The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I lost 160 pounds. Being skinny made me miserable.

I thought losing weight would fix all my problems. But really, it just made me more insecure.

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The night before Independence Day 2009, I married my high-school sweetheart. A few blissful months later, we received copies of our wedding photos. In them, I saw a handsome, trim groom sharing a newlywed kiss with a very happy, fat bride.

I was horrified. I mean, I’d grown up in a “larger” family (the kind that stores call “big and tall”), and I’d never been thin. But what I saw in the images wasn’t normal. I’d let myself get out of control. Wasn’t my husband embarrassed of me? How long would our marriage last if I kept up my current habits? What about expanding our family, having children in the future? I knew I needed to change.

So I enjoyed my last mindless indulgence — a handful of cookies — and secretly promised myself that tomorrow was “the day.”

The next morning, I got on the scale for the first time in months. Peeking out from the tips of my toes were the numbers 3, 3 and 8. Oof.

Over the next week, I went cold-turkey, with some common sense (and help from the good old Internet). I cut out certain foods completely, incorporated a wide variety of fruits and veggies, and began portion control and calorie counting. I also included a ton of exercise into my daily routine. As basic as it sounds, it worked. I dropped 13 pounds in just seven days. That quick turnaround gave me confidence. In no time at all, I thought, I’d look like a woman ready to strut her stuff on the catwalk. I’d feel great. That is, after all, the promise of every women’s magazine and self-help book.

But as the weeks went by, and the pounds fell off, a funny thing happened. Being skinnier didn’t make me happier. I was more depressed and confused than ever.

Part of the problem was my own expectations. Being attractive, or even beautiful, wasn’t something I’d ever cared about before. I’d grown up as a “big girl” and didn’t believe that I’d ever receive that kind of attention. But as I shed pounds, people began to compliment my looks. I flaunted my thinner figure in an array of new clothes. (Who knew tights could look so good?) That affirmation warped my goals. I didn’t just want to be healthier, anymore. I wanted to be model-thin.

But even after I lost weight, I could see that I’d never be Gisele or Heidi Klum. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see my slimmer legs or flatter tummy. Instead, there was sagging skin, drooping breasts and stretch marks in shades of purple and red. Even after all the hard work and discipline, I’d ruined my body. No matter how I dressed, I carried around a certain guilt. Fat or thin, I was a mess. I didn’t love myself and didn’t understand how anyone else could.

My anxiety wasn’t just about my appearance. Once, when my scale read 20 pounds lost, I noticed that my pants had begun to sag. I went shopping for a new pair. I went one size smaller and was elated to find that they actually zipped up without so much as a struggle. But in the fitting room, I began to question my ambition. By obsessing about losing weight, I was telling myself I wasn’t good enough before. Was I betraying myself?

What saved me was not focusing on my looks less, it was focusing on them more. I began to chronicle my weight loss in a series of self-portraits. I took pictures of myself in changing rooms and also without any clothes on. Photography allowed me to step back and to document my raw and vulnerable moments as an observer, rather than a participant. When I looked at my pictures, I could see my defeats and my victories. I saw a woman struggling with sadness but also someone brave enough to capture a moment of vulnerability. I saw sagging breasts and a scarred bodice but also a person willing to share those scars with others, rather than digitally edit them out of the photograph.

In this 2012 interview with The Post, Wisconsin photographer Julia Kozerski discusses how she lost 160 pounds in a year and how her photos went viral. (Video: The Washington Post)

At first, my photography experiment was a private affair. But in October 2011, I posted the images on my personal Web site. Soon after, one of the photos was juried in an exhibition titled “Food” at the Center for Fine Art Photography. After that, the images went viral. My story was told on blogs, talk shows, national news outlets and even radio.

In the weeks and months after, I received hundreds of e-mails from people who’d faced similar struggles. My pictures made them feel less alone. I also received countless referrals to plastic surgeons. But I’ve disregarded them. My new body reflects my experience — my private struggles with food, obsession and self-control, but also my ability to grow and change, to be brave and strong in the face of societal pressure.