I stood at the bar, awkwardly clutching my mango margarita. My two girlfriends were chatting up a mechanical engineer and his cousin, who was visiting from out of town. Feeling left out, I tried to make eye contact with a cute guy by the door. He ignored me.
Stay a little longer, I told myself. You've been here for just an hour. It's only 9 p.m.
This was not how I imagined my big debut. Newly single after a difficult breakup with a longtime boyfriend, I had been persuaded by my friends to join them on Friday night at the kitschy bar of a BBQ restaurant where, they promised, I would meet lots of fun, desirable men.
I had recently lost 40 pounds — mostly by upping my intake of vegetables and whole grains and cutting out sugar, pasta, and white bread — and had taken my friends' advice to wear clothes that showed off my body. That meant ditching my summer uniform of baggy T-shirts and Costco capris for a carefully selected neon-pink chiffon top, a short black skirt, and high heels. Telling me I looked hot, my friends assured me I'd get hit on.
The air-conditioning was cranked up, and I felt the cold air on every inch of exposed skin — my bare arms, legs, cleavage, and collarbone, which finally had reappeared after years of being encased in fat. But instead of feeling sexy, I felt naked.
"I'm really tired," I told my friends. "I'm going to go."
Back home, I opened my closet and found my old fat clothes, long relegated to the throw-out bag: the cavernous yoga pants and faded aquamarine sweatshirt with the holes near the armpits. I buried my face in them and took in the mix of lingering Trésor perfume and detergent. I put them on, my anxiety subsiding. I felt like me again.
Sometimes, I missed my fat.
People always talk about the benefits of weight loss, but there's little discussion about the sheer shock of it. When you first decide to diet, you imagine only the upsides: new body, better health (and if you engage in magical thinking like I do, a whole new life). No one warns you how rattled you'll feel. Physically, I was perpetually cold and dogged by a dull ache underneath the right side of my rib cage — the sensation I experienced whenever I felt vulnerable. Emotionally, I felt ill-equipped to handle all of the changes, and I could no longer turn to the comfort foods that soothed me.
Then there was the disappointment. In my thin fantasies, I was more confident and better dressed. I had more friends and dates. I pushed myself professionally. Sometimes, I slow danced at garden parties in sexy sheaths while my imaginary boyfriend nuzzled my neck, or I sunbathed in bikinis on sailboats while he prepared cocktails. When I was fat, these fantasies stayed safely in the realm of "someday." I never had to discover the limits of my talents, face my fears of intimacy, or confront how awkward I feel meeting new people.
When I lost the weight, I got a harsh reality check. I was still me with the same problems. I was just smaller.
And the smaller version wasn't necessarily a better one — at least not at first. I loved my newly visible collarbone and the emerging curve on my lower back, but I never imagined that I would stand naked in front of the mirror, grabbing rolls of loose skin from under my arms and inner thighs. Or that I would see my breasts become floppy and flat or my butt even more dimpled. I felt like a stranger in my own body.
There was also the day-to-day stuff. Diet experts don't tell you how left out you feel when you're unable to share the platter of penne alla vodka at Buca di Beppo with your family or pitchers of beer with friends. Or how nearly every interaction includes a reference to your new size. At first I enjoyed hearing, "Look at you, Miss Skinny!" But sometimes I didn't want the attention; I just wanted the comfort of the group. There were times I also felt I had broken a social contract. "Well, I'm still fat," one friend would say. Or my mom, who has struggled with her weight over the years, would buy me a new sleeveless top and say, "Well, at least you can wear this." You don't realize how deeply people share your fat identity until you've shed it.
I didn't actually want my fat back. I had worked hard to lose it. For most of my adult life, I carried an extra 5 to 20 pounds, but during graduate school I topped out at 180 on my 5'6" frame by ordering take-out lasagna and Pad Thai to get through the mountains of work. I knew I'd chunked out, but I had a habit of wearing loose clothing and had little idea I had gained that much until I stepped on a doctor's scale shortly after graduation.
Today, I'm 140 pounds, a weight I've maintained for about four years. It took me nearly seven years to get there. It wasn't because I regained the weight. I just couldn't bear to drop it any faster than 5 to 7 pounds at a time.
The slow weight loss, it turns out, was actually good for my body — and might be the key to successful weight maintenance, according to new research. It also gave my initially loose skin time to catch up. (Yoga and kickboxing did the rest.) But the reason for my slowpoke pace was I needed months to get used to each new size — and identity. As soon as my clothes were too big, the loss would stall, which I'd blame on my body's natural plateau. Now, I believe I ate just enough to keep my weight the same because I'd reached my comfort level. A few seasons later, I'd feel ready for another change and start dieting for real again.
The last 15 pounds took almost three years. I would lose a couple here and there by playing around with low-carb diets and juicing, but I was never too serious, reluctant to give up my status as an "almost thin" person. At 155 pounds, I could safely peer into a world in which women wore halter tops and bikinis, while I was getting used to loose tank tops. I was still trying to tolerate that naked feeling.
Then, one afternoon on a sailing trip, I noticed that many of the women who were heavier than I was were wearing bikinis. Not only did they look attractive in them — rolls and all — they looked comfortable. Here I was, hiding in my black "kindest cut" one-piece, sealed in by layers of suffocating ruching.
I wish I could say I learned to feel good through some organic process of loving myself — by celebrating my strengths, accepting my flaws. Rather, I forced myself to feel good incrementally, like easing myself into a cold pool.
The first step was at a sweltering bar where I was hanging out with friends. I desperately wanted to take off my cardigan. I had on a camisole, but I didn't want to show my flabby arms and black bra straps. Finally, I tied the sweater around my waist. Ten minutes later, I became self-conscious and put the sweater back on. When I became too hot, I took it off again. I repeated this cycle throughout the night and realized I could handle the naked feeling in spurts.
Over the next few years, I invented little assignments for myself. I bought form-fitting tank tops for the gym. At first, I wore them only inside the dark Spinning studio. Then, for the next couple of months, I wore them inside the brightly lit workout rooms but stood in the back. Eventually, I watched myself do bicep curls in full view of the mirrors. On a vacation in South Beach, I even experimented with a bikini. Reclining on a lounge chair, I lifted my white linen cover-up to expose my belly to the sun. By the end of the trip, I made myself take it off and walk to the pool.
I still wrestle with that naked feeling, but it doesn't overwhelm me and make me run home from bars anymore. On the rare occasions that it gets unbearable, I wrap myself in a big terrycloth robe until it passes. (I finally threw out the fat clothes.) And it always does. Then I put on my new fitted yoga pants, which hug my beautiful curves.