Shelli Johnson recalls the humiliation she felt, upon stepping onto the doctor’s scale while pregnant with her first son, like it was yesterday.
“Now everything’s digital, but back then it was one of those balance-beam scales,” she says, “and I remember the nurse setting it at 250 … then having to chunk the little thing over to 300. I was devastated. I was like, ‘This isn’t real. This can’t be happening.’ It was the heaviest I’d ever been.”
The not-so-magical number? Three-hundred-four — more than twice the healthy weight range for her 5-foot-8 frame.
That excruciating moment, she says, came in 2001, at a time in her life when she was struggling with depression and bulimia, when she would have much preferred to be invisible. The revelation cut so deep that at her next prenatal checkup, she got onto the scale with her back to the numbers, while politely asking not to be told the results.
These days, however, the Lake Wylie, S.C. writer and graphic designer is no longer trying to hide her body or shy away from knowing about her weight. In fact, nearly two decades later and 174 pounds lighter, she’s put herself out there in an extraordinarily public way: This month, a beaming, slimmed-down Johnson was featured along with two other women on the cover of People magazine’s annual “Half Their Size!” issue.
It’s a major milestone in a lifelong journey that has seen her endure a seemingly never-ending string of miserable weight-loss failures (as a result of everything from fad dieting to, incredibly, the influence of Nazi Germany) followed by years of incredible successes — thanks to something called intuitive eating, which she credits with, among other things, giving her the ability to satisfy sugar fixes with just one or two bites of a doughnut.
But the journey, says Johnson, now 48, isn’t over yet. It might never be.
A PRODUCT OF HER ENVIRONMENT?
On the surface, Shelli Johnson appeared to be a pretty normal, active kid while growing up in rural Ohio in the ’70s. She took horseback-riding lessons, rode her 10-speed bicycle all over town, ran around in the woods near her house, and skated on the local pond in the wintertime.
But despite all of that, she didn’t necessarily look like a normal, active kid. She weighed more than most of her friends, and as she progressed through elementary school, she gradually became more overweight.
Her father wasn’t helping matters, either. At all.
Raised in Germany during the second World War, by parents then loyal to Adolf Hitler, he clung in adulthood to a mentality that wasn’t compatible with his daughter’s size.
“I was brought up in this ‘we-have-to-be-perfect, we-don’t-tolerate-weakness’ environment,” Shelli Johnson says. “I mean, I’ve watched videos on how Hitler was teaching children, and what I was taught as a kid was exactly what my father was taught. … ”
“Basically, being overweight was unacceptable to him. Completely unacceptable. He would point out that I was eating too much, he would point out that I was fat, he would point out that I had a double-chin. In front of others. Which I think was his way of trying to motivate me. But that made me feel worse. So I would overeat. From there, it just spiraled.”
By the time she was 9, Johnson was sneaking herself and a collection of sweets into her closet, or into a locked bathroom — in part because eating gave her such comfort and because food was such a reliable friend, something that soothed her soul and provided a respite from the anxiety she felt around her father.
By the time she was 13, she was forcing herself to throw up after every meal or big snack, stealing away to the nearest toilet six or seven times a day in an effort to lose weight — a brutal habit that continued for more than a decade, one she wouldn’t be able to fully kick until she was 30 years old.
And by the time she was 14, she was into her dad’s shaving kit, toying with the idea of doing something drastic involving his razor and her left arm, once even taking a hesitant slice that was deep enough to draw blood but not so deep that it left a permanent scar.
Upon graduating from high school, Johnson weighed 220 pounds.
She couldn’t help but wonder: Am I always going to be this big?
Little did she know that the answer was a big, fat “no” — but that she was going to have to get even bigger, and then smaller, and bigger, and smaller, and bigger, and smaller again, before true change would occur.
‘THERE MUST BE SOMETHING WRONG’
Johnson went on to college, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and grad school, where she earned a master’s in fiction writing.
In a practical sense, though, she was just as much a student of dieting.
Throughout her 20s, she tried it all, from mainstream diet programs like Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem to super-restrictive fad diets like “No Sugar No Flour” and downright absurd Hail-Mary diets like the one that saw her eating nothing but rice cakes and lettuce every day.
The funny thing is, most of them worked. At least, in the sense that she’d shed weight — 60, 70, 80 pounds at a time, often quite quickly. The problem was keeping it off. As she says, they call it yo-yo dieting for a reason.
Johnson was 30 years old when she stepped onto the scale and saw she was 304 pounds, while pregnant and on the bottom end of another yo-yo. She continued floundering with her weight after she had her first son, and again after she had her second a couple of years later. Eventually, she just threw up her hands in defeat.
“I was so tired and exhausted and ashamed,” she says. “I felt like a failure, and I was tired of feeling that way. So I was like, ‘OK, I give up. Nothing works for me. There must be something wrong with me. It must be me.’ ”
It wasn’t until she was on the brink of 40 when she finally had her “aha!” moment.
Multiple “aha!” moments, in fact.
A NEW APPROACH: INTUITIVE EATING
First, she came to the conclusion that dieting was never going to work for her, especially not the harshly restrictive ones. Anyone can sustain them for awhile, but virtually no one, she felt, could sustain them for the rest of their lives.
Second, she decided that food wasn’t her problem, but rather her relationship with food was the issue. Throughout her life, she’d responded to stressors by overeating; she’d looked to use food to fix her problem, to fix her mood, to put a mask over some sort of emotional pain or distress she was experiencing. She’d been eating, all too often, based on her emotional needs.
And third, she got turned on to what’s called intuitive eating, which basically builds off of the notions that serve as the foundations for those first two beliefs by positing this: If you eat when you’re physically hungry and stop eating when you feel full, while allowing yourself to eat whatever you want, you’ll be happier emotionally; as a side benefit, advocates say, there’s a good chance you’ll shed pounds.
Armed with this mindful new strategy, Johnson — who at the time weighed more than 260 pounds — lost nine in her first week as an intuitive eater, in 2010. But it didn’t always yield jaw-dropping results: At another point on her intuitive-eating journey, it took her about six months to lose nine pounds.
It’s all about trusting the process, she says. It’s about listening to your body and not letting it be controlled by your emotions.
“I try to tell people, ‘You have two options: You can say, this isn’t working and chuck it and go try to diet again … or you can say, OK, what am I doing that I need to be doing better? What do I need to change? Because something is going on here.’ … And a lot of people don’t want to hear that. I never wanted to hear it. But once you figure out what that is, the weight will come off. It worked for me.”
Wondrously. Between 2010 and 2012, Johnson lost a little more than half of her body weight, landing right around 130 pounds. (Though just a coincidence, it’s worth noting here that she also lost her father during this period.)
But even more impressive is that she’s kept it off since then, even while eating — she says — whatever she wants, whenever she wants.
THE KEY TO AVOIDING A BINGE
Which brings us back to that doughnut, and her ability to limit her consumption of it to just a bite or two.
How does she do that, exactly?
“I mean, that’s all I need to get what I wanted,” she explains. “I’m sated. (Before intuitive eating) it’d be like, ‘I want a doughnut, but I’m gonna have a salad because salad is healthy.’ Right? So you eat the salad, and then you end up grazing the rest of the day, because you didn’t actually eat what you wanted. If you eat the doughnut, you got what you wanted, and then you’ll stop eating.”
Pressed on the subject, confronted with the argument that it almost sounds too easy, and that eating a single bite would seem like a significant challenge for most doughnut-lovers, she counters:
“You can do it once you deal with all of the other stuff. If you don’t deal with the other stuff, it’s gonna be really, really hard for you … because you’re gonna be looking at that doughnut not as fuel, but as, ‘This is gonna fix my problem.’ … It’s gonna have a connotation it shouldn’t have. That’s why, if I want a doughnut, I have a doughnut. Then I’m full after two bites. Because I’ve dealt with the other stuff.
“Do I still struggle? Every once in awhile, yeah. If I’m an emotional wreck over something, sometimes I do.”
In another fairly recent, more-specific example, Johnson shares about a time when she found herself thoughtlessly scarfing down four cookies before stopping herself and literally asking herself out loud, “What’s the matter? What do you need?”
As she took stock of the situation, she says, she realized it was because she’d been coping with a rejection, and that she was using the cookies to numb the pain of the rejection. In her 20s or 30s, she would have kept right on binging. But after taking a step back, she found another, healthier way to deal with her emotions.
Since 2012, Johnson says, the heaviest she’s gotten is 140 pounds. At times, she’s been as light as 128.
‘I’VE LET GO. I’M GOOD NOW.’
It’s been a game-changer, of course.
She’s so much more mobile, so much more flexible, so much more able in general to dabble in physical fitness. She’s back to horseback riding after years of being too overweight to do it, and is at Anne Springs Close Greenway saddled to a horse named Cinch once a week. She practices the martial art of krav maga at a studio not far from the home she and her husband of coming up on 25 years and their two boys share in Lake Wylie. She does yoga, she hikes, she swims, but she does it in moderation. She is not, she says, a workout fiend.
But more than anything, she feels as comfortable in her body as ever.
She doesn’t feel the urge to try to hide her body in crowded rooms. Doesn’t constantly worry about strangers muttering under their breaths about her size. Doesn’t have to shop in stores for large women, or settle for shapeless, formless clothing.
And Johnson wants others who struggle with their weight, and body-image issues, and their relationship with food to find the same sense of self-confidence and contentment.
In the interest of doing just that, in fact, she recently published a book — “Start Where You Are Weight Loss” (through a company she established, Alpha Doll Media) — that doubles as both a memoir that chronicles her journey in greater detail and a self-help guide that explains strategies for losing weight without depriving you of eating food that you actually enjoy. (There’s also a companion book that urges readers to fill in blanks by answering questions designed to inspire introspection.)
Johnson says she spent four years writing the book, and that she had planned to have it out this month even before People told her she would be on its cover; so the fact that it was released just days before the magazine hit newsstands is, apparently, an extremely happy accident that has gotten 2020 off to a remarkable start for her.
No, she says — being thin hasn’t made her life perfect. She still has problems just like everybody else, and deep, down, there’s still some residual pain.
“I wish somebody had told me a lot earlier that it wasn’t about food. … I spent years using it in a way it was never intended to be used. I used to look at it as an emotional release and a comfort, as a friend, and I gave it all kinds of emotional connotations that it shouldn’t have had. It took me way too long to start looking at food as fuel so I can go do the things that I want to do and reach my goals and be healthy and strong.”
She pauses, then a soft, confident smile forms on her face.
“But there’s nothing I can do about that, and it doesn’t do me any good to hang onto that. It doesn’t. You have to let go. … I’ve let go. I’m good now.”
And there’s one thing she doesn’t worry about anymore: “I honestly don’t see myself being overweight again — ever.”
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