[This is the story of one of my good friends. For the sake of privacy, we'll call her "Angelica." Perhaps not all of your questions will be answered, but the lessons to be learned are no less important. Enjoy.]
Like a lot of other women, Angelica has struggled with self-esteem issues for as long as she can remember. She never felt skinny or beautiful. From the time she was a teenager, attempts at losing weight went for her like they do for so many others: she’d jump head-first into a new exercise routine and diet (which is to say tons of cardio and counting calories); but then in a few weeks self-doubt would creep in, and thoughts of “I can’t do this” and “I’ll never be skinny, anyway” would swing it all back in the other direction. Her life was punctuated by periods of “being good” and “being bad.” This cycle went on for years.
Angelica, now 29, is a high school teacher. She teaches a full load of classes and is involved with many after-school activities. This is quite the workload and, as you can imagine, does not lend itself very easily to healthy habits. Stress, on the other hand, it offers up in spades.
To add to this, for more than a year now, Angelica and her husband have been trying to have a baby. After several unsuccessful months—not to mention a nice, new layer of stress—they decided to seek some medical guidance and went to a fertility doctor. One of their doctor’s suggestions?
Lose some weight.
Now don’t get me wrong, from what I understand, the doctor was sensitive to the subject and approached it very kindly. But for someone of Angelica’s background, the suggestion, no matter how well delivered, sent her straight back into a place where she’d been so many times before: a place of high stress and low confidence.
This is when Angelica and I began talking about weight loss. I’ve been lucky enough to know Angelica for years, but I was fully unaware of her past struggles with self-esteem and weight loss. To be honest, it was all quite surprising to me.
The first thing we discussed was the reason her doctor suggested she lose weight. As you well may know, there is no magic weight or body fat percentage that allows you to get pregnant. Her weight as a number on the scale was not a problem; her weight as a reflection of her current health was the issue.
The human body is incredibly intuitive and adaptive. When we give it signals that life is rough (excessive stress, inadequate sleep) and resources are scarce (inadequate calories and vital nutrients), then it will certainly not want to grow another life that has to try and survive under those same conditions.
The answer, then, was to put aside thoughts of restricting calories and “eat less, exercise more” as a means to reach her goal. In fact, the goal itself effectively changed. No longer was Angelica trying, as she had many times before, to simply become a smaller person; she was now aiming to bring her body back to health. Fat loss just happens to be a common side effect of such efforts (not to mention increased energy, sex drive, happiness, fertility...you get the point).
After shifting her focus from an aesthetic goal to a health-centered one, there was one more major obstacle that Angelica and I had to tackle in order to get her head in the right place for fat loss: being selfish.
As I said, Angelica is a teacher. She’s also a dedicated wife, sister, daughter, aunt, and friend. So when it comes to taking care of people, she herself tends to end up on the bottom of the list. Angelica needed a little more selfishness in her life. And to be quite honest, it’s not even really all that selfish to take care of your own needs. When you take care of yourself, you’re better able to be there for and take care of those who depend on you.
Easier said than done, for sure; but realizing it is much more than half the battle.
After that, the discussions that followed were simple ones: getting enough sleep, what foods to eat and to avoid, ideas on managing stress, and proper exercise modalities. The easy stuff.
Angelica contacted me recently after a doctor’s appointment. In the span of two short months, she had lost 16 pounds and dropped two pant sizes. Her doctor didn’t even say hello to her when she walked in; the first words out of her mouth were “How’d you lose all that weight?”
And that, to me, is the best part and the major lesson here. It’s not that she lost weight – it’s how she lost the weight. She did not starve herself or spend a second of her day counting calories. She did not slave away six days a week trying to punish the fat off at a bootcamp or participate in any “challenges.” And she sure as hell didn’t fall for any multi-level marketing campaign bullsh*t.
In fact, she did all of this without exercise (though she still knows it’s important and is trying to work it into her schedule).
No, what Angelica did was get her mind right, first and foremost. She took out the aesthetic goal to lose weight—the one geared at what everyone else thinks of her; the one that drove anxiety and feelings of failure—and replaced it with one that’s meant for the most important person in the equation: herself.
She started prioritizing sleep over getting just one more thing done at night. She learned to better recognize the stresses in her life so she could manage and mitigate them better. She started walking more. She started paying more attention to ingredients lists than calorie counts, and even learned a little bit about human biochemistry and how different foods affect your body.
She also demonstrated the importance of consistency over intensity. There were no sudden, 180-degree flips or changes that will fail to be sustainable. Because her head was finally in the right place—one fueled by self-love and wanting something better rather than desperation—Angelica was able to work new routines and habits into her life. These were the first two months of her health journey, but they will certainly not be the last.
Angelica is not an athlete. She is a proud member of the Decidedly Non-Hardcore, and her story is truly inspiring. Because she was able to shift her perspective, she has set herself on a lifelong journey of being happy, healthy, and strong.
And you can, too.