S1: I look at the picture and all I see is like the extra wrinkles that I have in places where people don’t normally have wrinkles and it’s tough, like I don’t want my daughter to grow up having this horrible self-image because her mom does. And I thought losing the weight and doing all these physical changes that I wouldn’t have that anymore. But I still do every day. And that’s really, really hard.
S2: Welcome to How to. I’m Charles Du. Each week on this show, we try to help people solve their problems and often people write in when they know they need to make a major change in their life, like the listener from an earlier episode who is trying to find her first kiss. Thirty 38. Or sometimes they reach out to us because they’re on the brink of something big. But this week we’re trying to help a listener who’s already made a massive change and now she’s dealing with an unexpected aftermath. Meet Ashley from Texas.
S3: I am recently a stay-at-home mom to three kiddos, and I’ve recently gone through some pretty substantial fitness and health changes.
S2: Ashley is 31 years old now, and over the years she has struggled with her weight, trying all kinds of different diets. But none of them worked.
S4: So at my heaviest, I was three hundred and twenty five pounds.
S5: How did you feel physically during that time?
S4: So the funny thing, if you’ve never been like up to that weight level or to that size, I mean, you definitely know that there are things that hurt because you’re heavy like your knees or your ankles or your back. But you it doesn’t happen overnight because, you know, every pound you put on, you start to get this new normal.
S1: By the time I hit three twenty five, I had a newborn and I had almost four year old and I was exhausted all the time and everything hurt. And that’s just the physical parts of it. Emotionally, you feel defeated and you don’t feel pretty and you you feel like a disappointment. Yeah. So what happened? So I made a really drastic decision to have weight off surgery. And ultimately I’ve lost about one hundred and fifty five pounds.
S5: Wow. So what are you struggling with? Why did you reach out to us today?
S6: So the struggle now is yes, I’ve made all these changes and I can see it in the clothes that I wear and the things that I’m able to do and all these great accomplishments. Like I’m super thrilled that I can be a runner and say I’m a runner. And I vividly remember going to target to buy a swimsuit and I’m going to buy my first bikini because I’ve never worn one in my entire adult life. And putting it on and feeling completely crushed, because now I have a whole nother layer to tackle, which is dealing with the excess skin and dealing with. Still looking in the mirror and seeing all of the things that I see as imperfections and issues I have to overcome again and the hurdles I have to jump over again. And I feel like it’s this never ending struggle to make me happy with who I am.
S5: After so many years of working so hard to change and then going through this huge physical transformation. Ashley still feels uncomfortable with how she looks, which she didn’t expect at all. So how does she handle that and how does she learn to be happy when losing weight, which she wanted for so long, didn’t exactly deliver what she hoped for. When we come back, we’ll bring in Britney O’Neal, a runner like Ashley, whose own physical transformation was so inspiring. It was made into a movie.
S7: Let’s get you healthy. I’m making a whole new Britney. I want to run the New York City Marathon.
S5: We’re going backwards and then we’ll learn what Hollywood left out and what Britney can teach Ashley. Don’t run away on us. Welcome back. To understand Ashlee’s weight loss journey, it helps to know about her lifelong fascination with Disney.
S3: Disney World is my obsession. And I’m not even going to hide that. It’s my obsession. I have a giant tattoo from the top of my ankle all the way up to my knee. That is Disney princesses and the castle.
S2: It was during a trip to Disney World a few years ago that Ashley decided things in her life had to change.
S3: We took our, at the time almost five year old and to Disney World for his upcoming fifth birthday.
S1: We got on the plane and I realized, like, if I gain another pound, I’m not going to be able to buckle the seat belt.
S5: And then they got to Disney World, where they had signed up for the service, where the park takes photos of you and your family on all the rides and then sends them to you.
S1: They don’t really think I realized what I looked like because I’m always taking the pictures of the kids. I remember pulling them up on my phone and just wanting to cry. Like I don’t even want to post them on Facebook. I don’t want to share them with my friends and I want to print them out. I don’t want my kids to see them because I was huge and I didn’t want that to be the rest of my life. I wanted to be in pictures with my kids and not be embarrassed to be in the pictures that my kids.
S8: Soon after Ashley got back, she had another moment that convinced her that she had to turn things around. Her aunt, who was in her 60s, was in a nursing home with dementia and actually began reading online and found articles that linked the disease to diabetes and weight issues, both of which Ashley’s and had struggled with for a long time.
S9: My daughter had been born at night. I took her to see my aunt at the nursing home and I had the baby in the carrier. And she said, You know what? What’s your baby’s name? And I said, Amberly.
S4: And she looked at me and she goes, Oh, how funny is that? My niece just had a baby and her name is Amberleigh. And I’d been there for two hours and she just didn’t know who I was.
S5: Those two moments, the Disney photos and the visit with her and two who ultimately passed away, those led Ashley to get gastric bypass surgery. Surgeons removed a portion of her stomach, which which basically made it impossible for her to eat too much. And the surgery went really, really well. And she recovered and she started losing weight. And then she took up running over the next year between the surgery and the exercise.
S2: Ashley lost one hundred and fifty five pounds and she wanted to keep going.
S9: I decided to run the Disney Princess half marathon in 2019, and then since then I recently just came back from Disney World and I ran the five K, the 10K and the half marathon back to back to back Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and did four days at Disney Park.
S1: So how I joke that I did my own little extra marathon just walking around the parks.
S5: But even after all of that, after the weight loss and the races, it still doesn’t feel like the happily ever after that Ashley was expecting.
S1: I have a wonderful husband who constantly tells me how proud he is and how beautiful I are men, how impressed he is with the progress. And he said all of those things to me even before I had my surgery or I completed my race. He’s always been my cheerleader, but I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel it and told to me it almost feels like I’m the impostor, like I’m the one. Tricking him almost. And that’s kind of a weird way to think of it. But like, you don’t feel like you deserve the praise and the positivity and the celebration when you don’t have it going on internally.
S5: This isn’t totally unusual. It turns out when scientists have studied people who have suddenly lost a lot of weight, usually because of surgery, they found and I’m quoting a study here. Significant improvements in quality of life and body image within the first few months, but over longer time periods. Some of those mental benefits can fades often because even though people have changed their bodies, they haven’t necessarily dealt with the issues that were pushing them to live unhealthy lives in the first place and obsessing about what we look like. It ignores a bunch of research that says that we need to embrace our bodies, whatever their shape, to ultimately find happiness. And so to help Ashley, we brought in someone who’s gone through something similar herself.
S10: My name is Brittany O’Neal. I currently work for the International Rescue Committee. And if anyone has seen or heard of the movie, Britney runs a marathon that was loosely based on me and my life. Right now, Brad.
S2: You can’t do that. Brittany runs a marathon, premiered at Sundance last year. And 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. The details of the film are a little bit different from what actually happened in Britney’s life because, you know, it’s Hollywood, but it’s actually pretty close then, like the character in the movie.
S5: Britney says that she was miserable in her mid 20s. Back then, she was a theater producer and the place she was working on had just been nominated for a Tony Award.
S10: I was able to go to the Tonys. What should be a huge accomplishment? I had to like, you know, go to Loman’s and find a dress. There were many occasions of me on the floor of a dressing room crying because nothing, literally nothing fits. And the things that do just look awful. And this isn’t what you’re supposed to look like when you’re dressed up on a red carpet, because we know what those look like, because there are photos of celebrities all the time. And I borrowed a pair of Manolo Blahnik from a coproducer. I already was feeling like huge and out of place. I think I wore like 17 necklaces to, like, distract from the rest of my body. And on the way home, my heel broke. It literally collapsed under my weight. And it seemed undeniable that I was, you know, quote unquote, too big for for this world, for this life, for this moment.
S5: Soon after that, Brittany and her roommate stayed up late one night talking, trying to figure out why exactly she was so unhappy.
S10: I was convinced my weight is the reason for all of my issues. At the time, I was why I wasn’t in a relationship. It was why I didn’t have the job I want. It was the reason for all of it. And in some ways, it made it really easy because it’s, you know, the math of losing weight works. Even though it takes a huge amount of energy and focus, it still is an achievable goal.
S5: That conversation inspired Britney to take up jogging and eventually to commit to running the New York City Marathon.
S10: And so running became my method of choice for exercising. It progresses so easily. You notice it right away. So it it becomes very addictive in that way. I was at the same time 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 so that sort of would reinforce that this was what was solving my problems.
S2: Brittany’s roommate happened to be a budding screenwriter. His name is Paul Downs Choline, so he was so inspired watching Brittany train for the marathon and lose so much weight that he eventually wrote and directed Brittany runs a marathon. I mean, what happened to you? You’re right.
S7: Oh, it’s sweat. I, I ran today. You do that. Somebody’s chasing you.
S10: And so what’s funny is that I would say the most learning and growth that I did came from the movie coming out. Once it 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 Britney that is at the end of the movie. And so I got really strict again and started dieting again and got really focused on my workouts. And then I got to Sundance and I think I wanted it to be that same bikini moment where you you sort of get there and you’re finally allowed to feel like you’ve done something great. And no one cared. I mean, that’s sort of the big secret, right, is that no one no one was like, wow, you finally did it. You’re finally good. Like you’re finally capital G. Good. And you’re allowed to enjoy this moment. And I think it was it was sort of that coming and going. And, you know, of course, sitting in the theater of twelve hundred people watching a movie about a girl that’s like obsessing about about the scale and realizing that I had just done it all over again.
S3: I feel like we’re the same human being like that. Yeah, exactly.
S1: Because I have watched your movie like, I don’t know, 80 times now.
S3: Cool. Like, I watched it after my race and I bawled like a baby. Haley texted my mom who’s like, You have to watch this now. You’ll understand what I’m going, bro.
S11: When we come back, Britney will help Ashley learn to accept what comes after the Hollywood ending. Stay with us.
S2: In these stressful times, it’s harder than ever to lead a happy life. But at this moment, understanding our own well-being has never been more important. Yale professor Dr. Laurie Santo’s has studied the science of happiness, and she’s found that many of us do exactly the opposite of what will make our lives better on the Happiness Lab. Her podcast. She takes the latest research and shares surprising and inspiring stories that will change the way you think. Recent episodes have explored the benefits of altruism and tribalism, finding meaning in work and more. Find the happiness lab on Apple podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. Brought to you by Pushkin Industries.
S5: We’re back with Ashley and her expert, Brittany O’Neal. Both Ashley and Brittany are literally miles ahead of their form ourselves. But Ashley still doesn’t feel happy. Which is something Brittany understands to running.
S10: The New York City Marathon does feel like such a seminal moment. But leading up to it with the weight loss and the transformation and wanting that to to sort of be the after. Right now I’ve arrived and I’m this person, and that’s what I wanted. It was definitely a struggle. And I think I had to take a step back and keep trying to identify what it was that I was dissatisfied with.
S5: So it sounds like oftentimes we take something like losing weight and we make it a stand in for for all these other things. And oftentimes, losing weight is just about losing weight. Right. It doesn’t. It doesn’t. Yes. Change the other parts of our life, do you? Yeah. I ask you, Ashley, does that sound true to you?
S3: Yeah. I mean, I think that the ads for weight loss programs or products or any of it, like all of these people, are so like jovial and excited and all of this at the end of their weight loss. But that doesn’t mean that, like, you’re done. No, like you still have to maintain it. It doesn’t have this, like, tangible end.
S1: And I think that that’s what I kept feeling like I was missing.
S5: Mm hmm. OK. Brittany so let me ask you, what do you think Ashley needs to do to help her recognize how far she’s come and to find some solace in it?
S10: Something that I started to do that I still do whenever I have, like negative self talk moments is take a step back and try to think like, whose eyes am I seeing this through? Like, who do I think is going to think this about me or say this about me or feel this about me? Anytime that you’re putting yourself down, it’s usually because you want to do it before someone else does and because you’re afraid that it’s going on with someone out in someone else’s mind. It would almost inevitably be some version of like, you know, if a stranger were to just like see me in this photo with my friend, I would look like the fat girl. And it’s like, yeah, OK. Like if a stranger notices something about you and it always came back to like, I don’t necessarily need to give more value to the people that don’t know me. In fact, they should receive less value and the people that know me and love me. And if I take a minute to see things through their eyes, then that really helped shift my perspective of what I had achieved.
S8: So here’s our first rule.
S11: If you start thinking negative thoughts or feeling like what you’ve accomplished, whether that’s getting healthy or anything else isn’t enough. Take a second and ask yourself, whose eyes are you seeing yourself through? Are you adopting the perspective of strangers or old acquaintances on social media? In other words, are you judging yourself by other people’s standards or your own? Because once you embrace your own standards, that’s when you can make the choices that actually make you happy.
S10: 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’m spending my energy instead.
S5: And so what does that lead you to?
S10: I put a lot more energy into people I love, honestly. I put a lot of attention into friendships. I consider them as important as marriage. Professionally, I’ve started doing humanitarian and crisis response, making sure that part of my brain space and my energy and all that I have to give, which is a lot, is put towards helping other people. Whether that’s helping a friend who needs to feel seen and needs to feel like they’re not alone or helping a refugee find a new home and a new job, figuring out and embracing what you think is important instead of just accepting what society thinks.
S5: That’s a critical part of being happy. And researchers have discovered that there’s techniques for this. One is to make sure that you say positive things to yourself about yourself. The studies have found that if you schedule time to compliment yourself, it can be really powerful. And if you refer to yourself by name in your mind, rather than saying I look great, saying actually looks great, you’re more likely to believe and internalize those compliments. So actually, I may ask you if you are setting a larger goal for yourself for the next year, not a goal of hitting a certain number on a scale or a pant size or or even not even a goal of saying I ran 60 miles in a week. Like, what is the goal that you think? Once you accomplished it. Would actually really mean something to you?
S1: I think for me, it would be to celebrate the little wins more. Yes. Not have so much negative self talk. And I don’t think it’s just even self talk. I think I do it sometimes out loud and don’t realize it because I occasionally even notice, like my kids picking up on it. Like, I want to be my own rah rah cheerleader, positive Polly. Like I am for everybody else.
S5: Brittany, how do you do that? How do you celebrate the small wins and in stop the negative self talk and become become your own cheerleader?
S10: Yeah, I mean, it’s not totally gone, but I think that the moments that it comes up for me, it really is always asking why and questioning everything in terms of like so that I can what like I want to achieve this so that I can what or because it means what to me. You know, I. Because I’ve been injured again. 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.
S5: And have you discovered anything about how you feel about that?
S10: It’s been absolutely liberating. And I text my friend Paul regularly to be like, thank you for giving me this gift, because had I not gone through this whole experience of needing to feeling like I need to look like an after photo for Sundance and then sort of for reasons a little bit beyond my control, changing sizes again. Yeah, it’s freeing. I don’t have to punish myself for for just living a normal, healthy life. I’m I’m actually allowed to only quote unquote workout four times a week.
S5: And so. So for Ashley or for for me or for anyone who’s listening, who says, like, I have to define success as being perfect, I have to define success as hitting that number or feeling bad about myself, because I only worked out four times this week instead of six times. What advice would you have for them about learning how to to be gentle with themselves and frankly like to be okay with who we are?
S10: That it’s not so easy. You can’t just choose a metric and meet it and then you’re done like running and 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 harder work.
S8: Here’s the next rule.
S11: It is really easy to focus on what we haven’t accomplished on all the goals we haven’t achieved yet or the ways that we haven’t completely lived up to our plans. But the thing is, that can really hold us back. We tend to overlook all the things that are going really well. The satisfaction that we ought to be feeling from how far we’ve come on this show. We love to talk about setting goals, but it’s critical to take the time and to do the work of choosing goals that genuinely correspond to our values so that even if we fall short, we still feel a sense of satisfaction and meaningfulness about the work we did along the way.
S5: It sounds like I think throughout this conversation, one of the things that we’ve been we’ve been talking about is trying to figure out how do you know when you’ve reached this line between self-improvement and self acceptance? Yeah. 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?
S10: Never. And always like, 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, whether that’s physically or otherwise.
S5: Ashley, what have you learned about where that line is between self-improvement and self acceptance?
S1: From my perspective, it’s more about realizing self-improvement doesn’t necessarily mean that you haven’t achieved acceptance.
S4: Like what I’ve done and what I’ve become. And being happy in that.
S1: But then also realize being happy and fulfilled isn’t a singular moment. Like I’m looking for the bikini moment or the fireworks or the feeling of finishing a half marathon or a marathon. That’s the tangible like achievement. But that’s not acceptance.
S5: This is the final rule. Constant self-improvement will not lead to self acceptance. At some point you have to decide, even if you haven’t achieved all of your goals yet, that you’re going to allow yourself to be happy and proud of who you are. And I’ve experienced this myself. When I won a Pulitzer Prize a few years ago, I felt at the time like I’d finally crossed this finish line. But then a month later, that feeling was kind of gone. It was just surprise. It didn’t really change anything but the memory of the work that I did leading up to it. Knowing that some people’s lives were improved by my journalism.
S12: I’m really proud of that. And I let myself feel that pride and it’s never faded. In other words, instead of waiting to celebrate the big win, it’s important to celebrate all the small ones along the way. You should write them down or throw small parties for yourself for or somehow give yourself a reward. Even if it’s not that big a deal, because those tiny moments. They may be so mundane that they would make for a really boring movie. But they’re what life is all about.
S5: Actually, let me ask this. Do you feel like this conversation has helped you, has helped you figure out how to think about that and how to find the happiness and the real accomplishment that you’ve achieved, which is frankly, amazing?
S1: I do. I think in a weird way, like I don’t think those moments are gone by any means, and I don’t think they ever will be. But I think talking with Britney and hearing that like she still goes through some of that, too. And like knowing that it’s not just me. This is totally normal. It’s going to happen again and again and again. And I have to be okay with that. And I also think it’s given me a different perspective on why did I do this? I think so much of what I’ve attached to the weight off into the running has been my physical appearance. And like sitting here in this moment and realizing that that’s not what that’s even why I started this right. I did this all to be healthy for my kids and to be here for my kids.
S13: I think about my body every day. I have my whole life. But I decided that even with my pain, my fear, my self judgment, other people’s judgments. I wanted to be happy. And I am.
S2: Thank you to Ashley for sharing her story with us. And thank you to Brittany O’Neal. Look for Brittany runs a marathon on Amazon Prime. And one other thing. I thought it was important to mention, we spent a lot of this episode talking about losing weight and improving our bodies. The truth is, as long as you’re healthy, whatever that means for you, then you’re doing great. You don’t have to run a marathon to be healthy and you don’t have to be skinny or look like a model. There are millions of different bodies in this world, all of which look different and need different food and exercise. And all of them, all of them are exactly right. If you feel like you or someone you know is struggling with unhealthy eating or fixating on their body in unhealthy ways, I’d encourage you to find help.
S5: Two of my favorite resources are the Academy for Eating Disorders, which has a bunch of helpful information on its Web site at a e d Web dorm and the National Eating Disorders Association at National Eating Disorders dot org.
S11: If you have a problem or a question and you think we can help you, please drop us a note and let us know. You can write us at how to add Slate dot com or call and leave a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one.
S5: How to executive producer is Derek John. Rachel Allen is a production assistant in Merritt. Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannah Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts. And Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Special thanks to Aisha Solutia and Sung Park. I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening.