On Oprah, Bread and Bodies
“This is the joy for me: I looooveeee bread! I. Love. Bread!”
If you had a TV and a cable subscription in the USA around the 2015 Christmas holidays, you just might have come across Oprah Winfrey wearing a tan cashmere sweater (the color of bread, ironically), declaring her love for “the grainiest, nuttiest, seed bread.” In the omnipresent commercial (it seemed to come on every 10 minutes, on every channel), Oprah declared she lost 26 pounds while still having her daily bread.
By the time I’d seen the commercial enough times to memorize Oprah’s 6-point Weight Watchers breakfast of choice (a slice of 7-, 9- or 12-grain bread—with one eighth of an avocado, a thin slice of tomato, one chopped basil leaf, and one very thin slice of turkey), I was motivated to lose the 10 pounds I had piled on that year. I was not convinced, however, that Weight Watchers was how I would do it. I am not very much into doing math—with food or in general. Plus, I knew this was not Oprah’s first time at the Weight Watchers rodeo.
Oprah has always been a part of my life: my mother has watched Oprah since her very first episodes and they’ve been friends for as long as I can remember—although they’ve had falling outs, such as during Oprah’s new age phase (Oprah doesn’t know any of this yet). A good deal of my adolescent years in Nigeria were spent watching videocassettes my mother had filled with Oprah recordings when we lived in the US. Oprah’s public battle with weight is about as old as I am and I’ve followed Oprah through fitness phases and fads, and weight losses and gains. I’ve experienced some of them with her, too.
I was one year old in 1988: the year Oprah walked on national television with a pair of size 10 Calvin Klein jeans, and the infamous red wagon containing 67 pounds of animal fat (the amount of weight she’d lost). She lost those pounds by literally starving: she was on a liquid protein diet for 4 months. Not long after the wagon-of-fat episode, Oprah started eating solid foods again, and the 67 pounds piled right back on. I had also transitioned from my liquid diet of breast milk to solid food during this time, and started gaining what some called “baby fat.”
By 1993, a fitness trainer called Bob Greene became a regular on Oprah’s show, and she went from a size 24 to a size 8 with his help. It was also around this time I started doing the Barbie workout video, after relentless teasing about my weight at school and church. Barbie wasn’t as helpful as Bob Greene.
When Oprah and Bob Greene released a health and fitness book in 1997, my Mom was one of the first to buy it. When Oprah raved about growing her own food, my Mom bought a few potted vegetables like broccoli during a vacation in the US. We never did grow that Broccoli. I did not lose the baby fat.
By 2006, I was in college the US, and I finally got to watch Oprah regularly between classes. While my classmates gained the “Freshman 15,” I gained the Freshman 30. As I entered my sophomore year at my weight peak (about 200 pounds), I started asking myself a question Oprah regularly asked overweight guests seeking a transformation: “What are you eating for?” Honestly answering that question set off the weight-loss journey that led me to my skinniest self.
By 2009, while Oprah admitted to falling off the fitness wagon, I was living my best life in a Pilates-toned-beach-ready-Size 4-body. Oprah wrote an article about dealing with a thyroid condition that was contributing to her weight gain, which I shared with my Mom. My Mom teased that Oprah’s weight probably had less to do with a thyroid and more to do with collard greens, mac-and- cheese, and bread. “At our age, Oprah and I just need to enjoy life” my mother declared. “It’s the same way I just must have my rice and tuwo.” We burst out laughing.
Fast-forward to 2018: it is my own turn to admit that I have fallen off the fitness wagon. At varying points this year—I’ve tried detoxing, I’ve tried intermittent fasting, and I’ve tried having a personal trainer. I’ve also tried more cookies, chocolate and cake than one should (bread isn’t my kryptonite).
When it comes down to it, I believe there are two types of women: women who can eat whatever they want and remain thin as long as they live, and the rest of us. Women in the latter category—women like Oprah, like my Mother, like me— we tell the stories of our lives with body flesh. We learn to be careful about our calories, or face the consequences. We do the best we can. Sometimes we resist temptations, and sometimes we surrender. Some years we run marathons (Oprah: Chicago 1994/Me: Sparkasse 2014), and some years we buy roomier clothes. Nevertheless, we persist. We keep striving for better bodies. We learn to love ourselves no matter what the scale says. We get fit, or we die trying.
Right now? I’m trying to lose 20-30 pounds. And maybe considering my best physical self a thin(er) woman inside me—makes me a bad feminist. Body positivity and fat shaming are among the feminist buzz phrases du jour, after all. And maybe I do get a little comfort knowing that Oprah—with all her money and knowledge and spiritual guides and gardens and cooks and personal trainers and success—still struggles with weight. And maybe this consistent striving to lose a few pounds while still loving food a bit too dearly (be it bread or sugar) makes me (and Oprah and my Mama)…human.