Fair warning: you shouldn’t read this post if you find discussions of dieting and weight loss to be upsetting. In fact, I know that plenty of my friends and my readers do have issues in that vein, so I considered not writing this post at all. However, given that I have dedicated a substantial amount of my attention and brainpower over the last two years to the task of losing weight, it’d be disingenuous of me to pretend that it’s not something I care about.
Yesterday, I stepped on the scale and got a reading of 221.0. My highest recorded weight was 327 in December of 2011. For a 6′ 7″ person, 221.0 pounds gives a Body Mass Index of exactly 24.9, meaning that I am now officially within what the government would call the “normal weight” range.
Over the last two years, a third of me has disappeared.
I haven’t had a strong emotional reaction to this milestone, because I already had it. Over the summer, when I was at Sewanee, I got my lowest-ever weight reading (at 232) and realized that I was someday going to reach normal weight. At that point, I’d had eight days of sleep deprivation, so I wasn’t in the stablest place, emotionally, and I immediately took to bed and began crying because I just felt so angry at the world.
I’ve been overweight since age twelve. And for the last fifteen years, countless people have said or implied that I should lose weight. I remember how excruciating it was to be eating dinner with my parents and watching the news when one of those “childhood obesity epidemic!” segments would come on. I didn’t go to a doctor for nine years because I was tired of being lectured about my weight. And I always heard, “Oh, if you start now, it’ll be much easier than if you try to do it as an adult.”
But was that really true?
What was the child Rahul supposed to do? I remember binge-eating late at night–consuming everything in the cupboard–and having a horrified out-of-body experience, just staring at my hands as I poured out bags of chips and opened candy bars and guzzled sodas and knowing that there was no way I could make myself stop. Every year, I’d make a grand plan to lose weight and dream about how great it would be to finally be thin, and then I’d go into the basement and exercise on the machine for a few weeks and finally flame out and feel even worse about my inability to hold it together. I remember my puzzlement at the strange red scar that appeared on my stomach when I was in ninth grade and then my worry as the marks grew and proliferated until they covered my whole body. I remember being at summer camp and someone saying, “Wow, there’s a scar on your face” and then running home and looking in the mirror and seeing three parallel marks on my right cheek. I started seeing stretch marks everywhere. I’d look at the lines of my hands and wonder whether they were going to slowly grow and widen and stretch up my arms. I would lay up at night worrying that the stretch marks would cover my entire body and turn me into some kind of Nosferatu-like monster.
It was only when I went to college that the weight gain stopped. Part of that was that I took up smoking. And part of it was that I no longer had junk food within arms reach. Eventually, much of my weight-related angst subsided. So much so that it almost seems strange for me to remember what a huge obsession it used to be.
I feel a lot of pity for the child that I used to be. Because now that I’ve finally shed the weight, I can’t stop thinking: What was I supposed to do? When people told me to lose weight, how did they think I was going to accomplish that?
How was it possible for me to eat differently? I didn’t even buy my own food. That’s the insanity of what we do to our kids. Like, how was I supposed to control my eating when I wasn’t even the one who was buying my own food?! I know that if I, as an adult, started stocking an unlimited supply of cookies and chips and soda, then it would be impossible for me to lose weight. But people expected me to just go from eating everything within arm’s reach to not eating it. It’s like expecting an alcoholic to stop drinking even though you refuse to take all the liquor out of the house.
And it’s not my parents’ fault. I asked them to buy all that stuff. But the fact remains–there was an essential lack of empathy there. If anyone who’d asked me to lose weight had stopped and really thought about what they were asking, they’d have realized it was impossible.
I think that people thought I was somehow not aware that I was gaining weight and not aware that being overweight is considered quite bad and that if I just knew it, then I could somehow stop it. And the terrible part is that I thought those things too. I spent large periods of time trying to forget that I was overweight. And when I’d suddenly realize it, I’d go all out trying to do all the things I was supposed to. And then, when I inevitably failed, I’d internalize the failure and wonder why I couldn’t do it.
Losing weight is extremely difficult for adults. My parents have full control over their environment and they’ve struggled with their weight for decades. It’s really not easy to lose weight. It requires an immense amount of control. In comparison, quitting drinking was easy. When you quit drinking, the temptation decreases over time. But when you quit overeating, the temptation never diminishes, because you are continually reminded your body of how pleasurable it is to eat. After a meal, there’s always the desire for one more serving. And you always need to fight it down. Every single day.
In order to make that fight winnable, you need to be able to utilize every single tool. You need freedom of movement, so you can avoid food when you need to. You need freedom in your kitchen, you can only buy and stock the foods that work for you. You need the freedom of disposable income, so that you can pay more money for food that’s healthier. You need freedom of schedule, so you can arrange your meals at your convenience.
You know who has none of these things? A child.
I have mixed feelings about writing this post. Studies indicate that 95% of people who lose weight will eventually regain it. And not just part of it, either–they’ll regain all of it and more. That makes sense to me. I know that if I relaxed my control, I’d immediately be back where I was. People say things like “It’s not about dieting, it’s lifestyle change.” But that’s not true. It is about dieting. There is no lifestyle that can ever make your body think that prolonged starvation is natural.
Sometimes I think that I would literally rather die than regain the weight. It’s not possible to imagine a failure that would be more public and more indicative of a loss of virtue. And that terror has something of the same quality of the terror that I felt as a child. In making physical progress, I have, in some ways, undone much of my emotional progress.