I’ve lived most of my 22 years with the awareness that I was the biggest girl in the room— I could never borrow clothes from my friends, I dreaded the pool, and I was constantly aware of whether or not my stomach hung over my jeans. Like many women, I dreamt of what it would be like to drop the weight.
We see them everywhere: “weight loss journey” posts, before-and-after shots on Instagram, fitness blogs. In all of these places, the story reads similarly; the woman in the “before” picture slouches, she doesn’t smile, she certainly doesn’t look happy.
But the “after” picture woman? She stands a little straighter, smiles brighter, and exudes confidence. It sounds so cliche, but if you’re honest, scrolling through that feed might have you believing the inevitable result of weight loss is effortless confidence and a new, sparkly life.
Heck, I thought that.
Until I lost 50 pounds.
While I thought weight loss would be the fulfillment of all I was missing for the larger portion (no pun intended) of my life, I was entirely unprepared for the reality I would face.
I thought the compliments would be flattering.
The weight loss came at an odd time in my life. I had just spent a few months studying in England and began student teaching almost immediately after, so I wasn’t spending much time in my normal social circles. And since I’m not one to document my weight loss, I was a year older and 50 pounds lighter before most people saw me again.
A lot of the interactions were as I expected. Someone who hadn’t seen me in a while would inevitably begin the conversation with, “Wow! You’ve lost so much weight!” or “You look great!” The compliments were flattering at first, but no one tells you how quickly that high wears off.
When you have poor self-esteem, it’s bad enough to believe that other people are thinking about your body, but talking about it directly to you? A nightmare. And that mentality doesn’t just disappear once you’ve shed some pounds.
You see, after you lose a notable amount of weight, your body becomes a normal topic of casual conversation. And no one tells you that even when comments about weight are positive, they can be wildly uncomfortable.
I thought dating would be easier.
I’ve been involved with a few guys lately, and I do think losing weight might have helped me become a little more confident in that arena. But a new fear has crept into the back of my mind that I was utterly unprepared for:
In situations where someone has expressed interest in me, I find myself thinking, “Would he have even taken a second look at me fifty pounds ago?”
These new guys didn’t know me then, but I still can’t shake the self-conscious worry that they wouldn’t have liked me before. And I thought that my newfound confidence was supposed to free me of that kind of fear.
I thought I would stop comparing myself to others.
I deleted my Instagram about a month ago.
Even though we’re in the midst of a body positive revolution, I think some of our efforts have been counteracted by social media. Online, everyone seems to look like a supermodel. Cameras have gotten more sophisticated. We know the lighting tricks. We use the filters. We notice the triple-digits likes on other people’s photos.
When most of us were growing up, it was only television and magazines that we compared ourselves to. But now? The images that may make us feel like we don’t measure up are at our fingertips and in our back pockets. Sometimes it feels impossible to escape.
I don’t think platforms like Instagram are inherently bad, but for someone inclined to compare herself, it was. And I wasn’t just comparing myself in the expected ways.
Sure, I saw girls who I felt were a million times more beautiful than me and felt insecure, but comparison is a two-sided coin. For the first time, I wasn’t the biggest girl in my social circle, and I got a little pride out of that. Ultimately, I was still comparing myself to others, but this time I came out on top.
In the comparison game, there will always be winners and losers. When I had to reassure myself that I was beautiful now by comparing myself to others, it meant that someone else had to lose— and that felt really gross.
I thought I would be erasing my old self.
There’s something else I never expected from losing weight— people talk about how much they love their bodies after you lose weight, but no one talks about how to love your body from before you lost it.
Sometimes, I’ll look through old photos on Facebook disappointedly. It’s become easy to dislike the former me. When I see pictures of myself from before, I’m tempted to delete them. It’s like, in some small way, I’m trying to erase the person who I used to be.
And maybe that’s the crux of this whole problem— I thought that by getting rid of the weight, I was getting rid of my insecurities. How could I worry about stomach rolls when they weren’t there? How could I fear the beach when I could finally wear a two-piece? How could I feel big when people kept telling me I’m thin?
Isn’t this what I always dreamed of?
But the reality is, when our confidence is contingent on the makeover ideal, loving yourself is actually dependent on becoming someone else. From personal experience, I can tell you that, if that’s your mindset, you’ll never win.
If you need to change yourself to be happy, you will always find something new to critique.
If it’s not your waist, it’s your thighs.
Or your arms.
Or your complexion.
Or your nose.
Or your eyes.
The critical mind will always find something new to scrutinize.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that weight loss is bad or should be avoided. In eating healthier, I have more energy than I’ve ever had before. In joining some fitness classes, I’ve met the loveliest women who brighten my week as we sweat it out together.
I’m not saying weight loss isn’t worth it; I’m saying weight loss isn’t the answer.
I’ve lived with my new shape for about two years now and have struggled deeply with the fact that though I look more like an “after” picture, I still feel like a “before” picture. And maybe that’s the problem: I’ve gone this whole time believing that confidence was a specific point I would reach if I played my cards right.
In all of the surprising realizations I’ve come to, I think this one is the most important:
Confidence is not a destination, but a behavior that we nurture.
The sad fact of the matter is, even in the age of body positivity, most women struggle with poor self-image— regardless of size. So eat healthy because your body is sacred and worth nourishing; exercise because endorphins are a gift.
And maybe we toss out the whole before-and-after mentality altogether, because your body is not a problem to be solved, but an outward reflection of the beautiful soul within— as long as we choose to believe it.