The Magical Thinking of Weight Loss
I was in middle school when I attended my first Weight Watchers meeting.
At the tender age of 11, I had already attended kids’ weight loss programs and fat day camps, kept food diaries, and counted calories. I had honed my skill at eyeballing portions of food, readily spotting the difference between a third cup and a half cup of blueberries. But, despite my best efforts, my stubborn body clung to its fat. So I was at Weight Watchers.
I descended the steps of a neighborhood community center, entering a shadowy basement with low ceiling tiles and long fluorescent lights. I stood in line while a Success Story individually weighed each attendee, marking our weekly weight in a ledger before ushering us into the meeting room.
I was an outlier — a chubby, pink-cheeked preteen in a room full of fortysomething women. I paid close attention as they spoke, listening not only for their successes and failures, but for how adult women talked about their lives. This was a coming-of-age moment. I was being ushered into the perpetual motion machine of womanhood: the unending, thankless quest to lose weight.
Through sheer force of will, these women intended to break their bodies like wild horses, starve them into submission, and, in doing so, attain the dazzling lives of thin women.
I listened keenly as the world of womanhood unfolded in front of me, women sharing their near-uniform stories of failure, or partial success (also experienced as failure). Some wept as they spoke of their lack of willpower, and the ways they knew their lives would transform if and when they lost weight. Marriages would rekindle, careers would flourish, lives would blossom into glorious futures. These women, brimming with grief, spoke of the lives that lay ahead of them, gleaming and pristine. If they could just beat their bodies into submission, their lives would transform, problems melting away. This had been promised.
That meeting is where I first learned magical thinking. Through sheer force of will, these women intended to break their bodies like wild horses, starve them into submission, and, in doing so, attain the dazzling lives of thin women. They stayed hungry, forever famished, but were never quite thin enough to realize the potential and promise that would deliver them to the world promised in weight loss commercials and daytime talk shows, morning news, and women’s magazines, promised by friends and mothers. They were not devout enough, and stayed soft with their original sin.
The size of a body was never just the size of a body. Thinness was a door that opened to a world of happy marriages, perfect children, enviable careers, meteoric ascents. It was a divine healing fantasy: All the wrongs in their lives would be righted by endless self-flagellation, and the mantra of the penitent. “Calories in, calories out.” Thinness was a mark of morality. It meant earning a happy, full, unblemished life. My body wasn’t just a failure, it was a barrier to a gleaming afterlife reserved for the deserving and the pious. All I had to do was leave my fat body behind.
This is where I began to pray at the altar of thinness that never came.
I grew from a fat child into a fat teenager, from fat adolescence into fat adulthood. I came out as queer, bucking the promise of thin, straight suburban bliss in so many ways. The lives described by the women in Weight Watchers weren’t for me — they never had been — but they still haunted me, called me into a life of thinness and straightness that had never been mine.
In my early thirties, I began to lose weight. Leaving a stressful job and finding a receptive doctor had led to a 75-pound weight loss. I had descended from extended into standard plus sizes. It was the moment I’d learned to long for over 20 years ago. Like an undertow, I felt its current tug at my ankle, the wish for thinness nearly dragging me under.
But, even as my size changed, the rest of my life stubbornly remained the same.
What no one tells you about major weight loss is that your whole body changes — the way it looks and the way it works both shift dramatically. You may look different in your clothes, yes, but when that clothing comes off, you may watch your naked body in the mirror, pulling at the smocking of extra skin around your hips, or pinching the flesh behind your thighs like a clothespin. After years of swearing it off, you may consider cosmetic surgery, only to learn that it costs tens of thousands of dollars, and will leave you immobilized for weeks of healing.
What no one tells you about major weight loss is the muscle pain — not from working out, but from learning to carry such a different body around. Standing up may be complicated, accompanied by back spasms or muscle cramps. You may remember commercials touting “so much energy” and “an active lifestyle” as your tired bones creak beneath you. You may feel older than your years.
What no one tells you about major weight loss is that it might not change your health indicators. It might control your blood sugar or lower your heart rate, and it might not. Weight loss might not make you stronger, or cure whatever illness you may have. It is often a doctor’s first (or only) recommendation when they see a very fat person. And that imprecise mandate can lead to similarly imprecise results.
What no one tells you about major weight loss is that, despite the constant refrain of “calories in, calories out,” your body will fight to retain its shape, relaxing back into its former softness. Even if you did everything you were told. Even if you maintained strict calorie limits and diligent food journals. Even if you swore off processed foods and kept working out. Some bodies stay soft. Some bodies make themselves convex.
What no one tells you about major weight loss is that your body will change profoundly, and you may miss it. Like any change, it may come with grief.
What no one tells you about major weight loss is the way that everyone treats you differently. Strangers will meet your eyes, smile back, laugh at your jokes. You will face a wave of compliments, often linked to the silent horror that your body was assumed to be for so many years. “You look great! I was worried — you looked rough before.” Accepting these compliments may come with ease. It may also feel like a betrayal, a sacrifice of the body that brought you this far, and the self that still lives within it.
What everyone assumes about major weight loss is that you will get dates, attention, sex. Some people who lose weight do; some people who lose weight don’t. What no one tells you about weight loss is that you may begin to feel profoundly unsafe. You may have become accustomed to a world in which your body was not touched, not prodded — in which your body was a different kind of prey.
Your body will be greeted as an accomplishment. You may welcome those accolades as recognition of hard work. But the changes in your body might be the result of something more troubling or mournful: illness, depression, life crises, poverty, abuse, loss. What no one tells you about major weight loss is that those congratulations may leave you happy and fulfilled, but they may also leave you feeling empty, lost, adrift, erased.
Your body may change, but your personality, your satisfaction, your happiness may not.
What no one tells you about major weight loss is that your friendships may change. Some, you may learn, were friendships of convenience or service, who had learned to see you as a passive receptacle for their own lives. (After all, fat people, it is assumed, cannot lead lives of our own.) As more attention is drawn to you, they may find themselves disconnecting. Like so many rom-coms taught them, you were their Fat Friend, there for comic relief or spiritual guidance, but never for your own plotline. There is plenty of discussion about the social gains of losing weight. What no one tells you about is the loss.
You might feel yourself changing. You may blossom into more extraversion, transform into the person your healing fantasies promised. But what no one tells you about major weight loss is that you might not. Your body may change, but your personality, your satisfaction, your happiness may not. You may find yourself still saddled with the same social anxiety, the same lack of confidence — whatever internal issues you grappled with before may remain. As your body changes, you might like it more, or you might feel increasingly disconnected from it.
Your size may drop, but you may find yourself in the same life you led months ago.
Your life may bloom into some glittering fantasy that you’ve been promised lo these many years. You might find the relationship, the home, the career, the life you’ve so long dreamt of. Major weight loss might be the jackpot, the skeleton key that unlocks the rest of your life. But what no one tells you about major weight loss is that it can be profoundly bittersweet. Your body may change, and your life may not transform completely, as you had so long dreamed. You may find the love of your life, but be haunted by the certainty that they never would have dated you as a fat person. You may lose weight, but find that your partner treats you the same — not at all like a love interest in a movie romance. Your size may drop, but you may find yourself in the same life you led months ago.
Weight loss may not lead you to the wondrous, technicolor land of Oz. What no one tells you about major weight loss is that you will still need to find your way in your same old life in Kansas.
How ever it looks, whatever it weighs, your body is your body. It lulls you to sleep at night, does everything it can to heal your injuries and illnesses. It pumps oceans of blood through your veins, its tireless heart beating only for you. It isn’t perfect, but everything it does is in your service. It is built solely to care for you.
Your body is your body. It is not your character. It is not your will, your work ethic, your determination, your tenacity. Your body is not your sense of humor or your attractiveness. Your body is not your job, not your family, not your broken relationships, not your dashed hopes. Your body is not the demise of your marriage or the dead end in your career.
Major weight loss won’t solve the problems of your life. Only you can do that.
Despite all that magical thinking that you’ve learned over so many decades, your body is simply a body, and its size is simply a size. Your weight is not your happiness, your capacity for love, your capacity to be loved, your worth, or your worthiness.
Major weight loss will almost certainly change aspects of your daily experience. Compliments may flow more easily with fewer caveats. Clothing may be easier to find, and more affordable. But major weight loss won’t necessarily change your life. It won’t necessarily make you more outgoing, more confident, more loved, or more lovable. It won’t suddenly, magically make you the life of the party or the bridesmaid-turned-bride.
Major weight loss won’t solve the problems of your life. Only you can do that. It is not the skeleton key to an unblemished and happy life, not the light switch for your confidence. Major weight loss may change your body, but it cannot guarantee more than that.
Your body is your body. Your life is your life. And your life is happening now —not 20, 50, 100 pounds from now. So go live it.