The Treadmill: Losing Weight and Going Nowhere

Josh Bernard-Cooper provides powerful insight on losing weight and how there is more to being healthy then simply being slimmer.

Even when you step off the treadmill, weight loss can still feel like you’re going nowhere. Following extreme weight loss, perhaps by dieting or surgery, many people are still left with some of the worst effects of obesity. It’s no secret that mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and body dysmorphic disorder, are often combined with obesity. One would think that in successfully losing weight an individual would easily be able to transition into a newly liberated lifestyle and sense of self. However, mental health issues tend to persist; issues with body image are instead motivated by loose skin or surgical scars, whilst self-esteem remains low. My personal case is no different to that of many others. Innumerable people undergoing extreme weight loss are forced to deal with deteriorated mental health and excess skin, often in the face of assumptions from friends and loved ones that they could be nothing but delighted with their body. Anecdotal evidence will do little to make it clear that mental health care and body contouring surgery should be made more readily accessible to patients who have undergone extreme weight loss, but should hopefully raise awareness of the issue amongst friends and colleagues who do not know what I have been through.

There is not a time that I can remember in my childhood when I was at a healthy weight. From a very young age my self-identity was focused around being “big,” as it would be worded as to hold my fragile self-esteem intact. Throughout my school years I experienced the same issues that many overweight children do; bullying, public humiliation and mental health problems were commonplace. To give you an idea of the extent of my obesity, I weighed 80kg at the age of 9. This peaked at the age of 15, when the scales clocked in at almost 120kg and my waistband had expanded to 45”.

It was at this age that I realised the implications on my life of being so overweight. I developed an eating disorder, restricting myself to no more than one meal each day. Within six months, I had dropped to a waist measuring 36”. There was no doubt in my mind, or the mind of my friends and family, that this was a monumental achievement. For the first time in my life my body had some sort of semblance to what was considered “normal.” Yet, it didn’t feel this way. My eating disorder persisted for some time and my self-perception had not changed. The weight loss felt illusory, at risk of disappearing at any moment.

When I arrived at university a couple of years later, still overweight but no longer obese, I again endeavoured to lose weight. I joined the university’s boxing team, training for hours each week and further modified my eating habits. Although I was no longer eating one meal a day, I almost entirely stopped eating carbohydrates. For a while, my weight loss was healthy and sustainable, but during the Christmas holidays I again turned to obsessive behaviour. I would exercise for two hours a day six days a week whilst limiting my calorie intake to no more than 1200kcal each day. I lost over 10kg of body weight within four weeks. Yet, my self-perception had still not changed. I still felt constantly at risk of losing all of my progress by relaxing my diet for even one day. My skin had loosened around my abdomen, wrinkled and sagging where muscle definition should be.

Again, I was met with praise, which I naturally welcomed. For the first time I could remember, I was at a healthy weight. Of course, losing such a monumental amount of weight and drastically changing my appearance to a healthy standard was a huge achievement. However, there was a certain unintended insensitivity in the congratulations I received, assuming that my weight loss whilst at university was all there was to my story. My struggles with mental health and eating disorders, both past and present, felt marginalised and the body-image issues I currently have due to excessive loose abdominal skin seemed ignored.

The most recently I have faced the lack of acknowledgement for these issues was when trying to get this article published. In trying to raise awareness about the persistence of mental and physical health problems even after successful weight loss, the original article I wrote on this topic reviewed the results from 4 studies about self-perception following weight loss. It was rejected on the grounds of being too academic, with my editor instructing me that Label were more interested in publishing my personal story. This was entirely down to my own lack of foresight and neglecting to consider the stylistic approach adopted by the Label team. However, I had chosen to retain a level of objectivity in my article in order to prove that my case was not isolated. An anecdotal approach does little to justify an argument for a wide-scale change to attitudes. In having my original article rejected, it was impossible to feel anything other than that the severity and frequency of the often-unacknowledged struggle of extreme weight loss patients was also being rejected. It is important to note that this was clearly not the case, but a symptom of the marginalised situation that people like myself find themselves in.

It should be reiterated that my story is no different to that of many others, including the participants of the studies I originally researched. I do not believe that my experiences are any worthier of being given a platform than theirs, but nonetheless hope that in writing this article and sharing my experiences I can help raise general awareness. Not only awareness for those who still struggle with mental and physical health issues after weight loss, but for the mental health of all obese people and those facing body-image disorders.