I used to think that I would open this post with bikini shots. You know the ones: flabby and pale and lumpy on one side, tight and tanned and toned on the other. But that would require someone to photograph me in a bikini, or a bathing suit, or my underwear, or nude, or what have you. And that requires a degree of confidence I’ve rarely possessed.
I didn’t lose my sense of self-love after gaining weight. That would imply that I’d had some to lose, in the first place. (Pride? Sure. Self-respect? Definitely. Love? Pass.) When I was a size 2 and 98 pounds in high school, I felt my body was plain and uncompelling. When I was a size 16 and 174 pounds at age 31, I felt my body was still plain, but now objectively worthless in society. How other people felt about my body was different; I got laid at both weights, and at all weights in between. I’ve never understood their perspective. I’ve always felt they were being charitable. The only thing that changed between weights was my experience of physical pain. It was this that convinced me to make a change.
Between September 2014 and September 2015, I lost forty pounds. It didn’t make me ready to get naked on camera. It didn’t make me feel much more desirable. But it did make me feel better living my everyday life.
Here’s how I did it.
During the summer of 2014, I was in pain. The pain was constant, but it migrated. Sometimes it lived in my lower back. Sometimes it lived in my neck. Sometimes it lived in my heels. It made walking difficult. It made sweeping the floor difficult. It made everything difficult. I was five feet tall, and carrying an extra fifty or so pounds. My frame, the same one doctors had once x-ray’d and tutted over and diagnosed with scoliosis when I was eleven, could not carry that weight. My joints had swollen in protest. My digestive tract was in full rebellion: one night some friends made us meatballs in a red sauce with polenta, and hours later I was in the emergency room, opening my shirt for an electrocardiogram, trying to determine if the black specks in my vomit were blood.
I needed to lose weight.
Luckily, that same month my future husband and I had a dinner with a dear friend who had gone on the same journey. We met him at his club in London around LonCon 2014, and watched him eat plate after plate of delicious food: a double scotch, a steak with vegetables, a cheese plate minus the crostini or honey. “Get thee behind me, Satan,” he said, pushing the bread course across the table to us and our chubby fingers.
Thus prompted, we asked him about his diet. Meat and vegetables, he told us. Occasional fruit. All the full-fat Greek yogurt and cheese he could ever want. Handfuls of almonds and pistachios and peanuts. Tofu and broth and black coffee and unsweetened tea. Atkins, basically.
“You’re not done?” I asked, gesturing at his trim waistline.
“Oh, no,” he said. “I have five more pounds to go. I gained some in Honduras. All the plaintains.”
That night, on the way back to Liverpool Station, Dave said to me: “I want to try his diet.” And thinking it likely wouldn’t last, I said: “Sure. Okay. Let’s give it a try.”
A month later, I was two weeks into Atkins, trapped in an Ottawa shopping mall restroom, writhing in pain, already five pounds lighter. Never start Atkins, or any weight loss regime, in the last two weeks of your cycle. PMS, blood loss, and cramping will always trump low blood sugar. I went to the nearest pharmacy and ordered some acetaminophen + caffeine + codeine pills. Then, at a Perkin’s, I ordered pancakes, eggs, and bacon. I broke my diet, that day. I was back on the horse, the next day: meat, vegetables, nuts, cheese, broth, coffee, tea, seltzer. No sugar, no rice, no pasta, no potatoes, no flour, no bread, no juice, no wine, no beer, no fruit.
That was the last time I had menstrual cramps.
My weight loss didn’t proceed as quickly as my partner’s. He had more muscle mass to help him along — muscle tissue burns calories faster than other tissues do, and this is why men usually burn fat faster than women. But I kept a closer eye on mine, charting my 1,200-calorie-a-day diet with MyFitnessPal and meticulously adding my meals and subtracting my time on the rowing machine. I said no to indulgences. I said no to celebratory wine, and beer, and cake, and crackers with cheese, and popcorn at movies. I got used to saying no. I got used to the power in saying no, in refusing, in saying I was just fine, thank you. Soon I got used to being just fine, thank you. I got used to living inside my own head, without the benefit of sugar highs or lager lows. For the first time in a long time, I entered my thoughts and heard my own voice. It clearly identified what — and who — was toxic. Old hurts and old losses fell away. Just when my body became more socially acceptable, I stopped caring who accepted me.
Three months into Atkins my weight was in free-fall: I went to my tailor and had a dress cut to accomodate the inches I’d lost. I wore it to my engagement party.
This is not to say it was easy. It was hard. It was hard to say no. It was frequently awkward. While on book tour for the Hieroglyph anthology, I ate salads from the Au Bon Pain near our hotel for breakfast. Thanks are due to Elizabeth Bear who scored me one, the morning of a flight to Ottawa, and who walked me the length of the National Mall, and listened to my prattling on about my diet. When attending a dinner presentation with the editors of Slate Future Tense and members of the New America Foundation, I ate only meat and creamed spinach — no rolls, no whipped potatoes, no wine, no dessert. “I have fifty pounds to lose,” I told one of my fellow panelists, when he asked what was wrong. “And I have about fifty weeks to do it.” That night I sat across from Neal Stephenson, who watched me shivering under the stiff breeze of DC air conditioning and eyed my barren plate and asked me if I was cold. When I said I was fine, and that my jacket was too casual for our surroundings, he instructed me in no uncertain terms to put it on. Ten pounds earlier, I wouldn’t have been cold. I’d have been sweating.
It was hard to think up new meals: zucchini noodles and whipped cauliflower and spicy tea in place of chocolate. Lettuce wraps without rice. Goulash over spaghetti squash. Sashimi, not sushi. Pork chops with braised cabbage, no potatoes, as my Irish ancestors spun in their graves. It was odd, drinking gin and seltzer with lime instead of old vine zinfandel. It was strange, eating cheese on slices of cucumber and not crackers.
But oh, the cheese. So runny and fatty and glistening, redolent of farmyards and sunshine and life. Without the deafening extremes of sugar, my tongue finally tasted foods as they truly were. Tea: spicy and sweet and bitter and complex in a way I’d never noticed. Creamed kale: green and mineral and alive with garlic and onion and Parmesan. Borscht: tangy and hearty and loaded with iron, red as blood and just as nourishing. The occasional slice of melon: miraculous, rapturous, as ripe and pink and perfumed as a bride in the Song of Solomon. And bacon, no longer a comical hipster indulgence but a delightful and necessary evil, its curly smile a companion to the breakfasts I’d never before learned to eat.
Learning to eat breakfast was hard, at first. I’d wake up feeling dead and sick. I numbly chewed what my future husband made for me because I loved him, goddamn it. When I was a child I picked at a bowl Frosted Mini-Wheats with a glass of milk on the side before school as I read whatever book I was buried in. My mother begged me to eat, to eat anything, to please gain some weight. (As a pre-schooler I eschewed most meat, and ate only carrots with yogurt. This had less to do with me than my pediatrician, who had prescribed me so many adult-dose antibiotics that the product rep sent us free gifts; I had no appetite for anything. When I write my memoir, remind me to call it Failure to Thrive.) Now, at thirty-two, I need at least one scrambled egg with bacon on the side, or no writing gets done at all. Emile Zola once compared novelists to blood-drinkers; he wasn’t wrong.
It was also difficult for the people who served us meals, both friends and waitstaff. We were extremely lucky in how accomodating and understanding both were. Friends asked us what we could eat. They didn’t pester us to eat more. After the results became more visible, they stopped asking us if we were sure about our choices. They started asking us how it worked.
Roughly twenty pounds over my goal weight, my weight hit a plateau. Nothing seemed to work. I had outgrown the rowing machine; I could bang out an hour on the thing without breaking a sweat. So we joined a local gym during a fitness challenge. We were weighed and measured and we learned how to get up early to go to bootcamp. Our blood pressure dropped. Our waistlines shrank. I dropped maybe three pounds. I lost another cup size. I lost three cup sizes, that year.
Almost a year after our weight loss process started, this was how I looked:
Not especially sexy. Not especially desirable. My skin looked good because my makeup was good, and because I worshipped in the temple of Sephora at the altar of Clarisonic. My hair looked good because my stylist is the only woman in my neighbourhood who knows how to cut and style curls. My gown looked good because it was a Tadashi Shoji and because my tailor insisted on two fittings. The images came to life because our photographer is a genius. Those elements had nothing to do with my weight loss. They had nothing to do with my diet or exercise regimes.
I had lost the weight, but not the baggage. I still found myself just as unremarkable to look at as I had when I was ten and fourteen and seventeen and twenty and twenty-five. Too often, weight loss is considered a panacea, a cure-all for the spirit as well as the body. And it can alleviate a lot of pressures and improve health outcomes. That doesn’t mean it fixes everything.
But the spring in my step? The lightness I felt? The ability to perform exercise, to stand up all night, to travel to Scotland and Sweden and Iceland with my spouse without feeling sore, and without feeling stuffed into an airplane seat like a wedge of pimento into an olive? That was the weight loss. I won’t pretend that I didn’t feel ugly next to those other women in those other lands: Sweden is populated almost entirely by tall, blonde, willowy goddesses, and I’m an oily-skinned Hobbit with frizzy hair. But I could go on walking for hours without rest. I could do more, lift more, run harder, and keep going — all without getting sick. My yearly cold? Gone. Fevers? Gone. Cramps? Gone. I had one case of food poisoning, as I lost weight. That was all. Moreover, I had made a discovery about my own body, and how far I could push it. I knew myself better. I was healthier and happier than I had ever been.
All it required was a massive sacrifice of diet and time.
I say this because I know some of you might be contemplating just such a change, as the year turns. This is the season for such things: new calendars, new goals, new visions. And I am here to tell you not to trust anyone who says it’s easy. I’m here to tell you it’s hard.
It’s hard. But it’s also easier than you think.
I used to think of my weight as an inevitability. I would grow older and then I would get fatter and then whoever I might be with would stop loving me. (“Will you love me even I get fat?” I used to ask my boyfriend, in high school, as we made out in my parents’ driveway. I knew that whatever he answered, the real answer had to be no.) Then I really did grow older, and I really did get fatter, and I discovered that my partner still loved me anyway, and my weight was actually under my control. I had agency. It was my body. I could do with it what I wanted. I could harden it or soften it. I could build it or break it. I could neglect it, like so much infrastructure, or I could invest in it. I chose to invest.
And it was an investment. I won’t pretend that this was cheap. Vegetables are expensive. Meat is more expensive. Carbs are cheap and plentiful and there’s an entire agricultural lobby whose sole project is to keep them that way. Worse, rapid weight loss means none of your clothes fit. I was constantly buying new things. Even when I bought on consignment or clearance, it added up. And gym memberships or personal training are even more costly. I was able to lose weight in this way because I had the opportunity to do so. A lot of people don’t. If wealthy countries really cared about healthcare, and its impact on the nation’s bottom line, they’d give away gym memberships and cooking classes for free. They’d include child-minding at both. They’d bring Home Ec back to high schools and they’d make it a requirement for students of all genders.
Moreover, I could not have done this without my husband’s participation. At every step, I had his full support and understanding. We go to bootcamp together. We eat the same meals. We drink the same drinks. He doesn’t whine, or complain, or quit. He’s never told me to lose weight. We want to be healthy so we can live together for as long — and as enjoyably — as possible. The moment he dies, I may very well eat my way into an early grave. I can’t imagine doing this without him. But I know there are folks out there doing this without any support at all.
I bring this up not only because I know other people think about this issue at this time of year, but because I’ll be re-investing soon. Since the wedding — which immediately preceded both the holiday season and the death of a friend — I’ve been far too indulgent. I want to remind myself of what I did to lose the weight. But I find it’s not that difficult to remember, because I remember what being healthier felt like. It felt like a clearer head. It felt like longer wordcounts. It felt like deeper sleep and deeper breaths and longer walks and bigger laughs. It felt like cutting out everything I didn’t truly need and finding out what was left. It felt like being strong.
I am not prettier. I am not more beautiful. I am still plain, and short, and oily-skinned, and frizzy-haired, with stubby fingers and no discernible waistline and eyes that are piggy and squinty and a forehead that’s Elizabethan in scale. But I am stronger. I am much, much stronger.
And you will be, too.