‘I conquered my body. I am not afraid’: Dr Catherine Wangeci Mbuthia on obesity and body shaming
By Dr Susan Adongo
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” World Health Organization (WHO)
When Catherine Wangeci Mbuthia was old enough to hold a spoon, she ate her problems. And they were many. Her plate was full of instances of physical and emotional abuse metered out by her dad for reasons she never understood.
But it didn’t come from nowhere, this obsession with her plate. Her older sister was a poor feeder from birth and was constantly hospitalised because of malnutrition related illnesses.
Because life is a balance of contradictions, she was born the exact opposite. A 3.4 kg bouncing baby girl with a desire to eat. Her mum, maybe in an effort to compensate, ensured she ate so well until she tipped the scales.
Consequently, she grew up on the heavier side of life and was thrust head first into a battle with childhood obesity. When she was barely six years old, she was so heavy she almost broke a swing.
While busy moving her legs back and forth, she didn’t notice it had lost it’s grip. Someone had to ask her to get off to prevent her from falling. As she grew, so did her defenses.
She became the school bully and looked forward to recess so she could beat up boys. No one dared taunt her because not only was she bigger, she was brighter. The combination made her feel invincible.
Health complications set in
These were just glimpses of memories she had as a child. But the most vivid was when she was 10 years old. While in class, she felt an odd wetness in between her legs. She headed to the girls bathroom to check and found a brownish stain on her underwear. That was her menstrual debut at a tender age when she barely understood what it was.
When her peers were out playing, she would stay home because of her period. By then she weighed 89 kgs. She was so big her legs complained. They started to swell until she formed blisters on her shin. Blisters that oozed fluid. Her knees also hurt; they were swollen and could barely keep up with the load.
By the time she was 14 years, she had become a health hazard. She could not fit into normal shoes and wore crocs throughout her high school life. Soon after, complications began to pursue her.
She was diagnosed with uncontrolled juvenile hypertension with a blood pressure of 220/120mmhg and kidney failure and had to be admitted in hospital for a month.
At 14, she was taking anti hypertensive drugs! Imagine that! Several tests were done and they could find no other pathology except her weight. She had one foot in the grave and missed a good chunk of school due to this illness.
Luckily, she was a clever girl and still performed exceptionally well notwithstanding her time away. The cost of her medication however, became a sore wound back at home. Their finances were already so stretched and it was another reason for her dad to point a finger at her. Their relationship was gangrenous.
Despite her close shave with death, she still did not alter her ways. She continued to fill her mouth because she genuinely liked food. If the doors to the school dining hall were closed before she got there in time (obviously because she was too heavy to rush), she would hail her ancestors until they opened the pearly gates.
She was so obsessed, she would pray that others would fail to show up so that she could eat their share of food. Once they went on a school excursion to a Coca - Cola company and she remembers taking so much soda, she couldn’t sleep. Her abdomen was stretched to the limit from the excess gas she had accumulated.
“Why couldn’t you just stop?” I ask.
“I wanted to belong. Most people in school were known for something. Sports, academics, beauty or wealthy parents. I was none of those so I felt the need to be known for something. Eating.”
She said she would eat 30 biscuits with a thick layer of blueband on them, everyday. Once she even ate a whole tray of eggs by herself. She would eat until sweat filled her brow and then the panting would begin.
Sometimes she even had to remove her top to get some air to keep chugging down food. Wangeci would eat anything that didn’t eat her first.
First time she was body shamed
Time went by and she completed high school and made it to medical school. By now she was a loner. She kept herself to herself. If high school was pressure, medical school was an anticyclone. It felt like a collection of the best and worst of people from all corners of the country.
The first time she was body shamed was in medical school. Because she scrimped and scraped to get by, her wardrobe was limited and frankly not her main concern. So people spoke in loud whispers about her appearance. The mean girls would throw dirty looks her way and she did what she knew best. She would collect those dirty looks and eat them.
“I was rejected at home and now rejected in school. I had found something to take away the pain - food - and until you have felt my pain, you shouldn’t judge me.”
One meal was never enough for her. She would have two suppers, one at the student mess and the other she would pack for later. By now, she was 110 kgs with minimal physical activity. She was living her life as if she was sure she was going to get another one.
Her hostel was about 2km from the classroom yet she would never dare walk to class. She would wait for the school bus and if she missed that, then she would catch public transport. If by bad luck she missed that, then she would definitely be late for class because it would take hours for her to put one foot in front of the other.
It was not until her 3rd year of medical school that she woke up from her slumber. Her older and only sister was getting married and blatantly told her, ‘she did not make the cut to be on her line up.’
“I looked older than my mother so there was no way she was going to allow me to be a bridesmaid.”
This woke her up. It’s as if she had been going through life with poor vision and then put on a pair of glasses. It was the ultimate rejection that lit up her bottom and rocketed her out of gluttony.
She got up, borrowed running shoes from a friend and started to run three hours a day. She would be up and on her feet at 5–6 am and then again from 9–11 pm. The first day was hell. She more of jogged around the field; the ground beneath raw and uneven. The pain in her legs was intense! Like a poisonous inspiration.
People would see her drag her feet on the school field at night and think she had run mad. By the time the date of the wedding came by she had lost 18kgs; just from the running. Unfortunately she still was not small enough to be a bridesmaid by then as she was 92 kg. Still it spurred her on.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
Her consistency stuck. She ran every single day until she started to have friction burns. No one had taught her about sports bras or proper running outfits. She improvised and used a scarf around her breasts for support. She then stuck tape beneath them to reduce the friction burns. Nothing was going to stand in her way.
When the weight drop became noticeable, the snickers started again. People thought she was terminally ill, starving herself or taking slimming pills. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Her relationship with food also changed. She broke up with it and though it tried to cling to her, she fought a mental war to keep saying no. She began to eat only when she was hungry and not necessarily because food was present.
In under a year she had lost 49kg. She was down to 61 kg. There was a lightness in her bones and a spring to her step. Yet despite this she still did not feel completely good about herself.
She wasn’t ushered into the cool people’s click because she was no longer fat. People noticed but that was it. That’s when it hit her that an external shift did not matter if her mental psyche remained the same.
She had clear days when she told herself the truth and knew she needed to face the demons of rejection, abuse and invalidation. No one could unbreak her heart and she figured if she didn’t deal with these issues herself then she would relapse.
“In hindsight, God used my sister to jumpstart me even if at that time the rejection felt like my heart had been fed into a meat slicer. I was never going to change and my weight would have killed me. I decided to do right by me. Not for public validation but for myself. I decided I was not just going to exist. I was going to live.”
Dr. Catherine Wangeci Mbuthia is currently 68kgs and no longer hypertensive.
“It’s not about the scale anymore for me. It’s about being healthy and living my truth. For the longest time, I was called a glutton and I was, but people shouldn’t judge one another’s lives if they haven’t been through one another’s fires. I look back and cannot blame my mom for overfeeding me when I was a baby. She was not in the right frame of mind herself. The environment we lived in was toxic. But I would like to urge parents of sound mind to be responsible about their children’s feeding habits. Parents have agency; children do not. Engage them in any form of physical activity instead of keeping them sedentary all day.”
“Are you afraid that you might fall back or fail?”
“No. If I never do anything else in this life, I want it to be known that I conquered my body. I am not afraid.”
The writer, Dr Susan Adongo, is an obstetrician and gynecologist at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi. She writes about the experiences of her colleagues in the medical fraternity.