Life

My Life Was Turned Into a Movie. Here’s What Hollywood Left Out.

On How To!, the woman who inspired Brittany Runs a Marathon talks about her struggles with weight loss after the credits rolled.

Jillian Bell running in the movie Brittany Runs a Marathon
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Amazon Studios.

On a recent episode of How To!, Brittany O’Neill, the woman who inspired the hit film Brittany Runs a Marathon, revealed what happened to her after the movie came out. A quirky, motivational dramedy, Brittany Runs a Marathon first premiered at Sundance last year. It tells the story of an unhappy, overweight woman who trains for the New York City Marathon and, in the process, revamps her whole life. In this episode of How To!, Brittany opens up about her struggles with weight loss after the movie’s happy ending, and how she finally learned to accept herself—one run at a time. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Charles Duhigg: The details of the film are a bit different from what actually happened in your life, but it’s actually pretty close. Like the character in the movie, you said you were unhappy in your mid-20s. I know you were a theater producer at the time, and the play you were working on was nominated for a Tony Award—is that right?

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Brittany O’Neill: Yes, I was able to go to the Tonys—what should be a huge accomplishment. I had to go to Loehmann’s and find a dress. There were many occasions of me on the floor of a dressing room crying because nothing fits and the things that do just look awful. This isn’t what you’re supposed to look like when you’re dressed up on a red carpet, because we know what that looks like—we see photos of celebrities all the time. And I borrowed a pair of Manolo Blahniks from a co-producer. I already was feeling huge and out of place. I wore 17 necklaces to distract from the rest of my body. And on the way home, my heel broke. It literally collapsed under my weight. It seemed undeniable that I was “too big” for this world, for this life, for this moment.

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Soon after that, you and your roommate stayed up late talking one night, trying to figure out why, exactly, you were so unhappy.

I was convinced that my weight was the reason for all of my issues. At that time it was why I wasn’t in a relationship. It was why I didn’t have the job I wanted. It was the reason for all of it. In some ways, it made it really easy because the math of losing weight works. Even though it takes a huge amount of energy and focus, it still is an achievable goal.

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So running became my method of choice for exercising. It progresses so easily and you notice it right away, so it becomes very addictive. At the same time, I was getting a lot of positive feedback from friends and family because, of course, they see that you’re trying hard. They see that you’re making a change. They see you’re making progress. And that would reinforce that running and losing weight was solving my problems.

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Running the New York City Marathon felt like such a seminal moment—as if now I’ve arrived and I’m this person and that’s what I wanted. But I was still struggling. I had to take a step back and keep trying to identify what it was that I was dissatisfied with.

And so your roommate at the time, Paul Downs Colaizzo, was a budding screenwriter. He was so inspired watching you train for the marathon that he eventually wrote and directed Brittany Runs a Marathon. What was that experience like?

What’s funny is that I would say the most learning and growth that I did came from the movie coming out. Once Brittany Runs a Marathon got into Sundance, I was like, “Oh, wow, I have to look like an after photo. I have to make sure that I am the Brittany that is at the end of the movie.” I got really strict again and started dieting again and got really focused on my workouts. Then I got to Sundance and I wanted it to be that bikini moment where you get there and you’re finally allowed to feel like you’ve done something great. And no one cared. That’s sort of the big secret—no one was like, “Wow, you finally did it. You’re finally ‘good.’ And you’re allowed to enjoy this moment.” But I was sitting in a theater of 1,200 people watching a movie about a girl who is obsessing about the scale and realizing that I had just done it all over again.

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How could I have let myself get to the point where everything that I’m working towards only has to do with what I look like physically? It really sort of awakened me to where I could be spending my energy instead.

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And so what has that led you to? 

I put a lot more energy into people I love. I put a lot of attention to friendships. I consider them as important as marriage. Professionally, I’ve started doing humanitarian and crisis response work. I currently work for the International Rescue Committee. I make sure that all that I have to give—which is a lot—is put toward helping other people, whether that’s helping a friend who needs to feel like they’re not alone or helping a refugee find a new home and a new job.

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One of the things that we’ve been talking about is the line between self-improvement and self-acceptance. When do we know when it’s time to say, “I have done something amazing” versus saying to ourselves, “I need to push a little bit more.” What do you think? 

Never and always. You’re never done. You should always be improving yourself. And that’s why self-acceptance and self-improvement aren’t really two different things. You can accept yourself and love yourself and also want more for yourself and strive to do more.

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You know, I’ve been injured. I haven’t been on a run for a while. And I’m still able to work out and be healthy, but my size is different again. Choosing a metric like losing weight is easy, but trying to identify what you’re really about and what you are going to prioritize as a result of that is really the hard work.

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I text my friend Paul regularly to say, “Thank you for giving me this gift.” Because if I had not gone through this whole experience of needing to feel like an after photo for Sundance, and then for reasons beyond my control changing sizes again, I wouldn’t have felt as free as I do now. I don’t have to punish myself for just living a normal, healthy life.

To hear Brittany help one of her biggest fans come to terms with her own physical transformation, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.

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