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What I Gained When I Lost Weight, And What I Lost

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.

What will you gain when you lose?
Special K has a special message for you: you will become better if you become smaller.

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.

Pride scale
The problem with the Special K scale is that, according to the campaign, you don't have pride already. Pride is what you will get when you lose weight by eating Special K. So not only is the campaign upsetting, but the scale doesn't reflect what it's trying to reflect.

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.

Yay Scale
This is a much better scale. For one thing, it reflects the truth, and doesn't promise to fulfill something if you make a change. For another, all of those descriptions are about me, regardless of my size.

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.

By Susan

I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

22 replies on “What I Gained When I Lost Weight, And What I Lost”

I can be full of pizzazz and full of pizzas.

(I’m sorry I couldn’t help myself)

But in all seriousness, I love this article. My weight as an adult has fluctuated. Right now I’m on the lower end of it, and I can’t say I feel any happier or more confident that I was at my highest weight. I still want to be thinner a lot of the time, and I still want to say screw it the other part. Body image is so much more complicated than an actual size or weight, just like happiness is more than just your body image.

“1) I became more confident. At the same time, that confidence, to me, is dirty. ”

Yep, when I was at my thinnest I felt the worst. I paid too much attention to my body, because I was working so hard on it. I became more aware of things that needed fixing. Just a downward spiral.

I am not fat. By any stretch of the imagination. But I’m not thin. Like most women I would consider myself average. I do not see myself anywhere in the media. It’s either one extreme or the other. Not that those body types should be shunned, but I’d like to see people like me too.

“3) I was treated better.”

Even average, I feel invisible. When I was thinner men instantly paid attention to me. No matter how crappy I looked. I remember once I was wearing a (stained) super over-sized t-shirt and pajamas pants, had my hair up in a bun and still got hit on. Now no matter what I do, men just don’t talk to me. Again, not fat, just not thin. It makes me hella pissed. And it makes me not want to lose weight. Like you said, it shows you who to avoid. But what do you do if it’s everyone?

#1- I get the whole feeling dirty thing.  When I’m at my thinnest I can’t help but feel bad about it.  The amount of time and emotional energy I spend on something so self centered, something that contributes nothing to society.  And I feel like I’m lying to myself and everyone because of all the unhealthy activities and obsession it takes for me to get there.  I look great but I’m only concerned with my guilty and erratic eating and obsessing over food instead of being a good, productive, and empathetic person.  It’s a lot to sacrifice being a whole ‘me’ for maybe 10lbs, a dress size, and scant compliments from men.

I hate anything that says “Lose weight to gain [this].” I have never been able to motivate myself by looking to the future rewards, it makes me feel like I am putting my life on hold until the goal is reached, and that sucks. I have to have the confidence and pizzaz first to make positive changes in my life.

I do my best to live a Health at Every Size, non-weight loss focused life. This particular commercial was very triggering to me, especially because I saw it during a very difficult time recently. I think it’s good that you acknowledge the gain in social capital that is inevitable in weight loss*. The problem for many us is this promise of this gain, when in reality weight loss is not going to happen for us. We go to unhealthy places to make that happen because of ads like this. As someone who works occasionally in advertising, weight loss marketing is both brilliant and disgusting.

*Although really, the most important problem is the fact that his social capital gain happens.

Weight loss is like every other thing people see as a Holy Grail for a new and better life: it doesn’t work.

“When I will get another tattoo, he will notice me.”
“When I dye my hair blond, she will see me.”
“As long as I keep silent, he will love me.”

Losing weight isn’t synonymous to the happy ending, you need a change of mind, character, view of life for that. It’s both a sad and a good thing that changing our outsides doesn’t immediately flip a switch on the inside. Yes, I like to lose weight, but I’m (so very) luckily so far away from the time that Thin Is Happiness, instead knowing now that I am regulating my body and health and losing weight is a side effect.

I agree. There is occasional lip service paid in one of the women’s magazines (maybe Glamour?) to the idea of “find your happy weight!” which is a campaign aimed at pointing out that each person’s body might settle at a different size if she eats healthfully and is active within her means, and the “happy” weight of your body will reflect those positive changes. (Maybe not Glamour–don’t they have the big “drop 10” campaign, too? I forget. Anyway. One of them.) And I love that idea, that your body is meant to look the way it looks when you eat well and are active to the extent that makes you happy, but it’s so hard to balance and find. Our bodies aren’t really meant to be sedentary for 10 hours a day, but that’s the way most of our jobs work, and the way it’s affordable and convenient to eat isn’t always ideal, etc. etc., so it might be just as difficult to find your “happy weight” as to find a weight the media calls sexy, though the process of achieving your “happy weight” is probably better for you both physically and psychologically (in the ideal way I imagine it). Also for many people this would be so much more gradual than we’re used to with typical dieting behaviors that it might be hard to adjust to. Also it seems like it might not have been as popular of a campaign since I can’t even remember what magazine it was in…

Yes yes yes and YES.

Watching those commercials was sad for me, because the first one I watched didn’t immediately click as a weight-loss ad because of the way it was cut. I had thought it was advocating that we should feel happy with ourselves no matter what. Aaaand then I saw the full version of the commercial, and I realized what it was ACTUALLY saying.

I hate this push in weight loss ads. This push that we’re gaining so much by being thin, whether it is confidence, health, control, feeling like we’re ourselves again. And I hate it because it is cajoling me to judge myself based on my body shape, because it is telling me I’m not “okay” as I am, because it tries to “speak” to me in gendered language, because all the people they show in their ads are women.

When I was thin, I didn’t love my body more. I was still focused on the “flaws” I perceived. No matter what I did to change my external appearance, I wasn’t ever going to match the incredibly narrow beauty ideal.

By deciding to no longer Give a Shit, I personally dare to have the audacity to love myself no matter what my body is like. I challenge the social forces that try to say that I am worth less as a person by being overweight. And because I’m not buying into that framework anymore, I am also better to Mr. Silverwane, who has been obese all his life.

And as with Susan, this is all very personal, and not everyone might share that…but for me, it is incredibly liberating to not care about trying to lose weight.

I have had success with weight watchers, but I found that eventually I stopped following the plan. So what was the point of paying so much to do nothing.  Where is the perfect balance between comfortable when where you are at, healthy, and best role model to your children?  I should make better choices but am loathe to “deprive” myself of things I want or “enjoy.”  But on the other hand I do need to make better choices to role model my for my children.

Well, making healthy choices while still indulging when you really want to coupled with focusing on health instead of weight would be a good example. As would projecting a generally positive body image no matter what size.

(I hope you were legitimately asking. If not and that was advice you don’t want, ignore me.)

For me – it is being cognizant of what I want to be as a role model.  I want my daughter to see somebody who allows herself to enjoy things, but who also eats lots of vegetables and fruit.  And exercises, because I think movement is good.  That’s my goal – to be a person who feels good about feeling good, and doesn’t care so much about what “looking good” is supposed to be.

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