I am the girl on the billboard, the amazing transformation you see on the cover of People magazine, the "before and after" ad for the new diet pill with an asterisk next to my name, the small print reading: *Results not typical. It's pictures like mine that had a high school version of me spending all of her allowance on Metabolife because if the girl in the magazine could do it, then surely I could, too. And I knew back then that everything in my life would be better, easier, perfect even... if I could just not be fat anymore.
I knew this because that's what I was told, not by my doctor (because he was old and who needed to listen to him?) but by the most important voices my teenage ears heard. I knew it because Courtney Cox went from being a lonely, dateless loser who breaks porch swings and didn't have a prom date to a svelte and sexy crop top-wearing serial man-eater on Friends. I knew it because even though she was one of my favorite actresses, Sarah Rue didn't get the cover of any magazines until she dropped five dress sizes. I knew it because books like Jemima J by Jane Green told me in their shiny chick-lit packaging that even if he notices how smart you are, even if he laughs at your jokes, even if he tells you that you have "such a pretty face," he won't admit he wants you until you lose your fat ass. Whether you are seeing it on the silver screen or network cable, on the cover of a magazine or in the pages of a novel, the weight loss Cinderella story you are told is always the same. Lose the fat -- and Bibbity Bobbity Boo! -- your life instantly becomes a fairy tale.
As someone who has been living as an "after" for the past three years, I can assure you that the fairy tale just isn't true. Things didn't suddenly become prime-time perfect when I lost 180 pounds. Yes, I am happier and healthier than I was before my journey started but if you think my life resembles anything like what you see on TV or in the movies you are sadly mistaken. So what does the life of an "after" entail? What's the part you aren't seeing in those glossy promotional photos from The Biggest Loser or on the billboards for lap-band surgery on the side of the highway? What does the reality of losing over 150 pounds actually look like? It looks like this:
You see, there is an art to living with a post-weight loss body. It starts every single morning, when I meticulously check myself for new wounds or rashes or sores, side effects of the twenty-some pounds of excess skin that hangs from my frame like a Sharpei. This skin is a road map of scars -- incandescent and faded stretch marks from the fluctuations in my weight over the years, crossing the angry, red, raised scabs from my most recent round of infections. It's skin that no matter how often I have to get medically treated, my health insurance won't help pay to remove, calling the surgery "cosmetic in nature." I separate the folds where my navel used to be, before the weight of my apron of excess flesh made it virtually collapse in on itself, and clean it with antibacterial wipes. I make sure I have enough to get me through the day because it is a process I will have to repeat at least once before I go to sleep. I use no fewer than five different ointments and talcums and lotions that are supposed to help keep my skin dry/aid in reducing my scarring/heal my current bedsores. Sometimes I get lucky and there are none. These times are few and far between.
After this initial scar-scanning and cleansing, I begin the process of folding and tucking and binding my body until it looks as tight and as lifted as possible. I put on the clothes I have painstakingly purchased, clothes that 300-pound Candice would have never dreamed of being able to wear. When I was big, this was the part of the fairy tale I fantasized about the most. For years, I had been relegated to the two or three stores that catered to plus-sized women, none of which I would call particularly fashion-forward, because the vast majority of retailers refused to carry my size. The thing is, while I now have virtually every store at my disposal, finding clothing to fit my body is actually harder in some ways. In an era of ultra-low rise, hip-hugging jeans, finding denim that fits my legs while still buttoning over the hang of empty, drooping skin on my stomach is an effort in futility. Shirts with shorter sleeves have to be purchased a size or two up to fit the sag of my bat-wing arms that won't go away no matter how many bicep curls I do. That leaves the rest of the garment lying listless and sack-like on my now slender frame. Any hopes I had of finally being comfortable in the summertime were dashed the first time I looked for shorts in a size 2 that were long enough to cover the drapes of extra skin that pooled around my thighs. And trust me when I say that there is nothing more frustrating than attempting to find a one-piece bathing suit that is a) not some skirted monstrosity your grandmother would wear and b) not held together by tiny bits of string.
Even the undergarments that I rely on for both support and yes, vanity, stop at a size 4. Nobody with my body could possibly need Spanx, right? As a woman, your hemlines are higher, your fabric is thinner, and your pants are tighter when you dip below a certain size but none of these things work for someone who has pounds of skin to hide. While I would never in a million years pretend to have it as hard as I did when I was plus-sized, shopping did not turn out to be the joy I expected. Instead, it's become a game of smoke and mirrors and magic tricks, one that I have become a master of over the last three years.
But the smoke and mirrors only go so far, and as a single woman in my early 30s, I've had to learn the most painful truth about the weight loss fairy tale: more than one Prince Charming has ridden off on his horse when the reality of my perfectly packaged body turned out not to be as perfect as he thought. Dating becomes less about connection and more about timing.
How many dates can you go on before you have to out yourself as having been fat? How long before they notice that your body doesn't feel quite right even over your clothes? How long can you put off being seen naked?
You can never quite get comfortable with this secret over your head, this time bomb waiting to blow everything up. Where before you might have felt confident and sexy, you now fumble awkwardly because you are too hyper-focused on hiding your body to let yourself fully enjoy the moment. Yes, some men will tell you that it doesn't matter. They will tell you that they like you for who you are, that you are beautiful regardless of what's under your clothes. But that doesn't stop you from noticing even the slightest hesitation in their touch or a flicker of doubt on their face. And when your relationship ends, like so many do, you are left wondering "what if?" What if you had a normal body? What if you had been the woman he expected based on all his preconceptions? Maybe he didn't call you back because he didn't like the way you talked about politics all the time, or perhaps the fact that you curse like a sailor was a turn off for him. Maybe the chemistry just wasn't there. But in the back of your mind, you always know -- or think you know -- that it wasn't any of those things.
Life as an "after" is not perfect. You won't suddenly get the guy, the promotion, or the popularity you've always wanted just because you are thin. If you are looking for a fairytale ending, you won't find it no matter how much weight you lose. And if you focus only on the aesthetics, your journey won't ever really be complete. Why? Because you don't suddenly develop self-esteem when you drop 10 pants sizes or fit into a small. It has taken me a few years, but I am learning how to accept this fact myself. I'm learning to not be ashamed of the physical manifestations of my hard work. Learning to trust that there is someone out there who will love me regardless of whether or not I can ever afford to pay for the reconstructive surgery I so desperately need.
I am not saying I get it right 100 percent of the time, or that I don't sometimes look in the mirror at my naked body wondering why I am exhausting myself every day for results that I will never fully see. But then I walk up a flight of stairs without stopping to catch my breath or tie my own shoes because I can reach my feet and I remember what my motivation was behind my weight loss to begin with. It wasn't for a guy or a raise or to fit into some preconceived notion of beauty, but for my physical well-being. That's the problem with our obsession with "before and afters." They help sell you a fairytale where everything is perfect with the wave of a magic wand as long as your gown fits nicely. They're all about what people see and not at all about what truly matters. They don't tell you the truth: that regardless of what the Monica Gellar's and Jemima J's of the world try to tell you, your self-worth is not dependent on a number on the scale or a size tag sewn into the back of a cocktail dress.
You are the same person you were, just with slightly different packaging. And unless you learn to love the person that you see in the "before," nobody will ever accept you as an "after." Not even you.
Candice Russell is an activist and freelancer living in Dallas by way of Seattle. Read more of her writing on her blog www.dear-internet.com