How to drop 50 pounds in 8 simple steps
It helps if you have this whole weird history—a childhood filled with your mother’s diets. A basement was filled with her weights and workout equipment, bookshelves lined with Body for Life and decades of Women’s Health and Women’s Fitness. You might remember your (already very thin) mother at suppertime, sitting at the table with next-to-nothing on her plate, or setting the table for the rest of the family only to then go to the basement to exercise. You might remember the way she talked about large women at the pool or the grocery store—“She does not need to be wearing that” or “I just don’t see how that could be healthy”—and also the way she told your brothers and you not to judge others because “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
You might have noticed a change in your weight during the summer of your eighth birthday—a season of watching cartoons from the couch with a bag of Doritos in hand. On one particularly slovenly afternoon, while you slouched in boxers in the afternoon light that filtered through plastic blinds, you perhaps glanced down to notice for the first time the creased protrusion of your white belly. It was likely somewhat alarming—your stomach had never stuck out like that before. For years, you had no trouble putting away five slices of pizza by yourself—and, wowie, how you could clean out a taco bar! Gazing down into the shiny, crinkly cave of your nearly empty Doritos bag, your emotions swung from astonishment to guilt. You didn’t eat that much—it wasn’t a family-sized bag or anything. But, my God, were you disgusting. What was wrong with you? Oh, what had happened to you? Maybe you decided to go on a diet.
Your early diets may have focused on cutting out the junk—no more Doritos or barbecue Lays, no more Little Debbie or Hostess snacks, no more ice cream. (Well, you could never give up ice cream. You could give up Popsicles, Bomb Pops, Push-pops, ice cream sandwiches, ice cream bars, fudge bars, and drumsticks; but you couldn’t give up the bowl of ice cream you shared with your father most nights after supper. Sitting across from you in front of the television, he would say, “Let’s have us some ice cream,” and you would go upstairs and make two heaping bowls of vanilla or chocolate or Neapolitan or cookies-and-cream. You’d drizzle each helping with chocolate syrup, sprinkle it with nuts, or lump it over with fruit preserves. Maybe you’d even cut up a banana! Finally, you’d stick a spoon into each, carry them downstairs in your frozen fingers, and the two of you would enjoy your ice cream together in silence before the television. Surely, the fond memories of these rich bonding experiences outweigh the unfulfilled potential of those early health aspirations.)
The next diet rule you broke was the one regarding Little Debbie and Hostess. These were the snacks your parents kept around the house for you. In the afternoon, when your brother and you got off the bus, you’d each go to the pantry and take out a Doughnut Stick or a Cosmic Brownie or a Fudge Round. You’d take your treats down to the living room and sit in front of the television, negotiating cartoons. At commercial breaks, you might even go upstairs for another. When you were dieting, you could usually hold out as long as there was something good on TV, but if your brother had the remote, God help you. “Oh, well,” you’d think, pulling the first chocolatey Devil’s Square from its crinkly wrapper, “I’ll do better tomorrow.”
It’s not your fault—your appetite was all but irresistible on slow afternoons. Like any kid, you got bored. And when you got bored, your stomach growled. And when your stomach growled, you went to the kitchen, opened the folding doors to the pantry and surveyed shelves upon shelves of salty, sugary, spicy, savory, genetically-modified, preservative-packed, artificially-flavored, potentially carcinogenic, undoubtedly addictive and delicious snack “foods.” You could graze this cornucopia all day and keep coming back for more. Alternately, when it came time to sit down to supper, your appetite failed you, and you couldn’t seem to finish the meal. The days of inhaling half a pizza all by yourself were gone, and it became impossible to clean a plate to your father’s standards. He would get good and heated up, lecturing you about wastefulness, and then he would say, “All right, but no snacks for the rest of the night.”
Your metabolism evolved as you grew. You started “filling out.” Your family continued to stock the house with chips and cookies instead of fruits and vegetables, and your growing collection of video games kept you inside for an increasing portion of the day. At fourteen years old, 5’10” and 180, you couldn’t do a single pull-up in gym class, and you took up more space than anyone else in family photos. Your brothers teased you mercilessly. None of it mattered, though, because you knew you were fat and you couldn’t really be persuaded to care.
You are sixteen-years-old when the balancing act of keeping a part-time job and a steady girlfriend begins to teach you time management. On weekdays, you wait tables from five to nine. Sticking to homework right after school keeps you out of the pantry and frees you up after work for at least an hour’s workout before bed.
Your first stop upon arriving home is the shed out back, where your mother’s workout equipment went after the basement flooded. You turn on the light and the gray milk-house heater. On the rubber flooring, you do sit-ups and push-ups, pacing and swinging your arms between sets. In the low rafters, you gradually gain the ability to do a variety of pull-ups and chin-ups, and a shelf in the corner holds free weights and a medicine ball. The star of the show is the Nordic Track home gym jutting out diagonally from the back corner. A pull-down bar works your back, shoulders, and chest, while other bars and handles sticking out or dangling from various arms of the machine are meant to build your arms, legs, and abs. Night by night, you learn to use all of these features.
Your workout schedule expands to fill most evenings. An hour a night after every work shift, two hours on days you don’t work, days off only when your friends are seeing a movie. The weather gets colder, the sloping backyard fills with icy snow, and the milk-house heater takes longer and longer to warm the small shed. Your girlfriend cancels plans on a Friday night, so you stay out there till midnight, sweating so much you have to take your shirt off and then your shorts too, so that you’re hanging from the rafters in your boxers as the headlights of passing cars wash over you through the web of chicken wire stretched across the window. You finally fall to the floor, gasping at the rafters overhead, panting to catch your breath. You feel fucking amazing.
The creek starts to run again, the backyard melts into it, and the streets thaw out, and people start driving faster. You turn in your coat for a jacket and your jacket for a hoodie. You decide to start running. You remember the miles you mostly walked in gym class, another failure of your fat self. You set off up College Street for the park, determined to rise above that failure, to match the abilities of others your age. But you’re winded after a block, and a passing pickup honks at you, so you walk home, embarrassed.
Your mother shares her latest diet. She thinks you look fine, but she shares it anyway. “Me, on the other hand,” she says, “120 pounds is a lot for me.” Together, you cycle through a short list of unpleasant things that for four weeks you refer to as meals. Whole wheat toast with peanut butter and grapefruit juice. Hard boiled eggs and pickled beets. Your mother likes this diet because it allows for more freedom than others, because you can eat the peanut butter with a spoon or put it on your toast, because you can eat a grapefruit or just drink the juice. She prefers the juice because she doesn’t like grapefruit and it’s easier that way. You take it in quick swallows, like shots. You lose fifteen pounds before throwing in the towel.
On days you don’t work out, you feel guilty. You look at yourself in the mirror before a shower and frown. You frown at your downward-facing nipples and your downward-facing navel and your scrawny arms. “I have got to get it together,” you mouth to the mirror. You resolve to work out twice as hard tomorrow, and you do. You stop taking days away from your workout schedule. You become flaky with friends, opting to skip social outings for more time in the shed. They call you and yell at you, and you make some plans with no intention to follow through. They call back, and you let it ring. You think up excuses. They call again, and you hide the phone from yourself. You head back out to the shed. Your friends stop calling.
Your parents divorce. You fall in love. You graduate high school. You open a joint bank account. You carve initials into a tree. You are accepted to your first-choice university. You start saving tips from work in an envelope marked “Sarah’s Ring.” You buy a ring. In what order, you won’t remember. There are a lot of things you won’t remember. You won’t remember the other schools or the scholarships they offered you. You won’t remember the location of the tree or whatever happened to the pocketknife. You won’t remember the jewelry store or the bank. You won’t remember how to tie shut the music journal she gave you for graduation. You won’t remember what the knot is even called.
You will remember the night she called you, crying, from the highway, saying that she had made a mistake, that she was sorry. You will remember knowing, intuitively, hours before and the sick feeling in your stomach when her name comes across the screen of your phone. You will remember being ready for this call, and you will remember the impossibility of ever being ready. You will remember comforting her, telling her that it will be okay. You will remember the tossing and turning and lifting weights in the mirror at two a.m., falling to sleep easily without a thought in your head, waking up sore and heavy-hearted. You will remember never second-guessing your decision to stay with her. You will remember the ensuing months, the times you forced a smile or looked away to hide tears. You will remember the way everything felt fresh and new in August as she helped you move into your dorm room.
You will always remember the moment you meet her husband. You will be with her, and he will be passing in the hallway. They will lock eyes across her dorm room. You will not remember the song on her iPod that sparks the conversation or the way the conversation moves from there, but you will know in that moment that you are losing her. It will take six months. Six months of lying and fighting and crying and splitting up and saying awful things and getting back together and thinking awful things, of doubting and daring and hurting more than you ever thought you could be hurt, and then there will be so little left of you when it is all done, barely enough to start over.
If you don’t feel like eating, don’t. This will last maybe a week. In the mirror before a shower, frown at the way your ribs stick out. Smile at the way your abs stick out. If it’s just four of them at first, try bending backward at the waist to reveal the other two. Note your still scrawny arms and invest in a set of free weights for your dorm room.
Stop going to the gym. They are at the gym. They have been meeting at the gym. Stay in your room and lift weights, do push-ups and sit-ups and crunches. Buy a pull-up bar. It will fit into the closet doorframe. Learn your roommate’s schedule so that you can plan workouts at times when you will be free of interruptions, the way he plans masturbation. When he is in the room, talk and share music with him, and make the most of his company. He will become your best friend.
Surround yourself with friends at all times. You will not want to be alone. Pop in through the open doors of your neighbors and strike up conversations up and down your hall. Create friendships awkwardly, out of necessity. These people will take you to parties and introduce you to more people. Find someone to buy you alcohol. Invest in shot glasses and top-shelf liquor. Learn to take shots like a champ—think of the grapefruit juice—and pass them out to your friends at parties. Pass them out to strangers at parties, and make those people your friends. Pass them out to the girls at parties—if you are going to the right parties, there will be plenty of girls. They will find you cute and tell you so. They will want to know what you think about a lot of things, and you will tell them when you are drunk, which will make you funny and cute, and they will want to take you home. Let them.
A Helpful Tip:
Let it be someone new each weekend. Begin to measure your worth by your attractiveness and your attractiveness by your ability to go home with someone after every party, by the number of women willing to care for you when you become too drunk. Revel in the position of having them competing for you, even fighting over you. Let them take you where they want to, and do everything they ask of you. Say yes to everything and everyone. When they say, “Let’s go,” let them take your hand and lead you down the dark, empty streets, away from flickering lights and thumping bass toward sterile dormitory hallways, quiet apartment blocks, crumbling rental houses. Follow modestly, politely through their doors, smile at their compliments, blush at their teasing, close your eyes when they kiss you, run your hands over them to make them more real inside your mind, make each one different from all the others. Put your hands on their soft hips, sense the moment of self-conscious alarm in them and the relaxed surrender that follows. Pull them closer, move your lips over their necks to the place where you used to kiss her, the place that made her sigh and say, “Ooooh,” the first time, and, “How did you ever know to kiss me there?”
Take those hours in their arms not to think of her, not to miss her or even remember her, to live a life of which she never was a part, to build a life that never saw that heartbreak. When they are ready to go to sleep, kiss them like a lover, hold their small hands in yours, promise to call or make no promises, walk home in the absence of memory. These women will become friends to you. It isn’t love you will seek in them, but desire. Whenever met with desire, give yourself over. Give and give and give until you find someone who wants to keep you. In the blinding delirium of your first hangover, tell her that you just want to be friends. Look down to your hands in your lap while she cries, but remain silent and stoic. Pull your comforter over your head when she goes home and cry.
At 160 pounds, you will have run into the Freshman Fifteen, and you will need to devise a diet more complex than the ones of your childhood. Cut out the snacks. Use soups, salads and cigarettes to trick your appetite. Look for specific purpose in each food item. Look for diet aids and supplements. Start replacing meals with meal bars. If you find one that tastes all right and keep your goal in mind, you will easily grow accustomed to the same four square inches of rice and protein powder for every meal. Fill up on water. In the mirror before a shower, scowl at your paunch and snarl, “That is disgusting,” and, “Who would ever want to look at you?”
Occasionally, friends and family members will want you to accompany them to restaurants. This will be tricky. By now, you should have a very specific meal plan, so that often you will be able to tell your less regulated friends and family members that you have already eaten or that you are right in the middle of cooking. When this is not possible, you can tell friends that you can’t afford to eat out today, but be careful not to say that to someone who will then offer to buy your meal.
A Helpful Tip:
In restaurants, you must be very conscious of the menu, of the ordering process. Resist the practice your father taught you of looking for the best deal, the most food for the lowest price. It is a hard mindset to break, that of the bargain diner, but it is imperative you don’t go overboard. A practice even more difficult to break, also from your father, is that of finishing everything on your plate. You won’t want to let anything go to waste, so it’s best not to order more than you can consume without feeling guilty. With family and female friends, you can get away with ordering salads and kids’ meals, but your guy friends will tease you for such orders. You’ll need to have a plan in place in the event that you over-commit.
Carefully edge your knife closer and closer to the edge of the table until it drops into your lap. Slip it into your pocket and excuse yourself to use the restroom. Get down on your knees in front of the white toilet amid the brightly-colored wall tiles, the hand-painted flowers and tropical birds, of some small-town Mexican restaurant, and shove the handle of the knife down your throat until you start to gag. When nothing comes up, just wiggle it around a bit. Bat at the epiglottis till it forgets its job. Memorize the sound of your Combinación #9 hitting the water, the texture of soggy, half-digested tortilla and matted nacho bits. Look at the pink and green stuff you can’t quite identify and wonder if it is part of your stomach, part of your throat, part of your heart, part of your dignity. Wash the bile from the shiny rounded handle of your knife in the brightly-colored bowl of the sink, then drop it unceremoniously into the trashcan. 150 pounds.
When you find yourself going home with the same ditzy freshman every weekend, figure you may as well call it a relationship. When she tells you she loves you, say you are not ready for that. When she tells you she doesn’t consider it to be cheating as long as there are no romantic feelings toward the third party, tell her you’re not sure you agree. Respect her ideas and expect her to respect your boundaries. When she doesn’t, figure it will at least give you time to do your own thing on weekends. While she’s blowing some frat guy in the middle of a party across town, lean in close to a sweet-smelling senior with the brightest eyes you’ve ever seen and a love of Virginia Woolf. When she reminds you that you have a girlfriend, tell her it’s okay. When you leave the freshman for her, the freshman will cry and say something ditzy like, “I wouldn’t have done it if you would have just told me you loved me.” Tell her she is only a freshman. Tell her that there are more attractive men who will say anything she wants them to. Tell her that you will still be her friend. Follow through.
When the senior kisses you on a dingy couch at a house party, put your arms around her. When she pushes you down on the couch and straddles you, stay there kissing her until everyone else disappears. When you both sit up and see that the party is over, go home with her. When she says, “Let’s not tonight—I like you too much,” smile and kiss her on her cheek and then kiss her on her mouth and then curl your body around her and go to sleep. Sleep on top of the covers, your soft body splayed open, unashamed. In the morning, slip your shirt back on without waking her, hoping she will forget the sight of your narrow chest, the abdomen lacking definition. When her innumerable invitations begin to interfere with your sleeping schedule, let them. When they interfere with your meal plan, let them. When they interfere with your workouts, let them. When you finally have to crash, crash for two days. When she asks you where the hell you have been, tell her you are sorry. She will not believe you. When she asks you to leave, go quickly; she does not want to cry in front of you.
When she doesn’t return your calls for two weeks, get drunk on a Wednesday night and go home with some sorority girl with no roommate who screams “Yes!” and “You’re so good!” so loudly that you’re afraid of having campus police called on the two of you. Tell her you’ll call, then sober up and realize that she’s already gotten what she wanted out of you. The senior will start calling again, will flirt more and tease more and smile at you and touch you like she never did before. Go out with her and her roommate and your best friend. Spend nights, the four of you, laughing together on the floor. When you find out she is sleeping with your best friend, don’t blame her. He is far more attractive than you are. He is lean and muscular; there is nothing scrawny about him. Hang their picture on your wall. Sneak into a bar in a strange town and fuck the DJ in the parking lot, tangled up in jumper cables and hair extensions.
A Helpful Tip:
Drive farther and farther away for parties, staying nights in strangers’ homes. Disappear for weeks at a time, ignoring your parents’ phone calls. Drink and work out and drink and work out. At 135 pounds, you’re not gaining muscle like you’d like to. Fuck the ones who like skinny men. When you run out of money, stay on the road until you think you are going to starve, then go home. Stop drinking.
Date a runner. Someone who will support your weight or fitness goals. Work out together. Run together. That is, start running. You have always hated running, but you will try again. Commit yourself to a mile. Map a route around your neighborhood, don your white undershirt and basketball shorts, load up your iPod, and set out slapping down the sidewalk. If it’s summertime, start in the evenings, in the heavy blanket of humidity that hangs around you just before sundown. Take deep breaths and stretch. Start your playlist and go.
Run through residential neighborhoods and college campuses. Take note of the familiar homes, peer into the lighted windows, angling for glimpses of others’ lives. Wave to folks drinking on their porches, nod to men mowing their lawns, smile to fellow runners. Memorize every sidewalk, where it peters out and reemerges, the cracks and uneven spots and places where the cross street is substantially lower. Avoid heavy traffic, especially when running after dark. If you must wait at a stop sign or traffic light, take the time to stretch your back and hamstrings, pull the bottom of your shirt up to wipe your forehead. Don’t think about the drivers and what they see on the corner. Don’t think of how pathetic you look, hair fanned out over your forehead, glasses bouncing on your nose, thin cotton t-shirt hanging over your flat-across chest, your Barbie-doll midsection with the trench running down the middle to your belly button. Just keep your eyes on the white lighted figure of the walk sign as you jog over the crosswalk and on down the sidewalk on the other side of the street.
You may not be able to run the whole mile right off the bat. Run as much as you can, stopping to walk a few blocks here and there. Eventually, you will master your pacing and start improving your time. When you stop feeling exhausted after every run and start feeling energized, then it’s time to up your distance. Try for half-mile increments. Once you’ve got your mile-and-a-half route down, go two miles, then two and a half, and so on. Spend about a week on each new distance. Sometimes, it may take only four days to advance; sometimes it may take ten. Don’t shame yourself, just remain focused. You should be running every day, obsessing over your time. Make a goal of averaging ten minutes to every mile, then eight minutes, then six. Practice makes perfect. Getting your weight down helps too. At 120 pounds, you’ll be looking all right, but you can probably do better.
A Helpful Tip:
Remember that this isn’t just about how your body looks but what you can do with it. Remember that it isn’t just what you can do with your body but what you can do with your life. Remember being pathetic. Remember being out of control. Remember never being good enough. Imagine that perfection is within reach. Imagine that you belong only to yourself. Imagine, when you run, when you work out, when you are hungry, how many people will love you, will want you. Imagine everything you can become.
Become a vegetarian, just to lose weight. Rice and beans are a versatile and often delicious option. Invest in a variety of spices and some Tupperware. Warm it all up in the microwave at work. Consider wrapping it in a reduced fat tortilla. Gradually reduce your portion sizes even as you increase your distance and intensify your workout regimen. Keep fruits and vegetables in case you get hungry between meals. If you add enough spices, you can practically sweat off your vegetarian chili! Now, when friends or family talk you into accompanying them to restaurants or fast food establishments, it is imperative that you work off your transgressions. Double up on some portion of your fitness plan. Start running in the mornings as well as the evenings. Revel in the feeling of exhaustion, of accomplishment. Keep doubling.
A Word of Caution:
You must know now that you will lose control altogether. You will replace social activity with physical activity. You will forgo romantic pursuits for obsessive, neurotic, and dangerously codependent workout partnerships. You will read fitness magazines and health journals and twist their advice to support and justify your self-destructive behavior. You will run two miles every morning and six miles every evening and fill the in-between time with work, summer classes, and a midday workout routine consisting of 200 pull-ups, 400 push-ups, and 1,200 sit-ups and crunches (in multiple variations). You will strike from your weekly diet anything that is called bad in any of a thousand fitness and nutrition philosophies you have studied. That is to say, you will subsist mainly on well-spiced brown rice and have one piece of toast with peanut butter one hour before every run. You will drink at least one gallon of water every day. You will drink alcohol only on Thirsty Thursdays after your run and a cold shower. You will grow increasingly dissatisfied with sexual activity even as you become more psychologically dependent on it. You will lose feeling in your hands and feet. First, it will happen only during and after athletic pursuits, and then it will continue all day. Finally, you will injure yourself, whether athletically or drunkenly, and you will lose all of this.
At 6’0, you will have dropped from 160 to 110 in a matter of weeks. Hobble into your small bathroom on your fractured fifth metatarsal and brace yourself against the sink. Stare into the mirror and mourn your body, knowing that you are so close, knowing that you will always want this back. Mourn the white ribs pressed so tightly against your skin. Mourn the bony knob at the top of your sternum, sticking out between the flat, sunken slabs of your chest in the trench that runs from nape to navel. Mourn the crater-like dips on either side of your abdominals and the shallow hip dents pointing down in your reflection toward the faucet.
When the constant numbness extends to your forearms, go to the hospital and get an x-ray. Have the results sent to your family doctor, who will not call you. When you are no longer able to run, try your one-mile route around campus on crutches. Give up after one day because it gives you blisters on your palms and blisters on your ribs, because your palms bleed and your ribs explode with pus, because the pus stains your shirt and your shirt sticks to your skin and leaves little fibers behind. Double up your workout. That is, work your way up to 400 pull-ups and 800 push-ups and 2,400 sit-ups and crunches every day. Buy heavier weights. When it gets hard to get dressed, work out naked. When your spine sticks out so far that it rubs against the carpet during your crunches until you bleed, and your blood stains the carpet and you can’t get it out, work out in shirts. When the blood stains your shirts, tell your friends it was a pimple on your back. When your friends tell you that you have an eating disorder, become indignant and self-righteous.
Take everything the doctors give you for pain. There will be a lot of pain. When it gets hard to go out, stay in. When no one visits, work out. Go into the darkest corner of your apartment, at the end of the hallway, by the bathroom, curl up there, and cry. Cry for two and a half hours. At first you will not know why you are crying. Cry because you do not know why you are crying. Look up the side effects of hydrocodone and learn that it is known to cause mood swings and depression. Make an effort to reclaim your life. Call the friends who are not calling you.
A Helpful Tip:
This is how you will know they are your friends. When you build up a resistance to the pills, they will tell you that ice cream has the same effects, but that it makes you happy instead of sad. They will take you to Sonic and tell you what is good. They will sit in the car with you because it is so hard for you to get out. They will roll down the windows so that you can listen to the music. This will actually help with the pain, and it will make you happy too.
This is how you will know they are your friends. When they are thinking of going for a drive through the country, they will call you and meet you in your parking lot. They will come all the way to the door and hold it open for you as you carefully lower the ends of your crutches down to the next step and then lower yourself, shakily suspended over the handles. They will laugh when you vault yourself off the last step with your crutches spread out around you like the wings of an albatross. They will tell you not to break the other foot too. They will put your crutches in the backseat.
This is how you will know they are your friends. They will take you grocery shopping when you are no longer able to shop for yourself. They will push the cart and pick up everything you ask them to. As they are helping you check off the items on your list, they will get ideas for snacks for a party they are having. They will ask you to help them bake cookies and brownies and soufflés, even though you are not really capable of much besides leaning against the counter and trying not to fall over. When they ask you to be the tester, oblige. The party will be the two or three of you eating soufflés on the living room floor with vodka-infused whipped cream. You will watch a movie or play a board game, and when it is time for you to go home, you will make plans together for the next day.
You will start to fill out again. Decide that you look better that way. Delete from your cell phone the shirtless pictures you took in the bathroom mirror. Your friends will treat you no differently, and your mother will continue to tell you that you are too skinny, as she has done your whole life. Read about anorexia and bulimia and those eating disorders more common among men, such as addiction to exercise and muscle dysmorphia. I am telling you now, you will see pictures and hear stories and even meet people who have been hospitalized, who have suffered brain damage, who have nearly died. Look and read and listen and think only of what your mother taught you when you were young. In your head, repeat the familiar adage, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Andy Harper holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska Omaha and is pursuing a PhD from Southern Illinois University. His essays have appeared in Jenny, Hippocampus Magazine, the museum of americana: a literary review, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland. He currently lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where he studies American literature and teaches college composition.