Rohit: Lessons From My Weight Gain & Loss Journey

Story 5 of 10. This Body Positivity series is a project I hold dear to my heart. For years, I’ve struggled with my body image, and since reviving this blog, LoveYourzStory, I’ve shared so many of my personal stories, internal battles, and insecurities. This time, I wanted to hear your stories. I took to social media and found 9 individuals who were willing to share their body positive journey with not only me, but my readers as well. I collaborated with two Bay Area photographers, Missdirected (Instagram: @missdirected.art) to photograph these amazing people. Missdirected did not photoshop / alter any of the models’ faces or bodies. These stories are entirely written by them and in their own words, because after all, who can tell their story better than them?” -Marinelle Cabillo, LoveYourzStory

This is Rohit’s story, written in his own words:

My Weight Gain & Loss Story 

I always loved Shōnen stories when I was a kid. For the uninitiated, Shōnen is one of the most popular genres of anime, typically featuring a male protagonist who embarks on an adventure filled with challenges. My first exposure to the genre came through Pokémon, which I’d obsessively wake up to watch on Saturday mornings throughout my childhood. Looking back, my fascination with Pokémon and similar shows stemmed from the main character’s relentless pursuit of a goal or self-perfection, the clear distinction between good and evil, and the excitement that follows exploring the world around us. Unfortunately, Pokémon is where my issues with body positivity likely started. And it’s exactly what you’re  thinking – the exposure to extremely skinny, fit male figures in Pokémon and other shows unconsciously shaped my mental model of what constitutes beautiful and attractive, and has been something I’ve worked my entire life to overcome. 

I hope that in sharing my story, others struggling with similar issues can understand that they’re not alone and appreciate that self-love is one of the most beautiful aspects of the human condition. While progress in most things in life is usually not linear, the setbacks, insecurities, and painful feelings I experienced  through my weight gain, weight loss, muscle gain, and muscle loss make me who I am today and I’m thankful for them.  

Having a body-positive self-image has never been a strength of mine. At 26 years old I am still struggling with low self-esteem due to ingrained beliefs around what my body should look like. I became painfully  aware of my body and how others perceive it in middle school when my peers began making jokes about how fat I was, saying things like “When you walk around, it can cause earthquakes!” At that point in time I likely weighed 140 pounds and was 5’7”. Despite being relatively tall for my age, there was no hiding it. You might be wondering, “How did he get to that point?” My relationship with food was extremely unhealthy. Even as early as elementary school, I remember chowing down on McDonald’s and Burger King chicken sandwiches that my loving mother would drop off for me on weekdays. It didn’t matter if I got a  bad grade on my math test, was bullied in school, or felt alone, because I knew I always had food to comfort  me. And like most kids at that age with immigrant parents, I needed a lot of comforting. Over time I developed an addiction to fried, fast food and probably played a big role in keeping my local Olive Garden and Burger King alive. 

Whenever I’d see family or family friends they’d be quick to point out how chubby I was. “You’ve got such big cheeks!” and “Did you gain weight?” were usually the first thing they’d say to me whenever they visited. Over time the embarrassment grew to such an extreme level that I’d instinctively run upstairs to my room whenever someone rang the doorbell. My parents chalked that up to my shyness and introverted-ness, but looking back it was largely because I hated how people would comment on my weight, and I’d rather just avoid social interaction altogether. Video games and TV shows didn’t make me feel bad about myself. My mother would typically reassure me saying that having big bones runs in the  family, it’s just temporary, and not to worry about it. I definitely worried about it.  

When middle school came around and the harmful jokes and comments abounded, I realized that I could  use humor as a deflection – by being silly and ridiculous in and outside of class, I hoped that the attention would be taken off my weight, even just for a moment. Sadly, even my most fire jokes couldn’t spare me from the almost daily humiliation that was PE class. I distinctly remember being the slowest person in the entire class to run a mile – I never made it under 10 minutes! And scoring low on other fitness-related exams, reinforcing my belief that I’m worse than others and something is wrong with my body. 

After years of enduring hurtful jokes and comments in addition to seeing idealized images of men’s bodies in movies and TV, I became disgusted with my body. I would actively avoid going swimming – which was  hard when the pool party was at your house – because it would expose my rotundness. I would look at myself whenever I would change in the mirror with shame, and dress in baggy clothing to distract people from the shape of my body. Compounding this internalized shame and resentment is my lifelong struggle with  perfectionism, thinking that the way I looked should be a certain way and, in my mind, I always fell short. 

When I made it to high school, already disgusted with my body, I became committed to changing the body that brought me so much pain. Thankfully, I channeled my frustration and angst into my weight loss regiment. It took many months and a lot of discipline, healthy eating, and exercise, but I was able to lose twenty pounds during my Sophomore year and started to take pride in how I looked for the first time. This is where my story maybe takes a turn from others in the body positive community – part of me is glad that growing up I had a negative body image. If I didn’t, and simply accepted myself for how I looked, I  probably would never have adopted healthier eating and lifestyle habits and would’ve continued spiraling down a path of fried chicken nuggets and scrumptious curly fries. For me personally, being overweight wasn’t difficult just because in society’s eyes something was wrong with me, but more so because I felt  unhealthy – moderate exercise really exhausted me and I’d often have jolts of pain that felt like the  beginning of clogged arteries even though I didn’t know it at the time.  

It might seem fun to eat unhealthy food frequently, and maybe it is in the short-term, but there’s a lot of pain and difficulties that can easily outweigh (yes, pun intended) the ephemeral joy. Over time, as I slowly adjusted my diet to stop feeling so unhealthy my relationship with food improved and I no longer relied  on it for comfort. That process was really difficult and I had to unlearn the bad habits and dependencies I developed over the span of many years. For those of you contemplating a similar transition my advice is to start small, slowly replacing processed fats and sugar with natural fats and sugar from food that you  enjoy eating such that over time your body finds unhealthy food undesirable, which is exactly what happened with me. I eventually reached a point where eating fried and processed food felt nasty and I avoided it at all costs. To this day I actively resist eating fried or fast food and stick to a diet high in vegetables & fruit, high protein, and low carb. After improving my diet and losing even more weight, I vowed to never be fat again and to treat my body like a temple. Unfortunately, even as the weight  gradually began to disappear the insecurity I developed around my body image did not. No matter how  much weight I lost or how my body began to look, I kept feeling that I didn’t look good enough and didn’t live up to the expectations society had of me. 

These insecurities later manifested in college. I can barely recall my junior year and it wasn’t because I was sleep deprived. Enabled by the fraternity I joined and the almost manipulative drinking culture, I  would binge drink and blackout several times a week. Sure, it was lots of fun in the moment and to this day I don’t really regret those decisions, but the proverbial beer belly reared its ugly head. My breaking  point occurred when a close female friend casually remarked one day that I was looking chubby and need to lose weight. I felt that all the progress I had made with accepting my reformed body image and vowing to never be fat again vanished all within a single instant. Just like in high school, I decided to channel my anger and frustration at myself into self-improvement and started working out religiously. In parallel, I also gave up eating meat cold turkey as I strongly believed that all of life is interconnected and must be respected. By the time senior year ended, I had lost the beer belly I was so ashamed of and started to build lean muscle thanks to transitioning to a low carb / high protein vegetarian diet and hitting the gym at least 4 times a week. My relationship with food had completely transformed and I actively sought out healthier options that made me feel better and supported my more active lifestyle. Things were finally  looking up and I never wanted to look back.  

Fast forward a few years and I was back home in San Jose working at a startup with ample free time. Of course I’d continued working out frequently, finding deep satisfaction in pushing myself physically and lifting even heavier weights. I’d often get sore or experience weird muscle pains that led to short breaks and ice baths, but I’d just get back up and keep pushing harder – partly motivated by my body-related insecurities, never feeling satisfied with how I looked despite putting on more muscle, and realizing that  women found me attractive. That all came to a halt on a beautiful summer day in Yosemite. A few weeks  prior my college roommates and I planned a trip to Yosemite to take on the notorious Half Dome hike which claimed several lives and caused hundreds of accidents in the past fifteen years. The hike itself  wasn’t too crazy – 17 miles roundtrip with 4,800 feet of elevation gain, fairly do-able for folks like me who  hike regularly and like to push themselves. Our initial plan was to wake up in the wee hours of the morning  to start the trek to beat the rising heat and crowds of people that flock to the trail each year, but we encountered a ton of traffic on the route there and ended up reaching camp near midnight. Faced with a  difficult decision of sleeping for three hours before embarking or hitting the trail immediately with no rest, we chose to test our luck and hike in pitch darkness with no rest. Hindsight is always 20/20 and this case is no different. Two of my friends injured their feet landing on rocks at weird angles due to the low  visibility, but despite the injuries and exhaustion we all pushed forward.  

I’m thankful that we successfully traversed the treacherous cables and reached the summit, taking in the magnificent views. But the trouble started after we went back to camp, ate our weight in pizza, and passed out for the night. I woke up to a strange sensation and hoped it was a dream. I couldn’t move my neck. In that moment I was filled with sheer terror; would I ever be able to move my neck again? Did I have a permanent disability? What did I do to myself? Why did I push myself to the extreme? After pounding Motrin and surviving the car ride back home, I shared my experience with my physician who immediately  recommended I get scanned by an MRI machine to figure out what the heck was going on. While that experience itself was torture having suffered from claustrophobia my entire life – imagine being stuck in  a metal coffin with no space around you bombarded with shitty EDM sounds – receiving the results was more painful. I had somehow managed to herniate a disc in my cervical spine (my neck), and the damage would never be undone. There was no treatment beyond medicating the pain away and some physical therapy.  

To this day it remains a mystery why I herniated the disc. I knew a bunch of other people my age who were on a fitness and weightlifting grind who didn’t experience any of these issues. It likely was the result of pushing myself to my limits with improper weightlifting techniques combined with shitty luck. Looking back, I’d like to say I wish I didn’t pursue physical fitness with such an extreme devotion, but I really do enjoy pushing myself and tackling greater challenges. Even if I hadn’t herniated a disc at that point in time, it likely would have happened to me doing some other intense activity eventually. Initially, living with a herniated disc wasn’t so bad. While working out, hiking, and sitting down for extended periods of time caused some discomfort, it never prevented me from living the life I wanted and pursuing my physical  fitness goals. Fueled by my body-related insecurities and desire to push myself, I kept exercising intensely and took on even more extreme hikes like Mt. Whitney (23 mile roundtrip with 6,000 feet in elevation gain over a single day). Sadly, things got worse from there. After completing another arduous hike with friends in Hawaii, I felt another weird sensation – a shooting, numbing pain going down my left arm which  I never experienced before. The strange pain also didn’t go away when I took painkillers, which alarmed me even further. I decided to cut my trip short and head back home to figure out what happened and  took yet another MRI.  

What had happened? I herniated yet another disc, right below the previous one and the weird sensation I was feeling was actually nerve pain caused by the discs impinging nerves near my neck that travel down the shoulder and all the way to the hand. Unlike last time, the pain I felt in general was very high and even sitting down for just 15 minutes was excruciatingly painful. I could no longer run, lift weights, or live the active lifestyle I had become accustomed to. In lieu of those activities, I’ve started swimming more regularly – although it’s difficult to find open and heated pools these days – walking daily, and hiking less intense trails to stay fit. Meditating daily, getting lost in fascinating books, and playing the trumpet are my new ways to destress. Despite all that, it’s still painful watching the muscle mass I had worked so hard to build and maintain over the years slowly fade away as my muscles stopped being nurtured and used. Even when I thought I had reached a place of body positivity, in those ensuing weeks and months, I realized that I never really did. My extreme workouts were partly motivated by never feeling satisfied with how I looked and still feeling like I didn’t live up to the idealized image of the male figure. Losing my muscle mass reignited insecurities and shame that I worked so hard to forget.  

While my disability isn’t noticeable to others externally and I’m spared from others’ judgment, I couldn’t help but feel like I was broken inside permanently and my body failed me. I yet again hated myself and my body for failing to meet society’s expectations. Truthfully, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I was exposed to a different way of thinking about myself and body positivity more broadly. I became exposed to the idea on a Facebook social media post about body positivity, that one’s weight is not a reflection of one’s health and being overweight in particular isn’t such a bad thing from an attractiveness, societal, or  health perspective. This broke every belief I had – strongly feeling that being fat is unhealthy, unappealing, and should not be celebrated. After reflecting and discussing with others, I realized that health is a scientific concept and one’s weight does not accurately reflect health – people who may look  overweight might be in good overall health, as paradoxical as it seems. A great example of this is NFL linebackers who typically weigh over 200 pounds and seem very unhealthy in terms of their body shape and size but are way more physically fit than the average person. I also realized that being overweight itself is not an issue to be worried about in isolation; it is the issues associated with being overweight that are the real causes of worry like having clogged arteries, difficulty sleeping, diabetes, etc. In that same vein of thought, I realized that having a body shape, or in my case a body structure, that does not conform with societal norms does not make one any less beautiful, whole, or healthy either. My eyes had been opened to the importance of self-love and body positivity, and how the way we view ourselves has a direct correlation with how we think and behave.  

Last year I decided to make a big change. I adopted an entirely plant-based diet and no longer eat anything related to animals such as honey, ice cream, and pizza. The beautiful thing about being plant-based is it’s actually difficult to eat unhealthy – unless your diet mostly consists of carbs like bread or pasta or vegan junk food like plant-based ice cream and burgers. I’ve been feeling higher energy, don’t have food coma, or crash when I eat, and noticed I was losing weight as well. But being plant-based doesn’t guarantee one won’t gain weight, as I painfully found out after a few months of quarantine when I went home and the first thing my mom said to me was “Beta you’re looking heavier, you put on some weight”.  

Since experiencing that initial epiphany, I have tried to continue practices in self-love and body positivity. I will admit that it is not always easy, and progress is not always linear. I still struggle with moments, days, and weeks of low self-esteem and body negativity. I still check myself out in the mirror every chance I get  and obsessively focus on how my hair looks. I still pinch my belly and love handles, wishing they would  shrink and disappear. I still find moments where I feel physically damaged and hate my body for not being able to do simple things that most of us take for granted like sitting in a car for an hour, bending down to pick things up off the floor, or playing with young children and dogs. While changing my behavior and  mindset is certainly a work in progress, what has been encouraging is that in those situations I remind myself that I am beautiful, do not need to look or participate in certain activities to feel so, and that beauty comes in all shapes, colors, and sizes.  

Whenever I find myself feeling insecure and down on myself because of my body, which inevitably happens and I’ve accepted won’t ever stop, I first accept how I’m feeling and don’t try to fight it. I try to introspect and figure out where these feelings are coming from, and remind myself that the only person’s  opinion that really matters here is my own. What also helps is having a generally positive attitude, which I was able to forge through the difficult times I’ve endured and the realization that dwelling on the negative is a fruitless endeavor. Something else that helps when I feel down is the genuine acceptance that some things in life including negative feelings are out of my control and I should instead focus on controlling the controllables – my actions, behavior and mindset. The power of a positive mindset lies not in being happy all the time, but in preventing one from falling into spirals of negativity.  

If I could travel back in time and talk to my younger self, I’d try to convey that it’s great to want to adopt  a healthier lifestyle but to be cognizant of what is motivating me to do so. I’d also share that while pushing  oneself is a great trait, it’s also wonderful to accept how you look at any point in time and find yourself  beautiful even if how you appear doesn’t match society’s notions of beauty. I’d tell myself that while Ash Ketchum and other Shōnen protagonists are amazing, I should simply aspire to be the best version of  myself, flaws and all.” -Rohit

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s