Surprised to see me

The biggest shock of losing weight is the (sometimes weird) reaction by my old friends

Topics: Body Wars, Life stories, Editor's Picks,

Surprised to see me

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 super weird 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.

So when I moved back to Dallas, I went on a diet. Not a clipped-from-the-magazines, let-me-try-this-for-a-week diet, but the kind where you step on a scale once a week and pay for the privilege. I didn’t tell anyone but my family and a few friends, which is a little off-script for a woman who has written publicly about making out while wearing Spanx. But on this matter, I felt deeply private. I have known people who trumpet weight-loss regimens like a sparkly new ring on the finger: Have I told you about my diet? Do you want to hear about these pills/this lap band/this juice fast/this amazing injectable hormone? Not me. In high school, I went on Jenny Craig, and I was so terrified people would find out that I refused to eat lunch until I came home at 4 p.m., because the food was branded with a logo. I had nightmares my classmates would look inside our kitchen cabinet and see a beef-and-bean chili.

When it comes to our bodies, we all have no-fly zones. I have a friend who has lost weight, and she couldn’t care less if you know she’s on a diet. But she refuses to say how much weight she’s lost. Recently a co-worker grilled her, and when she politely demurred, the woman kept pushing. No really, how much? Come on, you can tell me. “She definitely wasn’t nervous about touching the weight issue,” my friend said. She added that the woman was heavy, and the candor may have come from an assumed “we’re in this together” solidarity. Still, can’t people take a hint? This stuff cuts deep.

And because it cuts so deep, different rules apply to different people, which makes the conversation that much trickier. My friend doesn’t want to share that number with you because when she finally screwed up her courage enough to step on a scale, she was shocked by how big she had gotten, and the number plunges her back into that shame. I don’t want to admit that I’m on a diet because, on some basic level, I seem unable to forgive myself for needing it in the first place — for not being born tall and thin with the metabolism of a marathon runner. I never wanted to be a woman on a diet. (I also never wanted to be a woman who cried easily, or showed people pictures of her cat. This did not work out as planned.) The fact that everyone notices I lost weight reminds me that everyone noticed I had gained weight in the first place but they said nothing because, seriously now, what is there to say? They said, “Your hair looks great.” They said, “I like those shoes.”

There is the added conflict of being all too aware that most diets fail, that our culture is slavishly focused on appearance, much to the detriment of our souls, and that I’m supposed to love my body at any size, not “rip off my own face” if I can’t wear short-shorts in the summertime. But what do you do? Recently, I heard a story about a woman who had lost more than 100 pounds on a strict diet. With tears in her eyes, she admitted that she told everyone she was doing it to be healthier, but that was a lie. She didn’t give a damn about being healthy. She did it because she was sick of being fat.

Can you blame her? We’re a fat-phobic culture. That obsession drives toxic behavior. Another friend of mine tells a story of being at her thinnest in college. She tried crazy stuff to keep the weight down: Diet pills, Ipecac. People kept telling her, too, “You look so healthy!” And she would think, “Really? Because three hours ago I was crying over a toilet trying to make myself throw up.”

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.”

Sarah Hepola is an editor at Salon.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>