Oprah Overcomes

Oprah Overcomes
01/10/1994

updated 01/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

One morning this summer, a positively feline-looking Oprah Winfrey was jogging down the road when a stranger gave voice to a disquieting thought. "This woman said to me, 'You better quit losing weight, because you're going to make the rest of us feel bad,'" Oprah remembered. "What she really meant was, 'Listen, if you start looking better than I do, I'm not going to like you anymore.'"

A lifelong people pleaser, the queen of daytime TV might once have crumpled at the thought of losing a fan. But no more. "I'm finally ready to own my own power, to say, 'This is who I am,' "she told Ebony recently. "If you like it, you like it. And if you don't, you don't. So watch out, I'm gonna fly."

It took courage for her to find her wings. But now, after a humiliating, highly public battle with her weight, Oprah, at 39, is soaring. On Nov. 16, five years and a day after she Optifasted herself down to a pair of size 10 Calvin Klein jeans—only to balloon up to 235 pounds by mid-'92—she once again stood, all 5'7" of her, slender and victorious before her viewers. No, Oprah told them, she had not gotten this 150-pound hardbody by crash dieting. She had gotten it through a low-fat, high-exercise program that she folded into her hectic workday. Since March, she said, when she weighed 222, she had run 1,452 miles, hiked 43.7 miles and lost 72 pounds.

The architect of the plan to build a sleeker, slimmer Oprah was her personal trainer, Bob Greene. He pointed out that following her liquid diet, Oprah had lost so much fat-burning muscle tissue that, even at 145 pounds, 28 percent of her was fat. (She is now down to a much more streamlined 20 percent.) "You're sort of like a calorie sponge," Greene explained. "You're waiting for any calorie to come along so you can absorb it and turn it into fat." To boost Oprah's dieting-impaired metabolism, Greene designed a twice-daily aerobic workout. Every day, Oprah runs up to eight miles, works on the Stairmaster for 45 minutes and does 350 situps.

Oprah and Greene also settled on monthly fitness goals and strategies for reaching them. At first she would walk fast on a treadmill. Soon she was doing a slow jog. Now she runs a mile in under eight minutes. "People told me running would be fun. When I first started, I said, 'What's fun about this?'" she said after running the 13-mile San Diego Half Marathon in August in 2 hours and 16 minutes. "But today was a lot of fun."

Oprah also wanted to keep the fun in her food. Her chef, Rosie Daley, formerly of the exclusive Cal-a-Vie Spa in San Diego, bakes pizza and sweet-potato pies while holding the fat to 20 grams a day—the amount, for example, in two tablespoons of mayonnaise.

As she celebrates her new shape, Oprah has also been willing to share with her TV audiences her former self-loathing. "I'm 180 pounds. Now I wake every morning hating myself," she read recently from a Feb. 16, 1990, journal entry. Just over a year later, on Feb. 20, 1991, she wrote, "An all-time whopping 226...My body has betrayed me...I don't know who this is waddling through the airport." In June 1992, when she won her third Emmy, Oprah remembers topping out at 235. "I didn't want to get out of the chair to go accept the award," she said recently.

The difference this time, Oprah says, has been her newly won emotional insights. "It's not about willpower," she says. "It's about the truth." Yet that truth did not reveal itself until last January when Oprah, while working on her autobiography, began to reflect on her girlhood in Milwaukee. Born to an 18-year-old unmarried mother, she was raped by a cousin at 9 and sexually abused from 9 until 14 by various men, including her favorite uncle. When Oprah finally got up the courage to tell her mother that the uncle could have fathered the baby Oprah had given birth to at 14 (it died after a premature birth), her family dismissed it. "Because I had been involved in sexual promiscuity, they thought if anything happened, it had to be my fault," she said this summer.

Inevitably Oprah's past left her scarred. "It's important, I think, for people to make the connection that [weight] is an emotional problem that manifests itself physically," observed Oprah. Her emotional problem, she believes, was "the disease to please. I was one of the children who was abused because I couldn't say no, because it was more important for me to please the abuser than to please myself." She became a sexually active teenager because, she explained, "I didn't want the...boys to be mad at me."

Oprah claims that she regained the weight she lost on the crash diet mostly because she had not yet come to terms with these demons. "I loved looking good but needed other people to tell me," she said. "I still had the same old self-esteem problem." So she sought comfort in food.

That is no longer Oprah's failing. At last she feels comfortable with herself. "I'm losing weight only for myself, not to please anybody else," she said. "I'm happier than I've ever been, and healthier."

MARJORIE ROSEN
LUCHINA FISHER in Chicago

MORE ON: Oprah Winfrey

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