‘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

Second freshman year: UNC transfer students adjust to new expectations

By Jackie Sizing

Freshman year of college is one of the hardest transitions.

Most freshman are living on their own for the first time, away from their family and friends in an unfamiliar place.

Imagine doing it all twice.

Last fall semester, at 7:30 a.m., junior Mikayla Goss woke up for her first day of classes. Goss did her normal morning routine: take a shower, brush her teeth, pick out her outfit for the day and pack her backpack.

Regardless, Goss could not shake her nerves. It wasn’t her first time going to college classes, but as a transfer, it was her first day of classes ever at UNC-Chapel Hill.

For the past two years, Goss lived with her family in Newport, North Carolina, and went to Carteret Community College.

People warned her about “transfer shock,” and she didn’t believe them at first. But the campus was huge, and Goss didn’t know many people aside from her roommate.

“The first week of classes at UNC was one of the hardest weeks of my life,” Goss said. “I didn’t expect it to be that way.”

Junior Camille DiBenedetto, who transferred from Drexel University in Philadelphia, said she cried her first night at UNC because of homesickness.

“I was stressed at first,” DiBenedetto said. “But I think the process of transferring is scarier than being in a new place.”

Imposter syndrome

These experiences are common among many new UNC transfers.

Luke Fayard, counselor and transfer student coordinator, said in an email interview that imposter syndrome is common among new transfers.

“UNC demands much more of students than they expect, when they have done nothing but shine in every college class they’ve taken,” Fayard said. “They get here, see the assignments and think, ‘Admissions made a mistake. I don’t know that I belong here or if I can actually do this.’”

It took time for Goss to adjust to the rigorous and demanding UNC classes.

“A few tears were shed,” she said. “My stress about academics and my new surroundings were a bad combination.”

Fayard said this doubt is powerful and dangerous for overachievers because it’s new.

“The impostor syndrome, combined with the very incorrect outlook that everyone else here is doing great, makes it very hard for my transfer friends to feel at home,” Fayard said. “They feel as if they are on an island, and they are alone in their struggles.”

Junior Crystal Dezha, who transferred from Appalachian State University sophomore year, had a unique experience. While most transfers come fall semester, Dezha and a few others arrived in the spring, halfway through the year.

Dezha was excited to transfer to Carolina, but that excitement dimmed during the first few weeks.

Dezha felt she had less guidance than fall transfers, and that made the transition harder, taking a mental toll.

Fayard can’t tell you how often he meets a transfer student having a hard time with their mental health.

Personality traits such as perfectionism, anxiety over every detail and pressure from themselves or others get lots of students to UNC, but they can also lead to mental health struggles, Fayard said.

Dezha said she thinks this is true for transfer students but that there is a ton of encouragement to seek help.

“They do not want you to suffer in silence,” she said.

Dezha hesitated about going to therapy before coming to UNC. However, she went for the first time last semester and enjoyed it.

“I was in a bad place, and it really helped me with the things I was going through,” Dezha said.

Easing the transition

When it comes to resources for transfer students, Fayard thinks the university can always do better, but he is impressed with how many people on campus value transfer students and try to help him take care of them.

“I thought I might be swimming upstream here in Chapel Hill, but I have been pleasantly surprised,” Fayard said. “In speaking with prospective students’ parents, I’ve had numerous be blown away that my job even exists, because they have not seen anything like it elsewhere.”

Goss, Dezha and DiBenedetto are all happy with the number of resources for transfer students.

“I am always getting emails,” Goss said. “About transfer events, resources for classes I may be struggling in, career services events – it’s great to feel thought of, even if I can’t always go.”

Some transfer-specific programs include Personal Librarian, Transfer Student Ambassadors and Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program.

After about two weeks, DiBenedetto got into the groove of her classes and joined the UNC chapter of Best Buddies, an organization that pairs students with people who have developmental and intellectual disabilities. She is always meeting new people now.

“I felt right at home,” DiBenedetto said. “I’m happy to be here.”

Fayard wants transfer students to make UNC what they want it to be.

“You are not here for UNC, UNC is here for you,” Fayard said. “There are so many offices, opportunities, and resources around UNC to help you create the education that you want for yourself. There is no mold, make your own.”

Dezha advises new transfers to put themselves out there.

“And, again, look for help,” Dezha said. “There were plenty of times where I told myself I was going to figure it out later but didn’t.”

Fayard said transfers need to trust that they belong and not see being a transfer student as a weakness.

“Don’t waste time and energy on impostor syndrome,” he said. “Let’s say you got invited to the party on accident. So? You’re here! Take advantage of it.”


Edited by Liz Johnson