12 Lessons I Learned After Losing 80 Pounds & Keeping It Off
FYI, this is not a post where I’m going to tell you to keep a ~handful of almonds~ on you at all times.
Hi, I’m Rachel! If you’re just meeting me for the first time, you might assume I’ve always had roughly the same body I have now. But you’d be wrong!
In 2003, I weighed 80 pounds more than I do now.
A lot of weight loss stories focus on how people got from “before” to “after”...but it’s *after* the “after” moment that I find most interesting.
So here are some things I’ve learned about body image, weight loss, and myself in the 13 years since I first started losing weight.
And FYI, this is not a post where I'm going to tell you to keep a ~handful of almonds~ on you at all times.
1. I didn’t start losing weight because I hated my body.
I gained a lot of weight in high school without really noticing it or thinking about it — it was mostly due to depression/anxiety, medication, a decrease in activity (thanks, in part, to big boobs that made exercising difficult), and a lack of knowledge about nutrition. By the end of my senior year, I was at my highest weight ever.
In August 2003, a few months after graduation, I had a breast reduction surgery and lost 10 pounds during my recovery week (probably from not having much appetite, not because they removed 10 pounds of boob weight). A few weeks later, I moved to Chicago to start college. I joined a gym, thinking not having huge boobs would make exercise easier, and since I needed to learn to cook for myself anyway, I figured I'd just learn to cook healthier foods* and sort of keep track of calories. I didn't have a bad emotional relationship with food; I simply ate highly processed, high-calorie food because I didn't realize how bad it was for me, or that healthier alternatives existed.
That was it. That was how it started. There was no "come to Jesus" moment with my diet or my body, no timeline, no event I was trying to slim down for. I only had a vague idea of a target weight. It was just...chill. I didn't make a huge conscious choice to lose weight. I didn't hate myself or my body. Quite the opposite, actually.
*BTW, when I say "healthy" throughout this post (as in: healthy eating, healthy choices, healthy habits) I mean "what is healthy for me." I'm not here to set the standard of what is healthy for everyone. Same goes for when I say "unhealthy." Cool? Cool, let's continue.
2. The problems with my body image really began after I lost ~60 pounds.
At my highest weight, I accepted my body. I believed I was cute/pretty/desirable/attractive and knew I was a valuable and worthwhile human being. I was confident (if a bit naive about how the world perceived me and my confidence). But once I'd lost around 60 pounds and was within 10–15 pounds of what I believed to be my target weight, things changed. Suddenly, I started to buy into the fantasy that all my problems — particularly dating problems — would be solved if I lost the remaining weight. Now that I was actually within reach of the arbitrary number I thought would make me "hot" by society's definition, I really wanted to get there.
This was the beginning of the period when my weight fluctuated the most, and it was usually tied to some sort of drama going on in my life. When my weight went up, it was because I was going out with friends a lot, drinking a shitload of beer, and not really prioritizing healthy eating or exercise. In many instances, I was going out and drinking a shitload of beer because I was sad about a guy, and I thought partying with my friends proved that I didn't need a guy to be happy.
When my weight went down, it was because I'd have started thinking about my sorority's spring formal/would be trying to catch the attention of some dude, so I'd start attempting to lose weight. And I would lose it...for a little while. But when things inevitably didn't work out with the guy (despite my weight loss), I'd start the cycle all over again.
3. Losing more weight didn’t magically fix my body image problem. (OF COURSE IT DIDN’T, RACHEL. OF COURSE IT DIDN’T.)
The summer before my senior year, I lost about 15 pounds in three months. My weight was already down from my annual pre-formal crash diet, and then I took it even further. I lost that 15 pounds because I was sad and angry about a relationship not working, and believed that being thinner would...well, I don't know what I believed, honestly. I didn't really want that guy anymore…I just wanted insurance that the next time I fell in love, the object of my affection would have to love me back — because I'd be ~hot~. (Really sound logic, I know.)
When I got back to school, I was thinner than I'd ever been and looked dramatically different than I had a few months earlier. I wasn't totally unrecognizable, but I didn't look like the person I'd looked like for the entire time my college friends had known me. People didn't really know how to react.
By that point, I had recognized that the approach I'd used to lose weight during the spring and early summer was actually bad for me and I'd self-corrected; I'd begun eating a healthy (if somewhat strict) diet, and had a reasonable/sustainable exercise routine. And I actually was happier at that point — in part because I felt beautiful, but mainly because I'd moved on from that guy. I had a ton of fun with my friends, started dating like three guys at the same time, and was generally loving life.
But within a few months, I learned that my weight loss couldn't protect me from heartbreak, and nothing about being thinner made me somehow more equipped to handle the fallout. By the time I graduated that spring, I was binge-eating and binge-drinking. I wasn't taking care of myself in any way, I had no confidence, and I was just generally being a lost and miserable 22-year-old mess. I put the 15 pounds I'd lost the previous summer back on, along with 15 more.
4. Losing a lot of weight can make your body public in a way that you may not be comfortable with.
I experience this less now, because most of my friends didn't know me as a "before." But people who do bear witness to your weight loss often have a lot to say about it. Not all the comments are necessarily bad or mean — in fact, I'd guess that most are intended as compliments — but having people openly talk about your body and what you eat can feel incredibly invasive.
It's hard to forget the way people stare at what exactly is on your plate as you eat in a communal setting or comments like "Whoa, you look so different! You look so skinny!" That feeling of being on display can make you feel really anxious about what you're eating, or as if gaining weight back would make you a failure in other people's eyes. It sucks.
5. Once you’ve started hating your body, accepting it again can take a lot of time.
Post-graduation, I moved to NYC and my weight stayed within a 10-pound range, but I strongly believed that if I could just get back to the weight that I'd been that one "good" fall, things would be better; I suddenly wouldn't be insanely underpaid, I wouldn't feel lonely, and the guy I liked would like me back. This mistaken belief led me to do more bullshit diets that didn't really work. I'd lose weight, but never very much, and never for very long.
It took another couple of years for me to accept my body. Things that helped: leaving a job that sucked and a city that has a well-deserved reputation for being soul-crushing, moving home with my family, prioritizing healthy eating and the kind of exercise that brought me joy when I'd first started working out a decade prior. Starting a blog and writing a ton. Meeting with a registered dietician. Training for a marathon, which sort of forced me to think of food as fuel and my body as a collection of muscles and organs. Just straight-up DECIDING that I was attractive. Being honest with guys about what I wanted and ending things when they didn't want the same things. And by the way, my weight stayed about the same, mostly because I'd finally stopped the destructive habits that led my weight to swing so wildly in both directions.
I really didn't expect to lose any more weight after that, nor did I really care to, but I ended up losing weight verrrrrry slowly over the course of the next couple of years, after I moved to Texas. Now I'm actually at that "goal weight" that I pursued so unhealthfully for so long, the same weight I was the fall of my senior year of college. But it feels so different this time around because my relationship with my body is so different. And because the way I got there was balanced, and not at all extreme.
6. Losing weight can actually make your life easier, and that's what's fucked up.
I want to tell you that losing weight won't make your life better, but that's not 100% true. Currently, I know most stores carry my size. I can board a flight without having to worry I will be kicked off before takeoff because another passenger finds my body disgusting. I can go to the doctor and not have any symptoms I describe be attributed to my weight without any further examination.
I am subjected to far fewer abuses and indignities on a daily basis than I would be if I weighed more. So in a lot of ways, my life is easier. But I deeply resent that this is true — because everyone deserves to be seen as a human being worthy of respect, no matter what they weigh. It is straight-up baffling to me that so many people still think otherwise.
7. Current weight loss wisdom tells us that getting fixated on numbers is a bad thing, but I learned that being afraid of numbers didn’t help me either.
After several years of having a bad body image, I tried to think less about numbers and more about how I felt. I never weighed myself, and when I went to the doctor, I'd step on the scale backward because I didn't want the number to ruin my day. But after doing this for a while, I realized that feeling like I had to avoid the numbers meant that the numbers still had power. So I focused on getting to a place where knowing the number, whatever it was, wouldn't ruin my day. I reminded myself that it's a number like any other — my temperature, my height — that may tell me or my doctor something useful, but that doesn't hold any power over me.
8. The way you lose or maintain weight may have to change as you change.
I've noticed that a lot of people who have lost a significant amount of weight have an attitude of "I figured out how to live, now I just need to do this all the time for the rest of my life!" And while that may work for some people, that has not been my experience.
After I lost that initial 60 pounds, and again after I lost the additional 15 pounds in college, I got very frustrated when I couldn't seem to lose more or even maintain what I'd lost. "I know how to do the thing! Why can't I just get myself to do the thing? Why isn't the thing working?" I asked myself that a lot, and I've watched my husband, who lost about 35 pounds right after college, experience the same frustration. (And we're not the only ones.)
But I know now that it was completely shortsighted to think that my weight, hunger levels, motivation, relationship to food, ability/desire to stick to a specific diet, and definition of "healthy" somehow operated outside of the influence of where I was living, my workload, my income, my relationships, and my overall mental health.
I've also learned that things like appetite, lifestyle, motivation, preferred type of exercise, and, yes, weight, will continue to change in ways that I can't really predict. I could never seem to get into yoga...until, finally, I could. Same with running. I also never, ever thought I'd be someone who would lose weight without trying. I thought — and I think other people who've taken down an entire pizza while crying and listening to sad music would agree with me here — that the idea of losing weight due to stress was basically an urban legend. Then last year I experienced something so overwhelmingly stressful that I lost my appetite and 10 pounds without really noticing (or even caring, which was what really blew my mind). Huh — body, you've surprised me once again!
9. I learned that what’s "healthy" and "unhealthy" for me really depends on the context.
The idea that going to yoga or going for a run is healthy, and going out for drinks with friends is unhealthy is completely dependent on the situation. But if you're someone whose default stress response led you to gain weight in the past, it's very tempting to want to change that after you've lost weight. There were definitely times where "new healthy me" experienced something shitty and thought, I better not start eating my feelings again! So instead I'm going to get over this latest round of shitty things by working out a lot, because that's a ~healthy~ way of dealing! But I've since realized that seemingly healthy things can be used as a drug or simply a distraction just as easily as "unhealthy" behaviors can.
Now when I experience bad things in my life, I resist the urge to immediately turn to "healthy" pick-me-ups; instead, I pause and evaluate whether doing a ton of yoga would actually be the best thing for me in that moment, or if the "unhealthy" habit of going to the bar with my friends would be the better choice. Or maybe neither would! Sometimes feelings like anger and grief and stress are not a problem to be solved! I've gotten much better at recognizing what's truly "good" and "bad" behavior for me in a given situation — like, am I working out because I love myself or because I hate myself? — but it took YEARS.
10. Staying motivated once you’ve reached your "goal weight" (ugh) might be a struggle.
For 10 years, I didn't struggle to find motivation to work out. I genuinely liked working out — I liked how it made me feel, I liked that it was good for me. While I associated exercising with weight loss/maintenance, I also assumed I'd continue to do it even if I didn't "need" to. Then I got to a place where I could maintain a weight I was happy with just by eating a healthy diet and being a generally active person, and I realllllly struggled to get motivated. WELP. Turns out, I was definitely motivated by weight loss more than health for most of the past decade. Like I said, my body continues to surprise me!
11. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop "working" on my weight.
Many people who have lost a lot of weight say they know they will have to work at maintaining their weight loss/healthy habits for the rest of their lives. I'm not sure whether that's true for me or not. On one hand, I don't follow a set diet plan at the moment and I don't exercise all that much, and my weight is holding steady. On the other hand, I absolutely make adjustments to the things I'm eating for weight/health reasons.
But these things have become so automatic and habitual that I don't spend as much time thinking about them as I used to. So is it really eating ~whatever I want~ if I still pay attention to portions? Or if I stick with the things I know to be healthy, filling, and of a "respectable" calorie count out of habit? It's currently less work than it has been for me in the past, but it's not *not work* either.
12. CAN I (AND ALL OF US) LIVE? TBH, IDK.
It's easy to lose perspective during a weight loss journey, to not know whether you're striving to be the fittest version of yourself or simply becoming an anxious/self-obsessed/way-too-stressed-out version of your true self. It's also easy to lose perspective on your body and your body image. Yes, I feel pretty good about my body now, but is that dependent on the fact that I'm currently at a socially acceptable weight? Am I just one bad week away from gaining a lot of weight back? How would I feel about myself if I did? What kind of other work might I be able to do if I weren't doing the work — relatively easy as it might be — of maintaining my weight? How much of this is just the patriarchy? CAN I LIVE????
And that's the thing — the answer to "Can I live?" is still a big fat "I don't know." It's a question I expect to revisit time and again, as my life changes and my body changes along with it. I have a lot of answers after 13 years and 80 pounds, but the main thing I know is that there's still so much I have yet to learn.