Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to email@example.com.
I’m tired of being overweight. I’m a woman in my late 20s and I really want to look the way I used to. In high school I was skinny but in college I gained weight and it hasn’t stopped since. I want to make a New Years Resolution to finally lose the extra 70 pounds I’ve been carrying around forever. I figure that New Years is a good time to do it, but I’ve tried before. Honestly, I try every year and it never works. I can get off 10-15 pounds, but then it comes back. What should I do? Should I keep trying? Or should I try to be happy with the body I have?
Failing to Lose
Dear Failing to Lose,
Oh, you lovely woman. Thank you for this question. Thank you for asking it during this time of year when our attention is turned to self-improvement sold to us in a wrapper of self-loathing. We all hate our bodies. We all want to lose weight. We all want this year to be different.
I’ve been fat. I’ve been skinny. And, I gotta say, being skinny is just the same problems in smaller pants. The hard truth is that losing weight and keeping it off is statistically unlikely. It’s not impossible, but it requires a total, yet sustainable, lifestyle change.
Here’s the best diet plan I’ve ever done, the one that got me as thin as I’ve been in my adult life: get your whole world to burn down in a single afternoon. For me, it was the end of a long-term relationship where I had to move out of his house. I had to find a new apartment. I was still in love with him. At first, I was too sad to eat. The grief consumed me and my stomach didn’t want anything at all.
Each day, after the breakup, I went to work. After work, I went to the gym. For 90 minutes. I sweat and sweat and sweat. Then I drove home, dizzy and spent. I parked my car and walked down dark streets to my apartment, where nothing greeted me when I opened the door. Exhausted, I changed into pajamas. I made myself dinner, broccoli pasta made with three heads of broccoli and a single serving of pasta, an actual serving, 56 grams, weighed out on my food scale. I ate. When I was done, I was still hungry. I watched TV. I went to bed. I did this for months and months and months. I would see a pretty tree, covered in snow, and I would think, “That is a gift. Appreciate it. That’s a good thing that happened today,” because otherwise there was nothing good that I could see happening to me any day. Just the hollow ache where love used to be.
I hated being alone in my apartment so I spent too much time at the gym. People at work started noticing. An older, slim woman frequently looked me up and down and nodded approvingly. “Good work,” she would say, squeezing my arm as she walked past. I didn’t know how to tell her to stop, that it wasn’t good work, that it was pain, raw pulsing pain that was causing my body to shrink so. I wanted to tell her that I was shrinking because I was in love with a boy who didn’t Iove me back, not the way I needed him to. I wanted to tell her to stop looking, that this new, pleasing thinness wasn’t for her. I was changing because I had to change, I was being forced to, it wasn’t a great triumph of my will, it was a symptom of the disease of extreme heartbreak. I wasn’t doing well and that truth showed in my slender arms, my thinning wrists, my hollowing face, cheek bones now sharp. I wasn’t starving myself, but I also wasn’t feeding myself. Maybe I was healthier, but it didn’t feel healthy.
I don’t have that thin problem anymore. I met my husband, I had a baby, and the weight slowly came back. My face filled out. The shorts I wore on my first date with my husband are now in a drawer, and I treat them as a pleasing relic of my past. I may fit into them again one day, but probably, statistically, I won’t. Probably I’ll never get back down to that weight I was when I was so, so lonely.
Now, when I notice someone dropping weight quickly, I don’t assume that they’ve figured something out. I assume that their life is falling apart. I ask, “Are you OK?” When I see someone gaining weight, I don’t assume that they’re doing terribly. I assume that they’re newly in love and having lots of sex.
Which is all a very long of saying that, yes, you can determine to lose weight and you can do it. You’ve already proven that to yourself, each January. The trick is to sustain the momentum, and to make the necessary changes without also engaging in the societally-approved self-hate that tells you that fat people have less worth, that it’s your duty to be thin, that if you fail for a meal that’s it, you’re a failure, and you must give up altogether.
The truth is, we don’t need more people resolving to lose weight in the new year. We need more people resolving to be gentler to themselves. We need more people resolving to extend to themselves, and their bodies, the same compassion they would to a stranger.
So, here is my New Years weight loss plan for you.
Lower your expectations. You can lose weight AND love your body at the same time, but in order to do so you must reset your goals so they are both reasonable and attainable. You likely aren’t going to lose 70 pounds this year, but you can lose some weight. Focus on getting stronger. Focus on losing just 10% of your body weight. Then, once you reach that goal, focus on losing 10% more. Fuck the dramatic before and after photos — focus on small, steady, achievable steps.
Look at your body, naked in the mirror, right now, today. Try to see it through the eyes of a stranger, through the eyes of a lover. Look at the skin, the muscles, the way it moves. Look at how glorious it is, what a gift it is. Enjoy this body, love this body, the only one you get.
Eat more. Eat a larger volume of nutritious food. Begin each meal with fruit and/or vegetables. Then eat protein. Then eat carbs. For snacks, eat fruits, vegetables, and protein. See food as nutrition and not as as vice. It is necessary, you need to eat, you must eat. So, eat the most nutritious food first.
Lift weights. Join a gym, ask someone to show you how the weights work. Make friends with the weights. Lifting more today than you did yesterday is just, it’s so good. When your body has that ache that comes from movement, and work, you know that you have done a thing. It has nothing to do with your dress size and everything to do with I AM SO STRONG HOLY SHIT.
Find a way to be accountable. Do a tracking app. Write down what you eat. Look at what you ate, see where you succeeded, where you have opportunities to do better. Treat it like a business, like a formal business plan. See what you did. Revise your plan.
Stop leaving food decisions up to hungry you. When you’re full, and content, plan your meals for the week. Sit down and write down everything you plan on eating. Then, grocery shop. Then, meal prep. Then, when you’re hungry and cranky and want to hit up a drive-thru, tell yourself to shut up and eat what’s on the list/already in your fridge.
Know that doing this work is just like life in that it’s not a straight line. It’s a bunch of loop-de-loops created by a drunk bee. You lose, you gain, you lose, you gain. And through it all, you aren’t the number on the scale. Do the things that make you feel better, happier, more content and at home with yourself. Fuck clothes, fuck bathing suits, fuck anything that isn’t you doing shit for you.
Do the shit for you.
If you decide to indulge in a cookie but you take a bite and find out that this particular cookie is dry and disgusting, don’t finish that cookie. Save your indulgences for things that actually taste good. Fuck that bullshit dry ass cookie. Throw it in the trash. It’s the best feeling, throwing away a cookie that’s disappointed you.
The truth is, there’s no way to lose weight that isn’t small, constant, daily work. The truth is, your weight is such a small aspect of the whole that is you. The truth is, you can do any damn thing that you decide that you want to do. The truth is, you won’t love yourself anymore after you’ve lost weight unless you’re also able to love yourself now, at your current weight. Join the gym, and go, and keep going all the way through March, after the other New Years Resolution junkies have peeled off and settled back into their couches. Buy fresh, nutritious food, and then make sure that you eat it. And after all of this work, you may find that you actually haven’t lost any weight. You’ll feel better, you’ll sleep better, you’ll be healthier, but you may still be in the same pants that you are now. And that, my lovely woman, is just fucking fine.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.