I saw the ad, coincidentally, when I was on the elliptical machine at the gym. “What will you gain when you lose weight?” the commercial wanted to know. Jubilant women of all shapes and sizes were proclaiming that with just a little bit of movement on the scale, they would earn “confidence!” “pizzazz!” “self-belief!” Conviction, certainty, pep, zeal. Lose weight, gain everything.
It is a great campaign, because it is incredibly effective. Most of us have moments of self-doubt, of uncertainty, of pizzazz-lack. The diet companies don’t want you to lose weight so that they will get rich, oh no. They want you to lose weight because it will ultimately make you happy. Happiness sells like gangbusters.
A few years ago, I was in transition. I had returned from having lived abroad and was living with my parents while waiting to start graduate school. My older sister had had incredible success with Weight Watchers, and I decided to give it a whirl.
At this point in my life, I was quite healthy. I was training for another half-marathon. My blood pressure was good, as were my cholesterol levels. I was not trying to become healthy – I just wanted to lose weight.
And it worked. I lost about 30 pounds over the course of several months, and watched my body shrink. So, success! Thin! Happy!
Except not really.
I did gain some benefits from weight loss. I did feel more confident. I felt more beautiful. I felt like I was treated better by strangers. Buying clothes was more fun.
But I lost a lot more than pounds and inches. I lost the ability to talk about politics and economics, because everything came back to food. I had a running total in my head, hour by hour, points consumed versus points remaining, water already drunk versus water left to drink. I lost the ability to go to the movie without leaving four times to pee. Losing weight, for me, means constant vigilance. When i relax my concentration, the weight loss stops. I lost the ability to relax.
When losing weight, I lost some of my ability to bond with my family. Thanksgiving, even if it was a “day off” from dieting, had a shadow over it. Going out to dinner, something I really love, became fraught with anxiety and guilt. I avoided birthday parties so as not to have to worry about eating too much cake. Enjoy myself? Indulge? Even on those occasions when I would, I lost the ability to just have fun if food was involved. In the back of my mind, the weight loss goal was always there, refusing to let me just be.
I got into arguments with my husband when he would buy me chocolate. How could he be so selfish?
This isn’t to say that it was torturous – just that nobody talks about what you sacrifice to lose weight. Food is an integral part of culture, and to successfully focus on weight loss through food means to deny that part of culture, to deny that aspect of bonding, and to decide that the end benefit, the happiness that comes with being thin, is worth the sacrifice. But is it?
What I gained when I lost weight:
1) I became more confident. At the same time, that confidence, to me, is dirty. “I felt better about myself because I was thinner,” means that I give credence to the idea that size correlates to value as a person. Like me thin is more awesome than me fat. I’m not. I’m not more funny, or smarter, or more interesting, and I can argue that I am less of all of those things. I’m not a better partner, or mother, or friend – and am arguably worse. To feel better about myself means that I am buying into something that I fundamentally disagree with. The confidence is empty, and, frankly, worthless.
2) I feel more beautiful. Except I didn’t, really. Being thin didn’t clear up my skin, didn’t whiten my teeth or give me luxurious locks. I was the same, just smaller.
3) I was treated better. Fatter people are invisible, are discriminated against. I didn’t lose enough weight for there to be a huge difference, but the difference was there. And you know what? That’s bullshit. Sure, it’s nice to be treated like you are competent, but do I want that kind of conditional attention? If anything, it helped me figure out who the assholes are by who treated me better, and armed me with the knowledge of whom to avoid.
4) I had an easier time finding clothes. This one is a real benefit.
I use the past tense here because, like most people, I have gained the weight back over the past five years. I gained the weight for a variety of reasons: stress (moving; trying to schedule full time child care between myself and my husband with his full time school and my full time job; barely making ends meet financially), family obligations (I care a lot about what my daughter eats and what she sees me eating, and I cannot stress enough how much I do not want her seeing me restrict or abstain from family meals; I am already away from the family enough with work that half an hour at the gym four times a week is all I can justify; I will not abstain from birthday parties and dinners out and gifts of chocolate and holiday meals). Which is to say that I don’t have the energy, time, or will to put my desire to be thin above my desire to treat myself and my family well.
And net loss:
1) The ability to relax, to bond with my family, to treat myself, to enjoy dinners, to just eat without thinking about how that will get in the way of my goal.
2) The belief that people think I kick ass because I do instead of because I am thin.
3) Time with my family. Not to put too fine a point on it, but my kid is only going to be a toddler for a couple of years. I don’t want to spend all of that time at the gym.
I need to be clear here: this is all personal. For other people, or at other times in my life, the gains may be worth the losses. There is an overwhelming belief in our society that the weight loss in and of itself is worth any and all sacrifices. It sucks that our society places high value on thinness, but it does, and some people feel the benefits strongly.
The ads promise happiness, and I would be lying if I said I don’t envy thin people or feel occasional dismay at the scale. But what would I gain if I lost weight? Nothing that makes up for what I would lose.