A long weekend away with two best friends from high school—I'd been looking forward to this trip all winter. But when I sat on the plane, I felt uncomfortable: There isn't enough room in this seat. I was spilling into the space of my friend Connie, sitting next to me.
That weekend, as we walked around Las Vegas, I thought, I shouldn't feel this tired just from walking. I'm 24 years old. At night, I woke in the hotel room and the first thing that popped in my mind was, I'm so heavy.
Back home, I had to face difficult truths: College is over. I've lost and gained the same 15 pounds this year. This isn't changing on its own, and obviously, I don't know what to do. When I confessed this to my mom, she admitted, "I don't know how to help you." She suggested I call Julie, who goes to our church.
"That's crazy," I said. "What am I supposed to do—call this woman I hardly know and say, 'Hey, I'm fat. Can you help me?'"
"Julie loves fitness, she loves nutrition," my mom said, "and when you have something you're passionate about, you want to share it with others."
The next day I picked up the phone, and Julie didn't hesitate or ask to think about it. We went to the gym, and she taught me a workout plan. As we rode bikes next to each other, she said, "I look more tired than you. Why is that?"
"I don't know."
Julie looked at me. "You need to feel like you're about to die or you're not working hard enough."
What Julie didn't say was that the physical challenge wouldn't be as hard as the emotional, social, and spiritual.
Abnormal, anxious, and ashamed
I wasn't prepared for how I would stick out. I would go to small group and watch everyone else eat cheesecake and wonder, Why am I the only person who can't eat dessert? On vacation in Williamsburg with friends, I couldn't afford to snack if I got hungry, so I became the person asking, "When are we going to have lunch?" I asked the group to eat at sit-down restaurants, rather than Wendy's; this cost them more, but I could get better options. My order became a long conversation with the waiter: "No croutons, no bacon, light ranch—on the side." I felt like Sally from When Harry Met Sally. After dinner, if they would order cobbler, I would watch them eat it. I worried, I'm making this trip so awkward for them.
I also felt anxious. When my weight loss would slow, I feared, What if I plateau? And often, If this doesn't work, what am I going to do? This is my last option. As I ventured into the gym, where I felt wholly out of place and likely to fail, I feared doing the exercises wrong. I feared people watching me: I'm clearly the fattest person in this gym.
Even when I hit major milestones—20 pounds lost, then 50 pounds, then 60 pounds—I felt ashamed. I have lost so much weight, yet I'm still overweight and I still have so much more to go.
The challenge of changing your lifestyle
Losing weight is mentally consuming—then you feel guilty that losing weight is mentally consuming you. For example, if I knew I was eating out that night, I would look up the restaurant's menu online and try to figure out what I could eat. But I needed to be patient with myself and accept that I was changing two huge parts of my life: my pattern of eating, and my pattern of using time. Several principles helped me with this.
Be patient. You can say, "I'm going to lose five pounds this week," but to keep off the weight, you have to lose it the slow way. I just wanted to see the weight go down. My friend Christy, who has to eat a gluten-free diet, told me, "It's not the second time you say no to the doughnut, it's not the sixth time you say no to the doughnut, it's the 27th time. There doesn't come a point where you're not saying no." That helped me realize I was in this for the long haul. When I had a disappointing weekly weigh-in, I let myself feel the sadness, knowing that was part of the journey. It didn't mean I was giving up.
Accept the cost. I don't like spending money, but I had to buy a meat scale, a blender, workout clothes, a gym membership, and clothes for my continually changing weight. I bought more fruits and vegetables, which cost more money. As Julie explained, "Eating better is always more expensive and more time-consuming."
Educate yourself. To change your mentality toward food requires education and re-education. Julie's mantra is, "Eat to live, don't live to eat." This stuck. It reminds me, I'm eating to sustain my life, not living for the opportunity to eat. In addition, I began reading nutrition articles and books like In Defense of Food, Omnivore's Dilemma, and Fast-Food Nation.
Accept change in yourself. This process changed the way I ate, how I spent my time, how I spent my money, who I spent time with, and my interests. One evening I was getting a pedicure with my mom and a couple on their bikes pedaled past the window. I said, "I want a bike!," shocking not only my mom, but myself as well.
Accept reality. I obsessed with "Where do I stop? What is the right weight for me?" This made me grapple with bigger questions of identity: Who am I? Who am I going to be? The truth is, No matter how much I lose, I'm never going to be a size two. I am not a petite girl.
The reality of other people's reactions
If you lose weight, people will comment. Some said hurtful things inadvertently: "You look so great! You don't look anything like you used to." Most people complimented and encouraged me. That blessed me, but the fact people were commenting also meant, They noticed my weight then, and they're noticing now. The fact is, losing a lot of weight affects everyone around you.
For some people, my weight loss triggered guilt: "Oh, I should be losing." This bothered me, because I didn't want anyone to feel guilty. Losing weight was something I needed to do for me, and I wasn't making a statement for others. My parents felt regret: "We didn't educate you about nutrition the way we should have." They supported me the whole way, though, and significantly changed their eating habits to accommodate me. Good-bye, spaghetti, good-bye, pizza.
As a teacher, I spend all day standing in front of high school boys and girls who are very observant. One day a girl blurted out, "Miss Miller, you are this big around!" and she held her hands in a tiny circle. That felt good but also awkward in front of the whole class.
Yet my mentor told me, "You have to accept people's compliments, because they are a gift from God." She made me start writing down each compliment, so I would take them in and remember them. One that especially helped me came from my boss. Almost every other day, she told me, "You're so beautiful." The repetition helped me.
Throughout this process, I saw in Julie a parable of how God approaches us—never shaming us, and always holding out hope for our improvement. Often I felt anxious: Julie is going to give up on me. She's going to realize I'm crazy and say good-bye. To have someone see all your shame and fear and choose to not leave you and to still love you—that's powerful.
After I met my goal weight, I started to add foods back into my diet, ones I hadn't eaten in a long time. As I was discussing this with Julie, she said, "Text me your weight on Saturday."
I protested, "What if it goes up?," fearing she would tell me I would need to increase the intensity of my workouts, or cut some food that I wanted.
Instead she said, "Then even more do I want you to tell me. I don't want you falling into a hole over your weight this weekend."
Our conversation reminded me of how we often are with God: When we mess up, we're afraid he's going to punish us or say something to shame us, and all he wants is to enter that place of shame with us and to pull us out of it.
Recently at a wedding I saw one of my favorite professors from college. As we caught up, she said, "You have always been beautiful, but you are even more so now. And not because of the weight. It was like something was clouded in you before, and now that is completely unveiled." She was able to see the weight loss was an outward sign of inner wholeness. I had ignored the physical area of my life for so long, and as I worked on fixing it, I became more confident and empathetic. I no longer walk into a sporting goods store and feel people wondering, What is she doing here? I no longer feel like a hypocrite as I teach my students to be healthy, whole beings. I no longer feel like God is only semi-interested in me. He's there. He loves me. And he shapes the crucible to fit me perfectly (even if it keeps shrinking).
Anne Miller is a high school teacher in Elgin, Illinois.