Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, and I am not promoting a vegan diet as a weight loss plan. My only intention in writing this post is to share my own experience with weight gain and loss.
My heart was racing, my palms sweaty. That dressing room was the worst place in the world I could imagine being. The jeans were a size 17. A SEVENTEEN. And it felt like aerobics trying to fit them over my thighs, then my hips, and God forbid, button them over my stomach. I was only a senior in high school, but I was exhausted with the weight problems I faced my whole life. Every time I ate, my stomach was in agonizing pain, protesting the dead foods I constantly fed it. I was miserable. I was officially at rock bottom.
It was time for something drastic.
I told myself my birthday would be the last day I ate meat for the next few months, in the interest of saving my stomach the intense pain I felt every time I ate meat. I was determined to feel better, more energetic, and less hungry all the time. So, the day after my birthday, I started this new eating plan. I’d always been allergic to dairy, and had heard of a vegan diet, so I figured I should give it a try for a little while to see if I felt better. That was over five years ago.
That first morning that I weighed in, I was just over 200 pounds, and I’m about 5’6″. Since those first few months of my weight loss journey, of which my vegan lifestyle was only part, I have lost roughly 60 pounds. Fitness has always been a touchy subject for me. I didn’t like going to the gym, and felt too embarrassed to go when it was crowded, but I pushed those thoughts aside my senior year of high school.
That push completely changed my life.
Once I started my freshman year of college, I started working out every morning in the athletic center. It was almost completely empty when it first opened. I didn’t even recognize myself, from this new drive I had to reinvent myself in college. I looked forward to my next workout, instead of dreading the thought of exercising. That summer, I did a study abroad program in Costa Rica. I had a membership at a gym up the street from where I was living, and walked everywhere. By my sophomore year, I had lost 30 pounds.
As my workload picked up, I didn’t work out in the gym with the same intensity as I did my freshman year, but I did not gain weight back. I hit a plateau, and then began introducing yoga into my fitness routine. Yoga is the best thing I could have done for myself physically and emotionally. It has taught me to be in balance, which is a concept I’ve always had trouble implementing in my life.
During both of my study abroad programs, I walked much more than I do in the United States. I consumed foods that were much lower in sugar and fat. Living abroad definitely contributed to my weight loss, even if I wasn’t working out on weights during my semester in Barcelona. By the time I graduated, I was about 40 pounds smaller than when I first entered college.
It was working. My hard work was paying off.
I felt better, had more energy, managed to succeed with a heavy workload and keep from gaining weight despite all the stress. Even though I lost a significant amount of weight during this time, I still ate sweets, didn’t exercise every single day, and didn’t necessarily have a healthy relationship with my body image or with food itself. I had (and have) a long way to go. Enter: Peace Corps.
After I graduated from college, I joined the Peace Corps in Ukraine. I was wheels up in August, just a few short months after my final semester ended. Knowing my body, I was sure I would lose weight just from living abroad again for an extended amount of time, from the different foods and the necessity of walking everywhere. I just didn’t expect to lose it from stress and for mental health reasons.
The adjustments at my training site were taxing, but not out of the ordinary for most Peace Corps Volunteers. I pushed through, got shining reviews from my training coordinators, and swore in as a volunteer not much smaller than when I entered. Once I reached my permanent site, however, I really began to drop weight. A few factors contributed to this: nonexistence of public transportation, insufficient protein in my diet, and copious amounts of stress.
But then, I lost weight in the worst way possible.
I was the only American, and the only nonwhite person, I saw on a daily basis. It was incredibly isolating. I was a young, single woman of color working in a male-dominated field, in a racially homogenous country. Men in my site and outside of it, one of whom was unavoidable, disrespected me often. I had no real support system, because the problems I faced were often due to the ways in which my race, gender, age, and marital status interact.
The people whose job is to support Peace Corps Volunteers did their best to do just that, but by nature couldn’t relate. Honestly, I never expected them to. I was targeted sexually and discriminated against racially in many contexts, but pushed through and suppressed any thoughts or feelings about what was happening to me.
I continued like this for so long that one day, I looked in the mirror and saw a woman who was so much thinner that I did not recognize her. None of my clothes I packed from America fit. I had no appetite, and would even get nauseous after eating. I was so conflicted, because I finally looked closer to the way I wanted, but felt so far from the woman I want to be.
It was my own personal hell.
After I was sent home on a medical evacuation and eventually separated from Peace Corps, I noticed a change within myself. Recovering from some traumatic experiences while abroad forced me to finally slow down and put my health first. I never did that in the pressures of academia and the self-imposed stress to perform well at my job. I took the time to cleanse my body from its dependence on sugar and caffeine. Running went from a chore to an outlet for me to heal. Taking the time to focus solely on the rhythm of my shoes hitting the pavement calms the storm in my mind. My body suddenly wasn’t so embarrassing anymore.
I began to wonder why I was so embarrassed by it in the first place. Do I look the way I want to yet? No. But am I so consumed by it, like I used to be? Also no. And it feels so good. The place I am today is so much healthier and happier than the girl that graduated from high school, the girl that was a double-major in college, and the Peace Corps Volunteer in that little Ukrainian village.
Even once I stop actively trying to lose weight and switch to maintaining my goal weight, I will still be on my weight loss journey.
Why? Because I will always be the out-of-breath girl in that dressing room. The girl I was at 200+ pounds will always be with me, regardless of the final number on the scale. This aspect of my life has transformed me, and this journey has brought me from self despair to a level of self confidence I didn’t know could exist for me. I’ve grown as a person, becoming stronger in every area of my life. And most importantly, I’ve learned that it’s not about the weight. It never was. It’s about the journey.
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