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If weight loss is a product of stress and pain, is it still a win?

These days, whenever I’m seeing people I haven’t seen in a while – and, like most of us, there are a lot of people I haven’t seen in a while – I brace myself. Not for scrutiny or criticism, but for something that, right now, feels even stranger. I brace myself for compliments.

“You look amazing.”

“You look incredible.”

“You look great!”

I am one of those weirdos who lost weight during the pandemic. I swear, it wasn’t intentional. When the lockdown began, I was baking banana bread with everyone else, and eating my anxieties, in the form of loaves of fresh-baked challah and delivery pizza.

I also started riding my bike again, because all the gyms were closed, and I couldn’t do yoga, or boot camp, or boxing. I’ve worked out all my life, and I had to do something. Outdoor activities were safe, and it felt good to be outdoors, around people, with the built-in social distancing that being on a bike ensures. My husband and teenage daughters were all too happy to be without me for an hour or two, or three, or four. Best of all, the rides soothed my anxiety.

As 2020 became 2021, I got stronger and faster, able to ride longer distances. Biking gave me camaraderie and fresh air and a feeling of accomplishment. I was sleeping well, meeting new people, and discovering new parts of my city and its surroundings.

Then, in May of 2021 my mom died, after a short, brutal illness. A few months after that, my older daughter went off to college. Losing a parent, sending a child out into the world — both of these are natural, expected events as you enter middle age. But at some point, between those losses, with the pandemic dragging endlessly on, biking went from “fun hobby” to “the only thing standing between me and complete collapse.” The hours spent in the saddle, the miles I was pedaling, all of it ramped up, to the point that my healthy pastime was starting to feel a little unhealthy; more like an addiction than a hobby. And, like any other addiction, I started needing more. The twenty-mile ride that used to be enough to turn off my brain wasn’t doing the trick. I needed more miles, more hours in the saddle, to recapture that feeling of peace.

I worked in rides whenever I could. I’d take group rides, and, if I couldn’t find anyone to ride with, I’d go by myself. Fifty miles out to Valley Forge and back, seventy miles over the Ben Franklin bridge and out to the Jersey Shore. When two friends and I spent a week riding from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC, I was as happy and at peace as I’d been in months. When my bike got stolen, I felt like someone had stolen one of my organs — that’s how profound the violation felt.

And then, without changing my diet, I lost weight.

I’ve always been on the bigger side; a size 16 for most of my adult life. I’m the descendent of larger people on both sides of my family tree. As much as I might have wished it were otherwise, I’m just not intended to be small. As a young woman, I spent years trying to change that, dieting and counting points and calories, tracking meals and workouts meticulously and beating myself up for failing to stay thin. As I became a mom, and entered middle age, I’ve worked hard to make peace with my body, to break up with diet culture. I try to eat when I’m hungry, to exercise for my mental health and not a number on the scale, and to live as well as I can in the body I’ve got.

It’s an ongoing process; a continual unlearning, and, in a world that still insists that thin equals beautiful, some days are better than others.

And then came the pandemic. And the death, and the biking, and the weight loss.

People noticed. And they did the thing so many of us do, which is assume that weight loss can only signify positive changes; that it’s always good and always healthy and always worthy of praise.

“What’s your secret?” they’ll ask, and I’ll mutter something about riding my bike a lot. Sometimes, I’ll tell them the truth. “Grief,” I’ll say. But nobody wants to hear that your secret is grief. They want to hear that you cut out carbs or processed sugar, not that your daughter moved out. They want to hear that you took up CrossFit or Krav Maga, not that your mother died. They want to see you as the “after” in a before and after shot, a success story, not a woman who’s wearing her sorrow on the outside, for everyone to see.

If there’s a book you want to read that hasn’t been written, it’s your job to write it, Toni Morrison eleven said. For my whole career, I’ve been writing the books I wanted to read, the books I desperately wish had been there when I was a teenager and a young woman. I was determined to subvert the dichotomy of fat equaling bad, lazy, out of control and thin meaning good, happy, with your shit together. In my first novel, good bed, I had my heroine, Cannie Shapiro, survived a tragedy, and lost a great deal of weight. She wanders through Philadelphia, walking endlessly, compulsively, feeling like her heart’s been torn out; feeling like a ghost. She’s at the lowest point in her life de ella, and people are telling her how great she looks. It’s bewildering and disconcerting…and now, I know exactly how she felt.

“Every time I see you, you’re smaller,” one of my friends said, at the start of a ride a few weeks ago. She meant it as a compliment, but that was the closest anyone’s come to saying how this feels. Intentional weight loss is ultimately about making ourselves less than we are. You shed pounds, and the size you wear diminishes — 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, until you get all the way down to that coveted 0. I think, sometimes, that the goal is actual invisibility; that the real winner would be the woman who ceases to exist at all.

I won’t lie: it’s hard not to enjoy a compliment, and it’s been fun to buy new clothes, or to wear things that haven’t fit in years. But I’m not fooling myself that these are permanent changes. My guess is that, eventually, the pounds will come back. It’s possible they’ll bring friends. I’ll put the new clothes I’ve had to buy in the farthest recesses of my closet; I’ll try not to obsess over photographs of the summer I got somewhere close to skinny. Body changes. That’s the reality, and, even though my body might be smaller right now, it might not — probably will not — stay that way. Which is fine.

Meanwhile, I’m trying not to tie too much of my self-esteem to the way I look. I’m trying to exercise in a healthy way and take days off when I need them. I talk to my daughters about getting stronger or faster or gaining endurance, even as I wonder if they’re hearing the unsolicited praise, or noticing that some people have more to say about my looks than my books.

I know, eventually, my daughters will experience losses: of a job, or a partner, or a parent. That’s life. But if that loss of should correspond to a loss of weight, I hope the world will have evolved to the point that strangers aren’t commenting on their bodies, and that their friends will ask, “How are you?” or “are you okay?” instead of telling them that they look great.

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