Meet the Characters: Mary Dimino
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Mary Dimino is an actress and stand-up comic who uses her own weight gains and losses as a source of humor. She lives in Stanton Island, New York with her husband. Born and raised in Queens, Mary was overweight until her late twenties. She also talks about her experience of growing up fat, then achieving and maintaining a significant weight loss, and discusses the role of body image in our society.
Do you remember the first time you thought that you were overweight?
Oh, that's a good question. I was always chubby, even as a child. I remember being one of the heaviest girls in the class. And that pretty much lasted throughout adolescence; even in college I was kind of chubby. So, I think that's where I developed my sense of humor early because when you're a kid and you're heavy, other kids tend to make fun of you for various reasons.
I was always a little different, and I was always a little bigger, and since I'm a little bigger I thought, "You know what? I gotta compensate by being funnier. I gotta be smarter. You know, let me get the good grades." I know at least with me, if something is obvious you feel like you have to bring it out--bring it to everyone's attention before anyone else does. So if you're fat, you feel like you have to always be saying, "Hey, Hi! I'm fat. Hey, look at me, I'm fat!"
Did the humor, good grades and the friends save you from teasing?
Stuff still happened, things were still said, and the reality is you're still a chubby kid. So wherever you go, even outside the classroom, there's always that discrimination. I think all kids are sensitive, so I was always sensitive to that.
There was a part of my mind that was just me, and I was this normal person, so there were many times that I--as a teenager or in college--I tried not to look in the mirror a lot, because it didn't coincide with how I felt about myself. Like, I would walk around and I'd feel good, and I'd feel happy. And I'd feel--sometimes I'd even think I was attractive--and I'd feel kind of good about things and then I'd catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and I'm like, "Whoa, that's not me! Oh, my God, that's me?" So it's weird. I always was very sensitive to being fat, and at the same time I didn't feel fat.
When you were younger, did you try losing weight?
It was always on my radar, but I was really working against all odds, because as a kid my dad was a baker. He worked in Jersey and he would bring home these industrial-sized quantities of brownies and cakes. Like, my dad would come home from work and I would be waiting by the window for him, you know, wondering if today was going to be a lemon meringue or a brownie supreme. (Laughs.) So, as a kid I think I also probably associated that with the love of my dad 'cause I always looked up to him and I respected him and he brought home the cake, and I ate the cake.
Then in high school when I started realizing well, let me try and become more of my own person--an individual--and maybe I can eat differently than the way my parents eat. I think all teenagers try to find their way in life, so in high school I thought about dieting, but it wasn't dieting where I'd get a diet book and I'd do a very strict regimen. It was more like in my mind I was aware, "Listen, I'm overweight and I want to look better, and I don't feel healthy, and I want to look like all the other girls, and I wanted to go to my prom. I want to wear something nice, not like a big tent like my grandma would wear. So I'm going to eat less and maybe move around a little more." So that's what I mean by diet.
In college, I lived on campus. So I was now away from the environment of home, and I was away from my mother's home cooked meals and the cakes and the cookies and all the food, you know. And a vegetable on my mother's plate, it was like looking at a doorknob on the plate. I was on the meal plan at the school on campus, and I actually lost weight the first year in college. I lost like 20 lbs, and then I really liked the way I looked. I wasn't extremely thin but I was definitely more normal in college. Then when I got out of college, that's when I really packed on the pounds. I put on about 75-80 pounds, and that was between graduation and (age) 25.
What made you decide to lose the weight?
I feel like the biggest thing that I did was I decided to decide to be thinner. I couldn't stand myself anymore. You know when things align in life and something just hits you?
This was combined with my mom (having) cancer--she had a year to live--and I was trying to help her. My highest weight which was 256, and I remember walking up a flight of stairs. Halfway through I was out of breath. And I was thinking, "How am I going to get my mom in a wheelchair to chemo today if I can't even get up these goddamned steps?" I was so disgusted because it was getting in the way of me doing something to help her.
One of the other things that really, really made me lose the weight was at one of my birthdays, my friends took me out to dinner. There was this little mariachi band and this guy with a camera comes over and says, "You want me to snap picture? I take picture, five dollars." So my friends are like, "Okay!" Two people next to me, two very attractive guys that I always thought were so cute and I kind of had a crush on, and they both sat next to me and the guy snapped a picture. In front of me there was a piece of cake with a candle. The picture snapped, and it, like, looked into my soul. At that moment, I was staring at the cake like it was--like it was my lover or something. (Laughs.)
So when I got that picture, I was so embarrassed. You know how sometimes you look at a picture and you could just sense something? I just felt so much umm... sadness for myself. By looking at me looking at that cake like it was the love of my life, and I realized I loved that cake more than I loved myself, more than I loved my friends. And that cake was getting in the way of me just being happy. I had this epiphany of I don't want to be this way anymore.
Can you describe what it feels like to lose weight and then regain the weight that you fought so hard to lose?
It is the saddest feeling. (Laughs) I lost about 125 in total--and I never gained back the full 125. I gained back 40, then I lost 20, gained back 50, lost 10, it was that type of thing. But I did see myself at 180 again. Then I saw myself at 200. I gained, I'd say one time 50 pounds, 40 pounds, in like three months and you know, it took me years to take that weight off. You almost feel like all that work you did was in vain, yet you know in the back of your mind that you can do it because you did it already and there's no reason why this has to be.
What do you think made it different for you this time around?
I really feel like it is a choice of the human mind. I really believe that we're creating our own lives a la carte, so to speak. Depending on what you do in life, there are consequences. It's almost like you can pick and choose what you want in your life, to an extent. It's just I choose to be at a normal weight. I choose to be healthy. I really feel that the epiphany I had 10 years ago has just intensified now over the years.
Can you describe the difference between how you felt and acted when you were overweight, and now?
Oh, that's a good question. Okay, you feel like a different person. You just feel so light you feel like you could almost fly across the room. Whereas, when I was heavy, I was in my body, you know, and I didn't know what a burden it was until after I took the weight off. (When you're overweight), you gotta go to work, and you got to walk up the stairs, and you have to live a normal life. You have to run for a bus with 120 extra pounds on you. You're running for a subway, you're living your life, and you don't even know that it's so painful because you're in that body. Eventually you don't feel good. You don't feel right, you feel tired, your knees hurt a little. But you really don't know the extent of the burden until that weight is gone and you have this fresh feeling. I wanted to just dance.
What are your biggest factors in controlling your weight and health?
The first thing is my way of thinking. That's the most important because it wasn't until I changed my way of thinking that I was able to change not only my body, but my life. For example, there's a quote that I love, by Proust. "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." That's sounding simplistic, but it really is for me, changing my eyes, changing the way I look at--changing the way I look at food, and the way I look at gratification. Gratification used to be, for me, a cake. For me, now eating a whole cake wouldn't be gratifying to me. I would feel like I'm hurting myself.
So it's just the way I look at food now, and the way I look at exercising. Exercising used to be something that you had to do. It was a struggle. Now, to me exercise is kind of fun. I look forward to going in my basement and getting on that treadmill for a couple of hours. (Laughs). Now I listen to my body. So if I'm on the treadmill now, and my goal is to do two hours today, but after say an hour or 45 minutes, I'm just not feeling it, maybe I'll dance for 20 minutes. Sometimes I will just stop the workout. I listen to what my body says now.
Despite your incredible motivation to stay healthy, what are the tough parts?
Every time you put food in your mouth it's a tough part. It's different than having other addictions like drugs, because you don't need to do that to sustain life. But you need food just to live on a day-to-day basis, you have to constantly make choices on what you're eating.
Every time you eat and make that choice, it's tough. Are you gonna eat McDonald's or are you going to eat a chicken breast and a salad? So you can look at it that way, or you can look at it like it's a beautiful thing that every three or four or five hours, when you're hungry, you have a whole new choice. You have a whole new lease on life. It's almost like you're given this brand new moment every time you're hungry.
Another tough part, I would say, other than the daily stuff and the hourly stuff, are holidays. There are the holiday parties, there's going over to your Auntie Jo's house and she makes the good lasagna (laughs). It's all a part of socializing. So I just choose to eat it now, in moderation. I try to add some practical common sense and some logic to it than I didn't have in the past.
How has your day to day life changed as a result of your commitment to being healthy?
A daily (workout) schedule would be to go between 5 and 7 miles a day on the treadmill. If I'm having an off day I'll do 3 or 4. I can't really run that much because I have a bum knee. So t takes me maybe two hours to go seven miles. Then I do a half hour of abs. I do about 500 crunches and I vary the type of crunches I do. Then I'll do weights every other day.
If you say you don't have time to (exercise), then you don't have time to do it. It's just that simple. It has to become second nature to you. Can you ever imagine walking out of your house in the morning not brushing your teeth or not brushing your hair or not putting on your clothes? I mean, you just have to do it. You find time for that.
When you see a person who's as heavy as you used to be, what kind of things go through your mind?
I see myself in them. It brings me right back to that time. I feel like I am them, and at the same time I feel like, "God, I understand you. I totally know where you're coming from. All the money in the world wouldn't make me get back to where you are, yet I am so with you right now." Then I have that moment of thinking that...maybe I can help them. I did it; I know they can do it. So I look at them with hope, but I also have this overwhelming feeling of sadness. It's a weird feeling because it's a combination of feelings all at once.
How did family and friends react to your weight loss?
My mom was alive when I initially started losing the weight. She passed away about 9 months after she got diagnosed with cancer. I lost in that time maybe around 40 pounds or 45. I could just see she was so proud. Even some times she was too sick to even talk, she couldn't say it but I saw it in her eyes.
My father passed away four years after my mom from pancreatic cancer, so he got to see the full weight loss. He got to see my life change. He started seeing my life come together and my health get better and he just started seeing me date more. What I chose for myself was better, and he was just so proud of me. So I was so happy that I was able to give him that gift before he passed away.
So friends and family--I would say (our relationships) are basically the same. They're pretty much steady. It's strangers that I really have felt a difference from, just strangers looking at you when you're heavy as opposed to thin. When I was at my biggest weight, there would be a guy staring at me. I would think, "Look at that guy staring at me like I'm fat." Then when I got down to my lowest (weight), and there was a cute guy staring at me, I'm still thinking, "I bet he's staring at me and he thinks I'm fat." But then he would walk over, and the next thing you know, he's asking me out. That would floor me! Because when I was 250 pounds, (he) wouldn't be asking me out. So I would feel this resentment. And it took me a few years to get over that, and then I just had to realize that I have to take every guy as an individual. And eventually I lost the resentment.
How your career has changed during weight gain and weight loss?
Well, you know TV puts on 20-25 pounds right from the get-go. If you're overweight, you're getting character parts or you're getting a part about someone who's overweight.
When I was heavy, I got this role of Polly on New York Undercover. It was when I was in the process of losing weight but all the weight wasn't off. My agent sent me out to audition for Polly, and they were looking for an overweight woman who would be at an all-you-can-eat diner who was eating too much. They wanted her to be a comedic character. I auditioned, and the director said to me, "We've been looking at a lot of people. You have the sensibility we need for this character. We really like your acting a lot." He said, "The problem is, you're a little too thin. But you know what? We really like your sensibility for the character so much that we've decided we're going to cast you and we're going to put you in a fat suit so you look about 250." So then I'd already just lost all that weight, and I had to be in a fat suit!
Now that I'm at a more normal weight, (I) get sent for the average American woman look, the mother of the seven- year-old. You get sent for the lawyer on Law & Order, or the doctor or the nurse. So now a whole new world has opened up.
Can you talk about how your weight gain and loss has affected your stand-up act?
It's better to be thinner if you're an actress on TV or film. In stand-up, it was better for my jokes, it was better for the laughs, if I was heavier. I did stand-up fat, and I did stand-up skinny, and I did stand-up at an average weight. But when you're fat, the culture just sees you as more jolly, more benevolent. You're the fat fun person.
Jimmy Durante had his big nose, so he would always make fun of his nose and everybody would laugh. Or Lou Costello, he's big so he'd say something and people would laugh. That's because people are comparing themselves, and they feel better about themselves. "At least my nose isn't that big!" Or, you know, "I'm not that big. Wow! That's funny, now I can laugh." So I think audiences laugh easier at a bigger person because they feel better about themselves.
I think there's some discrimination between men and women because a man who's bigger can almost be seen as authoritative or sexy. Like John Belushi, no one ever felt sorry for John Belushi. Whereas a woman just gets told, "Hey, you gotta lose some weight." She's in the headlines. Like Rosie O'Donnell or Roseanne Barr, or Oprah--they're constantly being scrutinized for their weight. But a guy like Jason Alexander, or James Gandelfini, they're considered kind of average. In fact, Gandelfini is sexy! So I think there's that slight discrimination there between men and women.
Mary's web site: www.marydimino.com
America Walks: www.americawalks.org
American Council on Exercise: www.acefitness.org