Let's Stop Calling Weight Loss A "Journey"

Even during my dieting years — and later, after I became a proponent of fat acceptance and Health at Every Size — I used to sneer at the phrase “weight loss journey.” To me, a journey should involve some actual traveling, and ideally, more personal growth than erasure.

Still, the first time I lost a large amount of weight, I secretly thought I’d completed a very specific type of journey — the “Hero’s Journey” that appears in stories across many different cultures. After a long road of trials, I’d returned from the underworld of dieting with a new understanding of how to eat, exercise, and how to be. I thought I had achieved something major and acquired wisdom worth sharing.

I was 21 and started dieting seriously after seeing an ad for a commercial diet program on late-night TV. (I will never know why that one, out of all the weight loss ads I absorbed on a daily basis, suddenly spoke to me, but there it was.) I bought a candy bar on my way to my first meeting, thinking it would be my last for a long time, unless I backed out, which I could still totally do. But, a “counselor,” whose main qualification was that she had lost some weight on the same program. convinced me to make the commitment and I rode the subway home with two bags of sad frozen food and no prospect of eating anything else (besides steamed vegetables with which I was permitted to round out my meals) for the foreseeable future.

I spent the first several weeks constantly hungry and obsessed with my self-inflicted deprivation. My stomach would roar during my college classes and I’d have to sit there blushing and reminding myself that it wasn’t yet time for my one approved snack.

I quickly lost enough weight for people to notice, and after several months, I’d lost enough to genuinely shock my friends and family. They couldn’t stop telling me how gorgeous and healthy I looked, how proud they were of me, how I clearly had the determination to accomplish anything I put my mind to. Finally, I hit my goal weight: 65 pounds lost. Fat Kate had been eradicated — only Thin Kate was left behind. I was no longer a person losing weight, but a person who had done it. In Hero’s Journey terms, I had achieved the “ultimate boon.”

Unfortunately, once you reach this step, you’re no longer getting constant praise and encouragement for eliminating more and more of yourself. Seriously, did you ever wish your parents were more supportive of your choices or proud of your accomplishments? Get fat, then starve for a while. The entire world becomes a loving mother, full of boundless encouragement and praise, not just for your weight loss, but your entire being. (Do not actually do this.)

This celebration continues for the first year or so of being ex-fat, every time you run into someone you haven’t seen in a while, but then you’re just expected to live like a regular thin person. Which is to say, you enjoy the privilege of shopping in non-specialty stores, you’re no longer automatically eliminated by potential online dates on the basis of your body type, you get paid more, and your doctor finally takes you seriously — but the steady flow of sunshine up your ass has ceased.

I’d lost weight, but my thighs were still nothing like what I thought they’d be. Suddenly there was lots of loose skin in places where there used to be soft curves. I had gotten used to eating and exercising differently, but I still had no clue how to start loving my body when so much of my life to this point revolved around hating it. Seeing a thin person in the mirror was unsettling enough; believing I was an attractive and worthy person just felt flat-out wrong.

Worst of all, I still had the memories of a fat person in the body of a thin one. Every time I met someone who I know would have ignored me (or worse) when I was fat, I kind of wanted to kick them in the shins, even though part of the reason I worked so hard to lose that weight was so more people would accept me.

What nobody told me when I began my weight loss “journey” was that becoming thin through a long, arduous process would not give me the same body as someone who’s naturally slim. It would not mean that after all that deprivation, I could finally enjoy a moderate exercise routine and eat according to the suggested nutritional requirements for an average woman of my age and activity level and remain thin. Just as I carried the memories of a heavier person, I still had all the same fat cells I started with. And, I had a body that had for a very long time been deliberately deprived of adequate energy.

Still, I swore I’d never “let myself” get fat again. Like many people in our culture, I’d always regarded people who gained back the weight they’d lost as failures. After all, people who successfully lose weight are supposed to have made “permanent lifestyle changes” — which is a weight loss cliché, because it’s what we all claim we’re making when we embark on a diet. It’s what we all really believe we’re making. In reality, new exercise habits and subtle palate changes developed during a course of deliberate weight loss might last a lifetime (hooray!), but few among us can continue eating a highly restrictive diet — whether said restriction is focused on calories, carbs, fat, or whatever else is fashionable at the moment — for the rest of our natural lives.

After a couple of years, I started realizing I might not have as much choice in the matter as I imagined. The pounds started coming back, not because I sat on the couch eating cheeseburgers all day, but because I’d allowed myself to focus on things like my career and relationships instead of obsessing about my body all the time. I blamed myself for the regain, but I also didn’t seem to have the power to stop it. And, when I went through a period of serious depression, I did become sedentary and start comfort-eating empty calories, which accelerated what was already happening.

When I was about ten pounds heavier than my original “fat” weight, I began the cycle all over again. I lost weight, everyone showered me with love, and I secretly thought that even if I yo-yoed for the rest of my life, at least I’d get to enjoy all the thin years between the fat ones. But, this time around, I also started to learn about Health at Every Size and seriously entertain the idea of loving my body for what it was — a marvelous machine that, in the scheme of things, works extremely well for me — instead of obsessively wishing it were smaller, lighter, and shaped differently. When I began to regain the weight for a second time, I embarked on an entirely different “Hero’s Journey.”

Beginning to blog about body acceptance was my toe across the first threshold. My new road of trials involved trolls, self-doubt, lingering self-loathing, more trolls, lots and lots of well-meaning dieters begging me to tell them that their reasons for losing weight were pure and noble, and somehow, this meant they were more likely to keep it off. Eventually, a community developed around the blog, which radiated the support I needed to keep going, but temptation was always there, in the form of a culture that hates happy fat people, not to mention my memories of how kind and supportive loved ones, acquaintances, and perfect strangers were when I was losing weight. Every day, I had to hoist myself out of the well-worn grooves in my own brain that said, "Fat is disgusting, you are disgusting, you will never deserve love unless you’re thin."

I realize now that all those years, I was in fact delaying the final battle. The “ultimate boon” wasn’t reaching my goal weight, but gradually and deliberately losing any interest in the very concept of a “goal weight.”

Today, I have only one goal for my body: to feel as good as I can, for as long as I can. For me, that means walking, doing yoga, swimming, eating things that taste good, seeing my doctor regularly, spending time with people I adore, and being kind to myself. That last one was by far the most difficult to learn, but more than five years since I started — the occasional bad day notwithstanding — I’ve successfully kept those old self-punishing thoughts away. This is the hard-earned wisdom I have to share with you now: Nothing tastes as good as it feels to like yourself, right now, exactly as you are.
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