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What Happened When I Lost 40 Pounds

We are a society badly messed up about body image, which makes weight loss a fraught experience.

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It’s funny what you notice when you lose 40 pounds. I have noticed, for instance, that it is much easier to get dressed when your clothes actually fit. I have noticed the way certain bones feel underneath my hands (my rib cage, my pelvis) or how I look in the mirrored glass of a store I am passing. I have also noticed how people react to me. Mostly, I have noticed what they say.

“You look healthy!” they exclaim, giving me a hug, or grabbing my shoulders like an aunt at a family reunion. They say it so often and with such enthusiasm that it can have the inverse effect of upsetting me. I can’t help wondering how  unhealthy I used to look.

“People won’t stop telling me I look healthy,” I complained to my friend Mary.

She laughed. “Those assholes.”

Don’t get me wrong: I love compliments. But I feel a stab of mortification for the bloated, slightly sweaty woman who thought she had everyone fooled with Target hoodies and elastic waistbands. I have spent a lifetime hoping no one noticed my weight, and so it is a special terror that everyone now does. I tend to deflect in these moments. I say things like, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you stop burying your misery in Chipotle burritos.” Or I pass the weight loss off to quitting drinking, which is not a lie, since I was a beer-binger who could put away a six-pack on a Tuesday. (It’s hard to keep your girlish figure when even a casual night out includes 2,000 calories in sheer lager.)

It’s interesting, though, that so few people mention the word “weight.” It’s almost like they’re afraid of it. Like it would sound crass. Not putting a focus on weight happens to be what most reasonable diets do these days. The counselors will tell you about “healthy lifestyle choices” (not “calorie restriction”). They will explain concepts like “portion control” and talk about “a new way of eating.” (Classic motto: “It’s not a diet — it’s a  live it.”) Restaurants rarely tout their “low-calorie” options but instead offer meals that are “heart-healthy,” as though when I lost 40 pounds, what I really had in mind was a stellar cardiogram.

We are a society badly messed up about body image. We mock celebrities for getting fat and then mock Keira Knightley for staying thin. We scream about the dangers of the obesity epidemic while half of us continue to text and drive. So I can’t blame anyone for being weird on the subject of weight. I am  superweird on the subject of weight. In middle school, I ate iceberg lettuce for lunch and scissor-kicked my way through Kathy Smith’s aerobics video three to five times a week. By college, I had settled into serious “screw-it” mode: The worse any food was for me, the more I wanted it. I was all bacon and melted cheese and Camel Lights. Over the next 15 years, I gained 20 pounds, lost 15, gained 30, lost 10. My closet contained enough sizes for many sister wives. I agonized about my weight all the time. But I did very little about it. New Year’s resolutions dissolved mid-January. Broccoli and cucumbers bought with the best of intentions turned squishy with neglect. I relied on the optical illusions of the Dillard’s hosiery department: Spandex and control-top pantyhose and enough bizarre, constrictive doodads to outfit all of Madonna’s backup dancers.

When I quit drinking, I hoped the pounds would melt away. But I had swapped imported beer for peanut-butter-chocolate ice cream and pasta with cream sauce. Four months into sobriety, I was at the hairstylist in Brooklyn, seated in that hateful little chair where you are forced to look at yourself speak in a full-length mirror (I despise that chair!) when my self-loathing became radioactive. There I was, getting pampered in my fancy first-world way, but what I thought was: “I am going to have to lose weight, or I am going to rip off my own face.” Those were the words that formed in my brain. I knew drinking had kept me from losing weight. I did not realize, until that moment, how it had buffered me from the misery I felt about it.

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