The Complicated Aftermath of Significant Weight Loss

“The dark side of weight loss” is trending on TikTok and revealing a fight I’ve been waging in secret for years.

The Dark Side of Significant Weight-Loss
Photo: Unsplash, Getty Images

My weightloss story starts just like any other. I was chubby my whole life, tried every diet in the book, and accumulated an album's worth of abandoned "before" pictures until eventually, something just clicked. Between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I lost nearly 70 pounds, the majority of which were shed while at home on summer break. So, when I arrived back on campus that fall three pants sizes smaller, my new appearance naturally came as a bit of a shock — and became a huge topic of conversation.

At first, it felt great. Whether a blatant compliment or a discreet inquiry on how I managed to lose the weight, each and every comment sent my confidence skyrocketing. It was like I was a local celebrity, or at the very least, everyone liked me a hell of a lot more than they had in the spring. Don't get me wrong, I did leave freshman year with my fair share of memories and a decent group of friends, but everything changed when I returned, smaller.

Within weeks, I watched my entire college experience change in front of my eyes. Girls in my sorority who'd never bothered chatting past pleasant small talk were now gravitating to me in social settings, asking to take pictures together at events, and suggesting to hang out one-on-one. A guy friend who'd denied my invite to a formal months prior was now quite literally begging to take me on a date. In general, people just seemed to like me more, and since nothing about my personality really changed over the summer, I deduced it was all thanks to my thinner body.

I relished finally living the booked-and-busy college social life I had always imagined, but about halfway through the semester, it started to feel kind of terrible.

I had made it to my 'after.' I was finally a success story, so why didn't I feel like one? I cried more, hated my body more, and craved male validation more than I ever had, which were all problems I'd thought would magically disappear when I lost weight.

For the longest time, it was hard for me to pinpoint exactly why I felt so sad. I had made it to my "after." I was finally a success story, so why didn't I feel like one? All I knew is that once I settled back into college life, I floated through the semester in what I could only describe to others as a "funk." I cried more, hated my body more, and craved male validation more than I ever had, which were all problems I'd thought would magically disappear when I lost weight.

In actuality, those issues only worsened post-weightloss, andI soon found that by gaining "thin privilege," I started to lose my sense of self. According to Taryn A. Myers, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Virginia Wesleyan University who studies body image and disordered eating, thin privilege can be defined as "the experience of gaining certain benefits and having an easier time navigating society when you are in a body that fits the societal ideal."

Experiencing these privileges only after I drastically changed in size seemingly confirmed what I had always feared while living in a larger body: My personality alone would never be enough and maintaining my new physique was the only key to true, unconditional social acceptance. Rather, my social acceptance was entirely conditional.

It was this idea that caused me to overthink every positive interaction I had from there on out, and I started to associate the "before" version of my body with immense feelings of shame. By developing a hatred toward my former self, I started to feel that my old body was bad, unlikeable, and disgusting, and only in my new body could I be good, desirable, and worthy. From sorority elections to romantic interactions, I couldn't escape the same nagging question: Would this still be happening if I hadn't lost weight?

Extending beyond negative self-talk, I began to experience symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder, checking my side profile in the mirror dozens of times a day, meticulously tracking whatI ate, and needing constant reassurance from others on my appearance. At the time, seeing how quickly everyone changed their attitudes toward me when I shed weight caused me to anticipate how quickly things could turn if I gained it, so I did everything in my power not to — and apparently, my experience isn't uncommon. Dr. Myers says she's seen many clients navigate this exact pendulum swing.

"For some, losing weight can expose or activate pre-existing mental health conditions, body image issues, or insecurities," she shared. "For others, it can lead to new issues … I've had clients who would tell me that they got so many positive comments after losing weight that they would think, 'What if I lost 5 more pounds? 10 more pounds?' So, for some it can lead to disordered eating."

It goes without saying that this anxious reality was not at all what I expected to encounter on the other side of my weightloss journey, nor was it what the gargantuan diet industry tries to sell to us. While I didn't regret losing the weight, I felt incredibly isolated.It felt silly to complain about something that is considered an accomplishment, and those in my life either couldn't relate to what I'd gone through or weren't ready to admit that thin privilege exists, and society is generally inherently fatphobic.

For years, I kept these feelings mostly to myself. Then, I came across a TikTok shared by @viitamin.j on what she dubbed the "dark side of weight loss." Over a series of videos, she talked through her experience navigating life after losing a significant amount of weight, and I found so many of her hardships were similar to my own.

While the video itself, and its 83,000 likes, was enough to bring comfort in the fact that I wasn't alone, it was one of the commenters calling out that "the emotional journey is just as hard as the physical," that made me break down in tears.

Since then, even more creators have started to share their own complicated and dark experiences post-weightloss, from fearing the scale, to distrusting new friends or relationships, to developing eating disorders. I started to see that there were so many more people who'd experienced this tumultuous transition than I had realized — and most of them felt alone, too. After all, whether it's Kim Kardashian boasting about crash dieting to fit a certain dress, or the Internet losing its collective shit when Adele revealed a 100-pound transformation, we as a culture encourage and celebrate weight loss constantly, leaving no room for more nuanced conversations about additional losses that can come along with it.

It's this very attitude that reveals how societal-encouraged weight loss isn't as much about being thin as much as it is about just not being fat. From doctors constantly pushing weight loss as a catchall cure for health issues to studies showing that those in larger bodies (especially women) are less likely to be treated fairly in the workplace, we constantly digest messages that in order to be healthy, successful, or considered attractive, you must be thin.

TARYN A. MYERS, PH.D., CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST AND ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT VIRGINIA WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY

Some people think weight loss will cure mental health issues. Unfortunately, weight loss is not a magic cure-all, so these folks will have the same issues as before — but compounded by guilt that weight loss didn't make them happier.

— TARYN A. MYERS, PH.D., CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST AND ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT VIRGINIA WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY

But as I've now experienced, losing weight is not the silver bullet to all of life's problems. "Some people think weight loss will cure mental health issues," Myers says. "Unfortunately, weight loss is not a magic cure-all, so these folks will have the same issues as before — but compounded by guilt that weight loss didn't make them happier."

In fact, a study conducted at University College London reported that out of 1,979 overweight or obese individuals, those who lost5% or more of their original body weight were 52% more likely to report a depressed mood than those who stayed within 5% of their original weight.

As I continue to live life with the physical weight removed from my body, the mental fallout remains a weight on my shoulders. Nothing can prepare a person to receive a blatant improvement in treatment from everyone around them due to nothing else but their physical appearance. It's mentally and emotionally draining, and it's incredibly harmful to one's self-image. As Myers put it, "You can start experiencing thin privilege, but you might always wonder if that is the only reason you are succeeding, which can lead to self-doubt." Or, as vitamin.j says on TikTok, "People just look at you different when you're fat. And then you lose the weight, and they deem you acceptable so they treat you better? That's so fucking painful."

Reminding myself that every version of me — no matter how big or small — was, is, and forever will be worthy of love and happiness is something I'm still working through, but it shouldn't have to be that way. This work shouldn't be on my to-do list alone. Taking a hard look at the way we treat people and really understanding how much their appearance has to do with it is on all of us. The way I see it right now? We're all losing.

For more stories like this, check out EveryBODY In, our celebration — and send-up — of summer bodies, available for digital download now.

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