I was at a party yesterday, and a friend expressed concern for her mother who is regaining lost weight. My friend is unusual, in that she wasn’t engaging in the typical gossip that happens when someone regains. None of the “How could she? She looked so great!” No speculation about work or marital difficulties or other “logical” reasons the regain might be happening. It’s just happening, and her mother is in emotional pain. My friend didn’t ask for weight-loss advice, tips and tricks. She simply wants her mom to be happy, and, in my opinion, she wants the right thing.
From time to time, people will compliment me on my “will power.” They don’t understand that keeping off lost weight is NOT a function of simple “willpower.” If that were the case then no one would be fat, because the social consequences are too great. No one who has been a social pariah in the past simply loses the will to be socially acceptable. People don’t choose to be social pariahs in the first place, and they certainly don’t choose to return to that status or get lazy and allow it to happen.
From what my friend tells me about her mother, I don’t think she’s weak-willed, undisciplined, ignorant, lazy or unmotivated. While she had surgical assistance in her loss, the mom understood fully that she’d also need to make “lifestyle” changes after the surgery. She doesn’t need to be “educated” that fruit is a better snack choice than chips. She doesn’t need a “wake-up call” or any of the other condescending “help” that we get now from our diet culture. She knew she was fat, she went to extreme lengths to try to change that condition, and she knows now that she’s regaining.
Many people have been through or are going through weight regain. We tip-toe around this topic because it is so painful, and yet truthfully addressing it may be the only way to ultimately ease the pain. I hope these words resonate and offer comfort.
Regaining lost weight is a reluctant, painful slide into Hell that I know well. It includes all of the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross stages of death:
- Denial “The laundry has shrunk these jeans!” or “It’s only three pounds. Who can see that?” That turns into only ten pounds, then . . .
- Anger “Sh*t! Sh*t! Sh*t! Why me? I’m not messing up that bad. I’m not eating that much.” and
- Bargaining, “Okay, God, for just three days I’m going to cut my calories to 900 and that’ll jump start me, right?” Wrong. Your body won’t allow you to starve yourself for three days after you’ve just lost a great deal of weight, even if you have started regaining that weight (perhaps especially if you have started the natural process of regaining the weight). Even if somehow you are able to overpower the continual stream of impulses to eat, your body won’t respond to your temporary starvation with anything that resembles a satisfying “jump start.”
The final two stages present themselves simultaneously. Acceptance accompanies Depression. Since the finality and quietus of death itself are absent, the final stage of dramatic weight regain is a dreary state of self-loathing and resignation. The tasks of life – work, family obligations – may serve as distractions from this mental state or they may just make things more tender. Friends and family don’t acknowledge what is happening, for fear of wounding you, so you make jokes to ease the tension, though you’re withering and dying inside. In time, however, once the whole messy process has ended, and everyone adjusts to the re-engorged you, your depression may lift.
Do I remember it right? It’s been a long time.
What is different about me now is that I have pretty much immersed myself in the science and cultural mythology of weight-loss and maintenance. I have made it my job, part-time most days, but sometimes full-time. At first, when I embarked on this pursuit, I was determined to become “an inspiration.” Like people who have gone before, I hoped to guide others to the magic land of Trim, Fit and Happy. Instead, I find I’ve arrived at a wholly different place. Happy is still a good goal, and Fit is a gift well worth adding, but Trim now strikes me as optional, preoccupying, time-consuming and much more complicated than most people acknowledge.
The broad literature on weight loss and maintenance, objectively, doesn’t support long-term optimism for most people. For a variety of deep, personal reasons, even MDs and scientists often can’t approach this topic objectively. They start from the assumption that fat people must be mentally or psychologically broken, and may be (should be) helped to repair themselves, so that they may attain a better, more lithe and socially acceptable, body size.
I was not broken, mentally or emotionally, as a fat person, and I haven’t “fixed” myself now. I’m just thinner, and there may be some physical benefits to that, but they don’t come free. I’m not even smarter, actually. As I calculate it, I have had 3,640 glasses of wine between my fat body and now. That had to take out a brain cell or two.