In a refreshing departure from pop culture’s “The Biggest Loser” craze is the inspiring adventure of Kara Richardson Whitely, a plus-sized author who tackled one of Earth’s most daunting mountains—and then wrote about it in her memoir, Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro At 300 Pounds.
In the book, Whitely, who is also a motivational speaker and adventurer, recounts a failed attempt to climb to the mountain’s summit, made more painful because she’d tried it once before.
Whitely speaks frankly, without asking for pity, about her compulsion to eat destructively: she used food to unconsciously manage her feelings and at one point, ate her way up to 360 pounds. She knew her obesity was a handicap she helped create, even as she was hiding half-gallons of ice cream from friends she saw in the grocery store.
In the depths of her despair she resolved to make the trek up Kilimanjaro again—whether or not she was still plus-sized. Thus began her literal ascent to confront the problems that “ate” her as she climbs Africa’s highest peak.
Whitley’s internal expedition is as captivating as her outward trek. With each page the reader is left hanging on the cliff she so courageously treads.
“I didn’t have to lose weight to be worthy of being on top of the mountain,” she writes. “I had the strength within me all along. I was whole and unbroken.”
The Daily Beast sat down with Whitley to talk about facing your demons, body image issues, and being a fierce motherf**ker.
The Daily Beast: Is it accurate to say that facing your “demons” was a bigger challenge than conquering Kilimanjaro?
Kara Richardson Whitely: Absolutely. Hiking the world’s tallest freestanding mountain was a molehill compared to facing my issues with food.
Aside from raising money for AIDS orphans through Global Alliance for Africa, what drove you to Mt. Kilimanjaro after you’d already climbed it once?
After my second climb, which ended in failure, I was really depressed. I wanted to get back on the right path. When the opportunity arose, I knew that I wanted to finish on top. To do so, I had to start where I was, train with a combination of strength, stamina and spirit, to be successful.
You remembered a time when you ate just for nourishment. Do you remember the moment that changed?
The first time I remember eating for comfort was when my parents were on the brink of divorce. I sought refuge in the pantry where I would hide and eat as they fought.
You decided to leave things on the mountain that no longer served you. What was the most significant?
One was my angst over my father, who was absent most of my life. I knew in order to move forward I had to take the good things he taught me—strength and resilience—and go from there.
Under pressure from online activists, Facebook removed the “feeling fat” emoticon from its status menu. Do you see this is as a sign of bigger change?
I think so. I hope so. Still, there’s a major disconnect between how the weight is treated (typically solely with the eat-less, move-more mentality) and what’s really going on with those who struggle with weight. I wrote Gorge knowing that I wasn’t the only one struggling with the massive mental challenge of food issues (call it what you will—compulsive overeating, food addiction, binge-eating disorder, or just carrying extra pounds) from the internal berating that spirals into a binge to the external fat-shaming and bullying (even the porters bet against me on the mountain). All of these can be stumbling blocks on the way to a healthier lifestyle.
As a fitness enthusiast you dispel the myth that overweight people don’t exercise enough. What are some of your favorite activities?
I love deep-water fitness, spinning and yoga. The other day, I tried a barre method class and loved it. Fortunately, you can see a shift starting to happen in the fitness community from the backlash to the former Lululemon CEO when he was fat shaming customers’ thighs to the love shown for ads such as this one, which is showing plus-size folks have a place at the gym.
If you were asked to write copy for a television commercial promoting healthy self-image, what would it say?
Intro scene: You hear a huff and a sniffle as a big, untied hiking boot thuds on muddy ground. Pan up and you see my chubby fingers tying the boot. Pan up more and see my thick calves, dimply thigh and round rump, up to the rolls of my belly. Pan up some more, you see my bulging arms, tight on my shirt, my head still down. I finish tying my boot and smile with the breath visible in the cold comes out. I look up and smile. Then, I hoist myself from the bench. Head off onto the most beautiful trail.
Voice over: Love where you are and go from there.
And hey, if any sponsors want to do this with me, I’m totally game. (Winks.)
Are you still a “tough motherf**ker and proud of it?”
You bet. I have lots of adventures in the works—from hosting a hiking and writing retreat in Zagori, Greece, to a family Hawaiian hiking vacation. I also hope to take on Machu Picchu in the near future.
But aside from the big adventures, my true strength and power is shown anytime I use my mouth to speak instead of using my mouth to eat. That’s how I can be tough motherf**ker on a daily basis.