Rachel began gaining extra weight in 2nd grade, until at age 14 she weighed 250 lbs. Her mom Julie took her to several nutritionists and put her on many diets, but never understood why nothing worked until they discovered a secret history of bullying and emotional eating. Since then, Rachel’s 70-lb weight loss on the Style reality show Too Fat for Fifteen has inspired many teens as well as her own family to get healthier.
Find out how Rachel finally agreed to go to Wellspring Academy, how the whole family lost weight, and how being on TV affected Rachel’s weight-loss journey in our in-depth interview. And enjoy this transcript from our fitsmiForMoms radio show, starring Julie Qualley as our guest!
Linda Frankenbach: Hello everyone, and welcome to fitsmiForMoms Radio. We are the radio show that is part of the fitsmi family of services, and part of fitsmiForMoms.com, a web community that helps moms and parents of overweight kids by dealing with the big questions that plague most parents, What do I say, and what do I do? fitsmiForMoms’ companion site is fitsmi.com, created for teen girls, that offers them a place to go to find friends, support, inspiration, advice, and tools they need to feel better about themselves and to be healthy. I’m Linda Frankenbach, the founder of fitsmiForMoms and fitsmi.com, and I am so happy to have you with us today.
Today we’re going to talk about bullying, emotional eating, and how one girl, Rachel, who reached 250 pounds at age 14, dealt with these problems and conquered them. We will also find out how her mom dealt with it all, and how Rachel’s success actually helped her whole family. Rachel’s name may be a bit familiar to you, Rachel Qualley, she has been an inspiration to many overweight teens as a result of her appearing on “Too Fat for Fifteen” on the Style network. Our guest today is Julie, Rachel’s mom. Julie, welcome. We’re so happy to have you with us.
Julie Qualley: Thank you.
LF: I’m going to start with a brief recap of Rachel’s story. Rachel, who is 5’10″ and reached 250 pounds, continued to gain weight despite many attempted diets and visits with nutritionists and other professionals. Nothing seemed to make sense or to help until a history of bullying and secret emotional eating was uncovered, and then Rachel went on to lose over 70 pounds at Wellspring Academy.
Julie, we are so interested in Rachel’s story, and yours. Perhaps we can start at the beginning of your journey with your daughter, and ask, when did Rachel’s weight become a problem?
JQ: I would say that probably around second grade is when we really started noticing that she was putting on a bit of weight, more than just that “baby fat” that you think, Oh, they’ll grow out of it. And that’s really when kids started making comments that she was overweight. You know, it wasn’t directly to her face, more to a friend, that they would say something. And we’d started changing our eating habits, hoping that it would just make that difference, tried to get her into, you know, t-ball or activities like little league, and things like that, she just never really expressed an interest. And slowly the weight just continued to creep on. It wasn’t an overnight issue, and probably by the time she was in middle school she was definitely to the point where we felt like we needed to seek help.
LF: And tell me what, during all that period, was going on at your home. Such things as, did you—you have other children I think?
JQ: Yes, two.
LF: Two of them?
JQ: Yes, I have an older and younger than Rachel.
LF: Older and younger boys? Girls?
JQ: Yes, yes. Both boys.
LF: Boys. And so, what was going on at your home? Were others in your family struggling with their weight, or was Rachel alone?
JQ: Well, our youngest is ADHD, so he has a very high metabolism, and burns it off before he even thinks about food, much less consumes it, so with him we were struggling to put weight on him, or to keep it on him. Our oldest had kind of experienced the same as Rachel. He’s three years older than her, and he began circling the weight gain probably from kindergarten, but we kept saying to ourselves, Oh, he’ll grow up and up and in, he’ll grow up and in. And probably around 13 he actually did sprout well up in height; he’s 6’3″ now, but he was still probably about 50 pounds overweight at the point that, you know, Rachel and our entire family really started taking a step towards changing, and so he wasn’t necessarily in the obese category, but definitely in the overweight category.
And myself, I struggled a little bit growing up, but it wasn’t until I got married and had my first pregnancy that I gained well over 100 pounds, and it seemed like every time I would even make an attempt at losing the weight I would find myself pregnant again, so I was about 270 pounds and in a size 22, so definitely stood some room for weight loss, and my husband as well was in a men’s 44, having been a size 32 when we married, and had just put on that weight. Plus he has a steroid he needs to take for his asthma which was also contributing to his weight gain, along with some unhealthy food choices. We will not deny that we didn’t eat the best, but we did have a fairly healthy lifestyle as far as our eating went.
LF: Okay, that’s helpful to know. So when you began to focus on Rachel’s weight, what were the issues that you saw that seemed to be emerging and contributing to the problem?
JQ: Well, definitely the fact that she was being teased. We knew that it happened, especially when she was in elementary school, but we didn’t know that it was as severe as it had gotten by the time she was in middle school. When she shared on the “Too Fat for Fifteen” show about being picked on on the school bus or people making comments, it brought tears to my eyes because I had never heard those things from her. We would see Rachel, who was a pretty happy kid most of the time, just in this dull lull of a mood, and when we would confront her she would say, you know, It’s nothing, I’m fine, and would never really express people being mean to her or picking on her. A little bit here or there when we would really, my husband would have to pull it out of her. But she—we would say, Do you want to talk to somebody? She would say, No. If you take me to a counselor I’m just going to sit there and be quiet. So she really never talked about anything, and we just kind of saw slowly her shoulders slouch, the head hang, not really having great self esteem, and I think once you get that mental thought in your head of, I’m not worth it, it kind of sticks. And we always told all of our children, Love who you are on the inside, and the outside will catch up eventually and so will everyone else. But Rachel, always having a positive outlook, just never turned that on herself, and it didn’t help that my husband was active duty at the time, Navy, and he would go out to sea for months at a time, and she was very much a daddy’s girl, which I think just contributed moreso to the emotional eating. And Rachel shared on the show that, you know, a scoop of ice cream makes everything better.
LF: And so, when you, you’ve got the emotional eating, and you became aware, not as much as later, but you did become aware of the bullying, how did that make you feel?
JQ: Angry, to put it in a word. Frustrated. So much that—all of the schools say we have this zero tolerance for bullying, but when you bring it to their attention, they will say, Well, unless we catch the child in the act, there’s nothing we can do. It’s more of a he said/she said. And because there’s no physical attribute to bullying or teasing, you can’t see those emotional scars that are forever on our daughter’s heart. And the schools would say, you know, We’ll have the teacher address the issue, and the teacher would say to the class, Remember the golden rule, it’s not nice to say things to people that might hurt their feelings. But nothing would be done. Nobody would get in trouble, there was no consequence for their action, and I think it almost fueled it a little bit more in that they got away with it, so they would do it again. And they were smart. They knew to do it at recess or at lunchtime when teachers are less enforced on the one-on-one behavior of a student. And I think that ultimately—I went in to the school principal and said, You do something, or I will. Because I’ll find their mother, and I will tell them, You need to parent your child. I don’t understand how people are so blind to how their children are treating other people. They’re learning this behavior from somewhere and unless schools start to step up and put a consequence with this, it’s never going to stop.
LF: I’m hearing in what you’re saying the frustration, and also I’m hearing not a sense that there’s been any movement that you’ve seen around this in the schools; I know you have a younger son. Do you have any thoughts? You’ve dealt with this now for a long time, it’s had an impact on your family. Do you have any thoughts, concrete thoughts, for what a parent should do, and then what the school should do?
JQ: I think that if you are a parent that’s definitely experiencing or noticing that your child is the victim of this, to go into that school and speak with the teacher, speak with the principal, and more importantly speak to the school counselor, because this is the person that is going to be able to most help your child to deal with the emotions that they’re feeling. And then, moreso really, I think to the teacher in the classroom and say, This is what is happening, whether you’re seeing it or not. And be able to better address it. I think that schools have that section in health class where they go over what your body parts are, and how they change. Why aren’t they having a section that is more defined where a parent has to sign that permission slip, that we’re going over bullying, how it is not tolerated, and these are the consequences. Whether it is a proven fact or not. It’s almost like when a child accuses someone of molesting them. You don’t see the action, but do you believe the child? Or do you believe the person who’s guilty saying, I’m innocent. I understand we’re a country of innocent until proven guilty, but at the same time you can’t take away the damage. It needs to be stopped, and I think that schools need to open their eyes that these kids who are doing it are smarter and smarter. Pay attention. Put more parents, volunteer your time, on the playground, in the lunchroom, where kids are getting away with finding these places to pick on your child.
LF: I think those are lists of very good suggestions. I know certainly there’s far more awareness of bullying now, and more focus on it. I know documentaries in the works on it, and more, but hearing it directly from you, a mom who’s experienced it, is really so powerful. What was that thing that your daughter said about this that was so moving on the show, about what it left her feeling?
JQ: It was so hard. She said, “You know, people say sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you. But words do hurt. They leave a scar on your heart.”
LF: Those were pretty powerful words.
JQ: Especially for a child.
LF: Oh yes. And very hard words for a mom to hear I would think.
LF: Whoa, that’s tough. So do you think that your daughter’s experience with bullying was at all typical of what a child who is struggling with her weight might go through?
JQ: Oh yes, very much so. I think that moreso even—I’m sure if people have watched the show they saw Cassidy, her best friend who we took to see her, and Cassidy as well struggles with her weight. And she and Rachel had both experienced pretty much the same behavior before they had become friends, which really brought them together, and Cassidy coming to Rachel’s defense. And I think that Rachel also has other friends who are slightly overweight to excessively overweight who have come to her and said, you know, Thank you so much for sharing and for taking a stand. Or, I know how you feel, or, Oh my gosh, that happened to me too. And I think it’s very typical, especially of the overweight kids who are hearing that bullying. Not just being overweight. She has friends who are underweight who hear comments that, you know, What are you doing, eating and then going to the bathroom to throw it up? You know, I think that they hear comments, no matter what, pertaining to their weight. But definitely Rachel is in that typical expectation of what kids are doing to anyone who is struggling with weight.
LF: Right. Was there anything—you’ve just mentioned something that sounds like helped Rachel, which was that she had a friend and it’s this little community developed between girls who were dealing with it, and was there some strength she derived from that? Was that a help to her at all?
JQ: I think having Cassidy there was a definite comfort, if you will. A shield, almost, because Rachel—we often see Rachel so nice she puts Mother Theresa to shame. She really is an advocate for others but never for herself. She is poster child for wouldn’t hurt a fly, and Cassidy kind of gave Rachel a voice of, Hey, back off, because Rachel would say to others, Leave her alone. But never, Leave me alone. And so I think having Cassidy there in the beginning definitely made her understand, I’m not alone in this. But it wasn’t until after going to Wellspring and being on the show that the other girls really came into the picture and said, you know, Oh my gosh, we’re not alone. And I think that that really opened Rachel’s eyes to how many people were suffering from this, and made her so much more thankful that she was sharing what she has been through and how to stand up for yourself, because now she will tell you, Leave me alone.
LF: That’s such progress. It just does make me think about how having this issue dealt with on television, having other girls at home see that it’s going on, other boys too. We know in our website, Fitsmi.com, we’re trying to connect girls so they can talk about these things, and obviously there is value there that you know is—you try to figure out how to help your child deal with the hurt, it does sound like one thing you might do is try to help her see that there are more people and connect her to these kinds of things that offer that.
JQ: And I do think that with Fitsmi, I think it’s a great place for them to go and find other people who have—know what you’re feeling and understand what it’s like to be in that bubble, if you will. And, I mean, more and more kids have reached out to Rachel since being in a place where she could share her story to say, What would you do if this happened to you, or, What did you do when this happened to you? Or, How did you find a way to tell them, Leave me alone. And I think that the more that kids realize it isn’t taboo to say, Back off. It’s great to stand up for yourself, and with places like Fitsmi.com they have now a place to touch other people’s lives and say, I know what you’re going through. Let me help you through it.
LF: Yes. And it sounds like a little special byproduct of this is Rachel is becoming a mentor.
LF: And that’s a really terrific thing, a thing that certainly helps with self confidence and so many other things. So out of something so painful are coming some good things that I’m sure are helping others. Let’s talk for a minute about the emotional eating that you saw. You’ve talked about, on our blog, you talked about the connection between bullying and depression and emotional eating. How did you know you had emotional eating as a problem and what did you try to do about it?
JQ: Well, it’s funny because people kept saying that, you know, we were following every diet, every fad. We cut out everything known to man and added everything else. We did anything we could to try and help Rachel lose weight, and every time we would follow one of these diets, we would—everybody in my family would lose weight, and Rachel would find it. We’re like, How could you have gained two pounds? I lost seven. I’m not understanding, you ate the same food I did, you went to the gym the same time I did. What is going on? I don’t know, I don’t know. And I’m thinking to myself maybe because she’s a kid she needs more calories, less fat. I didn’t know. And it just wasn’t making sense to me. So we would try something else, and try something else. And every year—Rachel’s been a Girl Scout since she was four years old, and I’ve always been the cookie mom, and it was the end of the year. We were tallying up how many cookies we had sold, what cases were open that we had to keep, what cases were closed we could return, and I kept coming up short. And I didn’t understand, and I said to my husband, Did you sell cookies I didn’t know about to people at work? And asking my son who was in high school, you know, etcetera, and everybody kept saying, No, no, no, no, no. So I dismissed it. Later that week it was cleaning day, I was cleaning out our youngest son’s room, and in his room there’s a shelf with some cupboards and in between there are little pockets that you could put things. And it’s usually where I put his stuffed animals. I was rearranging and found six empty boxes of Girl Scout cookies. And my chin hit the floor. And knowing him, it’s possible he ate them. Knowing him, he probably didn’t do it alone. And when I confronted all of our children about it, Rachel and Dana both admitted that they had snuck the cookies, and didn’t think I would notice because there were so many in there, and over a period of a couple of weeks they had eaten them. And I just couldn’t believe it.
LF: So was there anything that you could do? Was there anything you tried to do about that that helped? Or did everything you tried to do lead to frustration?
JQ: Well, first I said I wasn’t going to be the cookie mom anymore, because that got the cookies out of the house. But definitely very frustrated because I would make empty threats of, I’m going to put locks on the cupboards and locks on the fridge. We knew that wasn’t realistic. I told Rachel, I feel like my hands are tied because even if I took everything out of our home that was an “unhealthy choice,” one, she left the house—she had to go to school every day. I can’t control what the schools have or what other kids bring in. Two, you can eat too much of a good food. If you eat 10,000 calories of grapes or 10,000 calories of, you know, Snickers, you’re eating too much. And the bottom line was Rachel needed to be educated on how to properly give her body the nutrition it needed, and it seemed like no matter what, it was her feeling like she was deprived. Everything she couldn’t have, and was told no to, made her want it that much more, and I feel almost increased her feeling of needing to sneak it in order to have it. So in the end, ultimately letting those taboo, not-allowed foods in the house in moderation, I thought, was our best option. To give her one candy a week, one scoop of ice cream. Something that she could have without feeling like the answer was always no, but ultimately in the end that didn’t work either.
She quit sneaking food, she finally realized there was a problem and did quit sneaking the food, but it was short-lived. I think it still slowly built back into her life again, until she went to Wellspring.
LF: So that’s a perfect segue into Wellspring. Obviously Wellspring was a successful experience for your daughter. She lost 70 pounds. Was she there in the academy for a long period of time? She was there for how many months?
JQ: Too many. She was there for four and a half months. One day is too long. She was there for four and a half months. She started in the fall when the school began, and she came home in January, January 15, and she had actually lost 72 pounds while she was there. I know that the show filmed her goodbye in December, when she had not quite finished. She had two weeks left, and she came home in January, had lost the weight, felt amazing, and came home to a very busy schedule, but got, I think, kind of right back into the groove of things, learning all that she did at Wellspring. Knowing now to come home and make good food choices, keep an eye on her portion sizes. When something bothers you, tell us so you can talk to someone. Key, I think to Rachel’s success, to knowing food wasn’t the answer. It’s not going to make you feel better. It’s ultimately going to make you feel worse. It’s like a band-aid for something that needs surgery. Talk to someone. And when she came home she actually managed to keep the weight off, and she lost an additional four pounds over the three months she had been home, but kind of got stuck. And recently, when we were filming another special for Style, she had asked if she could go back.
JQ: And she, almost two weeks ago now, she returned to Wellspring, and since being back she has lost another five pounds in her first week.
LF: So that brings us to an important question, which is, what goes on at Wellspring that works? Very simply, what works at Wellspring, and then I’m going to ask, so that’s not a realistic situation; what can she do when she comes home that will work? So let’s start with, maybe very briefly, what did Wellspring do well?
JQ: Wellspring, what Wellspring does well is they give the kids a controlled environment where food is prepared for them, so that they know they’re getting the nutrition that they need. Along with that they give them an uncontrolled option where they learn that control. Then they also teach them about nutrition and exercise, while instilling it in a program that also allows them to do their academic necessary parts of life. They found a way, with a perfect formula, to have all of that in their lives, so that in a controlled place they still attend school, but fix their health.
LF: So can that be replicated at home so that we don’t have what we’ve heard about so many times, which is someone comes out of those environments and then gains weight? Can Wellspring’s magic go on in the outside world?
JQ: If you’re a fairy godmother. No. Yes, I do think it can be. Because Rachel came home and kept her weight off. The difference is at home Rachel has to go to school all day. Every other typical person with “Biggest Loser” or anything else, you have to come home to reality and that means day-to-day doings in your life. In order for the Wellspring magic to happen at home, her health and her exercise need to come first in life, as a priority. You can’t do anything without your health. Rachel came home and made that probably second on her list. School was priority because she is a child and she needs to go to school. When she comes back from Wellspring this go round, we will definitely come home from school, go to the gym, then do homework, then do play. And so I think for us it is going to be a matter of reprioritizing so that if Rachel doesn’t come home at her goal weight, she still has the ability to make it to the gym for the necessary time. It’s kind of like at “Biggest Loser” they have all those hours to work out, and then they come home and have to go to work.
JQ: At Wellspring Rachel had all those opportunities, and now she has to go to school. So I do definitely think it is do-able. It’s about eating right, watching your portions, and getting your butt moving. It’s possible.
LF: Good. Well that’s a very, very exciting, enthusiastic and optimistic thought to leave people with. Important question for you. If you think Rachel can come home to family who’s cupboards were full of doughnuts and chocolate, was running out to McDonald’s for meals, there wasn’t the focus at home. Can a child alone pull herself out of that environment and maintain a weight loss, or actually lose weight? Or is she kind of doomed?
JQ: Honestly? She’s kind of doomed. I don’t think it’s impossible, but I do think that it’s impossible. I think that as a child, they’re relying on us, a parent, a grown-up, to provide what they’re having in their home, and to only have those options, how are they supposed to improve their life? How are they supposed to maintain what they’ve worked so hard to achieve? It takes the support of the family. I’m sorry, even if you’re a single parent, you need to give that child what they need emotionally and nutritionally, and if you have junk in the house, how are they supposed to achieve those goals? It is impossible, and I really feel like without that support at home, the child, who is dependent upon you, is doomed to go back to where they came from.
LF: This is such an important message. I think that, you know, what we’re really talking about is parents changing their parenting behaviors. And it’s not easy. You know, it’s—as you know, you are the most important role model for your child, and if you’re not role modeling, if you’re not creating an environment in the home that’s supportive, then, as you’ve just said, your child is really, really—you used the word doomed, I think we both may have, but that’s a strong word, but I think it’s really the case.
JQ: It is.
LF: And it’s so important for parents to know. One of the reasons we created FitsmiForMoms is just this. We really felt that parents needed their own place, they need their own coaching. They have to have an understanding about what to do, the kinds of things that you just talked about, and then they need support to do them, because it’s a big change for them too, often.
Do you have any last advice you’d like to share with our listeners?
JQ: Sure, I’d actually just like to tell them all to keep your eyes open, keep your ears open, and keep your mind open. Really be there for your child. If they’re coming to you saying, This is the issue I have, whatever it may be, listen to them and ask them, What would you like to do about this? Because if you force the issue, it’s not going to happen. They need to be ready to make that change in their life. Just keep an open mind and an open heart, and know that when they’re ready they’re going to take that first step, and you need to be walking beside them, not behind them, beside them. And it’s all about the support. I can’t stress it enough. Be there for your child. Have your whole family wholeheartedly supporting them, and all you can do is succeed.
LF: That’s wonderful. I can’t thank you enough for sharing all of those thoughts with us. I hope you have—you will have many opportunities to share that with others and if we can help you in any way in getting that word out, that we would be delighted to. So thank you so much for taking the time. Thank you to Rachel for all that she’s doing. Congratulations to you as a family.
JQ: Thank you.
LF: I think you’re great role models. Thank you so much.
JQ: Thank you for having us and letting us share the story. We hope that it helps just one more person.
LF: Thank you. Bye-bye now.
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