Nope, I'm Not Trying to Lose Weight
This essay was written by 42 Ijeoma Oluo, a Seattle-based Writer, Speaker and Internet Yeller. Her work on social issues such as race and gender has been published in The Guardian, The Stranger, The Washington Post, ELLE Magazine, NBC News and more. She was at the Editorial at Large at The Establishment since 2015. Her NYT bestselling first book, So You Want To Talk About Race, was released January 2018. Ijeoma was named one of the Most Influential People in Seattle by Seattle Magazine, and one of The Root's 100 Most Influential Americans in 2017. To see the other essays in this series, check them out here, here, and here.
My name is and I am a 300-pound person who is not trying to lose weight. Yep, you read that right. I weigh 300 pounds, I’m not trying to lose any weight, and I don’t plan to in the foreseeable future.
I'm also a vintage apron collector and former mental health professional. I won first place in the goat showmanship at the 2007 Pima County Fair, I used to be a wedding photographer, and I graduated high school at 16. But in my experience, about my weight instead.
Now, I know that right now you might be thinking of all of the weight loss advice you could offer me, but allow me to save you some time by addressing the underlying question behind this advice; the question I have heard more times than I can count:
YES. Yes, I have indeed tried dieting and exercise. In fact, exercise and dieting were the two things that my entire life revolved around for nearly a decade and a half. Here is an incomplete list of diets I've tried, starting at the young age of 13—some you’ll recognize, some of which I invented myself:
- The SlimFast Diet: Feeling hungry? Drink a SlimFast. And in my case, feeling self-hatred? Drink a SlimFast. Feeling anything at all? SlimFast.
- The Weigh Down Diet: Can't lose weight? It's just because you need Jesus' help!
- The Body for Life Diet: Or, as I like to call it: The Eat-a-lot-of-broccoli-lift-heavy-things -and-then-slather-yourself-in-body-oil-to-get-perfect-abs diet
- The Diet Pills and Cross-Country Diet:! File under: Times when it was impossible for me to procure Phentermine pills (for a damn good reason) but I found a way anyway.
- The White Rice Diet: Literally unsalted white rice for every meal. This was obviously before I was old enough to know any better.
- The Summer Work Out and Starve Myself Diet: Six hours at the gym a day plus drastic caloric restriction: not sustainable, not healthy.
- The Vodka Tonic and Cigarette Diet: Why yes, I did start this when I turned 21.
- The Lifestyle-Change Diet: You’ve heard of this one, right? It’s the one where you tell yourself that your weight loss diet is actually all about “lifestyle.” For me, this included a LOT of effort trying to convince myself that every moment of misery (wheatgrass and Pilates classes just don't do it for me) was inspirational.
I have also participated in what feels like every form of exercise available throughout my life. From swim team, softball, basketball, running, tennis, and soccer to weightlifting, bicycling, water aerobics, yoga, and dance. I started with step aerobics when I was a pre-teen; my mom would drop me off at church at 6:30 every weekday morning so I could join my friends' mothers for an hour and a half of step aerobics before school. And yes, if you were wondering, I was the lone child.
Yes, dear reader, I have tried.
I was a disciplined dieter for a significant part of my life, despite the fact that self-loathing was the only driving force of my dedication. I was fanatical about caloric restriction and finding the quickest ways to burn calories, because I participated in these actions was following, it was often met with praise. The performance of attempting to lose weight was always met with applause from those around me and I was addicted to that applause.
What this eventually led to might make you uncomfortable to read: It took me a quarter of a century, but I had been cheated. I had been cheated. I began to realize that the diet was not going to give me the peace and happiness. It was a thief, and I had spent half a decade trying to recover from all of the things I had robbed me of.
I had been robbed of my self-esteem. I was robbed of years of relationships and experiences. Robbed of thousands of dollars spent in the pursuit of unattainable perfection. Robbed of the critical communication between my brain and my body. Robbed of peace of mind. Robbed of the ability to trust myself. Robbed of genuine autonomy. Robbed of internal and external liberation. I was robbed not only because shows us that for most people weight loss diets do not work and can do your body more harm than good, but also because even if I had stumbled onto the "one diet trick" that actually worked, there is no body size that would have given me back the years lost to self-loathing in order to get there.
And so five years ago, with two middle fingers in the air, I walked away from the life that caused more damage that I can calculate.
I found myself fumbling in some strange, ambiguous and confusing area; totally disconnected from myself, unable to figure out what my body wanted or needed. I hadn’t yet learned how to make decisions for my body and health that weren't in response to the pressures or expectations of trying to lose weight. I was looking for liberation and I ended up lost.
This confusion was bound to happen. When you become obsessed with thinness, the communication channels between your brain and body get obstructed with all kinds of static. At one time you could have heard your bodily intuition. But when we starve our bodies and our brain, we send out signals that essentially say "HELLO, WE CAN NOT FUNCTION PROPERLY WITHOUT ADEQUATE SUSTENANCE". The cycles of famine and feast coupled with shame and guilt of years of trying and failing to override our bodies' need for regular nourishment in order to meet our need for societal acceptance play off of each other until we no longer know how to perceive the signals our bodies are sending us.
And so, without the rigidity of a diet plan, and lacking a working internal compass, I felt completely disoriented. It took years of haphazardly bumping into hurdles to realize I could not just throw away diet culture ... I had to learn how to connect. I had to re-learn how to trust myself. I began with tiny nudges around things like sleep and drinking. My body was communicating that I had to wait a little longer. I started to hear a "Hey, you have not taken your medication!" Reminder after a few days of forgetting, instead of after a few weeks. All of these things collectively pushed me forwards, eventually leading me to seeking different avenues for mental health support. When I was getting out of different kinds of mental health care, an important bridge was built between my mind and body. They worked together. They healed in tandem. I started working with a "non-diet" dietitian. I learned how healing looks different for different people and found the beauty in that. One foot in front of the other, day after day; open to looking at everything in a new way.
My life is now the opposite of a meal plan on a page, written by a stranger. It's instead of the series of small-scale experiments that ask my body what it needs or what it wants and then trying that. Listening to the yeses and listening to the nos. Gently collecting this data for myself and knowing full well that it could all shift at any given time. I find myself today in what feels like very uncharted territory and without a map. I used to want the three fastest steps to lose weight. But the real journey is anything but fast and could be impossible to write as a BuzzFeed listicle. This new place is not always a comfortable place to exist, but I've been led by some of the most brilliant friends, therapists, dietitians, doctors and coaches. I'm not trying to be fat and I'm not trying to be thin. For the first time in my life, I'm not obsessing about my body size at all because of my quest for healing and full-body wellness simply can not be determined by a number on the scale.
Recovery from the shame and self-loathing of diet culture is a hell of a journey. But for the first time in my life I've decided to trust myself completely and embrace the fact that I am on the lengthy road. That is a beautiful step towards healing in and of itself.
And that? That is a beautiful step towards healing in and of itself.
is a a blogger, speaker, former mental health professional, cat lover, ALL CAPS user and unabashed fat chick. She is the author of Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls and Landwhale: On Turning Insults Into Nicknames, / 92.