every day.”

She can still hear the sentiments, the words repeated by condescending friends, teachers and doctors for years.

“Eat less, move more.”

“If you tried harder, wanted it more, you’d lose the weight.”

Some days, Faith wakes up and feels like she failed. Some days, she feels ashamed, like she still doesn’t deserve to take up the space her body is in. Some days, she wonders if she made the right decision at all.

But every day, she tells herself the same thing, a mantra that got her through the first 15 years and will carry her through the rest of her life: “My body is not a ‘success,’ it is not a ‘failure.’ This is just how I exist.”


Edited by Liz Johnson