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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

I Was a Weight Loss Success Story

One of my weight loss photos.
When we hear about weight loss success stories, we always imagine these glamorous fairy-tale stories of ordinary people who lose weight and suddenly have so much more to offer life. You've seen those images before: the left frame filled with a sad-looking person, slouching over and not making eye contact with the camera, and the right frame is filled with a slimmer figure in better-fitting clothes, standing tall with shoulders back and smiling at the camera. Some of us look at these images and think to ourselves, "They look so happy now. They've accomplished so much now that they've lost weight. Can't I do that too?" We glamorize these people's journeys, turning them into role-models whether they want it or not, and aspire to lose weight so we, too, can discover the magical key to being happy with our lives.

While these pictures are circulating the Internet and thousands to millions of people are viewing, sharing, and commenting on everything from speculation about their personalities to criticism of their bodies, do we stop to think about the actual people in the photos? We assume they were unhappy and unsuccessful in the before photos, and now they're so happy and successful in the after photo. We assume they're so happy and confident in the one picture we see of them, in fact, that we don't stop to wonder if the thousands of negative comments strangers are making about their bodies will ever negatively affect them. By then they're not even real people to us anymore, and have somehow transcended into social celebrity status, where we all have opinions and criticisms about them but they're not allowed to have feelings. 

I Was That Girl

When I embarked on my weight loss journey nearly four years ago, I didn't really put a whole lot of thought into it. I actually didn't loathe my life or my body. I was a bigger girl and wasn't necessarily happy about it, but for the most part, I had accepted it and moved on with enjoying my life. Not surprising, the times I struggled the most were when people pointed out my size in a negative light or when I tried to shop for clothing in trendy, young shops. After a few back-to-back embarrassing social situations regarding my size, though, I finally caved in and decided I would try to lose some weight and change my lifestyle. "Not a lot of weight," I promised myself. "I don't want or need to be skinny! I just want to lose 20 pounds and make healthier choices."

Once I started to lose weight, though, I was running downhill and didn't know how to stop the momentum. It
became my obsession and purpose in life. All I wanted to do was talk and think about my weight loss. At first my efforts were healthy and my obsession just aided in keeping me focused on my goal. But after spending a couple of months dissecting my body in a critical light, I suddenly found more reasons to hate my body. In the words of Cady from Mean Girls, I used to just think there was fat and skinny. Suddenly, specific body parts on me were fat, and I had now programmed my mind to see fat as the enemy. I found myself entertaining destructive thoughts about my body and my progress, and started doing unhealthy things to achieve faster weight loss. I spent my days and nights daydreaming about being skinny, pinching the fat on my body, weighing myself, reading pro-ana forums, and secretly photoshopping my photos to see what I'd look like smaller. I started meticulously counting calories and eating significantly less than a healthy calorie deficit. I had tied my self-worth into my size, and so when I didn't feel thin, I was depressed, socially anxious, and lacking in confidence.

I was in a dark place, and it usually has to get worse before you can admit there's a problem. I was rapidly losing weight, but I was also losing physical strength. Everything made me tired, and if I got up too quickly or moved too fast, I'd see black spots and lose vision for a split second. I stopped hanging out with my friends because I had put on this facade of being this happy, healthy person pursuing healthy weight loss, and if I didn't eat, they'd see the truth. It took fainting at work one day before I saw I was heading down a dangerous path.

Crissfit

I didn't like the direction I was heading, but I still lacked the ability to be honest with people about my struggle, so I decided to make a health and fitness Tumblr to keep me in line. I became Crissfit: a positive, healthy-minded figure who helped girls who were struggling with what I was going through. I didn't know how to help myself, but I figured if I helped others I would eventually be able to believe what I was telling them. I eventually started eating more and lifting heavy weights, and even though I had bad thoughts about my body still, I was on the path of recovery. My blog kept me accountable for my actions, and the small community there kept me positive and open about my journey.

I posted my progress pictures in the small communities I was a part of, getting feedback and compliments from friends. I was proud of my progress because to me, my pictures spoke of not just the physical transformation, but the emotional and mental growth I had experienced in that year of weight loss. At the time, it felt nice being praised for my hard work and seeing my friends recognize how difficult and emotional my journey was. I was delighted when my pictures were reblogged, and when my Tumblr followers numbered 30k, I was giddy with happiness because it meant I was influential! People were listening to me and cared about my story. It gave me the resolve to stay strong and be healthy in both mind and body because so many young women were looking up to me.

But then my pictures started going viral over the Internet, being posted on all sorts of popular social media sites, forums, and meme photo websites. I was getting countless messages from friends, family, co-workers, and old Internet acquaintances, informing me of every place they saw my pictures posted. At first, I read them all; every last comment. I saw literally thousands and thousands of comments from strangers criticizing everything you can imagine about me: the way I was standing, my height, that I was too skinny or still too fat, my pale skin or my red hair, my "fat knees," and my chunky legs. I was told it was a shame my face was still busted, or that I may have lost weight but I was "still a 5 in big cities with actual hot girls." One popular article managed to turn me into nothing but a number, and if the blog post wasn't bad enough, the comments were demeaning and soul-crushing. I had people write lengthy break-downs on every little thing wrong with my face and body, from my nose to my ankles. Ironically enough, posting my weight loss pictures on my blogs to show my friends ended up resulting in irreparable low self-esteem.



And then, at some point, something inside of me broke. Two years of eating well and restricting calorie-dense foods went down the drain and I started binge-eating everything I felt I had missed out on: pizza, chips, soda, and take-out. I told myself it was just a break and that I'd get back on track, but the more I ate, the more I gained. The more I gained, the more emotional I was over my weight gain, and so the more I ate. Before I knew it, I had gained 20 pounds back. 

Dealing with My Weight Gain

At the time, it felt like the end of the world. I was a small-town and internet celebrity for my weight loss, and here I was, gaining all that weight back! I was still getting hundreds of messages a day from people desperate to know how to lose weight or simply congratulating me on my weight loss. People were still sending me links of places my pictures were being posted. It got to the point where seeing those comments or even seeing my own weight loss picture triggered feelings of low self-worth. After all, I had let people base my self-worth entirely on my size, and if I had put on weight again, what was my value? So many sites had reposted my pictures with superficial headlines like "She Fixed It" and many comments had referred to my before photo as repulsive and calling me an "it." If I had put on weight, did that mean I was "broken" again?


I thought I was in a dark place with my disorder before, but I went somewhere deeper and darker. I became a slave to my emotional eating disorder in a way that I never did before. It was like there was another person inside my head, fighting the rational part of my brain for control. Sometimes, the ED voice would win and lock away the rational Criss, leaving me to dwell on destructive thoughts about my body. And then I would starve; literally starve myself for multiple days. I would eat little or no food and drink a surplus of water. I would sometimes take sleeping pills to go to bed early if I thought I'd end up weakening and eating late at night. When I could cope with the hunger pains without having to go to bed, I saw it as a success. In a sick, twisted way, I had begun to see the hunger pains as necessary punishment for the crime of being fat, and when I could withstand the pain without succumbing to eating, I felt strong. I was happiest when I was successful in my fasting. I began to feel the most beautiful when I was hungry and hadn't eaten enough. When I went to bed without eating most of the day, I smiled to myself in pride at being strong enough to overcome my "weakness." I felt weak and easily winded, but the scale was going down dramatically and my waist was becoming so slender, so I had a skip in my step regardless of energy.

But for every few days of extreme restriction and starvation, there was a week or two of extreme binge-eating. I would just be so, so hungry after not allowing myself food that I would eat one thing and just break. I'd crumble and lose my resolve, eating everything in sight. I would eat until I was literally sick and hurting. I welcomed the pain and considered it punishment that I deserved. I saw myself as a fat, disgusting slob, lacking even the most basic control over food, and I felt I deserved the physical pain, emotional wreckage, and shame.

The worst part was that I struggled to acknowledge I had an eating disorder, to others or even to myself. What would people say if they found out the person whose pictures were reposted daily as fitness inspiration was actually struggling with an eating disorder? Furthermore, would they even believe me? Nobody ever seems to believe girls who claim to have an eating disorder unless their BMI is extremely low, and clearly, mine wasn't. Worst of all, what would I do if I admitted it to myself? I knew how to do things right, and admitting that I lacked control over my body and mind would make me feel foolish and unintelligent. All I had ever wanted was to be known for being an influential and intelligent individual; to admit to the world that I had an eating disorder would chance losing all credibility I ever had. I was scared of everyone's judgment and having to cope with all the backlash when people realized the person they idolized as some sort of weight loss wizard and healthy role model was flawed. Human, like the rest of you.

Recovery

I feel relieved that I am finally at a point in recovery where I can tell everyone the truth of my struggles, and it has also helped to know that I'm not alone. Do you know how many other people known for their weight loss stories have struggled with similar issues? Surprisingly, almost every person I've met who has lost a large amount of weight has recounted experiences that closely mirror my own. Why does that happen? I suspect the unsolicited attention and the pressure of being turned into an internet role model eventually becomes too much for them, and eventually we crash and burn. We let people tie so much of our worth into our weight loss stories that we lose our identities when we aren't the people in the "after" photos anymore. 

I'd be lying if I said I was fully better now, because I'm not. I don't know if I have a happy ending to this story. I still have bad weeks where I restrict too much and then binge in response, but finally admitting that I had an eating disorder helped take a weight off my back. I'm trying to learn how to find a balance between the two extremes, but habits-- especially ones spurred by an emotional disorder-- are hard to break. Mostly, though, I'm trying to find ways to celebrate my self-worth that don't hinge on my weight. After being known solely as Crissfit for so long, it's hard to fully break from that identity, but I'm an intelligent, talented individual with so much more to offer the world than being merely a successful weight loss story. There's so much life has to offer than wasting it worrying about what the scale says.

Oh, and for those thousands of sites who posted my photos with cheap, superficial headers that added false context? I wasn't broken, and so I didn't "fix" anything. I'm not an it; I'm exactly the same person at 130 pounds as I was at 200 pounds. I didn't lose weight because my ex-boyfriend called me fat, my pictures weren't posted in the wrong order, and I'm not a "disgusting animal" in the left picture just because I'm bigger. Whew, that feels better.


 

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