Hi. My name is Sarah. I weigh 236 pounds and I have great self-esteem.
I attended my first Weight Watchers meeting in 1989. My mother is a lifetime member and she enrolled me in the kids' program. She told me that life would be harder for me if I was overweight. She also said that I would be much happier if I could shop at "regular" clothing stores.
I locked myself in the bathroom and stood on the tub so I could see my legs in the mirror. I hated my thighs. I was nine years old.
I wanted to be skinny like my mom, but I when it came down to it, I had no willpower. My mother didn’t allow junk food in the house, which of course made me want it even more. I would save my lunch money and buy candy at the gas station on the walk home from school, scarfing my Doritos and Twix bars on a side street so she would never know. But when it came time to weigh in, it was obvious I was cheating on the diet. My mom would say things to motivate me like, “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.” When that didn’t work she resorted to bribes. In the seventh grade, she promised to buy me a new pair of Doc Martens if I got down to 125 pounds. I never got the shoes.
I never thought I would love myself the way I do today. Growing up I thought I was cursed by my size and my personality. Not only am I big, but I am smart and outgoing. It was a deadly combination for hetero high school romance. The friend zone was my life. I had long-term crushes on boys who showed no interest in me and I fooled around with guys who told me we had to keep it a secret. I once fooled around with a guy at a party after he asked me why I didn’t bring any of my hot friends over. Don’t get me wrong, people liked me. I was the funny undateable sidekick. The perfect companion for girls who didn’t like competition.
This kind of behavior followed me into womanhood and I grew quite bitter over the years. I was living in Chicago working to launch a career as a singer-songwriter I had a small fanbase, but other musicians were flying by me. I remember skimming through a music industry magazine and seeing a photo spread with a beautiful blonde woman jumping on a bed. The article was about her new album. I quickly turned the pages because she was too pretty to be smart. I hated skinny people. They had it so easy.
Fast forward eight years. I had moved to Nashville and I was working as a personal assistant for a successful musician. She was smart and talented and very hardworking. She was also very beautiful. She offered me fashion advice and lent me jewelry. She broke all the stereotypes I thought about skinny girls. After working for her for about six months, I was organizing some of her keepsakes. There in a bin of magazine and newspaper clipping was the woman jumping on the bed! It was her! SHE was the woman jumping on the bed from the magazine!!! I realized I was totally wrong. I was the judgmental one!
The woman from the magazine thought I was cool and she wanted to help me with my personal style. One afternoon she came home with a pair of jeans for me. Skinny jeans. I did not want to put them on. I explained to her that women who wear a size 16 can’t wear clothes with the name skinny in them. But she insisted and so I tried them on. I thought, “How did I not give these a chance before!?” They looked amazing!! Why was I wearing these giant baggy clothes?
All of a sudden it hit me. The world was not rejecting me. I had been rejecting the world.
I have always felt like I was talented, but that I was overlooked because of my size. And maybe part of that is true. But hey, as Mavis Staples says, “When life gives you lemons, make lemon cake.”
I decided to try something I had never tried before. I was gonna make lemon cake. Instead of hating the clothes I couldn’t fit into, I found clothes that I loved in my size. I started to shop for clothes, and for the first time in my life I was happy with them. I tried on new things. I went exploring for plus sized shops. I shopped men's. I shopped maternity. I didn’t get angry about what was not out there for me. I got into what was out there for me.
We are taught that being overweight is not looking our best. We are taught that we should want to lose weight. That this state of being big is temporary and not ideal. Right out of the gate plus sized women are struggling with this idea that no matter what we wear, we don’t look our best. And so to love ourselves is an act of defiance. Lucky for me, I have never been well-behaved.
After my look changed, the rest followed. It was as if I stopped hiding in every way. I really got into style. I got new glasses. Big ones that attracted a lot of attention. I stopped wearing baggy clothes to hide my big thighs, and my songwriting started to change too. I started to know myself, and my message as an artist came into focus. I was able to express myself clearly. I was no longer trying to blend in. I took risks with subject matter and lyrics. I also stopped seeing the creaks and the cracks in my voice as flaws. I just let them fly out, and it felt so good.
I decided it was time to update my website with new images. I used to dread having my picture taken. But this time was different. I didn’t want to hide. I wanted to celebrate myself. I covered my walls in white post-it notes. It took about a week to get almost 10,000 post it notes up. The woman I worked for and I spent days planning my outfits. The photo shoot lasted about four hours, and it was amazing. When I saw myself in those images, I could see the confidence. And so could the rest of the world.
You won’t believe this, but today mother is one of my best friends and biggest fans. We love to go shopping together. I make fun of her for being too thin to fit in the clothes at Torrid while she helps me pick out stuff to try on. She says things like, “Damn it, I want this jacket!” And I reply, “Tough shit, they don’t make it in a small, Mom.” We laugh at each other. I let go of resenting her when I let go of resenting myself. She’s a grandma and she still looks amazing. Her waist is snatched, her make-up and hair are tight, and her outfits are always on point. I have accepted that maintaining her weight doesn’t make her the enemy. And she has accepted that being "plus sized" doesn't make me unhappy or unhealthy.
In 2014 I got a phone call from NBC. They had seen an image of me while scouring YouTube for talent. They said that my big white glasses and had them curious enough to press play. NBC invited me to audition for Season Eight of The Voice, and I rocked out in those ripped skinny jeans and got a four-chair turn. But it wasn’t just The Voice that had my career taking off, it was the change in myself. The love I felt for myself was contagious.
My fanbase has grown so much in past two years, and it’s because they can see me now. So if you are out there hiding behind some baggy clothes, thinking that you can’t look your best until you lose weight, you are wrong. Maybe the world is easy for skinny people, maybe not. I don’t know, I have never walked in those shoes. But I do know that being yourself is a magical thing. And you can’t be yourself until you love yourself. Lemon cake is pretty awesome. Who really wants vanilla anyways?
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Sarah Potenza is a Nashville-based singer who recently released her debut album, MONSTER, to raves from NPR, No Depression, American Songwriter and more. According to Rolling Stone, "Potenza is to the blues what Adele is to pop: a colossal-voiced singer who merges her old-school influences with a modernistic sound." Potenza is currently on a US tour in support of MONSTER.