The "Freshman 15" is just as familiar to 18-year-olds entering college as trips to Bed Bath & Beyond and free school T-shirts. But during my freshman year, and the summer leading up to it, I actually lost weight without even trying. And that's precisely when I should have realized that something was wrong.
Throughout most of my pre-teen and early teenage years, I went through a lot of ups and downs when it came to my self-image and confidence, especially relating to my weight. There were times I didn't give the numbers on the scale a second thought — finally finding a group of friends I fit in with during high school was enough to divert my attention away from my weight — and there were other times when I was constantly critical of myself. During those more negative times, I was always aware of my body and how I looked — or how I looked in my own mind. I was constantly trying to suck in my stomach or take photos at angles I thought I looked thinnest. Now, when I look at photos from those times, I see that my body looked the same whether I was happy with it or obsessing over it, and, in reality, I was much thinner than I was in my own mind.
By the time I was a junior in high school, I'd managed to put most of the negativity behind me, though I'm not quite sure how. Perhaps I was too busy worrying about other things, like SATs and college applications. For the rest of high school, I still never considered myself "thin," but I didn't let my weight consume me. I wore what I felt like without over-thinking it too much. (That is, if you don't count the body image nightmare that is prom.) Then I graduated.
I had decided to go to the University of Southern California, across the country from my New Jersey home, and the anticipation of moving away came with extreme anxiety. Suddenly, I barely had an appetite, and, suddenly, I was dropping pounds. It wasn't a new love of healthy food that caused me to lose weight, but a severe feeling of unease. I started going to the gym almost every day, when, at home, I was lucky if I exercised in some capacity twice a week. But I was anxious, conflicted, and pretty lonely, so the gym became something to do. That year, I learned two other important things: 1) There were forms of exercise that I legitimately enjoyed and looked forward to, and 2) USC was not the school for me.
The following fall, I started my sophomore year at New York University. By the spring, I was much happier, and, thanks to the combination of a full course load and an internship, much busier. Overwhelmed, the exercise I had enjoyed gradually slipped away from my schedule, and I found myself ordering takeout even on days when I got home early enough to cook, despite finally having a full kitchen in my dorm.
I was happier and in the right place, but I missed the activity I had gotten used to. Every time I tried to get back to the gym, I became discouraged by how much harder everything was compared to the previous year. I lost the progress I had made and was too critical of myself to enjoy working out the way I had before. The weight piled on quickly after that. Physical activity became harder, my clothes fit differently, and, despite the fact that I loved my classes and friends at NYU, I just didn't feel like myself — especially not like the happy, confident version of myself I'd been at the end of high school.
I decided that I needed a change. I just wanted to get back to the real me. Not the one who lost weight from anxiety and extreme gym work-outs, but a me who found a happy medium. I didn't have my high school metabolism anymore, and I missed the post-work-out high I enjoyed after a successful day at the gym. For a week, I would be diligent about exercise and eating right before lapsing back into takeout. Then I'd get mad at myself and impulse-buy cases of meal replacement shakes. Those got old fast.
Finally, after expressing my frustrations to my mom, she asked me if I'd be interested in joining Weight Watchers. As a personal trainer, she said it was one of the few large weight loss programs that she'd recommend. I looked into the program online — it didn't require any drastic lifestyle changes or a specific diet. Both of these were positives when it came to someone like myself who was used to living in extremes. All you had to do was track what you ate and try to stay within your daily point allotment. It seemed like something I could manage, something that would give me a little help in taking control of my health. I signed up online, started tracking, and went to my first meeting the following week.
As soon as I showed up, I knew Weight Watchers was the right thing for me. The atmosphere was supportive, with a diverse group of members sharing both their struggles and successes, and receiving help and encouragement in return. And, when I shared the difficulties I encountered with fellow members at meetings, I got the same. It made me realize that the only person who was judging me so harshly was me. No matter what setbacks I had faced, there were others who have faced the same, and overcame it, just as I would. From there, subsequent meetings — which all focus on a theme, like how to commit to a new form of activity or how to incorporate fruits and vegetables to every meal — taught me why the scale doesn't really matter. As Weight Watchers outlined, there are other ways of measuring success.
By staying on track with my points, I was losing weight, but, by following the program, I was gaining so much more. I finally got over being at a different fitness level than before and began working to build up my workouts to a point I was comfortable with. I discovered that I absolutely love kickboxing and circuit training, and have been regularly going to a small-group training gym ever since. Cooking became my new hobby. I searched for recipes on the Weight Watchers website, Pinterest, and food blogs, and experimented with new recipes to see what foods I liked just as much as my former takeout staples.
I learned that I'm a person who thrives on routine. School breaks were my toughest times on the program. Not having a schedule or knowing what came next made it hard for me to keep track. It didn't take me long to realize that the need for planning applied to almost every other aspect of my life as well. Calendars and to-do lists helped me balance school, internships, part-time jobs, working out, my social life, and my general sanity. When I was really stressed, it turned out all I really needed was to track my responsibilities the way I did my points.
But there's one lesson that Weight Watchers has tried to teach me over and over again that's I still haven't mastered — one that could not be aced with the help of a day planner. Ever since I gained significant weight during my first winter break while on Weight Watchers, I've found myself being too self-critical and beating myself up for going off-plan or eating very differently than I normally would. For a few days, I'm suddenly back in my teenage mind, when every glance in a mirror is an opportunity for scrutiny, and the thought of overeating causes anxiety. But when that happens, all it takes is a Weight Watchers meeting to remind me that the scale doesn't matter.
Now, one year after joining Weight Watchers, when my own self-criticism threatens to turn me back into that anxious girl, I look at how far I've come and try to reclaim the confidence that the program helped me dig back up in the first place. Sure, it's been 15 months and I haven't hit my official weight loss goal, but I'll get there — in a healthy way, without anxiety. After struggling with body image and anxiety for much of my life, I have finally found a confidence and level of self-acceptance that, for once, seems like it could be permanent. Though weight loss programs affect everyone who tries them differently (just see Amy McCarthy's excellent piece on the harmful ways Weight Watchers changed her relationship with food), when I reflect on my own experience, I realize just how much the program has changed my life for the better; how it changed me.
So now, instead of worrying about the number on my weight tracker, I think about my improved times on the bi-weekly fitness tests my trainer administers. I think about the healthy blueberry cookie recipe I've mastered. I think about how I recently conquered another bout of anxiety. At Weight Watchers, all of those give cause to celebrate. And when you have a room full of people cheering you on, each with their own challenges and victories, it's hard not to join in.
It's another post-grad summer for me, and instead of spending it anxiously wondering what's ahead and unhealthily dropping weight, I'm enjoying this new phase of my life. I made it through my senior formal (the college version of prom) without overanalyzing how every dress I own makes my stomach look, or how I should angle the camera while taking photos. And I can look in a mirror without immediately criticizing all of my self-perceived "flaws."
I credit that progress to Weight Watchers, but maybe the program just helped me uncover a confidence that had been trying to break through all along. Funny that a program that encouraged me to get on the scale every week helped me realize that the scale doesn't matter.