Why I have stopped congratulating women for losing weight
(and wish more people would do the same)
I’ve lost my knuckles. Where they were, are now just dimples. I’ve lost my wrist bones, too. Now there are just lines, just creases through the soft fat. It’s the same soft fat that covers the whole of me now. The fat that came on in a hurry.
Perhaps many were surprised and concerned by the weight gain. I was thin, thin meaning not-fat. I was never really thin. And now I’m not the thin-meaning-not-fat. Now I have rolls that when I sit. Now I shop in the plus-size section. It looks like I just let myself go.
I did. I let myself go. I let myself be. I let myself eat. After twenty years of starving myself and obsessing over exercise and calories, I let myself be myself. I returned to who I was before I started feeling bad about who I was.
Like many women, my weight fluctuated quite a bit over the years. Also like many women, my goal was always to be thinner. I would say I wanted to be healthy, and while that was partly true, my primary objective was to weigh less, to fit into the image of beauty I had in my head, to go along with the cultural narrative written all around me. The strange, strong pressure to lose weight, no matter how much you weigh, is overwhelming for so many of us. In fact, it is often expected that an “overweight” woman should want to or be actively trying to lose weight. Accepting herself as fat would be the same thing as giving up on her self-worth completely.
Because of this cultural imperative to be thinner, because I was not a thin person, and because I was dealing with undiagnosed OCD, I dealt with quiet eating disorders for years. When I say years, I mean a couple of decades—my entire adult life. My relationship with food has been unhealthy since I was in eighth grade and went on my first crash diet.
Time and time again, I succeeded at weight loss. Temporarily. Over and over again, I succeeded. I would get pregnant, lose the weight. I would gain weight. Lose it. Keep it off for a while. Gain a little. Lose it. Get pregnant. Do it all again.
I would restrict myself to 1,000 calories a day for months at a time. Sometimes, when I was consuming so little, I would also do an hour or so of cardio 3 or 4 times a week, while taking care of three kids and holding down a full-time teaching job.
I was exhausted. And unhealthy. And depressed.
Many mornings, maybe most mornings, I was able to get out of bed only because of the promise of being able to return to sleep later.
But I kept being congratulated. Every time I lost weight: “Wow! You look amazing!” “You are so beautiful!” “How did you do it? You are incredible!” The compliments were many and wonderful. The affirmations and praise gave me the confidence I couldn’t find in the mirror, no matter how thin, or not-fat, I got. I felt that the price of being acceptable was feeling hungry and miserable.
I constantly worried about food, exercise, and gaining weight, about becoming ugly again. If we were going out to eat, I would have to exercise for at least an hour beforehand, just so I could order grilled chicken and grilled veggies at whatever restaurant we went to, only eat maybe half of it, and still feel guilty about it. I never allowed myself to have treats. If I did, I would berate myself, punish myself for days by denying myself food and doing extra exercise. I equated food with morality.
Being thin, or at least not being fat, consumed me for years.
Until it didn’t.
I started gaining weight when I was diagnosed with OCD, about three years ago. I was prescribed a high dose antidepressant that causes weight gain as a side effect, but that was not the main reason for the weight gain.
I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia about a year ago, after suffering from severe symptoms for a full year before that. Running in a half-marathon had sent me into a flare (even though I had no idea that’s what it was) that lasted for months. But this was not the main reason for the weight gain.
We are also in a pandemic. The quarantine made it difficult for all of us to get exercise. Again, not the main reason for my weight gain.
I gained weight because I stopped starving myself. I stopped trying to be someone I’m not. I started enjoying life, rather than counting every single calorie. I gained weight as I healed from clinical depression. I gained weight as I gained joy. I gained weight because I was gaining back who I am.
I was never a small person. It’s not who I am meant to be. Just like I’m not super tall or left-handed. I’m not thin. I am me.
The main reason I started gaining weight is because I became more fully involved in the joy of my own life.
Of course, I want to be healthy. But healthy does not necessarily mean restricting food. Healthy means that I am providing my body the nutrition it needs and not overloading it with food it doesn’t need. Healthy has nothing to do with what size dress I wear and everything to do with how I take care of my body.
I have chosen to embrace being me. It is a choice I have to make every day. Some days I forget I have made that choice. The OCD is never far away. It whispers horrible possibilities into my brain. It warns me that I might just keep gaining weight—more and more and more—and end up like those people who can’t leave their house or clean themselves. It tells me that no one likes me anymore because I’m fat. That one is tough because I know there is probably some truth in it.
The fibromyalgia is ever present. So not only is my body fatter, but it also hurts more. I can’t do as much as I used to. I used to run. Now I am doing well to walk any distance. I want a sign to hold for others. Maybe it would say, “I am struggling because of fibro, not because I’m fat.” Or “I’m fat because that’s who I am, not because of fibro or poor choices.” Or “I am better off fat. When I was thinner, I was depressed, suicidal, and unwell.”
Even with the OCD and fibromyalgia, it feels good to rest in who I am rather than try to become someone I’m not. It feels good to accept the me that generations of ancestors have poured into, that my husband loves, that my children respect. It feels good to see a picture of myself and rather than think, “Oh, I need to lose weight” or “Oh, my hips are too big and my arms are too flabby,” just think, “I am happy with who I am because I am me,” and to recognize there is beauty in my face and in my body, whatever size and shape and age. It feels good to recognize the joy in the picture.
While I will go on eating healthy and exercising, I will never try to lose weight again. That will not be a New Year’s Resolution. I will not congratulate anyone for losing weight, lest I perpetuate a misunderstanding of what being healthy and beautiful means, or worse, that I inadvertently feed an already-present eating disorder or help to create one in someone else. The message I want my children and my nieces to hear is that the number on the scale is not a mark of health or beauty or self-worth or achievement any more than a person’s height is. The message I want these young people to hear is that the success comes from being healthy and kind. Being beautiful matters, but beauty comes in all shapes, shades, sizes, and styles.
I like myself in this picture. It was the end of Christmas day, right before everyone went home. We had all four of our parents over at our house. We adore our parents and are so thankful for them. I’m wearing the Christmas tunic my mother-in-love and I picked out a few days ago when we were on a date together. She makes me feel beautiful all the time. Also, if you look close enough, my mom and I are making a similar pose, down to the position of our hands. We look a lot alike. I love looking like her. She is beautiful.
2/24/2022 11:56:40 pm
I am a former student who happened to re-find your blog. I'm still on my journey to learn to love where i am, regardless of whether or not others think im healthy. I hope that it isn't inappropriate to say I've always thought you were beautiful. Your weight does not change or define that. While I was a student you were the image of beauty I wanted to be. I know that you don't need my validation, but I hope that knowing that helps in the way you see yourself.
4/1/2022 04:04:44 pm
I'm a current student of yours. (Found this funny) my therapist sent me this telling me to read it. I kid you not, i'm sitting in my bedroom sobbing. I'm so proud of where you've gotten and even though I haven't known you very long you've already helped me so much.
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Welcome to my Blog! I am a wife, mother of three, high school English teacher, and a graduate of the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. Before anything else, I am a woman of faith.