Kaleigh is 21. She’s never had a boyfriend, never been on a real date, though she’s tall and witty and pretty and has a mane of thick, red hair that looks like the evening sky aflame.
Back when Kaleigh should have flirting with boys and going on dates and taking all the tentative steps toward adulthood, she weighed almost 300 pounds, and so she stayed home or strung along. Her junior year, she attended the prom with her sister, a freshman, whose date was one of Kaleigh’s friends, a boy who might have been a boyfriend, if things were different, if things were like they are today — two years and almost 100 pounds later.
Her journey hasn’t been easy, and her struggle isn’t over — but Kaleigh says she’s thrilled to be where she is and hopeful she’s on her way to something big. Perhaps even huge.
“I wouldn’t change anything I’ve gone through,” she says. “It has completely changed me, shaped me into who I am today. I’m excited for what the future has to hold, and I’m ready to go to work.”
The older daughter of a pair of alpha parents — both charismatic, athletic and successful —Kaleigh was a shy, timid child and grew more so as she grew larger and larger. By the sixth grade, she was 5’-11” despite burning billions of calories playing soccer, volleyball and basketball, and throwing the shot and discus.
When she couldn’t exercise the pounds away, she tried dieting: the diabetics diet, the Zone, Atkins, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers — you name it.
None worked. Her sophomore year in high school, she underwent lap-band surgery. It didn’t work either, and she sunk further into depression and self-loathing while her health slowly deteriorated.
“It was extremely stressful, and I became extremely insecure and depressed, especially being involved in all the sports,” Kaleigh said. “Noticing that, ‘Oh you're the only larger kid trying to make it down the court,’ was awful. Terrible.’”
That her younger sister was popular and buff — a rock star, Kaleigh calls her — didn’t help, nor did the fact that she was the only big girl attending a small, private Christian school. She tried to shrug it off, but it stung.
“I was like, 'Is this real life? Is this happening? Cool. I'll go single while my sister takes a date,’” Kaleigh said. “She was the thinner, pretty one, and she definitely got a lot of attention. You think of the perfect, athletic body, she's got it. I just didn't get that.”
As tough as high school was, middle school was worse.
“That’s when you’re especially going through a hard time in your life,” she said. “You start being body conscious, and that’s when I first started noticing it,” not that it was hard to see. Her friends were tiny — size 1 and 2. In high school, Kaleigh wore a size 22.
“There was no way we could shop at the same stores,” she said. “It just didn't work. Just being left out of things—it’s not that they didn't want to invite me. It's just that we couldn't do that together. Literally, if you look through my whole yearbook there’s no other big girl there. I had no other friends who were struggling with me, and weight loss is so much easier if you have a partner, if you have someone who is going to be there and keep you accountable. Just the way people talk to you, the way they tried to avoid certain subjects, tried to lightly tiptoe around the issue. That was tough.”
To make it worse, Kaleigh has a rich, sweet voice. Since she was four or five, she’s known she wants to sing professionally, but as she put on more weight, her confidence crumbled.
“I wanted to be famous,” she said. “I wanted to do it all, I wanted to have it all. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t possible. It was never a question of if I would become famous. It was when."
But the question soon switched from "When?" to "What if?" What if she wasn't who she thought she was? What if she wasn't talented enough, pretty enough, good enough? The fears haunted her, hindered her from auditioning and performing live.
"When you’re heavier and super-insecure, it’s hard to go in front of people and be like, ‘OK. Here I am. I have a voice. Listen to me,’ especially when you don’t want anyone to look at you,” Kaleigh added.
As for her family, “It was hard for me to be honest with them,” she added. “It was hard for me to talk to them because I was so insecure with myself, so torn up inside, so how could I have a good relationship with when I wasn’t OK with myself. How could I expect them to love me when I didn’t love myself?”
Her father, a former college football player, tried what he knew: Eat right. Cut out the junk. Tough it out. As well-intentioned as it was, his advice didn’t work either.
“I was so unhealthy that, physically, my body would not take working out that much,” Kaleigh said. “I would physically hurt myself. I injured myself many different times in high school.”
For example, she suffered a series of bladder and kidney infections, which likely contributed to her weight gain. Doctors later found she had a congenital kidney defect. She also hobbled around at least twice with a broken ankle.
“I’d been living with it and didn’t know, and that’s why I have such a high tolerance for pain,” she said. “My pain tolerance is literally through the roof.”
Her senior year in high school, she wanted to remove the lap-band, but doctors found it had rubbed a large hole in her stomach. How long it had been there, no one knew. Possibly two years, which possibly explains why she felt nauseous and weak, day-after-day.
“Everyone thought it was because of the weight,” Kaleigh said. Then, the effort to patch the hole in her stomach failed.
“Doctors thought it would be just like, ‘Oh, we’ll take some stomach lining and shove it on and hope it takes.’”
It didn’t, and Kaleigh was back in the hospital, unable to catch her breath, her blood pressure skyrocketing.
“They put in IV in me, and I ended up in the hospital for three weeks,” she said. She couldn’t eat, could barely keep water down.
“That was probably my lowest point,” she said. “Literally, I would wake up every day and think ‘Am I going to find out what’s wrong? Do I get to go home today?”
She’d awake each day, hoping, “Maybe today. Maybe today. Maybe today they’ll let me go home. Maybe today they’ll find out what’s wrong.”
On some days, she’d awake wondering, “Is this the day I die?”
Eventually, doctors removed an infection in her stomach, and she returned home, still over-weight, still insecure, still struggling. Because she was still sick, she was forced to miss the fall semester of her freshman year at Abilene Christian University. When she arrived on campus that spring, freshmen had already met and coupled and teamed, and there was no room for a newcomer, particularly a 300-pound girl. It was a miserable, lonely spring.
When she returned home that summer, she had no intention of returning. Again, a new low — health, confidence, family relations, everything.
“I finally got on a scale,” she said. “I hadn’t been on a scale for a long time, and I weighed nearly 300 pounds and so that was the moment of, ‘Oh. My. Gosh. Something has got to change. Something has to be different. I will not weigh 300 pounds. I won’t do it.’”
That’s when her life began to change. First, she began a controversial weight loss plan: the hCG diet, a plan that combines drops or injections of hCG, a pregnancy hormone, with just 500 calories a day. While some believers are so convinced of its power they'll willingly stick themselves with a syringe, the government and mainstream medical community say it's a scam that carries too many health risks and doesn't lead to long-term weight loss.
“My mother is a health nut, organic everything, and I think that has also lead to some of my rebelling in gaining the weight, but she would not have let me do it if it didn’t work,” Kaleigh said. “People can tell me that it doesn’t work or that it’s unhealthy, but I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been and 100 pounds lighter, so it’s worked for me.”
Since starting the regimen, her confidence has spiked. She can now meet a boy, look him in the eye and shake his hand without feeling insecure, inadequate. She says she can see a time when she might have a boyfriend in her life — not simply a boy who was a friend.
“There was once a moment where a guy kept talking to me,” she said. “I’d be in a room, and he’d come directly to me, and it was the first time I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I could actually be likeable. I could actually be that girl.’”
More importantly, Kaleigh is again pursuing her dreams of a singing career. She recently recorded a couple of songs in Los Angeles, one of which — a jazzy R&B single reminiscent of early Whitney Houston — she wrote. She believes she’s destined for something big, something huge. She can’t believe she’s gone through all this misery for nothing.
“Now, I’m comfortable with myself, and I’m not afraid to get in front of a bunch of people and say, ‘Here I am. I’m comfortable with myself. I hope you like what I’m singing. I hope you like what you’re listening to.’”
In other words, “I like me. I hope you do too.”
She credits her family — especially her mom — and God. Especially God.
“In the hospital, I asked, ‘Lord, Why is this happening to me?’ instead of asking ‘Why not?’ Why was I able to get through this? I would not have been able to make it through any of this without God.”
Her mantra throughout the ordeal: Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Today, Kaleigh hopes her story will help others, to assure them that “Yes, you can do this. You can get through it.” Recently, a girl going through a similar ordeal wrote her on Facebook. “I had a lapband done, and I’m thinking about getting it out,” she wrote. “Your weight loss story is inspiring. Can we talk?”
“And I’m like, ‘YES!’” Kaleigh said. “I’ve been there. I’ve done that. You can get through this. I can help you.’ You think you’ve dug yourself into this big hole, and you’re crying out. It’s so dark. There’s no light. And with a friend, you realize you can make it. You can do it. It might be hard, and you may have to be different, but that’s OK.”
She can tell them her story, of the time when she was physically incapable of singing, when the lap-band literally wrapped around her stomach, when doctors had to cut through her back, then slice into her stomach, then pump it full of gas, leaving her sore and exhausted — literally wiped out.
“Usually, when you get dark and you get down, all you want to do, all you need to do, is sing, to make some noise and to be joyful,” Kaleigh said. “But I couldn’t. It was so hard.”
But that’s in the past. Kaleigh knows she’ll always struggle with her weight. That’s just the way it is. She doesn’t see it as a curse, some punishment from God. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“God works all things together for good,” she said. “God wasn’t telling me to eat all the junk, but I did it anyway, so I don’t blame Him. I know that it’s God who’s been able to help me get through this. What might have been a curse, God is turning into a blessing.”
Whether the LA thing works out or not is irrelevant. She hopes it does. She knows it’s not that important if it doesn’t. The journey: That’s what matters.
“My story has shaped who I am,” she said. “It’s created a person whom I could have never imagined. By getting through the struggle, maybe I can give other people hope. Maybe I can let them know that, ‘Yea. Life sucks at times, and it’s hard but it’s worth it, and you can do it. You can get through it.’”