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How a Weight-Loss Retreat Changed My View of My Body

Honestly, I don’t hate the way I look. As a woman, that shouldn’t be a radical statement, but it kind of is. If I’m to believe a fraction of what I see, hear and read, as a plus-size 5-foot-2-inch swarthy woman, I should be ashamed and disgusted by myself. But I’m not.

After struggling with anxiety and depression for years and trying a number of different medications, I finally found one that worked for me. Unfortunately, an improvement in my mental health came with a side of more than a few unwanted pounds. I made the conscious decision to be fat and alive. (For more on this topic, see Sara Benincasa’s life-affirming essay “Why am I so fat?” where she breaks this down even further.)

Mental health aside, I completely understand the negative physical side effects that can come with carrying extra weight, and for that reason, I’m trying to reclaim my body and well-being. But I’m not interested in fad diets or unrealistic workout regimens or the traditional concept of “weight loss.” Rather, I’m committing to making better, healthier choices to improve how I feel now as well as down the road.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to visit Hilton Head Health in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina — which bills itself as a “wellness retreat, weight loss spa and health resort” in December. The staff and guests (rightfully) aren’t fans of the term “fat camp,” and there was not a macramé arts and crafts cabin in sight, but it is an all-inclusive facility that provides three meals and two snacks a day as well as a full schedule of fitness classes. To supplement the activities, Hilton Head Health (or H3 for short), also holds daily lectures on topics like meal planning, habits of successful weight managers, portion control and nutrition to help ground the new lifestyle techniques in science-based empirical evidence in a way that helped me understand what I was doing, why I was there and how I could keep it up when I ventured back to New York.

More: 4 Totally Realistic Things You Can Do Today to Start Improving Your Health

As the accommodating and friendly staff checked me in, I waited for the dreaded weigh-in. With each part of the tour of the facility, I kept expecting to be led to a room with a large, menacing scale where I’d be forced to be weighed and then told how much weight I had to lose and why I was so gross and unhealthy. But that never happened. The woman showing me around gestured toward a scale in the corner of the treadmill room where you could check in if you wanted, but it was more of an afterthought and definitely not the compulsory humiliating trip to the scale I had built up in my mind.

Going in, I knew my biggest challenge would be the exercise component. I don’t think I’m actually that out of shape, but I truly hate working out with all of my heart. I will crisscross the island of Manhattan all day, logging miles and steps galore. But for me, walking isn’t enough, so I went to H3 with an open mind, hoping to find an exercise I could tolerate if not enjoy.

My first attempt was in a class called Big Band Cardio Blast. “Perfect,” I thought. “This will be filled with people who were alive the first time big band was popular (i.e., way before the resurgence in the ‘90s thanks to Gap commercials) and will likely require minimal movement. I’m in.”

Turns out it was actually a class on how to perform in — as well as conduct — a marching band. More than anything, it was a lesson in coordination (using your hands to conduct and your feet to march) and following directions. Did I march myself right into a wall and almost take a woman’s eye out with my overzealous conducting? Sure, but I also laughed so hard with the other people in the class I forgot I was exercising. I immediately started feeling less skeptical about the whole experience.

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The more classes I attended — which included every type of water aerobics, cardio boxing and myofascial release — the more I became acquainted with the other guests, some of whom had been there for several weeks already. I was shocked to find out almost everyone I met had been to H3 before — sometimes many times (around half of all guests are there on a return visit). One woman likened it to a religious person going on a retreat: It just helps to make time to come on a regular basis to reset and refocus on your health.

Everyone I met was there for their own set of reasons related to their own well-being, which didn’t necessarily include weight loss. I quickly found I was surrounded with kindred spirits; nearly everyone I encountered was warm and supportive, and those of us who have struggled with weight had that type of shared experience where it seemed like you were talking to an old friend.

But it wasn’t all thought-provoking lectures and refreshing flavored waters.

A jarring realization hit me during a sparsely attended hip-hop dance class where it was just me, another guest and the instructor. It took place in the type of room you picture when you think of a “fitness studio” — in other words, wall-to-wall mirrors. As I tried to scuff, shimmy and pony-step along with the teacher, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and started to tear up.

“Is this really what I look like? Is this how others see me?” I thought as I noticed every stomach roll, thigh jiggle and arm wiggle as I moved. Admittedly, I am not a great dancer and had never attempted hip-hop before, but this wasn’t about my inability to keep up with the steps or as my cousin would say, because I have the “rhythm of a corpse.” This was because I saw my full body in motion and felt disgusted.

My immediate next thought was how awful I felt even thinking that as someone who’s usually all about body-positivity and acceptance. This was the same body I felt comfortable in most days, and I was not about to allow myself to get discouraged because of something I saw in a mirror. But in that fleeting moment, those emotions were my reality, and as such, acceptable and legitimate. We can’t all be positive all the time, and as much as I would love to report that seeing my body in motion during that hip-hop routine was empowering and made me feel strong, it didn’t. And that’s OK.

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After class, I faked a smile and high-fived the instructor and walked over to an area with a lounge and several beverage options to rehydrate after the sweating and crying. And sitting there, as if sent from some sort of wellness angel, was the perfect person to talk me through this. She was another guest — someone I had only known a few days — but she could tell something was wrong just by looking at me. I told her about how I felt during the dance routine, and with a truly empathetic look on her face, she told me that, yes, sometimes it is hard, and it’s fine to have moments when it feels like this and to acknowledge them, but then move on and not let them get in the way of moving forward.

For me, this embodies realistic body-positivity. It’s not about having to aggressively defend that I’m comfortable with the way I look 100 percent of the time — and it shouldn’t have to be. It’s possible to feel that way most of the time and still have rough days when I can’t face a full-length mirror. So, yes, I found out I borderline “enjoy” aqua aerobics and learned a killer new recipe for peanut butter hummus, but beyond that, I learned to be less harsh on myself and do what I need to do to become a healthier person — even if it involves pretending to conduct a marching band.

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