Everybody put on your trigger-word armor and safe-space tinfoil hats, because it’s time to talk about body image.
I’m a relatively normal-sized human male; somewhere in the realm of skinny-fat and skinny-skinny, but I generally fit into a medium-sized shirt. I wasn't always like this, though. At the age of 14, I weighed 190lbs.
Then, I suddenly just lost weight. Since then, I've carried an excessive air of confidence that follows me around wherever I go. Former-fat-kid confidence is a complicated beast -- born and bred on a sense of self-worth dependent on the feelings of others. To get to the bottom of how former-fat-kid confidence is formed, I unraveled my past and talked to a psychologist about what being overweight does to your self-esteem once you shed the excess pounds.
It starts with being unhappy and fat
When you're fat, nothing fits right. Growing up in a preppy Connecticut suburb, everyone looked like a walking Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement, while I was more akin to a bloated discount beach ball covered in fabric.
Alongside the issue of ill-fitting clothing, any bit of physical activity caused me immense anxiety. I couldn't run as fast as the rest of my class, I couldn't catch a football, and walking up stairs left me breathless.
"When you're overweight or obese, your weight becomes a compass on everything you do," says clinical psychologist Dr. Robert Figlerski. "It's called a feedback loop. When social feedback isn't reassuring, you become socially vigilante. You start asking yourself if you'll feel negativity in every activity you do. Can I go to the beach? Will I be able to fit in a coach seat in an airplane? Will I have to do physical activity during a picnic?"
Losing weight turns a negative feedback loop into grandiosity
After a summer of puberty and a case of mononucleosis by way of a girl I shared a soda with, I lost weight. Without planning, working out, or even trying hard, I became physically fit at age 16.
When you're in better shape, everything feels better. Buying clothing and walking up sharp inclines became immensely easier than when I was 60lbs lighter. I liked what I saw on the other side of the mirror and I liked the attention that I received from women. The very same feedback loop that Dr. Figlerski says causes self-consciousness works in the opposite way.
Hearing people positively comment on my weight gave me serious confidence.
Losing weight effortlessly makes you feel invincible
Imagine this: you have faced and defeated something 68.5% of American adults deal with; and the fruits of your labor are in the form of compliments from friends and attention from the opposite sex. In my particular case, in which very little effort was put forth to lose the weight, I felt an incredible amount of confidence and a disproportionate sense of omnipotence that has followed me for close to 12 years.
But the shame of former fatness always haunts you
"One of the struggles [former overweight people] always struggle with is their self-image," solemnly reports Dr. F. "They always need to remind themselves that they’re no longer fat. Residual self-image of being obese can plague a person for the rest of their life and be the seed of destructive compulsives like over-dieting and over-exercising."
This still rings true for me and other former fat kids who struggled with their weight growing up. While the pounds have left our bodies, the fear of that fat coming back remains.
"I have never felt like I have fully recovered from being formerly overweight," says a colleague of mine. "I am probably underweight right now, but I am constantly checking myself for flab, and always disappointed in my physique… people do generally take me to be physically fit, but it's as though their compliments, or plain statements of fact, bounce right off of me."