Winning at Losing

Sep 16, 2004 |Candice Watters

How a change in perspective helped me finally lose weight.

When I was a sophomore in college, not a day went by that I didn't think about my body. And most days the thinking was more like obsessing. I was consumed with hatred for my overweight self.

On my last day as a freshman, just minutes before leaving school, I stopped at my favorite ice-cream shop and ordered the biggest, best dish of vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and Oreo cookie crumbles for the three-hour drive home. My best friend was working that shift and she knew all about my plans to start on a pricey, restrictive diet program as soon as I got home. She handed over the bulging cup, tossed me a spoon and wished me a hearty good luck on my plan.

In addition to spending hours planning low-cal, low-fat, low flavor menus, I worked hard that summer at a retail job in order to pay for the privilege of standing on a scale, every day but Sunday, in front of a slender, attractive fashion plate who purportedly was once where I stood.

I spent nearly all my earnings on the diet program and at the end of the summer, with what little remained, bought new clothes in a smaller size for my grand return to school.

There was one person in particular whom I wanted to notice the change. He was my good friend, Greg, and I had a massive crush on him. By the time I realized how much I wanted to date him, it was near the end of freshman year and I was at my heaviest. I was in no mood to pursue anyone and convinced myself he wouldn't be interested anyway. Who, Candice? Oh yeah, she's a great friend but I'd never date her. She's kind of ... big.

I was so excited to see him again after losing 30 lbs. I just knew he'd be impressed and imagined romantic scenarios that would surely play out once he laid eyes on the new and improved me.

Our first encounter was in the dorm. He was the dorm president and I was part of his leadership team. He stopped by to welcome me back and catch up. He kept looking at me funny, like he knew something was different. Finally, he said something.

"Did you get a haircut?"

A haircut? Are you kidding me? I was devastated. All that work and he didn't even notice; maybe he was equally oblivious to my pre-svelte body. "Actually, I lost 30 pounds," I said with pride. "Oh, well you look great," he said.

Not everyone was so obtuse. Lots of friends noticed the change and gushed over my accomplishment. I started to feel insecure in the other direction: If they think I look so great now, what did they think of me before?

Just weeks into the new semester the pressure got to me. Feeling overwhelmed by the praise and the accompanying self-doubt, I started eating. It's what I did for comfort. My roommates were three tall, slender, attractive co-eds who kept a stash of tasty sweets in our dorm room. The key is they kept them, spacing their enjoyment of the treats over many days. So there those treats sat — uneaten. I never understood how they could be in the same room with an unopened box of pop tarts and not go crazy. So I opened them and ate them in secret. Several times I got caught. But my roommates were gracious and the worst consequence was my own embarrassment at my lack of self-control.

By mid-year, I had gained all the weight back with a few pounds to spare. To avoid the daily reminder of my failure, I gave all those new, smaller-sized clothes to my friend who worked at the ice-cream shop (she, too, could spend a whole day with tubs of sugared joy and not be tempted).

It went on much the same way through the rest of college, three years in the work force and a year of graduate school. Despite all my other accomplishments, I thought I'd never find success in this area of repeated failure.

Then something happened; actually several things.

Change of perspective

To start, my sister started shrinking. I was so proud of her success and deeply inspired: Since we have similar body types and food cravings, I realized that if she could lose weight, so could I. She put an end to my justification from heredity. Turns out I wasn't genetically predisposed to a given weight after all. I asked her how she was doing it and started mimicking her food choices and exercise regimen. It didn't hurt that we've always been a little bit competitive. I couldn't let her get skinny without me.

Change of environment

Second, my options started exploding. All through school I always felt a little odd — like I didn't quite fit in. I couldn't wait for college. But when I finally got there, college was just as awkward as junior high and high school had been. It was a big disappointment and I wondered if I'd ever find my place.

Then I went to graduate school. I felt like I was in my element. Finally, my life felt big enough to grow into.

Change of input

Graduate school meant lots of homework — something I hadn't had in three years — and precious little free time. The last thing I wanted to do was spend it watching TV. Though I missed the easy entertainment, I started to feel more objective about the messages I was picking up from the tube. When I did catch a few minutes of Friends — at the time the most popular show for my demographic — I was disgusted by the unrealistic images. Those women are not average. They didn't look like me, or the people in my life. With a little distance, they looked almost comical.

Besides, my real life was a lot more satisfying than the phony situations on television. I was part of a group of classmates all focused on something beyond ourselves. We were a team working together toward common goals, valuing each other for unique contributions. They liked a lot of things about me that had nothing to do with how I looked. Rarely did I worry that I wasn't the most attractive one at the table. I'd always said my value came from who I was. Finally, I was starting to believe it.

One classmate in particular was a big help. During my birthday celebration, he read aloud from the card he'd given me. In front of my closest friends, he said, "Candice, I admire you because you dream no small dreams."

Dream no small dreams. If he believed in me with gusto, I knew I could, too. Those words, and the faith they represented, became my constant companion. They were there in the midst of my tough, early-morning workouts. When I wanted to quit, or binge, I rehearsed them. No small dreams. They urged me onward.

It took eight months to lose the weight — a slow and steady process made up of better food choices, daily exercise, lots of prayer and good input: supportive friends, meaningful work and no more television. It was tough at first, but over time, my new way of thinking and living became habits and eventually, a lifestyle. I realized that just as my old habits kept me heavy and self-loathing, this new way of life kept me healthy in body, mind and spirit.

I learned that it is possible to change the way you look, when you change the way you see.

Copyright 2004 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.

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