A year ago, I weighed 285 pounds. Today I weigh 185, which is more or less optimal for my 6-foot frame. Losing 100 pounds has been maybe the best thing that's ever happened to me. I feel better physically. I have newfound confidence in my ability to accomplish my goals. I'm more fun to be around, as the veiled bitterness that used to inflect interactions with my friends has evaporated. Indeed, all these fundamental feelings of self-loathing I'd been struggling with for as long as I could remember have disappeared. Basically, after convincing myself that I was a failure — a belief in which I saw my weight as both cause and effect — I've removed the limitations that I once placed on myself, and it's because I lost 100 pounds.
I desperately wish that weren't the case.
I say that because everything I've just written perpetuates our noxious, damaging cultural narrative on weight and obesity. Ours is a culture that simultaneously incentivizes people to gain weight and stigmatizes them when they do, and then offers the bullshit promise of instant weight loss through some miracle diet or incredible exercise secret.
Ours is a culture that incentivizes people to gain weight — and then stigmatizes them when they do
I'm no expert on weight loss. I wouldn't even consider myself an expert on my own weight loss. But if nothing else, the experience of losing 100 pounds has given me plenty of time to reflect on what that kind of transformation means, and how I was miserable not so much because of my weight in and of itself but because how I thought about, how I understood my weight. That's part of why weight loss can't really be understood without context, both in terms of a person's overall health and in terms of the larger society in which we live.
Here's what I learned from losing so much weight — and from the life changes I've experienced as a result.
Just so we're completely clear about how unqualified I am to tell people how to lose weight, I'll run down how I lost that 100 pounds. Basically, I just went to the gym, and I ... walked. On a treadmill, uphill, at a brisk pace, for about an hour every day — and I do mean every day — from July to April. That's more or less it! I started grad school in August, which meant I moved out of my parents' house and away from their immaculately stocked refrigerator, and also meant the place where I worked all day was located more than a 10-foot walk from where I slept, which also helped, but that's more or less it! That is not something I can monetize.
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You'll notice I talked mostly about weight loss through exercise rather than diet, despite the fact that the current scientific thinking says that eating less is way, way more important than working out. The thing is, though, it was a lot easier for me to hop on a treadmill than to cut portions, at least at first. So I just ignored the (frequently contradictory) mountains of literature on the best way to lose weight and just focused on finding a way that worked for me. I'm usually not so blithely ignorant, but it worked pretty well here.
When people learn how much weight I've lost in the past year, they sometimes remark how hard it must have been. That's a logical reaction, and it's probably true of most extreme weight loss experiences, but honestly? It really wasn't that hard. After all, if it had been hard, I probably would have just quit. The trick was finding a routine that I actually enjoyed doing and wanted to stick with.
More than that, I never would have lost 100 pounds if that's what I had set out to do. Indeed, the weight loss only happened as soon as I had given up hope of losing weight at all. When I went back to the gym last July, my only real goal was to start feeling a little better about myself. If I had any weight-related goal at all, it was probably on the order of 5 to 10 pounds, and losing 20 would have made me ecstatic. Because I wasn't putting pressure on myself to lose 100 pounds all at once — or in this case, at all — I sidestepped the biggest danger when it comes to weight loss: discouragement.
It definitely helped that I could do things like bring my tablet and watch Netflix in the gym, which I'm very aware implies access to a whole bunch of resources not everyone is going to have. As with everything, context matters, and I was fortunate enough to be able to arrange my circumstances in a way that was conducive to losing weight, despite — or, again, maybe because of — the fact that I didn't set out to do that. Losing 100 pounds can't have been some titanic act of individual will, as I've proven fairly conclusively over the first 26 years of my life that my willpower is mediocre at best. Instead, I managed to reshape my environment so that the result was weight loss, rather than continued obesity. Which leads quite neatly to a really fundamental point, the one thing I really want you to take away from all this.
The numbers are staggering: The latest data says that a third of all adults in the United States are obese, and another third are overweight. The obesity rate in particular has skyrocketed in the past half-century, so this is still very much a new problem. And the obesity epidemic doesn't exist because more than 200 million individual people lack willpower, or love food too much, or are too lazy to exercise, or whatever other crap is routinely trotted out to explain why any one person is fat.
The country's current struggle with weight is the culmination of a whole bunch of long-term trends: the easy access to lots of cheap but generally unhealthy food, the shift toward more sedentary lifestyles, a collective decline in leisure time and disposable income that leaves far fewer opportunities for people to find ways to eat properly or remain active, and a whole bunch more.
Of course, it's one thing to be intellectually aware of the large-scale causes of obesity; it was quite another for me to actually believe my weight wasn't fundamentally my fault. My work as a science writer meant I was more aware than most of the environmental drivers of obesity. Yet I somehow managed the intellectual gymnastics of believing that people in general were not individually responsible for their issues with weight while still fervently believing my obesity was my own total failure. After all, to do otherwise would have meant giving up control for my own choices.
Of course, I wouldn't have been able to endure it if I spent every waking moment obsessing over how I had screwed up my life, so I went to great pains to distract myself from my own fatness. I constructed a life for myself in which my physical appearance just never, ever came up, as any reminder of how I looked took me right back to the core of my self-hatred. Pulling that off meant placing strict limits on what I considered myself capable of. I convinced myself that nobody could ever consider me attractive. At 26, I had never been in a relationship—I'd never even been kissed—and it was torture for me to even talk about the possibility of romance, because doing so necessarily meant thinking about how I must appear to others. More than that, it meant being honest with and accepting of myself, two things I was just not prepared to do.
I really doubt I would have had the luxury —the privilege, you might well say — of constructing a life in which my appearance was this studiously undiscussed topic if I weren't a man. It was no healthy sort of way to live, but it sure beat the alternative of family, friends, and even strangers routinely pointing out I was fat. And that's been a constant theme whenever I've discussed my experiences with women who have struggled with their weight. With the very best of motives, my mom would tirelessly deny I was fat even when I was 100 pounds overweight.
One female friend — who has never even been overweight by any medical standard! — told me any trip home is an opportunity for her parents to cajole her to cut out junk food and start exercising. They argue that they are just telling a necessary truth that others would be too polite to say. And it's not just loved ones: She told me how random men on the street comment on her "curvy" features, something that might theoretically be intended as a compliment, but all it does is reinforce the idea that she is judged at all times in terms of her appearance and, by extension, her weight.
More than that, there are some pretty clearly socially defined roles that fat men can slip into: the funny fat guy and the smart fat guy, for instance. I was fortunate enough to be both funny and smart, but as I was told by another female friend — who was fat throughout childhood before losing weight in high school — that wouldn't necessarily have mattered if I were female, particularly during those formative teen years. As she put it to me, she found that to be fat and a girl is so often to be invisible, to be marginalized.
I convinced myself that nobody could ever consider me attractive
Now, these are just a couple personal stories, so it would be a mistake to generalize too much, and either way this isn't really my story to tell. But it's enough to make me fairly confident that another advantage I had, both while being fat and while losing weight was that as a man, I could live in a space largely free of judgments.
I can think of only two occasions in my entire life where I was made to feel self-conscious about my weight, and neither was particularly mean-spirited. Now, it isn't that being bullied over one's weight is an experience unique to women, as I suspect my experience is on the extreme end even for men. But I suspect such light treatment was only possible in the first place because I'm a man. I received less criticism at 100 pounds overweight in my entire life than a woman 10 pounds overweight does in, what, a month? A week? A day? Wherever we're setting the line, I'm inclined to take the under.
There's a robust medical consensus that obesity is associated with a whole lot of serious medical issues. There are health risks to being fat. But there are also health risks to making oneself miserable by going on unsustainably extreme diet and exercise regimens. This all gets much more complicated when we look again at society at large, how it systematically drives people toward gaining weight and then makes them feel like failures the moment they do so.
Maybe if we can build a society that looks upon weight in a healthier way — not to mention how obesity disproportionately affects historically marginalized groups, a colossal issue beyond my ability to reckon with here — then we could start having more nuanced conversations about an individual's responsibility to their own weight. In the meantime, I'd argue there's room for everyone to determine for themselves how best to balance the physical and mental aspects of their own weight. Maybe the healthiest life means losing weight, but that won't necessarily always be the case.
I mentioned I had never been in a relationship, and that's still true, though I've changed the way I view myself from "alone" to "single," with an eye toward changing that further in the future. I have now been kissed, though: It happened on Martin Luther King weekend — our most romantic of holidays! — when, after two hours of cutting a proverbial rug in a New York dance bar, the 40-something friend of a friend kissed me good night. I don't actually know if this had any romantic undertones, but it was on the lips and possibly open-mouthed, though I was so blindsided that I kept mine resolutely shut.
I constructed a life for myself in which my physical appearance just never, ever came up
But still! Even if there were no further interest — and I'll admit I'm still a novice at this sort of thing — people don't generally kiss people they find unattractive. Once more, the temptation is to say this happened because of the weight I lost, that I was attractive because of my newly trimmed-down physique. But I don't think that's right: I was attractive because I had been fun to be around, because I had just spent two hours throwing caution to the wind and dancing — something I always refused to when I was fat — because I was just generally confident, not in some macho bullshit sense but just in the sense that I was comfortable in my own skin.
There's no reason I couldn't have been all those things at 285 pounds, other than the fact that my own self-loathing prevented me from doing so. The problem was never really my weight, but my own inability to deal with my weight. So sure, congratulate me on losing 100 pounds if you want — of course I enjoy all the compliments I get — but the really important thing here is a more general sense of wellness: physically, mentally, and everything else. And if that's the case, let's celebrate and encourage, not criticize and stigmatize, all those who don't have to lose a ridiculous amount of weight just to reach that point.
Alasdair Wilkins is working on his master's in science and medical journalism at the University of North Carolina. He has written for The AV Club and io9. Follow him on Twitter @AlasdairWilkins or email him here.