Tessa was doing her makeup in her bathroom when her boyfriend Paul walked into the room.
Tessa was excited. It was their anniversary, and they were celebrating with dinner at their favorite restaurant. She was dressed up and had done her hair with extra effort. She rarely allowed herself to luxuriate very long in front of the mirror, but this was a special occasion.
She honestly thought she’d never get this far: three years with a boyfriend. First of all, she never thought she’d land a boyfriend. Especially one as good-looking or successful as Paul, who she somehow charmed when they met at a marketing conference three years ago. Somehow they went out, and miraculously, one date led to another. Somehow he moved in with her a year later and stayed with her, against the odds.
“Fat girls like me,” she told me, “normally don’t land guys as hot as Paul.”
Tessa spent the first years of their relationship feeling insecure. But as Paul wandered into the bathroom, she reflected that she was finally happy. She had everything she ever wanted: a good job, a nice home, someone who loved her.
“Hi sweetie,” she greeted Paul, a smile on her face.
“Hey,” he replied. He wrapped his arms around her and gave her a squeeze. “Excited for dinner tonight?”
She turned to face him, looping her arms around his neck. “I am,” Tessa told Paul. She kissed him. “I love you, sweetie.”
Paul wrapped his arms around Tessa. “I love you,” he said. Then he slid his hands down her back slightly. “I love all of you.” As he spoke, he laughed, and jiggled the flesh on Tessa’s back.
Tessa’s face burned with shame and humiliation. Why of all moments did Paul have to bring up her size now? She wanted at least say something.
Instead, she only buried her face in his shoulder and hugged him. She wasn’t sure if she was being affectionate, or hiding her face in anger.
“That’s it,” she told herself. “I’ve got to do something about my weight.”
“I’ve always been fat,” Tessa says. Her earliest childhood memories involve visits to her grandmother, who would grab one of Tessa’s upper arms after kissing her hello. “Oh, what a big ol’ girl you are!” her grandmother would tell her. “Just like grandma!”
As Tessa grew up, more and more people commented on her weight. Friends, classmates, her own parents — they all often teased Tessa over her size, though, as she notes, they continued to feed her soft drinks, junk food snacks and fast food.
As she grew older, the teasing turned into “helpful hints” on what she should and shouldn’t do to lose weight. These hurt Tessa more than the teasing, and made her angry. She began to refuse to eat well and exercise, her form of teenage rebellion
“Part of it was angry defiance, like a big ‘Eff you,” Tessa says. “I tried to pretend that I didn’t care at all, that I was more enlightened and I didn’t rely on my physical appearance for my self-esteem. On one level I believed that — I still do — but deep down I was hurt and angry.”
On some level, this worked for Tessa: she cultivated other sources of pride, like good grades and a circle of friends, who gravitated towards her outgoing “funny girl” persona. But it wasn’t enough to compensate for “core feelings of shame and self-loathing.”
But then her family life disintegrated around her, and she began to binge on food as a kind of comfort.
“My parents were splitting up,” she remembers. “Two midlife crises colliding. I’d find myself home alone at night with nothing but dinner as my companion.”
She took these habits with her when she went to a top-ranked college, where, tasting independence for the first time, she “overdid the pizza deliveries,” she says. By the time she graduated, moved to New York and began working in marketing, she was officially obese.
That didn’t prevent her from achieving a good degree of success: she did well at her job and made good money, enough to afford a cozy one-bedroom in Brooklyn. She dressed well, and had a nice group of friends. The only thing missing? A love life. That is, until she met Paul.
Paul’s offhand comment hurt Tessa’s feeling more deeply than she wanted to admit. “It was the last straw,” she says, the final insult after a lifetime of resentment, humiliation and embarrassment.
She decided to lose weight. “Not just half-heartedly and secretly diet, but to change my whole lifestyle,” she says. “I knew from doctors’ comments that it wasn’t just my weight anymore, but my blood pressure, cholesterol. One of them frankly warned me I was headed to early heart disease unless something changed.”
The basic template for good health is simple: eat good food, get enough movement in and reduce stress.
Yet the actual nuts and bolts are often conflicting, depending on what expert or study you consult. Low-fat, low-carbs, high-protein, high-interval? The range of advice is dizzying.
Tessa had no idea where to begin. Losing weight is often a complicated calculus of hormones, genetics, metabolism and cumulative eating and exercise habits. Sensibly, Tessa began with what she could control and consulted with a nutritionist, who gave her one very basic yet often overlooked starting assignment: start tracking what you eat.
Tessa thought initially this would be a pain to do — and perhaps before the advent of smartphones, pulling out a notebook to record what she ate all the time would be a hassle.
But she discovered there were multitudes of apps to track her food intake, ranging from MyFitnessPal to her favorite, Lose It, which made it easy to simply scan foods in or find them in a huge database.
“Tracking was a revelation,” Tessa says. “It’s really easy to overlook the bits and pieces of food you eat a day — a few chips here, some candies there. But logging everything that you eat, you start to realize how it adds up.”
Much like tracking money, tracking food also allows you to see what eating patterns you fall into.
Tessa learned, for example, that she ate too few calories at the beginning of the day — thinking she was being “good” by skipping breakfast or eating a very light one. But then she would blow what she thought was good behavior by eating a lot at night.
Her nutritionist advised her to eat more calories at breakfast and lunch, which gave Tessa more energy and cut her cravings later in the day. She noticed, for instance, that if she skimped on breakfast, she craved empty carb-heavy foods like cookies and crackers in the afternoon.
But eating a breakfast richer in proteins filled her up more, and she made healthier decisions later in the day. Those kinds of insights were only available to her by tracking her eating behavior, an activity made easy with her iPhone and an app.
Tracking is recommended to help change eating habits. But Tessa also stumbled other less conventional ways to use her phone to help her to recalibrate her relationship to food.
“One night I was out with a friend late at night eating dinner, and I went to record my meal on my app. But the network was down, as was the Wi-Fi at the restaurant,” Tessa recounts. “So I took a picture of the dinner, and later inputted it into the app.”
Later on at an appointment with her nutritionist, Tessa showed her a picture of her meal during a discussion about portion size. Having a visual record of her meal proved invaluable in helping the nutritionist fine-tune Tessa’s sense of portion size.
“She pointed out what proportions my various foods should be in,” she says. “She pointed out that compared to my carbs and proteins, I needed to beef up my veggies and fruits and shrink my carbs down. She also said my plate needed more colors — that a well-balanced meal has a wide variety of colors and textures. Of course, you know this stuff, but seeing it actually cemented it a little better in my mind.”
Encouraged by her personal a-ha moment, Tessa’s nutritionist encouraged her to photograph all her meals so they could look over them the next few times they met.
The practice of taking pictures of her food changed the way Tessa literally looked at food. “I learned to visualize a good meal,” she says. “As I was considering what to eat or make for dinner, I’d see it in my mind, and see if it followed the rules for portion size and visual variety.”
This made a huge impact in Tessa’s eating habits. “At the very least, I learned to think first about what I was eating, instead of just automatically shoveling something in my mouth,” she says.
More importantly, the changes she made in terms of portion and variety reprogrammed her palate on some level. “I had to learn what healthy eating tastes like. For me, that came first from knowing what a good meal looks like,” she says. “Once I knew what it looked like, and then what it tasted like, I started to crave it more.”
“We go on automatic pilot when we eat,” she surmises. “But tracking and photographing my meal taught me to visualize good food in good proportions, while tracking gave me a sense of what I really ate and what things really ‘cost’ in terms of calories. Like, everyone says nuts are great…but you can’t eat a cup of them a day if you want to lose weight!”
Food was only one part of the equation for Tessa. The other, of course, is exercise, and many people are already discovering how mobile technology can help them become healthier and more active.
Devices like FitBit already help people become more conscious of their activity levels, and with apps and features on phones that can record movement, sleep and other metrics, users are able to make adjustments in their workouts.
Tessa was nowhere this advanced when it came to exercise, however.
“I hate gyms, or working out in any ritualistic way” she says. She says she’s self-conscious about her body around other people, “who are all generally ten times fitter than me, wearing tight clothes, and there I am, huffing along in my big sweats.” The only exercise she got was walking around New York.
Nevertheless, Tessa knew she needed to amp up her physical activity, not just for weight loss but for her overall health. Since tracking was so effective for her diet, she decided to wear a FitBit, which she felt was discreet enough to blend in with her everyday wardrobe.
What she discovered surprised her. She was more active than she thought — all that walking around the city added up. She actually met the minimum of federally recommended levels of exercise: about 150 minutes of moderate activity a week.
Turns out, her self-image of herself as a “couch potato slob,” as she says, wasn’t entirely accurate. “It was like a quarter of the battle was already fought,” she says.
As a result, it was easy to make small but significant changes in her approach to exercise.
First, she decided to stop calling it “exercise.” “I think of it as movement instead, or activity,” she says. “For me, that’s much more attainable than exercise, which makes me think of gyms and spandex.”
Adding more movement — not exercise — was easy. She decided to get off a few subway stops early from her work and walk a bit more every morning, and she did the same thing going home or going out at night.
She also began taking the stairs at least part of the way at work. Because she was just a few minutes away from the High Line in New York, she also held “walking meetings” with her team at work, instead of choosing to sit around a table for an hour.
Soon Tessa was racking up an hour-plus of activity a day, and slowly but surely, the pounds began to drop off. The change was so gradual that she almost didn’t notice it — until she switched over her seasonal wardrobe and realized her clothes didn’t quite fit her the same anymore. Everything was a bit looser, much to Tessa’s delight.
The changes emboldened Tessa to go outside her box and join a local gym, where she made new friends. There she experimented with different workouts, even going so far as to split a personal trainer with her friends.
“I never thought I’d be a gym person,” she says happily, “but now I love exercise for its own sake. Not just for the results — now I understand why people lean on it to help out their stress and just help them think more clearly.”
Tessa’s new friends at the gym also influenced her in other ways. “They ate well and worked out and encouraged me to continue, but they were also interested in positive mental health and relationships,” she says. “They read personal development books and boors and talked about how ideas could apply to their lives.”
Tessa began to do the same, and soon health wasn’t about just physical changes, but lifestyle and community. She had vitality and energy, and she felt less stressed and more focused. She felt “amazing, like a whole new person — or rather, the best version of myself I could be.”
The confidence Tessa felt seeped into the rest of her life. She took more risks at work and took on bigger projects. She made new friends through her new interests in athletic activities and ended up joining a volleyball league in Brooklyn.
Her confidence also gave her a clear-eyed view into her relationships. She began to stand up for herself with her family, asking them to stop making comments on her body.
“It doesn’t matter how big or small I am, I realized it’s not right to comment on people’s bodies like they’re public property,” Tessa says.
She also became aware of the power dynamics of her relationship with Paul. “On the surface, he seemed supportive of my lifestyle changes,” Tessa says. “But then he’d so things like bring home tons of junk food, or insist on taking me out to really extravagant restaurants where all the food was really rich and fattening.”
Paul also grew more distant as Tessa blossomed into her more confident self. “He seemed to like me less the happier with myself I got,” she says. “He would give me backhanded compliments or constantly make comments on my body. But then when I called him on it and asked him to stop, he’d say ‘wasn’t that the reason I was doing all this?'”
Tessa eventually realized she wasn’t happy with Paul — and for once, she realized she didn’t have to settle for being in a mediocre relationship simply because she was fat and had little chance landing anyone else.
“Let me make clear, I’m still not skinny,” Tessa says. “I’m still full-figured. And maybe I won’t meet anyone else. But I’m happier and more confident, for sure, and I didn’t need anyone undermining me or the way I felt about myself.”
Despite knowing it was the best thing to end her relationship with Paul, it was still difficult. But even with the breakup, Tessa knew she has changed when she threw herself into exercising more to cope — instead of drowning her sadness through overeating.
Tesssa finally also found the strength to tackle her “inner game” of health.
“It became clear to me that my weight and eating issues in the past were related to psychological issues I had — repressed anger and sadness,” Tessa says. “Making changes had an interesting spiral effect. I started off with small concrete shifts in my diet and physical activity. Once I began feeling better, I had the energy to tackle the emotional weight in my life — and that in term emboldened me to tackle challenges I never dreamed of earlier, like joining a volleyball league or joining a gym. In some ways, I don’t even recognize myself. But then again, I’ve never felt more like my best self than ever before.”
Over a year, Tessa lost weight and changed her lifestyle for the healthier. But she learned more than healthy eating and exercise habits. Good health is intimately connected to positive mental attitudes, emotional issues and even a sense of community and belonging. A mosaic of influences creates our sense of well-being. To truly thrive, a happy, healthy lifestyle addresses as many of these interconnected factors as possible.
“Being healthy to me isn’t about wearing cool workout clothes while clutching a green smoothie,” Tessa says. “Sometimes with all this talk of carbs, intervals and whatever, we’ve created this impossible mystique around what it means to be healthy. I think it’s something much simpler. But also harder — because there’s no quick fix, as much as we wish for one.”
For Tessa, the road to getter health and happiness required patience, self-knowledge and a good dose of courage — helped along with some new friends and an assist from her smartphone. ♦