Sex + Dating

Former-Fat-Kid Confidence Is a Complicated Beast

Ben Stiller in Heavy Weights
Caravan Pictures

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."

"The aftershock of slimming down is probably one of the most traumatic experiences I've had in life."

Another colleague agrees that the aftershock of being heavy stays with you for a long time after you've lost the weight: "The aftershock of slimming down is probably one of the most traumatic experiences I've had in life. In both positive and negative ways, the transformation has indeed shaped me into who I am today. I underwent this huge change between sophomore and junior year of high school.

"There was definitely a huge shift in the amount of human interaction I faced on a daily basis once I slimmed down. The attention I was getting sharpened my people skills. Simultaneously, I grew a bit resentful. Why was I getting this much attention? Maybe it was my dumb teenage brain overthinking everything, but I still kind of feel that way today."

Dr. Figlerski reports that these kinds of residual feelings are all too common: "The residual image becomes compartmentalized [and] never goes away, [it] just plays a much smaller role in the way a person sees themselves."

I can never put on a shirt without immediately thinking that it's hugging my stomach or showing off the flabby folds that probably aren't even visible to the rest of the population.

Where does that leave us former fat kids?

It's a truly remarkable feeling -- on one hand, you constantly feel good about yourself… on the other hand, you're always worried about reverting to how you used to look. This makes itself apparent in me by the way I feel after meals. I still have my "fat kid appetite" but always make sure that I don't go overboard during lunch.

Still, as a lover of junk food, it's hard to control my cravings. This leads to overreacting to minimal weight gain, followed by dieting, followed by minimal weight gain, etc., etc.

The feedback is simultaneously reassuring and cruel -- you want to not care what people think, but that's how former-fat-kid confidence is initially built out. It's up to you to learn how to filter the loop and trust yourself to remain confident even when you're stuffing yourself into a pair of jeans that makes you feel like a delicious, plump Jimmy Dean sausage.

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Jeremy Glass is a writer for Thrillist and is currently eyeing his ever-growing gut.