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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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I don’t know what to say to someone losing weight, any more than I know how to respond when people remark on my own transformation. And so I reached out to  Kate Harding, a friend and the founder of the blog  Shapely Prose, who has written more on body image than anyone I know. When I was her editor at Salon, Kate challenged my thinking about the ways we conflate thinness with healthiness, how fat people (her term, which she uses with pride) get railroaded for so many societal ills. She was the kind of eloquent, compassionate feminist who would know exactly what to say in these situations. Except, she didn’t.

“I do struggle with what, if anything, to say to friends who have clearly lost weight,” she wrote by email. “I don’t want to be like, ‘Yippee! Weight loss rocks!,’ but I also don’t want them to think I’m being a jerk who doesn’t even notice, or worse yet that I’m judging them for losing weight and/or being proud of it. It’s a big effort, and lord knows I understand why people want to do it, so I want to be like, ‘Hey, I see you doing a tough thing that is making you happy. High five.’”

Actually, that’s as good a reaction as any. Kate also pointed out to me that it’s likely people keep telling me I look healthier because  I am, in fact, healthier. After all, I quit drinking and, though I rarely talk about it, I quit smoking at the same time. (One never made sense without the other.) If you had taken a peek in my bathroom cabinet during my last years in New York, you would have seen the signals of a body in distress: Tagamet for an ulcer, melatonin to sleep through the night, antihistamine for a mysterious skin rash that erupted across my legs, antidepressants attempted and abandoned. At 36, I got an EKG because I was convinced I was having a heart attack. The stress and pain and discomfort were so unbearable that, while it is impressive that I lost 40 pounds, it is far more impressive to me that I kept on 40 pounds for as long as I did, knowing how unhappy it made me, what a drain it was on my system.

It’s funny what you notice when you lose 40 pounds. I notice that I no longer flinch when someone’s eyes linger on me. I notice that I rarely try to smother a bad day with a plate of cheese enchiladas. I notice that my body is a marvelous engine capable of feats I never knew possible.

I notice how friends’ eyes light up when they see me, and I worry that I need that too much — that part of what got me here was being too needy for the spark in other people’s eyes — but I also wonder if that has less to do with my weight and more to do with me. They often tell me I look happy. And that is an easy compliment to take.

I just say, “I am.”

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