Who knew that so many people cared about my weight? When I decided to go on the TV show, “Dancing with the Stars” last year, it was the first time I was in the public eye after playing my last tennis match in 2003. So many people started asking, “OH MY GOD, how did you lose all this weight?” Book publishers started calling my agent. They wanted me to tell my story about winning the weight battle.
Weight is such a big component in so many women’s lives – for stay-at-home moms, athletes, businesswomen. It doesn’t matter who you are. Meanwhile, since leaving tennis, I’d given a lot of talks to women’s organizations about eating disorders and how to keep food from controlling your life. So with all of this media attention, and my own interest in sharing this story, I decided to write a book, Getting a Grip on My Body, My Mind, My Self.
Writing the book was almost like therapy. I’d gone through so much. Looking back at myself in 1999 and 2000 – my stabbing in Hamburg, my father’s illness and then his death, and my subsequent weight issues - I wish I had some women to talk to. I was surrounded by men, who didn’t understand my issues with food. They thought, “What’s the big deal? It’s such a little thing to let have so much control over you.” I felt ashamed. I retreated into myself.
In tennis, you have to be so strong. You can’t let your opponents see your weakness. And in tennis, eating disorders are rampant. My friends & I would go out for dinner. They’d eat nothing. Then they’d go home and binge on potato chips, brownies -- anything. I know, because I did it too.
My eating issues were wrapped up with an identity struggle, with that question – “What do you want to do in life?” All of us want to make some impact. There are so many choices, but my entire identity was wrapped up in tennis. I’d ask myself, “Will anyone even like me if I don’t play tennis?”
At 30, I realized, I’m tired of lying to myself. I had to make this change with food and my weight; I had to do this for me.
How did I do it? I started to take care of myself first. I was the typical caretaker – worrying about my mother, my father, my coach. I had to be honest with myself, and
I had to do this – lose the weight -- for myself -- not for my job, my ex-boyfriend, my coach. I had to do it for Monica. When I talk to women, I say – “If you are happy being heavy, that is great.” I wasn’t. I wanted to be healthier.
Finding balance with food – and with myself – came with experience. As I got older, I thought, “Gosh, I travel so much – these European women, these Asian women – they eat all this stuff.” I realized I could do it too and still be in good shape. Since that realization, I’ve never restricted myself. I eat everything. I don’t have to stuff myself with pasta because I know this is not my last chance. I can eat it tomorrow, too.
Back when my trainers would tell me I couldn’t touch pasta and I could eat egg whites only, I would think, “Wouldn’t that pasta be so great?” Pasta became the forbidden food – and I wanted it so badly. In the end – I don’t believe in restrictions. To me, life without a piece of bread or pasta – it’s not worth it.
The lesson – for me – is to really be comfortable with who you are. In my profession I was surrounded by women sized 0. I’m 5’9” and I don’t have to be a size 0. I truly believe that in my 20s I would have understood that, had I had more strong, powerful role models.
One woman who did play that role for me was Billie Jean King. I talked to her for the first time when I played in the Federation Cup in 1996. She was remarkable for her sport, but even more for what she did off the court. She stood up for her beliefs. I was a two-handed forehand and backhand; I was a strong, grunting female. Talking to Billie about it, she would say, “Monica, be who you are.”
Billie, like others, has done so much for this generation. Hopefully I can give back in my own little way, and keep that giving going.