I Thought Losing 85 Pounds Would Make Me Feel Beautiful — It Didn’t

Elna Baker
Writer and performer Elna Baker. (Photo: Mindy Tucker)

I always wanted to be beautiful. As a kid I would stare at a picture of my grandmother, the most beautiful woman I knew and daydream about it.  She was 25 at the time, tall and elegant like Grace Kelly, and she was wearing the sacred dress. I knew this dress was sacred because it was the only one we weren’t allowed to play with during dress up.

My grandfather had bought back this silk brocade fabric from the Korean War, black with tiny red blossoms. For two years she worked on her dress, it had cap sleeves, went into a V at the neck and flowed out into a wide bell. It was breathtaking. I would stare at that picture and have the same daydream every time. I was all grown up. I was finally beautiful, I was wearing the dress and I was on a date with Brian Egbert, the most popular boy in first grade.

One day I couldn’t take it anymore. I snuck the dress out of my grandma’s closet, stood in front of the mirror and pulled it over my head. I went to zip it up, and it didn’t fit. I was seven years old, and I was too fat to fit in my grandma’s dress.

It didn’t help that my older sister was gorgeous. We took this family trip to Morocco when I was 12 and we were walking down the street and this man saw my older sister and stopped my parents and said, “Your daughter’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen. I will give you 1,000 camels for her.”

And my parents were like “No, thank you.” And then he looked at me and he said, “Hmmm. I’ll give you 100 camels for that one.” And I thought, “What?” 900 camels? There’s a 900 camel difference between my sister and me?” And I can honestly say the rest of my life has been this pursuit to be worth more camels.

I tried not to let it get to me, but it did. The only place I felt good about myself was at my grandmas. I’d go there after school and she’d make me cinnamon toast, or homemade jam. It was like spending time with Snow White. Everything she touched magically grew, and all the animals in the neighborhood would come to her door to be fed. She’d listen to me. She’d pamper me. She made me feel so special that I actually started to believe it. And I thought, It doesn’t matter that I don’t like my body, I’ll just make my personality so bright no one notices it. So that’s what I did, for the next decade I made it through by actively telling myself: I am not my body. But then when I was 22 I was given an assignment to write a story that began with the line, “My body finally speaks.” At the time I weighed 240 lbs, down from my heaviest weight of 265 lbs. This was the last thing I wanted to do.

But I let my body speak, and it wrote, “I’m made up of skin and muscles and fat, and I have a heart that pumps blood and a foundation of bones, and all of this is as vulnerable as paper, because eventually it can became ash, and yet I can feel, and I can jump, and I can dance, and I can do all of these incredible things, but you don’t love me. And when are you going to realize this is your only chance?”

And I read that and was like, whoa, body doesn’t hold back when you let it speak. So came up with a new mantra – “I am what I am,” and I would say it over and over again, “I am what I am, I am…”

And gradually I began to love myself just as I was. And as a result, I became interested in the foods I was putting into my body. So I went to a nutritionist, and I started exercising. And in 5 ½ months – which is practically overnight – I lost 85 lbs. And I looked at myself in the mirror with my new body and I thought, okay, it doesn’t make a difference, I am what I am. 

But it made a huge difference. The first thing I noticed is I was walking down the street, and attractive men and women would do something to me they’d never done before. They would look me up and down and then they would nod. And I thought, whoa, there’s like a beautiful people club, and the nod is their secret handshake, and they’re giving me like a week free trial. And I was surprised how happy this made me. And suddenly I was a size 6, so I could shop everywhere, and I was surprised how exciting that was. I stopped writing and I stopped performing. All I did was shop and try to meet people who’d nod at me. 

And then I went to visit my grandparents, and they hadn’t seen me since I’d lost weight, and they were so excited and I was like, get to me to that closet. I took out the sacred dress, pulled it over my head, and zipped it up. It fit like a glove. And I looked in the same mirror I had as a little girl, and I couldn’t believe this was me.