Margaret Dilloway Talks About The Pressure To Be Thin, Dieting, Exercise, Gaining Confidence, & Finding Your Passion

Photographed by Bradford Rogne

Margaret Dilloway is a stay-home mom and writer who recently relocated to Hawaii with her three kids and husband. Her book, How to Be An American Housewife, will be published by Putnam Books on August 5, 2010.

Here is Margaret…

When I was younger, I wanted to be a model. Agencies told me I needed to lose a few pounds first, because being five foot nine and 125 pounds wasn’t quite skeletal enough. Luckily, living with my parents was not unlike living with a couple of Ralph Lauren modeling scouts, so unapologetic were they about telling me I needed to lose weight, so these new people telling me the same thing didn’t faze me.

“I had a twenty-two inch waist when I was your age,” my mother told me one day when I was a teenager. “You’re so big.”  Then she tsked at me as though I’d failed a math test. The last time I’d had a twenty-two inch waist was in third grade. 

At the time, it didn’t occur to point out she was also about six inches shorter than me and that I’d have to lose a kidney or two to have the same measurements. My waist was twenty-five inches. 

I was crushed at the time, but it’s not quite as intentionally cruel as it sounds. Since then, my readings and anecdotal accounts from Asian friends have told me that this type of appearance criticism was common from their mothers, too. A Japanese mom, at least of my mother’s generation, doesn’t care about your self-esteem; she expects you will be confident anyway. She cares that you succeed to be happy. She doesn’t want you left behind because you were weak enough to eat a bag of Chips Ahoy. And if you have to will your genetics to submit to you, then so be it.

My father, who apparently was born in 1820, advised me against exercise and weight training, though he did think the weight loss was a great idea. Sweating was unladylike and weights were a no-no. “You’ll get big arms, like a man,” he said. 

Being young and inexperienced, I did not debate this. Instead of exercising, I lost weight through food restriction. It worked pretty well, but I lost tone in my upper body, the tone I’d had as a kid from climbing trees and doing monkey bars. I was beginning to veer toward a pear shape, despite being so thin. No matter how big my head started to look, my saddlebags never quite disappeared. The general shape of my body did not change.

Always shy, not just garden-variety shy but so-shy-that-a-psychologist-should-have-been-consulted-shy, I began telling myself that the root of my problems was my body confidence. Once I reached a smaller size, all my problems would be solved. I would love my body and be happy and therefore I would be able to talk to people without problems. I would talk in class without fear. I would be popular. My voice would be loud in choir class. I would sparkle, if only I were thin and did not eat that piece of cake like a bad girl. 

My dieting obsession continued through college. In college, you’re supposed to become more open to the world and experiences, but in many ways I became more insular and protective of my interior. No Freshman 15 for me. Here I’d get a cup of milk for my powdered Slim-Fast from the dining hall and drink it in my room, knowing that all the women at my all-women’s college would tell me I was wrong. Because I knew I was, but not how to fix myself. And then I’d go to the gym and work out on the cardio machines (still no weight training for me). 

I signed with a modeling agency and never booked a job. Perhaps the problem was the fact that I didn’t have the appropriate naturally rangy model’s frame, especially during that gamine era of the 1990s. Maybe it was my carefully blank expression I liked to use, so as not to impose too much of my personality on anyone. Maybe it was because I was truly too commercial for the fashion-y jobs I was trying out for, or that I was too white for the Asian jobs and too Asian for the white jobs. Or maybe it was that I just didn’t care all that much.

Sometime after college, I moved to Washington State to be near my boyfriend, now my husband, who was in the Army. On a whim, I went over to Seattle Models Guild to see if I could still model at the ripe old age of twenty-three. I was told not that I was too old; but that I needed to lose ten pounds, and I’d be in. I lost the weight and got approved and got a list of photographers to interview. As I traipsed around Seattle, talking to photographers, I began to feel something familiar. Hopelessness and profound irritation. My old friends. I should do this, I told myself. This is my chance. But for once, I paid attention to my gut. I didn’t even want to try. 

Instead, I got a job at a newspaper, writing stories about local theatres and Army life. I got sent on a big cargo airplane, a C-141. I shot machine guns with the Army Rangers. I had a generally good time. I started to actually live.

And write. This was it. The writing. I’d always written before, since I was a little kid, and it was always the one thing I would consistently get awards for. I’d always been good at it without trying, and now I began to try.

In writing, nobody cares what you look like. No one was telling me my ass was too big.  Something important snapped into the place in my brain. As I did more stuff and felt more competent, I realized my size didn’t matter. I began to develop an actual personality. I’d never felt so liberated. 

I began writing more during this time. The most important piece was a short play that got a read at a local theater, about a Japanese woman and a tumultuous relationship with her daughter. The inception of my first published novel.

Then, at 25, I had my first baby, a girl. I gained a rather impressive amount of weight during the pregnancy. Cows, in the form of steak or ice cream, became my diet staples.

For the first time, I was eating whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, aided and abetted by my husband and demanded by my baby. 

And I had never been so hungry. 

The weight came off quickly as I schlepped a huge baby in a heavier car seat. I nursed. I hefted enormous bags of equipment around with my spindly little arms. I pushed my newborn in a stroller to far-off parks to gaze at leafy trees. I propped her up and sang every jazz standard I ever heard to her. I danced with her. Always wanting her to see more, I held her up until my upper body trembled and ached.

Then one day, eventually, something remarkable happened. 

I had biceps.

Triceps. And upper back strength. My core was strong. My shoulders were muscled.

And I wasn’t a pear shape any more. 

All I’d needed, all this time, was muscle. Finally, I’d discovered my body was more than skin and bones. It was a machine that worked for me. A miraculous machine that could make humans out of nothing and propel me up mountains and across oceans. The more I did, the more confident I became.

I began going to the gym in earnest, doing weight training, lots of cardio. I’ll never be a real athlete, but I do what I can. My husband made me do the Army Ranger obstacle course, and for the first time in many years, I did monkey bars, swung on ropes, and jumped over walls. I took a community college tennis class and found out I was pretty good. I learned how to swim properly. I relearned what came naturally to me as a kid: it’s fun to get out and do physical stuff.

When I found Plus-Size Models Unite, I was dumbfounded. First by the realization that plus size is size 8 to 18, covering a diverse group of women. Second, by how beautiful these women are. Women who have measurements not unlike mine. 

It took me back to my teen years, when I thought I was morally wrong, somehow, for having hips. I couldn’t help but think if I’d seen this website when I was younger, a site celebrating gorgeous women with curves, I might have been better off, far earlier.

Now I have two daughters and a son. What I want them to know, what took me so long to figure out, is it doesn’t matter what size you are. I could be a size 4, but then I wouldn’t have enough muscle tone to carry a basket of laundry upstairs, and what good would that do? I am the size I am supposed to be. The size I need to be to live well.

What matters is this: Do you eat five fruits and veggies every day? Can you run a couple of miles without keeling over? Can your fingertips reach past your toes? Can you stand-up paddleboard without losing your balance? Swim out as far as you want to see where the sea turtles hang out in the wild? 

Can you enjoy your piece of cake?

*Thank you, Margaret!!!

Photographed by Bradford Rogne

**Here is a summary of Margaret’s new book How To Be An American Housewife.  The book is available August 5, 2010 or you can pre-order it today.

How To Be An American Housewife is about the strong pull of tradition, and the lure and cost of breaking free of tradition. Set in California and Japan, it tells the story of Shoko, a Japanese woman who married an American GI as a way of improving her and her family’s fortunes, moved with him to the States, and tried to learn how to be a proper American housewife; and her grown daughter Sue, who finds her own life as an American housewife is not at all what her mother would have wanted for her, or even what Sue had hoped for herself. When Shoko’s illness prevents her from making a long-awaited trip to Japan to be reunited with her brother, she asks Sue to go in her place, and the trip changes both women’s lives in unexpected ways. With beautifully delineated characters and unique entertaining glimpses into Japanese and American family life and aspirations, this is also a moving mother and daughter story. Interspersed with quotations from Shoko’s guide to being an American housewife, this is a warm and engaging novel full of surprising insight.

 ***If you would like to find out more about Margaret check out her web site at


11 Responses to “Margaret Dilloway Talks About The Pressure To Be Thin, Dieting, Exercise, Gaining Confidence, & Finding Your Passion”

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  7. Indonesia Hair and Makeup Artist – Malaysia Makeup Artist…

    […]Margaret Dilloway Talks About The Pressure To Be Thin, Dieting, Exercise, Gaining Confidence, & Finding Your Passion « Plus-Size Models Unite[…]…

  8. […] follow-up to the debut novel How To Be an American Housewife, Margaret Dilloway’s The Rose of Galilee, “about a solitary amateur botanist who’s on the path to perfecting […]

  9. Thank you for sharing Margaret’s beautiful article. I was holding my breath waiting to find out if she developed an eating disorder or not and was thrilled to see that she did not develop a full blown eating disorder. I kept thinking about the research that there is a genetic basis and maybe she didn’t have the genetics and personality traits for an eating disorder to grow in her. To me this really reinforces the research.

    Margaret has a beautiful writing style and the article makes me want to read the book.

    Thanks for all you do to help people accept women of all sizes!
    Becky Henry
    Hope Network, Inc.

  10. Michelle Says:

    Well written, honest, and revealing about pressures that most young women struggle with but don’t talk about. I am looking forward to Margaret’s book!!!

  11. Margaret Dilloway Talks About The Pressure To Be Thin, Dieting, Exercise, Gaining Confidence, & Finding Your Passion…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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