Weight Loss as Cure-all

A few weeks ago, my dear friend and mentor Jen Larsen‘s memoir came out. It’s called Stranger Here, and in it she recounts how she underwent weight loss surgery and lost 180 pounds. Here’s the book description from Amazon:

Jen Larsen always thought that if she could only lose some weight, she would be unstoppable. She was convinced that once she found a way to not be fat any more, she would have the perfect existence she’d always dreamed of. When diet after diet failed, she decided to try bariatric surgery, and it worked better than she ever could have dreamed: she lost 180 pounds. As the weight fell away, though, Larsen realized that getting skinny was not the magical cure she thought it would be—and suddenly, she wasn’t sure who she was anymore.

Jen has always been open about her experience, and how surprising, disappointing, and upsetting it was to discover that weight loss wasn’t the cure-all she’d always believed it to be. It wasn’t the magical solution that the world proclaims it to be. It made her feel so much better in so many ways – healthier, stronger, able to undertake tasks that had always seemed impossible before – but it didn’t change her inner self.

But the diet industry, the health care industry, even the fashion and beauty industries all want us to believe that thin = happy. No matter how awful you feel, no matter what your problems are or how deep-seated they may be, if you just shave off a few pounds you’ll be cured. And that is simply not true. Psychological, emotional, personal, career, and relationship work that needs to be done now at your current weight will ALSO need to be done if you lose weight. You will still be you on the inside. Jen was, and it shocked her to realize that.

I don’t mean to say that weight loss hasn’t drastically changed the lives of some, or that it’s not worth pursuing if you feel personally compelled to do so. Some people undertake weight loss and make massive emotional-personal changes simultaneously. But it’s worth noting that it’s not the weight loss itself that has improved their inner lives, it’s the accompanying changes and work.

This may seem overwhelming or upsetting if you’ve been considering weight loss as a potential road to an improved life. But it can also be liberating to consider. After all, it’s further proof that the little number on the scale does NOT define you. And that you can find serenity and happiness no matter how much or how little you weigh.

Needless to say, I’ve read Jen’s book and think it is amazing, inspiring, brave, brutal, and important. Her story isn’t unique, I’m sure, but she’s one of the only people who has stepped forward to share it publicly with anyone who cares to listen. So we’ll just add that to the long list of reasons why I’m proud to call her my friend.

Image via cynosure.

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20 Responses to “Weight Loss as Cure-all”

  1. Misty

    I totally agree. I had lost about 130 pounds through hard work, but I still had the problems of an undesirable life situation (with a lot of stress), an undiagnosed mood disorder, and accompanying cognitive errors/emotional issues. Though those were present while I lost the weight, at the time they were less pressing. When they came crashing back in full force, I regained much of the weight. Now I’m making a conscious effort not to beat myself up about the weight gain. Instead, I’m working on those other issues. Though that doesn’t preclude also working on the weight loss, I will be in a better position to take care of myself in that way when I’ve taken care of myself in these other ways.

  2. LK

    I have seen commercials for gastric bipass and bariatric surgeries that do suggest they will solve everything so maybe that is what you mean by the health care industry saying weight loss solves all problems? Being a student of the health care industry, loosing weight is often a requirement for a variety of conditions and surgeries if you are indeed overweight. Its often a safety precaution especially when dealing with mobility and joint issues. Even weight loss surgery involves you first needing to loose a certain percent of your weight before you can go into surgery. MAJOR surgery. I wish they were more forward about the recovery process of these surgeries. Its pretty intense and followed with corrective surgeries for the excess skin.

  3. April

    This is such an important point. Weight loss changes a lot of things, and it can make some aspects of your life better. But you are still you, and whatever you brought to the table before is still there until you deal with it. Tough work. And I don’t know if it’s tougher than losing the weight, but it’s definitely very personal.

  4. versatilestylebytracey

    Yes, I am currently losing weight I put on eating emotionally when I closed a business to care for my mother and watched her disappear with dementia before passing away. It’s not about the number on the scale as much as it is about recognizing myself in the mirror and for health reasons as I was pre-diabetic. If I had tried to do this when I was deep in the mourning stage, I would not feel the joy and return to self so strongly. I waited to begin the weight loss journey…

  5. LInB

    Losing weight simply makes you a less-heavy you. It can be difficult to accomplish, and (if you want to lose weight, and aren’t shrinking because of illness) you can be proud of losing weight. But the interior work of real change in your true self takes a different sort of effort. You are still you, with all your gifts and graces, no matter what your body looks like.

  6. Grace

    Chicken and egg.
    Emotional baggage and stress CAN lead to weight gain. Overweight people are stressed by a society that shames and ostracizes. Being heavy makes physiacl activity more challenging for many people, and others who ARE comfortable being physically active fear embarrassment or ridcule.
    We think that when we are at an “acceptable” weight our emotional baggage will have melted away along with the pounds.
    Similarly, we tell ourselves that we’ll start taking better care of our physical selves whe our emotional houses are in order.

    We are not made up of separate and distinct selves. You can’t have one without the other.

  7. Cristi Comes

    I totally agree that losing weight won’t magically make you happy. Your issues are still there unless you work on them/treat them. I can say from my own experience of losing weight last year, I felt as though I had lost control of my life by putting on the pounds having my kids. I was finally able to take control back and be motivated enough to work on myself again. I gained confidence partly bc I looked like myself again, but mostly because I FELT like myself. I was proud of myself for the accomplishment, for finally taking care of ME. I still have the exact same mental health issues I’ve always had and I still get treatment. But taking control of my weight did make me a happier person, not perfect. But happier.

  8. Sarah

    Wow – I was just thinking about this topic earlier in the week. I used to think if I just lsot weight, my life would be perfect. I would be confident, I would get hit on by men and asked out on dates every night, I would have a beautiful wardrobe full of stylish and well-fitting clothes, I would get a better job and make more money, I would be lovable…but then I lost the weight, and none of those things happened. I was disappointed but then I just let myself off the hook. I realized that it’s all a game, and the game is to make women hate themselves so they spend money. What’s the very worst that can happen if you love yourself the way you are? And will anyone else love you just the way you are if you don’t?

  9. Harriet

    I am physically comfortable with my size and weight (which is maybe 20 pounds over what might be considered optimal if you’re using BMI as a guide), and generally emotionally comfortable, but wow, people seem to expect me to be miserable that I don’t look like a fashion model. I never have and never will. I’ve gotten unsolicited advice that I would be happier if I lost weight. The other day, someone told me (over the phone, just knowing my height and weight but not having seen me) that I need to lose 40 pounds! But I feel that at age 55 I’m doing pretty well as is. This is obviously a stable point for me because I’ve been the same for many years, give or take 5 to 10 pounds in either direction. I eat when I’m hungry, I don’t eat a lot, I have a balanced healthy diet, I get a little exercise every day, my husband thinks I’m attractive. So I just try to keep listening to my body and (mentally) tell those people to eff off.

  10. Michelle

    I just had a similar discussion with my massage therapist yesterday 🙂

    I know that if I lose weight, my joints (some of which are full of metal) will thank me for it. And perhaps I’ll be able to ride my bike up a hill faster. And perhaps be able to shop in places that I can’t currently shop in.
    But I’ll still be me. I’ll still have the same job, the same qualifications, live in the same house with the same little black cat, drive the same car. Loosing weight won’t change any of those things and those things are LIFE.

  11. Jen

    Bravo!

    I was 305 lbs. I lost 120 lbs. I kept it off for a bit but I felt worse about myself. I got lots of attention I did not want. I am almost back to the that weight again and I am trying to tackle my demons. I have depression no matter what my weight.

  12. Rose-Anne

    Great post, Sal, on a really important and emotionally charged issue. I always feel like I need to offer the skinny person perspective here, which is that sometimes life is just hard, overwhelming, or out of whack, and it has NOTHING to do with weight or body image. I’ve had my heart broken more than once, despite my “perfect” weight. I’m facing unemployment in the near future, despite my awesome BMI. But I do think those things are easier to handle if you are healthy in mind and body, so that’s where I try to focus my “health labor.” (I’m taking a cue from Autumn at The Beheld, who often talks about beauty labor.)

    Be happy. Be healthy. And don’t expect perfection of yourself in those domains–life is a squiggly line of ups and downs.

  13. Toby Wollin

    Actually, part of the problem is that the medical community pushes this ‘weight loss cures everything’ meme as well. Someone I know who has been struggling with infertility issues told me recently that she’d gone to a specialty clinic recently and they basically told her that they won’t touch her with a ten foot pole until she weighs 135 or less. Now, there are many reasons for infertility, including PCOS, hypothyroidism, other hormone issues and so on. But the clinic took the position that her problem was BMI (with all of the value judgements associated) and won’t work with her until she toes their line. She’s devastated because she knows that it is highly possible that she would go through all the work… and still not get pregnant…

  14. WendyB

    Not really just a weight-loss thing. People often think that getting their heart’s desire is going to “cure” life. Money is a big thing that makes people think they’d never have a moment of sadness if only they had X amount. I’ve met a lot of miserable and crazy millionaires though.

  15. Kristen

    What this kind of touches on but doesn’t directly mention is that oftentimes, extra weight is a symptom of other problems. I don’t know if that’s the best way to describe it, but as an example, in the last few weeks I’ve been dealing with a miscarriage and gained a bit of weight because I’ve been eating more than and worse than usual (mostly sweets and other “comfort foods”). Many people turn to food for comfort, to relax after stressful situations at work or home, in boredom, etc, etc, etc. We know those things, but it’s easy to forget about them and focus on that number on the scale.

    Losing weight won’t automatically make you get up off the couch and exercise; it won’t change the core of your relationships; it won’t even necessarily make you feel better about yourself. Just as an overweight person can be well-adjusted and live well, a non-overweight person can deal very poorly with life, and the difference in weight isn’t the defining issue there.

  16. Susan in Boston

    I’ve never had a “weight problem,” but I did have a “shopping problem” for awhile. I bought the stuff I craved, expecting that possession thereof would make a difference. It did not.

    It took me years–all right, decades–to recognize that what I really wanted was to make the dress, not to just own it. And now that I’m scratching the spot that actually itches, I am psychologically much more comfortable in clothes that can look more homemade than I’d like them to.

    The internal is finally in sync with the external.

  17. GinaMarie

    Sometimes I really wonder at the serendipity of things. Last night I was asked to be featured on a blog as an inspirational weight loss story. I hadn’t looked at my before pictures in a long time…essentially, I had forgotten what I used to look like. I received a lot of praise which is lovely of course but I cannot say I’m happier. I wasn’t happy then either but surprisingly, I was a LOT more positive BEFORE I lost the weight.

  18. Olivia

    I absolutely agree with this, and losing weight could even lead to a different kind of unhappiness. Like one commentor above, it can lead to unwanted attention. Or, in my case, yes I was thinner, but I was also so preoccupied with counting, weighing and planning my food that it left me feeling really stressed out. Once I was able to embrace HAES and love my body for what it is capable of I became much happier.

  19. Lauren // thepearshape.com

    This is a very inspiring article and sounds like a must read book. It took me many years to realize that losing weight and wishing for a different body wouldn’t make me happy or provide me with body acceptance. While it did make me feel better health wise, I had to learn to accept my body and be happy with who I am and what I look like before the rest of life fell into place.

    And now, i’m a pearshaped blogger! *hurrah for body acceptance!

  20. PeacefulP

    Thanks for sharing this book with us Sal. Indeed I think this is CRUCIAL information to offer the general public as proof that happiness is not tied to weight. We all know this logically, yet we’ve been so brain washed and hypnotized by the media that believing it does seems to override our logic. Good work! p.