By Julia Smagacz (University of Akron ‘17)
“This Is How To Lose Weight and Keep It Off!”
“Lose Weight In Your Sleep - Seriously!”
“17 Days to Significant Weight Loss.”
“26 Tips to Help You Lose Weight and Feel Great.”
I browsed Shape.com for fitness and health articles, and these are the titles and headlines that I found. Noticing a trend? I do too, one that isn’t unique to this one fitness news outlet. Our society has become obsessed with the idea of losing weight.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Weight loss can be empowering, rewarding, and healthy, of course. Bodybuilding.com has an incredible section on their website dedicated to people transforming their bodies. Being a dedicated follower of the bodybuilding and fitness industry, I love reading this page. These stories, like this one I read recently, are motivational and uplifting.
The facts and sources don’t lie. The CDC notes the numerous health risks associated with being overweight or obese, including hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, and the CDC reports that 38 percent of adults and 17 percent of teenagers are obese.
Now why would I have a problem with our society’s weight loss craze after reading these scary numbers? It would certainly seem that America needs to lose weight. But my problem with the weight loss craze doesn’t have to do with physical health. I’m not discouraging people who have weight to lose from pursuing weight loss plans and diets in a safe way. My big issue with our society’s obsession deals with the effects of body weight struggles that are invisible but very real: the mental and emotional aspects.
We associate weight loss with success. Fitness. Happiness. Beauty. Power. Weight gain, on the other hand, is rarely ever something to be celebrated. It’s inherently a bad, negative, stigmatized concept (refer again to those scary statistics above). I’m horrified that things such as fat shaming and body shaming exist nowadays, and are accepted. Perfectly normal, beautiful women are labeled as “plus-size” and “unhealthy” simply because they don’t match society’s definition of fitness and typical body shape (slay, Ashley Graham, slayyyyyy).
I have witnessed firsthand the growing stigma surrounding weight gain, especially among young women. For a long time, I was blinded by the tempting headlines and weight loss articles. I drove myself mad stepping on the scale each morning until I became a slave to the practice. I worshipped my mirror. I ate less and less each day, striving to make that accursed little number shrink. My calorie intake was likely close to or even less than 1100 per day. I justified my obsession with becoming skinny and thin by promising myself I’d be a happier, more athletic, fit version of myself. This was going to make me amazing. Pretty. Strong. Confident. But I was I wrong.
I eventually met with a dietitian and was talked into sanity...a sanity that unfortunately did not last long. I traded starvation for the pursuit of a very strictly healthy diet, to the point where I completely swore off certain foods. No eggs. No red meat. Definitely no sugar. I couldn’t eat out at restaurants and would fall into panic mode if I couldn’t get out of the situation. I had to cook everything for myself, because there was no way I’dreally know what other people put into my food. I fell back into the pattern of weighing myself until the scale became my captor again.
These thought patterns crept into my exercise habits as well, until I hated myself on days I didn’t work out. I lost 11 pounds from freshman to sophomore year of college, and in the summer of 2014, I was diagnosed with orthorexia nervosa and OCD. Orthorexia is, quite simply, the unhealthy obsession with a “healthy” lifestyle and diet, to the point where everyday life is disrupted. I correlated my diet and weight to my emotional well-being; if I was skinny and eating a perfect diet, then I was happy.
I was involuntarily sidelined from playing college volleyball in the spring of 2015. The sports physicians discovered that I had a dangerous iron deficiency, one that would have required an emergency blood transfusion had my levels been any lower. I wasn’t allowed to practice. Lift. Run. For two and a half weeks. Even when I returned to practice, I wasn’t allowed to jump, power lift, or sprint. On top of that, I weighed 139 pounds, which, for a 6-foot Division I athlete, is severely underweight. I had a choice. I could sit the bench, or I could gain weight and play. For me, there wasn’t a choice. This was the sport and the team that I loved.
So, the campus dietitians put me on a 3,000 calorie-a-day diet, which horrified me at first. At our weekly team weigh-ins, I had to watch all my teammates smile proudly if their weights had dropped, or roll their eyes and mutter “damn!” if they’d gone up. I felt incredibly self-conscious and odd stepping on the scale, seeing a three-pound increase, and having to remind myself that this was good. This was making me strong. This was making me better.
In all, I gained 11 pounds, and I now sit comfortably at 150. I’ve finally learned to love myself and my body, and I could not be happier. I’ll say it again...I’m the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever been in my life, and this was only after I’d gained 11 pounds. I lift heavier and run faster than I ever thought I could. I found the stronger, happier, more confident, vibrant version of myself at 150 pounds, and looking back, I know now that the 139-pound girl was a skeleton, a ghost, unhappy and sick. I had to reverse my way of thinking and separate what society thought about weight gain from what was actually true for my health. And I am so glad that I did, for the mental and emotional reasons, as well as the physical.
Lose weight if you need to, or most importantly, if you want to. Gain weight if you want to. Do it because you want to, not because you feel forced to by others or by an ideal image of fitness or beauty. You and only you get to decide what makes you happy. Take it from someone who had to make the journey and break away from a misconstrued view of fitness. Loving yourself and being healthy - truly healthy - is more important than any health craze.
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