The real challenge of a 12 Week Challenge

Losing weight is great.

There are so many good things that accompany losing weight, and you’ve heard them all before: reducing your risk of disease, improving fitness, helping your mood, and, most importantly of course, being skinny instantly makes you a total babe.

For me, after struggling with obesity for all of my childhood and adolescence, all I could ever think about was how much better my life would be if I could just lose weight. Like, in my young and closeted head, boys liking you when you’re fat just doesn’t happen.

And so, after struggling to lose about 5kg on my own, I was pretty damn excited when I learned that my gym, Goodlife Health Club, would be running a 12 Week Challenge. Eureka! Weekly group workouts, workshops about nutrition and a chance to work with a personal trainer every week. I’d be SKINNY and HAPPY in no time!

Now don’t get me wrong, I loved my time in the 12 Week Challenge. In fact, I loved it so much that I did it twice – one in late 2012 and one in early 2013. I made some incredible friends, got advice that changed my eating habits for the better and lost about 15kg all up. More importantly, I became fitter than I ever thought possible. I even completed my first half marathon. Fitness wise, I easily had the most drastic transformation of my group, both times I completed the challenge. I went from one of the least fit to one of the fittest.

But I didn’t win.

Luckily, I couldn’t give a crap. I’m the least competitive person you’ll meet (any kind of competition makes me nervous and sweaty and emotional). I thought it necessary to write this piece, though, because future participants need a warning: you probably won’t win either.

The reason is that the 12 Week Challenge creators seemingly attended the Biggest Loser school of health and fitness. They claim to take a range of factors into consideration when choosing a winner: weight loss, fitness, a personal essay, and input from trainers. But it’s just not true. Truth is: it’s all about the photo. To win, you’ve gotta lose a fuck ton of weight and basically look like half of the person you were at the beginning.

Below are the before and after photos of one club winner:

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She looks fucking incredible, right? I take my hat right off to this girl because jesus that must’ve taken a Herculean effort.

I don’t want to take anything away from her or other winners of the Challenge, but focussing on the outward transformation of Challenge participants is harmful. Participants need to know from the start: you probably won’t experience this kind of transformation. Just like The Biggest Loser, crowning winners based on their photo alone gives challengers the misconception that it is realistic to lose a significant amount of weight in a short period of time. It isn’t. It’s not even effective: 95% of people who lose weight quickly put it back on, and then some. It also sets people up for failure. A friend of mine worked her ass off, lost a bunch of weight, and had a psychological transformation like no one else in her group. But, she didn’t look different enough. She was devastated when she didn’t win.

Participants in Michelle Bridges' 12 Week Body Transformation get a pat on the back for big weight loss
Participants in Michelle Bridges’ 12 Week Body Transformation get a pat on the back for big weight loss

The marketing of challenges like this and Michelle Bridges’ 12 Week Body Transformation love to peddle the old story that if you lose lots of weight, you are going to be happy. I bought it hook, line and sinker. And while losing over 30kg in the last three years had made me healthier, it hasn’t necessarily made me any happier.

I learned that exercise is a natural anti-depressant, so I guess my mood has improved. But I think there will always be things that I want to change about my body. I still struggle with depression, and I’ve had my heart broken 3 times since then. My self esteem has improved, but that’s almost certainly had nothing to do with my weight: in the same time period, I finished Uni, got a job, left my crappy boyfriend, came out of the closet and basically got a life. More importantly, I learned the very important lesson that size has absolutely nothing to do with beauty. And I’m certain that my wonderful girlfriend would love me no matter my size.

Celebrating non-appearance related achievements is important for so many reasons. For starters, they take fucking hard work. Additionally, getting stronger, fitter and more active has so many more benefits than just being skinny ever will. It would also help to fight the stupid myth that you need to be thin (but not too thin, jeez) to be beautiful, confident, worthy, loved and happy. You don’t. You are all of these things already, no matter your size.

So despite being a loser, I choose to consider myself a winner. HIGH FIVE!

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