What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
When I reflect upon New Year’s 2010, I don’t think of the sprawling nightclub in midtown Atlanta where I spent a whirlwind night with a dear friend. I don’t think of the many men who approached us and the silent nods of approval we gave each other. I don’t think of the midnight countdown and the sparklers on top of overpriced bottles of liquor the bartenders paraded around the dance floor with. I don’t even think of all the drinks I downed that night to numb my sense of what transpired that night.
But I do remember the glittery, body-con, one shoulder a la Herve Leger black and gold dress from Express I donned that night. I remember the black faux suede caged booties I wore with the dress. And the gold hoop earrings I got from Forever 21. The red lipstick from Victoria Secret I coated my lips with. And I remember the Spanx fishnet stockings I wore under that dress, that glittery, body-con one shoulder a la Herve Leger black and gold dress, in an attempt to flatten my pudgy stomach and slim a figure I’d grown to loathe and become increasingly self-conscious and insecure about. The months previous had amounted to rapid weight gain and a denial to admit my clothes no longer fit and I needed to go up a size, maybe even several sizes.
I also remember the following morning, crawling from my friend’s condo, miserably hungover, to my car and driving straight to Red Lobster, dialing the number for the restaurant nearest to my house en route. I remember eating the shrimp Alfredo, Caesar salad and cheddar bay biscuits sloppily and feeling nauseated — at myself and realizing there was a problem here. A growing problem with food, any food I could get my hands on — fast food, chain restaurant, small local eateries, sub sandwiches and fried chicken from Publix. My need to grab food, even when I wasn’t hungry, especially when I wasn’t hungry, had become compulsive and something I did instinctually without even thinking.
And each time, as an adult child living with her parents, in the bedroom I had spent most of my childhood, I smuggled food upstairs to my room, a place in the house I wasn’t supposed to be eating anyway, to eat food in my bed. I often hid the food bags underneath my bed and days or weeks later, my room was a smorgasbord of weird smells, food in bags which needed to be discarded but I was too lazy to do.
There was most definitely a problem here.
My solution was joining Weight Watchers. There was a location five minutes from my house and shakily, with the hordes of newcomers who had resolved to making losing weight their New Year’s Resolution, I signed up for a monthly reoccurring membership and sat in on my first meeting. I felt out of place at that first meeting and the looks I got from others, with the gaze of “What is she doing here? She doesn’t need to lose weight,” made me feel more insecure. Yes, at nearly six feet tall, my weight probably didn't seem to look like a problem to those on the outside looking in, but I was sorely unhappy. I was uncomfortable all the time and had started to notice how much bigger (and puffier) I looked in nearly all the photos I took.
When I weighed in for the first time a long time while registering, my weight was 220. Just three years ago when I had graduated from college, I weighed 160. The pounds had sneakily piled on. I set my goal for 180.
While trying to soak in all the new information I’d been given by the lady at the register, I listened to the meeting leader, who happened to be a Weight Watchers lifetime member, meaning she’d met her goal weight and went on a maintenance plan to ensure she didn’t gain any weight back.
My starter pack — a small Points Plus reference book, paper trackers and a weight record sheet to be kept in a slit in the Points Plus reference book — is what I focused most on. I also listened intently as the Points Plus program was explained, mentally making a note of making sure I drank enough water and ate at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. The meeting leader also talked at length about grocery shopping and pushed opting for low fat options and also the Weight Watchers products — a slew of flavored oatmeals, snack crackers, bars and sweet treats. Their branded food products were either sold at the meeting locations or in grocery stores.
And for me, Weight Watchers was a great success. Just within three months, I’d lost nearly 30 pounds. The weight came off almost effortlessly as I incorporated very little exercise into what I dubbed a “lifestyle change.”
But I couldn’t discount how being on Weight Watchers had created a sort of neurosis, and a wealth of problematic behavior. In the short few months, I’d become obsessive about weighing myself and the number on the scale showing a decrease. Sometimes I’d weigh myself two or three times or day, holding my breath, hoping the numbers had gone down, even a little bit. And with each subsequent weigh-in at the Saturday meetings I attended, I was filled with anxiety hoping I had lost a whole number in pounds, rather than just a decimal point. When I didn’t lose enough weight, I sat through the meeting depressed and in a daze, mentally thinking back to how eating those slices of cheesecake or having a soda had probably contributed to my lack of weight loss. And I berated myself, trying to figure out a way to not have a repeat the next week.
Eating and cooking, something I used to enjoy, became a means to end, and one tinkered with a compulsive need to track every morsel, even the smallest of crumbs in my tracker. If I couldn’t figure out what number of points, I went into a small frenzy. Planning ahead was always pushed by my meeting leaders, as in, planning the number of points I was going to eat at whichever restaurant. But sometimes, I changed my mind. Sometimes I wanted an extra dessert or a drink. Having to worry about putting the right amount of points down in my tracker took away from being able to savor dining out with friends, loved ones or even a date. It created a new sense of stress. It made eating a type of work.
My weight loss plateaued some months later. Around July I was no longer committed to Weight Watchers, and I stopped going to meetings. I tried to go back and start back up several times later over the next year, but it never stuck. At my last attempt to give it a go, I decided I was walking away from Weight Watchers for good. I haven’t been back since.
Weight Watchers works. It does. I lost weight adhering to their program even if I did eventually gain that weight back. But for me, the advantage of losing weight and being smaller and more comfortable in clothes didn’t outweigh these new unhealthy behaviors which had manifested.
I also can’t discount how Weight Watchers doesn't take into account that weight loss (and weight gain) are just as much of a mental adjustment and shift as they are a psychological and emotional one. Looking back, I now recognize my patterned behavior with eating (overeating) was a means of self-medication to cope with overall unhappiness with the state my life was in. I ate to make myself feel better. I also can admit my overall body image and weight gain was a response to rebellion — making myself bigger as a statement to a mother who projected her own body image issues onto me. And all while I was doing Weight Watchers I never really addressed that. When embarking on a weight loss journey, the psychological and emotional ties to it are crucial. Getting to the root and core of what food means to a person and what role it has played in their lives can make or break losing the weight and keeping it off. There has to be an honest, inner inventory done for lasting effects.
I also think the push by meeting leaders for members to rely on Weight Watchers branded products and low fat options is counterproductive and doesn’t necessarily motivate members to start truly eating better. Does it really say much if you’ve lost weight by eating low- or reduced-fat versions of processed food? I think not. It got the job done, yes, but no it didn’t steer you in the right direction of holistically eating whole, fresh ingredients and fueling your body with the best food for you.
My weight has continued to seesaw the past few years, weight gain typically following particularly stressful periods of my life and weight loss organically happening on its own when I methodically focus on eating and fueling my body better. But I’m honest with myself. I know what food means to me — it is comfort, solace and a confidant when I lack control or footing elsewhere in my life. And I know when and if I do ever embark on a concerted effort to lose weight in the future, I’ll be able to take stock internally, be brutally honest about how I’ve gotten here and how my complicated relationship with food, and my attachments to it, has played an active role.