Just after her wedding in 2009, when she weighed 338 pounds and became determined to lose much of it, photographer Julia Kozerski embarked on a new art project. She took photos of herself in department-store dressing rooms, documenting her body's transformation as she lost what would end up being 160 pounds.
Scroll through the series, "Changing Room," on Kozerski's website, and you'll find, at first, pretty much exactly what you might expect: full-length selfies, with Kozerski's lovely smile growing larger as her body grows smaller. It seems like a fun, empowering project: Kozerski, 29, is fond of animal prints and platform pumps that draw attention to a unicorn tattoo near her left ankle. You could literally chart the development of her confidence by the height of her hemlines.
About two-thirds of the way through the series, though, two unexpected images creep in: extreme close-ups on Kozerski's face, devastated, tear-stained. They're jarring: What happened to the smiling, excited woman in heels?
A possible answer lies in another set of self-portraits Kozerski took inspired by her weight loss. Called "Half," it is a series of nudes with a much more sober, even confrontational tone: These photos highlight Kozerski's stretch marks, loose skin, stretched navel, sagging breasts. She looks, unsmiling, down at her body, or out into the distance.
"I kind of put it out there, in the world, to be like, 'Fuck you – this is real, this is what you need to see,'" Kozerski laughs over the phone from her home in Milwaukee.
The "Changing Room" photos place Kozerski in the conventional story our culture tells about weight loss: the no-brainer cause and effect of "Look Great, Feel Good!," as cheerfully suggested by People magazine's weight-loss cover stories and The Biggest Loser's original theme song. The "Half" photos, by contrast, explore Kozerski's surprise at eventually finding that happily-ever-after image lacking.
"Everything starts sagging, and you've got stretch marks, and clothes fit differently, you're kind of panicking, and you're saying, 'Am I doing the right thing? Because this shirt doesn’t look right,'" she says. "I was very, very – I don't want to say depressed, but I would get really down on myself about, like, 'I'm not doing this correctly,' or, 'This isn't what it's supposed to look like.'"
For Kozerski and many like her, the experience of significant weight loss is much more psychologically complex than the multi-billion-dollar diet industry, with its beaming "after" photos and promises of a new life, acknowledges. After all that work, it can be a disappointing blow to discover that bodies that have lost 50-plus pounds simply don't look like bodies that have maintained a steady weight since reaching adulthood. (While cosmetic surgeries like those detailed here can treat loose skin, stretch marks, and sagginess, they're also expensive, invasive, and mostly absent from the fairy-tale weight loss success stories we see depicted so often.)
"You sort of feel like someone shortchanged you on the satisfaction of things," explains John Janetzko, a Harvard grad student who has lost 120 pounds. "I feel, oddly, more aware of everything – [like] when I lean forward, if I feel like I have any stomach fat that's there. And it's strange, because I'm like, 'Well, how did this not bother me before?' … It becomes this nagging, incessant reminder of, you did something, but maybe it wasn't enough, maybe you should keep going."
Beyond just the surprise of a new body that still may not conform to the social standard of how a beautiful one should look, reaching a goal weight often leaves ex-dieters bewildered as to where to go from here – and upset to find that even after this tremendous accomplishment, they still aren't completely satisfied with their bodies.
"I haven't spoken to a single person who lost a ton of weight and didn't have some issues with their eating habits or body image after it was done," Janetzko says. "And I'm pretty sure if you asked them at the beginning, they all thought that it would just be magic, and they would feel better automatically when they lost the weight." Despite now being a very lean 166 pounds at just under six feet tall (and training for a marathon!), Janetzko says he still doesn't see a thin or fit person when he looks in the mirror.
"While you're dieting and the scale is going down, it's incredibly motivating when you get on the scale," explains Dr. Judith Beck, a psychologist who specializes in applying strategies of cognitive behavioral therapy to weight loss. "After you've been at the same weight for months and months and months and months, it's no longer thrilling to get on the scale." And continuing to work hard to maintain a new body that feels alien is a task even more complicated than achieving that body in the first place.
For at least some newly thin people, there’s a meta-dissatisfaction in feeling that significant weight loss has made life anything other than perfect: Any discomfort you may feel with your body is compounded by a sense of shame at not feeling unmitigated pride at a moment you expected to be triumphant.
"It's a fantasy, that when we lose weight, everything wrong in our lives is going to be right — that means our relationships are going to be right, we're going to feel completely differently about ourselves," says Geneen Roth, a New York Times bestselling author of books on eating who also leads retreats and workshops, and who herself lost between 60 and 70 pounds in her late twenties. "People are shocked to find out that this thing that they've been longing for and waiting for and working for is not what they thought it was."
"I don’t think [it's] exclusive to large amounts of weight loss. I feel like that [dissatisfaction] often happens with people who are really successful, who have really made it," Roth says. "And then they find that, 'Oh, this doesn't do what I thought it was going to do, and now I feel ashamed that I'm still unhappy.'"
Even when talking about her weight loss, Kozerski says there's no room to share the full experience – like when she went on a popular talk show to share her story. "They’re putting me in Spanx, and I'm like, 'This is not what I want to talk about; this is not at all how I want to come out,'" she says. "I would rather put it all out there."
"If you walk into the grocery store, you see [magazines] on display – this person lost all this weight, and now they look like this," Janetzko says. "A rational human being would look at it and recognize, 'Oh, okay, it's edited.' But you do still feel kind of guilty; like, I look at that and think, 'Well, I lost that much weight, and I don't look like that.'"
Reps for People declined to comment for this story because an editor wasn't available to explain some of the magazine's choices – retouching "after" photos in weight-loss spreads, for example, or strategically hiding the kinds of unflattering features Kozerski's work focuses on, like loose skin and stretch marks. As for The Biggest Loser, executive producer Dave Broome, reached by e-mail, argues the show's primary emphasis is on health, not aesthetics: "When you have one foot in the grave (as many of our contestants do when coming on to the show), being concerned about what your skin might look like after you lose weight becomes a minor issue compared to dying or having a significantly shorter life span because of obesity-related issues," he writes.
Broome also mentioned that contestants have access to psychological counseling both during and after filming. And in his view, the show doesn't present weight loss as a shortcut to self-acceptance: "Coming on to The Biggest Loser isn't a magic pill that fixes you for the rest of your life." Still, it's hard not to get that impression when you visit the website for the Biggest Loser Resort, a fitness retreat affiliated with the show: "Everyone deserves a long, rewarding life, amazing relationships with friends and family, and satisfying and productive careers," it helpfully points out. "That all starts with a balanced, healthy lifestyle." Which you can achieve, presumably, by losing weight.
Cultural fantasies of weight loss present a tidy, attractive proposition – lose weight, gain self-acceptance – without addressing the whole truth: that body image post-weight loss is often quite complicated. Perhaps that helps explain why the rate of recidivism among people who have lost significant amounts of weight is shockingly high – by some estimates, more than 90 percent of people who lose a lot of weight will gain it back. Of course, there are lots of other reasons: genetic predisposition towards obesity, for one. For another, someone who's lost 100 pounds to get to 140 pounds will need to work harder – including eating much less each day – to maintain that weight than someone who's been at it her entire life. (Tara Parker-Pope's excellent piece "The Fat Trap" explains these physiological factors in much greater detail.) But what about the psychological? Who would be surprised if a person – contending with both a new body that looks different from the one she feels she was promised, and the loneliness of feeling there’s no way to express that disappointment – returned to the familiar comfort of overeating? At least its effects are predictable.
So how can we better prepare extreme dieters for the reality of losing so much weight? Beyond more realistic portrayals of what post-diet bodies look like, we might also do well to reduce our emphasis on numbers – on the starting weights and goal weights that define the "beginning" and "end" of weight loss. The people I spoke with who had lost significant weight either never had a goal weight in the first place, never reached it, or saw it change during the course of their diets. In Dr. Beck's diet plan, she explains, "We define ideal weight as the weight that you get down to when you're eating in a healthy way that you can keep up with for your whole life."
Maybe diet culture could stand to take a page from sobriety culture, too. Just as you don't complete the twelve steps and celebrate with a bottle of wine, the idea that extreme weight loss has an end point after which life reverts to "normal" leaves dieters with very little recourse once the thrill of weight loss has ended. For those who have struggled with food, maintaining new habits is a lifelong, day-by-day process.
Weight-loss discourse would be healthier, too, if more focus were placed on the small, measurable, tangible positive effects it has on our lives rather than the giant, life-defining, theoretical, eventually unattainable ones. John Janetzko, for example, spoke glowingly about the new role sports play in his life – he's discovered he loves doing something he'd never felt confident enough to try before. Julia Kozerski waxes poetic about farmers' markets and bike rides.
The most important thing, though, is to stop allowing ourselves to be told that everything would be different if we could just lose the weight. Big, important things about people's lives do change after they've lost weight – and yes, often for the better – but no one becomes a different person. You're still you, even when you're half of your former self.