When you lose weight, whether it’s 20 pounds or 120 pounds (which is the amount I lost four years ago), it’s interesting how the passage of time changes the conversation. In the early stages of weight loss, when your clothes get a little looser and your cravings for fries are at their most fearsome, it’s all compliments about how great you look. Once you’ve dropped a size or two, people start asking what you’re doing to get results with the same annoyed edge in their voice as a police officer about to frisk someone, like they suspect you of concealing a weight loss potion in your pocket before you’ve even had a moment to answer. But when losing weight becomes the past tense lost weight and you become a buoy, bobbing along at your ideal size, the question becomes: How did you keep it off?
Unlike a Golden Retriever prone to jumping on company or the air conditioning in your mom’s house when it’s 86 degrees and you’re sweating in the living room, weight isn’t something you just “keep off.” It’s the best terminology we’ve come up with to refer to the phantom weight that’s gone from our body but not our memory, but it’s not very accurate. “Keeping it off” implies that any fat that’s ever left your body is in the lost and found somewhere, folded up like a department store dress shirt, just waiting to be worn again–all you have to do to keep yourself safe is put enough distance between you and that box. Distance in these terms is measured by miles on a treadmill, the extra steps you take at the grocery store to avoid the bakery, and the empty space on your plate that was once filled by jumbo portions. I used to think running away from my weight was the best tactic, but I’ve found the more you treat lost weight like a tangible thing, the harder it is to embrace the new life you’ll live without it.
My smaller body felt temporary and vulnerable in those early days of being average weight for the first time. The looseness of my clothes didn’t help. Having room to spare made me nervous, like I was dooming myself to refill that newfound breathing room with more of myself.
It felt like the pounds I lost were still nearby, waiting to be reunited with their host. I could open Yelp and search, “My old body weight near me,” and locate my love handles reading a newspaper in the corner booth at all-day breakfast diner six blocks away. Each vegetable I ate and every plank I survived gave me a lead on a rival that was in hot pursuit. I worked hard to lose weight, but with that phase over, I thought that if I wasn’t constantly vigilant, I’d end up right back where I started. It was exhausting. Every little setback – usually in the form of chocolate – felt like tripping in the woods in a horror movie. I thought my efforts would be what kept my lost fat away, but the best way I’ve avoided falling back into old habits is to stop looking over my shoulder expecting to see 120 angry pounds chasing me down.
I hate when people say that maintaining weight loss long term requires a “lifestyle change.” On the near-impossible task spectrum, stealing a goose that lays golden eggs from a giant is easier than making a “lifestyle change,” because at least grand theft gosling is a defined task with a clear enemy. A lifestyle change sounds like it requires buying a lot of throw pillows and attending swingers parties on the weekends so that if your old weight tries to find you again, it’ll be scared off by your new way of life.
It’s impossible to list all the ways your mindset and behavior have to change to maintain a healthy weight, but a good place to start is to stop thinking of your lost weight as if it’s a real person you could run into in the checkout line at Target. When you’ve been insecure about your size – and especially if you’ve ever struggled to lose weight – you’ve probably spent a lot of time breathing life into those extra pounds, because they’ve affected your opinion about yourself in such a powerful way that to diminish their influence would force you to realize that the problem wasn’t the number on the scale, but how you felt about it. The more you separate your fat from yourself, the harder it is to be proactive about maintaining your weight.
The only “secret” that empowers me to “keep the weight off” is I stopped worrying about the pounds I lost and all the Rube Goldberg machine ways they might come back and focused instead on taking the best care of my body in the present tense, not the ghost of how my body used to look. My fat will always be out there, and bits of it might even come back to visit during a stressful time at work or after some gluttonous holiday eating, but I no longer live in fear that every time I dip a toe (or a tortilla chip) back into my old habits, I’ll wake up in my pre-weight loss body.
At times, taking each day as it comes can feel terrifying, frustrating, and insufficient all at once, but concentrating on the specific things I can do to make my body feel healthy and strong is much more mentally manageable than trying to “keep it off,” which sounds a lot like something you’d chant while pushing your fat into a volcano to appease the gods.